It is almost taken for granted that Shombit Sengupta will choose a French restaurant and he does. Royal Club in Bangalore's Leela Palace hotel only opens for dinner, but they happily accommodate their regular guest for lunch with BS. We get our first taste of things authentically French right away when he starts talking to the maitre de restaurant in French and learns that this very Indian-looking person is a student from the Lyon school of the famous French chef Paul Bocuse.
Shombit's face lights up as he reveals that he had in his time done the branding of Bocuse's gourmet packaged foods for the US. Bocuse, one of the finest chefs of the 20th century, was among the first to come out of the kitchen and become a public figure. This sets the benchmark for what we will discuss for the next two and a half hours - things ideated to a very high level of refinement, world class and often French.
Shombit doesn't imbibe alcohol but immediately calls for a bottle of Dom Perignon and places it next to another bottle of champagne, also a well-known brand, and invites me to see how different they look.
The other brand is bright and glitzy, whereas the Dom Perignon looks dark and aged, as if it has just been dusted out of a cellar where it has been for god knows how long. "This is the difference between premium and luxury. You can create something premium by adding golden colours and so on, and charge a high price. But if you try to redesign this luxury product bottle [Dom Perignon] people will reject it. It is very difficult to create this kind of effect: so many elements, yet everything discreet."
I leave the ordering to Shombit and we settle for canard (duck) with foie gras (goose liver) for starters, a rich crab soup (we both later agree it is the best dish of the meal) and darne de saumon - a main salmon dish which turns out to be a bit disappointing. But first we get casse croute, a little something that he explains is meant to prepare your mouth for the meal ahead. And in between starter and main course we get trou normande, which the maitre de restaurant explains to me is meant to clear the palate between courses.
Shombit, born to a refugee (from East Pakistan) family near Calcutta, went to art school, didn't finish the course, journeyed to France in 1973 at 19 with literally $8 in his pocket and swept the floor for four years before landing his first communications job by drawing a quick portrait of the interviewer as he had no diploma to show.
He thought he was struggling in those initial years, "but once I visited Auswitch I understood what struggle was. Today, I will not say my childhood was a struggle. It was only dark and poverty ridden." What kept him going and made him arrive was discipline, achieving benchmarks he set for himself. What was killing for him initially was his lack of credentials - "I had no degree or diploma" - but later, "French society made me understand the philosophical and sociological angle which no school or college can teach."
His first milestone was 1978 when he did a campaign for Amnesty International: "Liberty of opinion, is it dead?" But, "I suddenly understood, advertising and communication was not my domain because it does not go deep into a subject. In a corporate meeting, people stop talking to you when they get into strategy and the product itself. My tendency was always to dive into the product. Without doing that, you cannot do justice to what you had understood from the consumer."
He joined a product design firm and then a consulting one and the next six years were an intensive learning process. Then in 1984, he took up the entrepreneurship challenge and created Shining Emotional Surplus. Why Shining? "Our delivery promise was to make our clients shine." The idea was to create a system which could sustain itself, not just by satisfying the client in the short run, but by ensuring end user benefits in the long run, often making Shining a strategic partner to the client.
Between then and 1996 when Shombit stepped into India, he scored many hits in corporate transformation, product design and retailing, but the greatest of them all is Bio, the yogurt with green branding for Groupe Danone, the French health food company. Shining took a generic product, a bacteria created by the Pasteur Institute, and fashioned something that initiated the age of eating nutritionally. Now re-named Activia for global marketing while keeping the same brand architecture, Bio has created a whole new industry and a social revolution.
"Today people are talking about customer sensitivity. But then in the mid-eighties industry was dictating to the consumer, saying 'What I do is best for you.' In this kind of situation I broke the market. Bio is the most recognised marketing success in the west." His message was that "Beauty comes from within," and he told Danone its competitor was not Nestle (which makes yogurt) but L'Oreal (which makes cosmetics). Till today, in most European, particularly French homes, you will find a few products that Shombit has helped strategise - like Bio or Activia, Vitalinea (zero-fat eats) and Carapelli, the very traditional Italian olive oil brand which he rejuvenated by putting in a modern whisky-type bottle.
From this he derived the functional, rational and emotional sequence through which a sustainable product is created. The functional part of Bio is that it clears the intestine, the rational part is the technical details of the product, which are put upfront in the packaging and the emotional part comes from putting it in a container that looks like an emerald box. He spells all this out in his book Jalebi Management, which will be out shortly.
Why did Shombit, who became and remains a French citizen, choose to concentrate on India? "I was asked by Danone to look at India. Jacques Vincent (vice chairman of Danone) asked me, what can you do for Britannia? That was the mid-nineties when liberalisation had come to India and I thought there would be space for this kind of thinking." He came and a high watermark of his work in India has been creating the Tiger biscuit brand with which Britannia tapped the rural market segment. Till date his clients include Britannia, Wipro, Mahindra, Marico and more recently Reliance and Onida.
There is an intellectual discipline that the west can give and India must absorb - a grid or guideline about every aspect of society - intellectual and commercial. "I tell my fellow Indians, don't challenge this grid as it has created the benchmark of the competitive world, and there is a deep inventive power in it. If an American or Japanese wants to get into the fashion industry he first studies the French, fashion's pioneering leaders. The Chinese do the same."Shombit, who so obviously thinks out of the box, is often at a loss for words. His spoken English clearly indicates he did not go to an English medium school and his Bengali is very functional, colloquial, often richly so. Does he think in French? "My thought process is French. But I am Bengali in being conscious about the world" which almost instinctively took him to France. What are the highest national attributes a business should imbibe? "The delivery system has to be meticulous and German; the process has to be watertight and American to create scale; in accuracy and mass customisation the Japanese show the way, while in inquiry, who can be better than the French?" Perhaps fittingly, we end our French repast with souffle topped with English cream.