Free Press Journal

I benefited by becoming a sponge, you could too: Author Ambi Parameswaran

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Sponge – Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients is a compelling read. As occasionally happens with a good book of fiction, one does not want to keep it down till read from cover to cover. Of course, to absorb all the learning espoused in 150 odd pages, a second slower read is warranted, and as author does with the books he reads, ‘make notes in the margins and underline’.

Ambi M G Parameswaran, veteran ad man, marketing consultant and coach has anchored this book on agency-client interactions.  From these interactions, initiatives and events come out nuggets of learnings – effortlessly.


In most chapters he reminisces about an interaction with a client, its outcome and the key learnings. Learnings from management gurus and theories are effortlessly integrated in these tales. Interactions with Ratan Tata, K.L. Chugh, Vinita Bali, R.D. Aga, Azim Premji, Chandra Babu Naidu, Dr Kurian, Pradeep Guha and many other power personalities are captured in this trip down memory lane by Ambi. Multifarious clients from private sector, PSUs and politics have different business approaches and Ambi delves into them, and digs out learnings from each, irrespective.

The beauty of the book is in its fluidity, the learning encapsulated in it and the honest description of real life situations including biases and how the same are demolished.

Excerpts…

As one goes through Sponge: Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients, one marvels at the innumerable references from management books and theories. You must be a voracious reader.

True. Right from my MBA days, I maintained very avid reading habits. In a bad year, I would have read 12 to 14 books, in a good year, as many as 50. Many of these books are still a part of my library. Few years back, I also developed a habit of underlining and making notes in the margins of the books I read, and sometimes even at the back. Ready reference material for myself. I do most of my reading while travelling and maintain a to-read list.

Do you prefer to read on Kindle or printed copy?

I started reading on Kindle almost a decade back – I was an early convert. On Kindle, one can read three-four books at the same time. Now I am back to printed copies, making notes and all.

There is mention of an amazing number of clients in the book. Do you maintain a diary?

Typically, a book rolls as one starts writing. But before penning the book, a broad template is created. The template I created revolved around what I have learnt in 40-odd years from close to 100 clients. I started putting down interesting anecdotes, and learnings I had from these interactions and events came uninterrupted.

Initially, I jotted down stories that are very recent and very fresh in the memory. As you would have noticed, some instances in the book are as old as 1979 and some as recent as 2005 – ’06.

Once I had penned down the first 15 stories, I took a pause. I deliberated that if I can connect these instances and their learnings with a management theory or an excellent book on management, it would create a much larger impact – and hence the references to these. Even if I say so myself, it brought in a lot of value.

As the book evolved, more and more stories came to the fore and learnings from them made them an obvious choice.

A rather interesting title….

It is not that when I started writing the book I thought of Sponge: Leadership Lessons I learnt from my clients as the title of the book. The working title of the book was: What I Learnt from My Clients. We thought of Leadership Lessons as the title, but it sounded a little too heavy. Both me and the publishers realised that the title needed an interesting catch phrase. The story behind this title is there in the book.

You have mentioned ‘smoke signals’ in the book. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Any agency is successful only if it picks up a client and builds a long-term relationship – at least a decade long. Over a period of time, we are able to invest time in understanding the client business and building marketing strategies together. Sometimes what happens is, while at the senior level you have some kind of equation with the CEO, CMO – you may not be getting the vibe from middle management. At times, teams might be scared to come and tell you the client is unhappy with something you did. To understand and handle the smoke signals, the team should be encouraged to follow the philosophy that good news can wait, give me bad news first. Second, bosses have to work with the ethos that the fault is mine, credit is of the team. If some mess-up happens, it is not the team’s fault. As an outcome, the team would not hesitate in communicating if they pick up these signals. People handling an account have to be aware that an account can be lost for several reasons. Bad campaign is rarely the reason that an agency loses an account.

In most instances that you have presented, senior management is engaged and involved in branding decisions. These are exceptions or norm?

Senior management has a lot on their plate, so one cannot really expect them to be involved in marketing hands-on. Having said that, as is obvious from a number of stories I have narrated, senior management was involved and showed interest in marketing. I believe advertising and brand building are critical strategic initiatives of the company, it is too important just to be left to brand manager alone. CEO and CMOs have to be in the know of what is happening on this front. I have narrated the instance, where a senior professional took over as the CEO of a large company, decided he would engage with key agencies for an hour each, every month. A great initiative to my mind.

I am fascinated with After Action Report suggested by you in Sponge. Do agencies follow any practice like this?

I heard of AAR when I was doing my advanced management program at Harvard Business School. Harvard has an interesting connection with US marine and defence establishments. They invite personnel from US Marine to attend programmes they conduct. They have also done a number of case studies on defence initiatives.

One of the key things army does is to write the AAR after every event. It is critical; if you don’t write AAR, it is like a job not done. In business organisations, rarely is such an exercise undertaken. After a pitch, whether an agency wins or loses, and after every campaign whether it did well or not, it is important to write an AAR – things that one did right and where one went wrong. It should be written collectively by people on the account and shared with the rest of the team.

In the US, the defence establishment works very closely with business schools. In India we don’t have that. There is a lot of learning it can bring both ways. Few months back, I was invited by the Army War College to speak at one of their leadership events on brands and lessons we learn from brands. They too are interested in learning from non-army business leaders.

There are so many client experiences in the book, which one is your favourite?

There are stories about Ratan Tata, Azim Premji, Dr Kurian, Vinita Bali, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Chandra Babu Naidu, M. Damodaran and others, each one an illuminating experience. Each one of them left a mark and had a lot of learning – so I can’t pick one. Having said that, one thing etched in my memory is Mr Tata getting out of his office at 12 noon to check the colour of the car (Indigo Marina) to be put on display for the launch event. He went around the car for 30 to 45 minutes checking everything and then complimented his two engineers for a job well done.

You can be the Chairman of India’s biggest company and still be so passionate about what your company does and be so humble too. Inspiring, isn’t it?