R “Balki” Balakrishnan is facing a moment of truth this week.
For the uninitiated, Balki is one of the country’s most influential figures. He is the mind behind the “Hamara Bajaj” scooter ads and the smart advertising campaigns to sell Fair & Lovely, one of Hindustan Unilever’s power brands. Recently, he was also in the news for making his Bollywood debut as a director, with “Cheeni Kam,” an Amitabh Bachchan starrer.
As national creative director of Lowe India (formerly Lintas), Balki thinks up clever ideas to help his clients, and also explanations where necessary. When women’s groups protested against Fair&Lovely because they play up fairness and skin-deep beauty, Balki’s answer was that the fairness cream was actually selling confidence to the consumers, not necessarily a notion of racist bias.
But truths, like skin colour, can acquire different tones.
This week, Balki is in the news for being upset with the trustees of his agency, while scores of his colleagues at Lowe are celebrating a rare bonanza in cash.
You see, Lowe has been acquired by Interpublic group worldwide and as part of the honours, the Indian unit, earlier part of the Lintas family, has also been acquired. Now, the Indian unit had a system of employee ownership administered by trusts, crafted by the original creative head, theatre doyen Alyque Padamsee.
With the sale of 100 per cent of the local unit to Interpublic, cash proceeds from the part held on behalf of employees through trusts have been given back to the employees in proportion to their years of service and contribution to the company.
This is proving to be a problem for some creative types at Lowe because they are left out of the party. First is the kind that resigned from Lowe India to take up lavish overseas assignments, and ceased to be local employees. The second are the types that were enrolled as consultants – who are technically not employees.
They are fuming and frothing, crying “Hamara Lowe” perhaps – but the trustees can do little. The unconfirmed news is that a sulking Balki is planning to move Lowe’s global parents, possibly like a cute kid in one of his ads seeking a chocolate from grandpa.
But look at the underlying facts. As they say, you cannot eat the cake and have it, too. Consultants get to work elsewhere in some cases, unlike employees who are tied to their employers and they also get to avoid some taxes by filing returns like small businesses.
A share in a company is essentially a tradeable right. Suddenly, Balki and his ilk are discovering that seeking freedom from the clutches of employee-hood means foregoing some tradeable rights, which loyal workers were entitled to. This becomes a case of “Salary kam, capital gains zyada!”
Even fairness cream ads have two sides. If, on the one hand, they sell confidence to urban girls, they also may create unnecessary diffidence in the minds of millions whose impressionable minds fall a prey to dominant ideas thrown at them on prime-time television.
If Balki admits that his ads, like his pay structure, have two sides, that would be a Fair & Lovely realisation.