Pradeep Guha was a genius whose wizardry in marketing and branding changed the fortunes of almost everything he touched. His accomplishments as an astute, quick-witted person blessed with a visionary zeal gave him the aura of an advertising guru par excellence. That well-earned tag will be his epitaph. Guha, 69, passed away on Aug 21, in a Mumbai hospital after a brief battle with liver cancer.
The flamboyant master strategist would be best remembered for making the Times of India group of publications into the top-selling brand that is now worth billions of dollars. Page 3 concept of celebrity gossip and showbiz was his idea to vet the appetite of newspaper readers, particularly the new generation. Purists and rival media who initially frowned at the offering grudgingly lapped up and plagiarised the theme into their newspapers. His achievements are peerless and are unlikely to be matched in the foreseeable future. He also dabbled in TV broadcasting and films.
“He wasn’t tall, but he towered over the media world with a visionary grasp of evolving trends,” Anand Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra Group, summed up succinctly. “His speed of decision making was also legendary and true to form, he scripted for himself a rapid departure from this planet. He leaves behind hordes of friends and admirers.”
Guha was a dapper general manager at the Kolkata office of Bennett, Coleman and Company Ltd (BCCL), the owner of the Times of India group when he was picked to jazz up the staid newspaper chain more than 30 years ago. The “Old Lady of Bori Bunder” was the undisputed king of the print media but it was weighed down by sedentary functioning and a rigid hierarchy that abhorred interference and change.
The task at hand offered immense opportunities and formidable challenges. At the time marketing executives lounged in their offices and waited for advertisers to come knocking. Editors with a larger-than-life halo ran their fiefdoms with disdain for the marketing side of the operations. The department heads who ran the organisation resembled the ghastly politburo stuck in a time machine. The company was making profits and the top management hardly intervened in the functioning.
Dazzled by the operations of successful media companies in major world cities that he saw first-hand, the freshly minted Samir Jain, vice chairman of BCCL, was convinced the group needed a thorough revamp. Guha’s flair, fast thinking and forceful presentation on how advertisement revenue could be expanded exponentially impressed Jain greatly, and Guha was given a free hand to steamroll a full-throttled makeover.
Guha swung into action with his characteristic panache. He halved the cover price of Times of India and jacked up advertisement rates. It was a big gamble that he pulled off with finesse. Simultaneously, he undertook a cultural overhaul. He changed the name of the advertising department to Response and hired bright, young management graduates to chase and hand-hold advertisers. As the Old Lady’s circulation outstripped its rivals by a huge number, advertisers had no reason to complain.
The pathbreaking initiatives hit the goldmine and made Guha a legend, respected across the highly competitive media world. The marketing genius soft-pedalled changes in the editorial operations, taking care to avoid treading on the toes of touchy editors. Over time Guha’s writ ran the full spectrum and advertisements encroached onto the front page, and sedate news items were replaced with people-sensitive stories. There were murmurs that aggressive reporting was encouraged against business rivals of advertisers, and cosy deals were inked for friendly coverage.
“Few realise the immense, positive contribution he made, though indirectly, to the evolution of content as well in #TOI,” tweeted Srinivasa Prasad, a veteran journalist who had worked in the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and DNA. “We are talking about an Editorial Model that other papers adopted with few changes later.”
“The editors were not good enough to fully comprehend why power cuts and potholes made better sense than a Lok Sabha walkout and why India-New Zealand match should replace earthquake in Indonesia on FP (front page),” he wrote. “But they were good enough to obey instructions.”
The king who created multiple queens
You could love or hate Guha, but his chutzpah commanded admiration. He revelled in out of the box solutions to problems, showed impeccable people handling skills, and motivated and inspired staff to outperform.
“He was an exceptional boss with extraordinary skills and a kind heart, “said Rajesh Pattani who worked with Guha for 27 years.
Guha took the broom to other publications in the group including Femina, Filmfare and The Illustrated Weekly. Hindi magazines Dharmayug and Madhuri were shuttered. Stiff-necked editors were shunted out and pliable replacements were put on the saddle. The guiding mantra was optimising revenue through glitzy coverage. His penchant for uncanny brilliance was best demonstrated when he transformed the Filmfare awards into a high-octane event rivalling the Academy Awards.
“He transformed the media landscape in India,” gushed filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, and remembered Guha as a “friend, pioneer, game-changer, mentor to so many”.
Guha left an indelible mark in promoting and enlivening Miss India and Miss India World pageants, grooming and chaperoning a bevy of beauties that included Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra and Neha Dhupia. “He was the man who discovered me as a 17-year-old girl in Kolkata and ultimately led me to Miss India and Miss Universe,” actress and model Celina Jaitly wrote.
A film buff he produced movies “Fiza” starring Hrithik Roshan and Karishma Kapoor and “Phir Kabhi” that featured Mithun Chakraborty and Dimple Kapadia.
After nearly 29 years with BCCL, he quit the organisation and took over as the CEO of Zee Telefilms, which was controlled by media baron Subhash Chandra. From a print media czar, he shifted gears to the more competitive world of TV broadcasting and proved his business acumen by reviving Zee TV’s flagging market share to within handshaking distance of market leader Star Plus. He was also pivotal in launching the Daily News Analysis (DNA) newspaper, an equal partnership between Zee and the Bhaskar Group, by roping in former Times stalwarts like Gautam Adhikari and Ayaz Memom as well as many others.
Later he branched out on his own and bought into 9X Media, which was founded by Indrani and Peter Mukerjea. Guha restructured the loss-making company by selling its general entertainment channels to Zee TV and focused on its niche music channels. He was diagnosed about a month ago with late-stage malignancy of the liver. His untimely demise brings the curtain down on one of India’s greatest marketing brains.
“Your larger-than-life personality, your big heart and twinkling eyes will be missed by not just me, but every person who knew you,” actress Preity Zinta wrote in a remembrance note.