Having begun my working career in advertising, I have never lost my fascination for it. In 2006, I wrote this article by way of a precis of a book that was released the same year. Read on for more details.

This picture appeared in a commemorative issue of Motorindia in 2006

Advertising in Madras

Advertising in Madras is probably as old as the city itself. The Hindu’s centenary volume records that in the early years of the paper (1893 to be precise), the pages carrying advertisements were on par with news pages. Some of the early and consistent advertisers according to the paper were P Orr and Sons (Watches and Jewels), Spencer and Co., Lawrence and Mayo (Spectacles), Madras Railway and Co., and Varadachari and Sons (Book-sellers). Most of these companies had artistes on their payroll who prepared the advertisements which were released in the media. Some of the brands that were advertised regularly in the city’s media, but which were controlled from other locations in the country included Vitex, Eno’s, Andrew’s Liver Salt, Cow & Gate, Murphy Radio, Kolynos, Ostermilk and Ovaltine. Most followed the advertisements that were released in England and the US and repeated the same in the local media with often the same visuals and models. The vernacular press thrived on advertisements for films, plays, gramophone records, various local remedies and cosmetics. The popular media was press (both magazines and dailies) and the hoardings. Ads in the press were only black and white and relied largely on illustrations and with a few half-tone photographs. The printer’s block was the most relied on tool for the visuals. Classifieds became big business from very early on.

Over the years Bombay and Calcutta emerged as the advertising capitals with several agencies setting up base in those cities. But Madras appears to have been an important location. The Hindu regularly reported on speeches/letters on advertising and a report dated September 18, 1926 refers to Professor Joseph France of the Presidency College speaking on Advertising at the Senate House. The Advertising Agencies Association of India met in 1935 in the city with CR Srinivasan of Swadesamitran chairing the meeting. Multinational brands, almost all of them aimed at the home, dominated the newspapers and it was no wonder that The Mail chided The Hindu in the 1930s for taking a nationalist stance when it depended on “foreign goods” and their advertisements for its survival!

By then, “talkies” had come to the metropolis and advertised regularly in the dailies. Among the earliest advertisements to use celebrity endorsements was Lux, which featured several South Indian heroines such as Anjali Devi and TR Rajakumari. The Ananda Vikatan of SS Vasan was a pioneer in innovative if indirect advertising. One instance is its publicity for the 1939 film “Thyaga Bhoomi” which was serialised in the magazine and was simultaneously being shot. The serial used stills from the film for visuals, a first in its kind. Movie mogul SS Vasan, who owned the Gemini Studios and the Vikatan was known for innovative advertising to publicise his films. The hoarding industry honed the talents of signboard painters who could do likeliness of film stars, a uniquely Madras phenomenon. These larger than life portraits dominated the city’s skylines on hoardings. The film industry appears to have been a major source of ad revenue for press given that block colour advertising was heralded in with films such as “Ali Babavum 40 Tirudargalum” being the first to take advantage of this innovation.

However at this time, most agencies operated with a skeletal office in Madras and it was customary for those in Bombay to refer to Madras as “The Outpost”. The first agency to set up a full office in the city was J Walter Thompson (JWT) which came here in 1955. RK Swamy, then working in JWT’s Bombay office was asked to handle the Madras branch. The South was the smallest advertising market in the country at that time but that did not deter Swamy. He proved his mettle by roping in the accounts of Ashok Leyland, Parrys and TI Cycles. The Hercules ads for the TI Group were landmark creations. The Binny account was already a part of the JWT portfolio. In 1960 came SH Benson (later becoming a part of Ogilvy and Mather, now O&M). This was headed in Madras by yet another advertising legend to be – SR Ayer. In his words, “the advertising business in Madras in the early 1960s was limited. There were no large FMCG manufacturers, nor many OTC products. Its industrial development was based on light engineering goods, automobile ancillaries and textiles”. Other agencies that played a lead role in the city were FD Stewart, Grant, Madras Advertising (mainly Simpsons business) and a host of local agencies.

The admen of the city had long felt the need for a club of their own and this was the genesis of the Advertising Club, Madras. On 18th February 1956, twenty individuals met with the idea of forming a Club for Advertising Professionals. This was inspired by the Calcutta Advertising Cub, which had been followed by a similar one in Bombay. The Advertising Club, Madras was formally inaugurated on 7th April 1956 by CR Srinivasan. The first committee had G Venkatachari (Easterns Advertising) as President, KRS Varadhan (Shilpi Ltd) as Secretary and S Parthasarathy (The Hindu) as Treasurer. Other members included PS Mani Aiyer (PS Mani and Co) and SS Mani (Little’s Oriental Balm). The Club had a formal constitution which had as its objective “Promotion and Furtherance of the Science and Art of Advertising”. The membership fee was Rs 24 pa payable in two instalments. The first year recorded a membership of 65 which grew to 105 by 1958.

To commemorate the end of a first year, an exhibition of the works of the Commercial Artists Guild, brought in from Bombay was held on 31st March 1957. Lectures by prominent citizens of Madras were held to publicise the exhibition and a souvenir titled New Horizons, with 19 articles and 65 advertisements, was brought out.

The 1960s and 70s witnessed the arrival of several powerful brands. Bata, an old player, became strongly entrenched in the South. Some of the products that appealed strongly to the Madras psyche included Binaca, Rin, Liril, Cinthol, Cuticura, Margo and Hammam. ITC’s Scissors brand became the largest seller in South India, with Wills Filter following close behind thanks to the success of the “Made for Each Other” campaign running in colour in The Hindu. During these years Ponds was one of the big clients in the city. Later this merged with the Hindustan Lever Group.

On 13th and 14th June 1964, the first ever “Seminar on Advertising” to be held in Madras, was conducted. This was addressed by R Venkataraman, then Minister for Industries, Government of Madras. From then on till the mid 1970s, several such seminars were held, the notable ones being the 1966 event with “Challenges of Self Reliance in the Industry” as its theme.

The early 1980s saw more magazines switching to colour and improved paper quality and printing technology saw some excellent visuals, both photography and artwork, coming into advertising. This was also the period when the Engineering Industry and the Public Sector Undertakings began advertising thanks largely to the initiatives of RK Swamy.

With more and more agencies setting up shop in the city, Madras boomed as an advertising centre in the 1990s. This was of course because of the city becoming a commercial hub. By then it had the pride of being the headquarters of an All India agency – RK Swamy’s which began in 1973. Advertising had “arrived” in Madras by 1977 when the Convention of the Ad Club had “Advertising Today and Tomorrow” as its theme. Awards became a regular feature of the Club in the same year when the “Advertising Art Exhibition and the South India Awards Nite” was held. The Hindu instituted a rolling trophy to be given to the agency that excelled in creativity. The tradition of awards has continued till date. By then MRF had emerged as one of the biggest spenders on advertising nationally. A big client in terms of press advertising was Brilliant Tutorials.

1982 was an important year for the Club for it witnessed the Advertising Convention, with “Indian Advertising, the emerging challenges” as its theme and also had the opportunity to host David Ogilvy, the ad legend, who addressed a joint meeting of the Ad Club, the Madras Chamber of Commerce, the Madras Management Association (MMA) and the Public Relations Society of India. In 1988, the Club hosted its first ever International Convention – Advertising Future Shock (AFS), with its theme “Competing for the Future”. The AFS was held again in 2001 (Reinventing Advertising in the ICE Age) and 2007 (Integrated Communication and Disintegrated Agencies). In addition, seminars and workshops have been integral features of the Club’s activities. “Deadline” is the name given to an annual programme where creative groups are given 36 hours to complete a campaign, from brief to execution. The lighter side has included events such as the annual quiz, the Adotsav (a fun programme) and the sports events.

The radio was a one house wonder with the AIR being the sole service provider. Its commercial operation- Vividh Bharati began in 1967 and soon some evergreen ad jingles such as those for Det Soap, Tinopal, Rasna and Woodwards Gripe Water were created for this medium. Doordarshan, again a one channel wonder till the early 1990s made a small beginning in 1975. industry. Madras, always a film centre, became a location for making ad films as well. Sun TV is a Madras phenomenon which has gone on to become national and international as well. With others in the city realising the potential of television advertising and several cable channels coming up, today television nationally accounts for 50% of the Rs 13000 crore advertising industry.

With liberalisation came boom time in advertising and perhaps reflecting that in 1994, the Ad Club became the proud owner of permanent premises of its own at Carex Centre off Mount Road. Named the “Centre for Advertising” it was a first for any Ad Club in India. Later, the Club moved to larger premises on Bazullah Road, T Nagar.

The Club pioneered the concept of courses on advertising. It held them initially in collaboration with the MMA. But in 1994, it launched its Post Graduate Programme in Advertising Management, once again a first in India. The PGDA has been a great success over the years. Perhaps the only activity of the Club which did not meet with success was its effort to bring out a journal. This has had a chequered history and has been coming out in fits and starts.

With such a successful history, it was no surprise that the Golden Jubilee of the Ad Club was a gala event which also marked the bringing out of a consolidated volume on the history of the Club and also of advertising in Madras. Titled “A Compendium of 50 years, 1956-2006”, it was put together by S Krishna with the support of RV Rajan (Anugrah Madison) who was Chairman of the Golden Jubilee celebrations. In addition to tracing the history, it has thought-provoking articles by well-known names such as SR Ayer, N Murali, V Kalidas, Dr S Krishnaswamy and Ramanujam Sridhar. This volume is a must read for any serious student of the mercantile history of Madras. The book, priced at Rs 500, is available from the Ad Club premises on Bazullah Road.