A trip down memory lane, reminiscing my professional association with the Milkman of India on Amul’s 75th anniversary that also coincides with his centenary year celebration. Truly, it is nothing but ‘pyaar ki meethi bhent’ for someone I deeply admired.
We are supposedly in a galaxy made up of about 200 billion stars and an all-encompassing halo… Looking back at one of the strongest influences in my life, I cannot but liken this man, who the world calls the ‘Milkman of India’, to this galaxy, ironically also called the Milky Way.
My first encounter with Dr Verghese Kurien, the man behind AMUL, GCMMF, NDDB, IRMA, was almost four decades ago. I first met him as a raw, young advertising man who was introduced to him as the media planner on the account. I knew him as my client. My first encounter with him set the course of what I term as my coming of age in advertising.
Dr Kurien was, what most advertising professionals today may term, a terror. But again, which client isn’t, one may ask? But the terror here was not the one who would yell or scream or misbehave or want one to do stuff his way. In fact, he was just the opposite. A client who called his agency, briefed them, set targets and cordially told them he would meet them a year later… if we met the targets, we continued servicing AMUL; if we did not, he would give us a warm send-off. Now which advertising professional would not find this terrorising… an invisible sword hanging over our heads that reasonably said, meant perform, increase sales and continue on the account. If you fail to meet the marketing goal, EXIT! Clear. Precise. Unarguable.
When I first met him, I felt I was starting school. Still, after continuously servicing his account for 17 successful years, meeting targets year after year, I felt I had successfully graduated and post-graduated, year-on-year, with honours.
The man was clear in his vision, precise in his method and unarguably accurate in what he believed was good for the farmers. His indefatigable attitude of taking a bull by its horns made sure he successfully took on every challenge thrown up by the white revolution. When the problem of excess milk going to waste surfaced after AMUL successfully harnessed the massive support of milkmen, who contributed directly to the co-operative eliminating middlemen, he started the manufacture of AMUL milk powder. When he saw multinationals successfully market milk chocolates, his next thought was ‘why not AMUL’ and here came Amul Milk Chocolates…
The introduction of AMUL milk chocolates was a chapter in communications by itself. The chocolate went through multiple modifications to suit the 4 Ps of marketing. When it melted in summers due to retailers not having refrigeration to store it, he introduced carton packing to keep the chocolate safe. When it came to fighting out the frequency war in advertising, he, like the dream client he was, quickly took on my media suggestion of running 10-second commercials to every ‘slice of life’ commercial of the leader.
We re-wrote the way creative worked, by aligning them to adhering to ‘only 10-second commercials’. At one-third of the budget, AMUL Chocolates soon captured the nation’s heart with its ‘A Gift for Someone You Love’ proposition.
His journey to make AMUL a head-on competitor, if not a leader in every milk product category, drove him to manufacture condensed milk, a product he felt was not as good as the competitors despite several modifications. But he was relentless in his pursuit of taking the co-operative to heights none of its shareholders could imagine.
The story of the co-operative’s success behind the “Anand Pattern” of dairy development, which today has been adopted all over the country, was captured in the Shyam Benegal movie Manthan. This was the first time in India that a feature film was financed by farmers — the 500,000 farmers of Gujarat, as part of Dr Kurien’s Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation.
In 1994, when the agency where I was working for, Radeus, another co-operative, was surreptitiously sold off to what is now TBWA-Anthem, Dr Kurien withdrew the account stating, “Your agency may be up for sale. My account isn’t.”
Maybe the man behind India’s most successful co-operative movement felt as cheated as us, that his namesake Kurien, the head of Radeus had committed this breach.
For more than five decades, this ‘Milkman of India’ blazed many trails, taking his dream project to dizzying heights. India is what she is today due to the contributions of great men like Dr Verghese — an engineer who gave up the prospect of a good life and walked into a village to lead India to her glory. Rare is such selflessness, and rarer is the ability to see the largesse such men build, not for themselves but the masses. After struggling and fighting against middlemen and establishing a profitable co-operative, he saw the path he had made slowly obliterated, with none other than his protégés in an uprising against him. Dr Kurien was subject to utmost humiliation, by none other than those who served and were mentored by him, and finally gave up by resigning in 2006.
He, however, continued to stay in Anand, which from an unknown, remote village transformed into an invigorating, recognisable and exemplary speck on the world map. Today, many shall sing his praises, and many of these would be his detractors, who put this great man through ignominy. But like all great men, he too must be laughing all the way, at this farce that will be put up, as a good show, devoid of all sincerity.
I pay my heartfelt tribute to this man, who is as much a reason for my success as my other mentor, his namesake Kurien. My book would not have been what it is if it was not for the experiences I earned from Amul.
As I bid remember my dearest teacher, I cannot but recite this apt couplet, “Woh log humne ek hi shokhi mein kho diye, Paida kiya falak ne jinhe khaak chhan kar”.