By: Sapna Nair-Purohit Photo Credit: Rajan Raman & Old ads from Dattaram
While India was still under the British, Calcutta, now Kolkata, was the capital of Imperial India, Hitler had just started writing Mein Kampf, and Einstein published his first papers on the Theory of Relativity, and our country saw the birth of its first ad agency, B Dattaram. 109 years after, the agency lives on, albeit inconspicuously… CREATIVE BRANDS talks to Managing Director RAJAN RAMAN
As we enter Readymoney Mansion in Mumbai’s Fort area, where Dattaram’s modest office is located, we get a taste of the ‘olden’ times. The curt ‘Lift Not For Going Down’ sign makes it even more apparent.
Rajan Raman, the present Managing Director of India’s oldest advertising agency, has been coming to this office for the past 42 years. Many call him Rajan Dattaram. Between then and now, the agency has had three leadership changes, one change of address, and has faced a hundred other market changes, both challenging and encouraging.
WHAT’S IN THE NAME?
In 1905, Dattaram was headquartered in Girgaum — the business hub of the time. Not much is, however, known about B. Dattaram, the man who founded the agency, except that he was a visionary and that he used to execute advertising on trams. In fact, his success led to the launch of many other Indian advertising agencies back those days.
The agency was managed by Dattaram and his family until Raman’s father T. S. Raman bought over the agency in 1957. Raman Senior had begun his career with The Times of India, in its advertising department. Earlier, in 1952, he, along with a few of his colleagues, started Everest Advertising (now Everest Brand Solutions, to be later bought over by Rediffusion). He then reportedly bought out Dattaram by paying Rs. 25,000 to each of its partners.
After his father’s demise, Raman, a science student, took over the mantle at Dattaram, in 1971, without any training or experience in advertising. He has no idea who Dattaram was!
Why wasn’t the agency’s name ever changed? “I presume it was because it was the oldest agency. Many new agencies will come and go, but nobody can take this away from us — the ‘first agency’ title. Changing the name would have diluted that.”
Indian advertising was coming into its own. In fact, the industry was largely dominated by MNCs those days. Indian clients did not have the wherewithal to advertise and lacked sound knowledge of brand building while agencies had few clients to speak of.
In a bid to encourage companies to advertise and build brands, Raman Senior, way back in 1958, put out a small ad in TOI promoting his agency. ‘Be Wise. Advertise’, the ad said.
According to Raman, his father persuaded the I&B Ministry to pass a bill ensuring that all public sector advertising be rooted through 100 per cent wholly-owned Indian agencies. So you had J. Walter Thomson changing its name to Hindustan Thomson Associates! Incidentally, more than 20 percent of HTA’s business that time came from the public sector.
The industry was also print-centric (close to 90 percent), with purely information-driven ads. “There was no tactical advertising or understanding of the needs of the consumer,” Raman recalls.
It was only in the 1960s that a new wave swept across the industry as consumers became more demanding and had more products to choose from. This was further strengthened by the launch of the agency MCM (Mass Communication and Marketing) founded by Kersey Katrak, in the 1970s, which attracted talents such as Mohammed Khan and Arun Nanda.
The industry went through a transformation with ‘creative’ taking centrestage. “A certain kind of glamour came into the business and everybody wanted to be in advertising. Earlier advertising was pedestrian,” says Raman, about this glorious decade.
From handling industrial clients and executing B2B advertising, Dattaram shifted to a more consumer-centric clientele when Raman took over. “Lifestyle, banks, and real-estate industries were coming up in a big way,” he says, adding that Dattaram helped launched many a top brand such as Servo and Mysore Sandal Soap.
One of the oldest ads by Dattaram was the one for West End Watches in 1930 and IAEC (Mysore Lamps) in 1940.
Despite being around for more than a century, Dattaram, ironically, is not in the big league. It is still a small player, but one that hasn’t succumbed to a buy-out. The agency’s turnover is a modest Rs. 10 crore. With only a 15-people team, Raman outsources work to keep costs under control.
When asked what had kept Dattaram afloat, Raman says, “Engaging with the customer remains at the heart of our approach. Evoking the psyche of the consumer and talking to his heart first. That’s how we’ve survived all these years.”
The agency thrives on relationships and personal rapport with clients. “Our agency has the record of having the least client attrition rate. Clients believe that a brand building exercise is a professional service built over time, based on trust and mutual respect,” he says proudly.
Dattaram also strives to be the one-stop-shop source for all of their client’s needs — be it advertising, packaging, or events. This, at a time when agencies are diversifying and launching specialised services.
In order to create a niche for itself in a highly competitive market, Dattaram has labelled itself as the ‘entrepreneur’s agency’ or the agency for SMEs, since most of its clients are owners/managers, such as Dr. Batra’s, Godrej, Nirali Cookware, Thackersey’s Fabrics, among others.
“We know where our strength lies. We won’t be able to pitch to Coca Cola. They won’t call us because we are not that big. Big guys will go to the big guys. The small guys and those who want a personalised service are coming to start-ups or small agencies like ours,” he says, candidly.
As a matter of principle, Raman doesn’t participate in pitch processes. Instead, he gets clients through referrals. “Why should I give my free advice to somebody? It is a waste of time. I would rather spend that time working for my existing client,” he says.
Raman, who is now 61, hopes that Dattaram will continue for another 100 years. When asked if he would be open to any merger or acquisition offers, he says, “If at all I do sell out, I would like a buyer who will continue with the name Dattaram.”