Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tarun Singh Chauhan – My Old Cricketing Buddy Turned Advertising Honcho

It's been more than twenty five years since I met Tarun last. I met him first at a HCA summer camp when they invited a promising lot of cricketers – maybe about 50 or so. We must have been about 18 or 19 years old then. It was a mixed camp with seniors and juniors all mixed up and I remember bumping into Tarun who appeared to know all the big cricketers. He was talking to all of them casually, was in good terms with most, and looked quite self assured. Among all those in that camp, I distinctly remember Tarun for some reason, and after the camp we wound up we went our own ways. 
Tarun Sngh Chauhan, Managing Partner, JWT and I

I bumped into him next when I was playing inter collegiate cricket for Osmania University Engineering College in our second year, 1985. We were playing against Arts and Science College of which Tarun was wicket keeper and opening batsman and one of their better known cricketers. Both sides were equally pitted in strength.

I remember that match well. We played at the Osmania University ‘A’ ground. It was one of the matches when I told myself I would set myself a target for bowling - get five wickets that day. Arts and Science was a good opponent and they batted first. I was bowling well that day and Tarun handled me quite well and better than most openers in that season. In the second over he moved into a ball that was slightly middle and leg and flicked it beautifully between fine leg and square leg. The ball sailed high and handsome and displayed all the signs of carrying well over the fence. My heart sank. A six in this early stage of the game would set my dream back. But luckily the ball fell a couple of feet inside the boundary line. Ah! I was relieved. I can never forget the despair I experienced when I saw the ball flying off the bat soundlessly.

Tarun played a few more strokes before I got him out leg before wicket for 25 or 30, and then after his departure, Arts and Science collapsed for about 142. I got five wickets and remember being happy with my performance. (I am surprised how we never learn these positive lessons though – of setting targets.) When we batted, I opened and got a quick 42. I again remember as if it was yesterday, some parts of the conversation we had on the ground. Once when I back cut their inswinging new ball bowler Tarun was all praise and once when I swept their spinner and sustained the follow through and Tarun was his usual self - ‘Ab bas, no one is taking your picture’.
The very next year we were both in the side for the Under 22 team under Venkatpathy Raju . I had already played and got dropped from the Ranji team by then and Lachi was still in the side and doing well. We lost the final, a match we could have won and it was an eventful trip for many reasons. There were many colourful characters in the side which included Affan, Rajesh, Chatterjee, Jaideep Dhar, Naresh Sharma, Tarun, and it was a great fun trip at the end of the day. Tarun did not play a game because Ehtesham was around but it was good to have him around with his wry humour and his manner of telling things point blank, as they were. Tarun always had a ready laugh and would invariably say something witty. Of course, we played together for MCC as well and had many a good time together before we slowly faded away into our own lives.

Sometime later I heard that Tarun had moved into advertising and was with Mudra at Ahmedabad. That was the last I heard of him for about twenty years until the day I met Venkatpathy on the flight to Mumbai in August 2007. I was going to launch ‘The Men Within’ there. As we were getting off the flight Venkatpathy told me that maybe I should call Tarun who was in Mumbai as well. I took Tarun’s number and called him and was genuinely touched at the warmth in his voice when he heard that I was there to launch my book. He was so happy that I got out of the rut and was doing something creative. Tarun, (I was delighted to know that he was Vice President at Lowe Lintas), came to meet me at Crossword that very day and despite his invitation to drop me at Bandra in his car I could not go as I had some other prior engagement. And on the day of the launch, when some of the people whom I really counted on to come backed out, Tarun it was who came all the way from Pune, driving through the traffic to Kemp’s corner (which is way past his house in Bandra) to show his solidarity to me. He just caught the tail end of the function but I was so happy to see him and Shanti, his wife, at the bookstore. He picked up three copies, got two signed for friends of his, said the other one was for him and he would never get it signed by me.I was really really happy to see him there and especially grateful for the effort that went into it all.

I met him and his family at his Bandra home the next morning where he looked really chilled out and at peace with himself. His daughters Akanksha and Apeksha were at home and listened as we chatted about many things. And then I left Mumbai. After he read the book, Tarun sent me a lovely sms about how much he liked the book – knowing Tarun he would not have hesitated to tell me if he thought it was utter nonsense. I really was happy at receiving this praise from him, especially since he reads a lot. Having reestablished our friendship we kept in touch. I sent him a copy of ‘If You Love Someone…’ when I knew I would not be doing an event in Mumbai. He told me he read three quarters of it. I know he will give me some honest feedback when he finishes reading it.

Miskil, my niece joined Lowe Lintas and spoke of how Tarun, Vice President of Lowe Lintas and his legendary status in the industry. She spoke about his fabulous farmhouse in Karjat and then I realized what he meant by going out the rut. So when he was in town yesterday, making time to give an interview I had requested, coming down to Hyderabad in yet another gracious gesture, we got together and chatted for long. I asked Tarun, now a Managing Partner of JWT in India, a coveted post by any ad man in the country, how he actually scaled these dizzying peaks of advertising in his career.

‘Soon after that Under 22 tour to Bangalore I decided to throw away my kit bag,’ said Tarun nonchalantly. ‘I had done MA in Economics from Arts and Science and I followed it up with an MBA. I was pretty keen to get into advertising and got a job in Maa Bozell in Hyderabad. Then I went to HTA in Bangalore, then Mudra in Ahmedabad, the came back to Hyderabad to Saatchi and Saatchi and finally moved on to Mumbai with HTA and then Lowe. After six years at Lowe, I quit when I was just made President and moved to JWT now – a move that shocked many.’

How did you have so much clarity about what you wanted to do, I asked.
‘I was always pretty clear about advertising,’ he said. ‘I was also aware that I needed to be better than the rest. So I put in lots of hard work. Nothing comes easy especially since I did not have fancy degrees. My one advice to anyone who wants to make it in advertising is this – if I can make it you can make it too. But you must carry the same philosophy that I did to work every day – I worked as if it was the last day at work for me. That desperation, that fire to achieve is very important.’ 

‘You have to act, take the initiative,’ he says. ‘You cannot sit back in a dream world and not have your feet on the ground. I remember having made some 40 ads in a portfolio before I approached the agencies for a job. In a place like Mumbai it is great to get learning in advertising from the bottom. But be aware that there are so many people who are talented and who have the fire. You have to be better than them to earn their respect. It is simple, there are many at the bottom and so few at the top. You need to have your stuff clear – and it only comes through experiencing, through working.’

‘You know Hari,’ he said solemnly. ‘90% of the problems are solved if we have the right neeyat or the right intention. I always believed that. I think that is what has made me successful apart from my hard work. My intentions are always right – to people, to my company. When you carry the right intention to your company, to your client, to your job, it always pays.’ I agree, I said.

And how do you get the best out of your people?
‘Izzat,’ he said simply. ‘Respect people and they respect you back. Whether it is the peon or the driver, respect them and they respect you. Of course you must be in a position to tell them that if they mistake your respect for weakness you can put them in your place too. Now that comes through experience and from dealing with people. But by and large, respect people and you get their best.’

‘I never ask anyone else to the things that I can do myself,’ he says. ‘And that is a principle. Getting a glass of water, a cup of coffee, opening the door, anything I can do, I always do. Also I never wait beyond 15 minutes for any appointment. It is again a question of respect. If they do not respect my time, I have no time to waste on them.’

‘I think people should explore all their dimensions. One reason why I moved from Lowe after being made President was because I was feeling too comfortable in my job at my previous job. It was not challenging enough. That is why I really like it when I hear that you did something different with your life.’

‘To escape my professional rut I go off to my farmhouse every Friday evening,’ he says, his eyes softening at what is obviously his great passion. ‘It is at Karjat – 100 kms from Mumbai. It is in a valley surrounded by a horseshoe mountain, a jungle beside it into which I go off. I work very hard on the farm and go off every weekend. There are three horses there which I ride into the jungle – Patch, Rusty and Pepper. Oh, it’s great fun. I work really hard there, cutting wood and working on the farm. Also I do my bit for the villages around. There are seven villages surrounding the farm. My farm is itself built in rural architecture – no air conditioned culture there.’

The same uncomplicated approach to his life. 'I always wear a blue shirt and a black pant. I have about 40 blue shirts and all I have to choose is which blue to wear,' he says smiling. 'I once had a meeting with the Chairman of one of India's leading corporate houses at their office in Mumbai. The receptionist was aghast. Aren't you wearing a tie? I told her that if they wanted  to meet my tie I would send my tie across, but if they wanted to meet me, this is how I come.' Come to think of it, I have no seen Tarun wear any of those stuffy looking jackets and ties that most advertising professionals wear. 

So what will you do after advertising?
‘Another five years maybe, then I will stop working. I plan to divide my time between Hyderabad and Mumbai then. I dabble a bit with politics and advise the Congress on some matters. I have no plans but let us see, there is much to do still,’ he smiles. The same wry smile.

We watched a few minutes of the Ranji game between Hyderabad and Tripura and bumped into several cricketers of our times – Lachi, Vicky, Azeem, Noel, MV Sridhar – and went to Nanking for lunch. A paan and a chai at his house in West Marredpally that his mother made for us, and I called it a day. Thanks Tarun for coming over and for being sweet enough to indulge me with my request for an interview. Much of what you spoke in the interview makes absolute sense – about cricket and all round growth and I am waiting to see it on tape. I know that there is so much more of what we chatted that I did not capture here but I am sure we will have many more such conversations.

I am thrilled and immensely proud to see Tarun's career graph, to see how wonderfully he has shaped his career and risen to the very top of an industry by sheer dint of hard work, focus and fighting spirit. I use his story as an example to tell so many youngsters these days that I meet in lectures or workshops of what one can make of his life if one is focused, grounded and works hard. It also gives me great kicks to see the jaws drop off some of the loud mouth cricketers I meet when I tell them what Tarun has done with his career while they sit here spitting gutkha. (I also hope that some youngster out there also gets inspiration from this article and goes about his carer with the same focus that Tarun did.) Tarun went about the whole thing without changing one bit  - to me meeting him was exactly as if I had met him 25 years ago - which is a huge thing. Success changes some people, but few have the 'groundedness' to retain their essence and grow into better persons because of success. Tarun is one of them and I do wish he gets greater success because he will only use it better for his growth as well as that of people around him.

It was great fun talking to you Tarun, and I would love to pick it up and get another long chat in with you sometime. Maybe while we do some work on your farm eh!

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