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Home > Business > Columnists > Sucheta Dalal

This one is for Shunu Sen

January 13, 2003

Siddharth ‘Shunu' SenSiddharth 'Shunu' Sen in person hardly seemed the sort of guy you would associate with a weighty title like 'marketing guru.'

He was the guy with a permanent impish smile and an incredible ability to deliver (shoot) sharp, funny or acerbic one-liners every minute and to turn the most excruciatingly painful situations into hilarious stories.

And that is why it was such a shock to hear that he is no more.

One still expects to meet Shunu again and hear him tell a sidesplitting story about his own death. Sadly, it is not going to happen.

In fact, Shunu seems destined to be stuck with the title of 'marketing guru' and has no opportunity anymore to deliver his famous retort  -- "Don't call me a guru. Gurus are not interested in sex."

But in fact, Shunu was earning his formidable title at Hindustan Lever Ltd in the eighties, even as Alyque Padamsee was going on to be described as 'God' at Lintas.

Together, they were responsible for two of the most path-breaking campaigns in advertising history.

The first was the Liril campaign with Karen Lunel in a lime green bikini frolicking under a waterfall. The advertisement was such a big hit that a decade later, HLL continues to experiment with variations of the freshness and waterfall theme and of course, the girl in a bikini.

But it hasn't ever re-captured the magic of the original. The ad sent Liril's sales graph soaring up and made a permanent celebrity out of Lunel.

The second campaign that went into the advertising and marketing hall of fame was Surf's Lalitaji.

Having missed entirely the new market that was opened up by Karsanbhai Patel's Nirma, Shunu was looking to formulate a fierce fight back and Lintas came up with Lalitaji.

The unconventional strategy of using a thrifty housewife worked wonders on Surf sales.

As Gerson da Cunha says in the Financial Express, "It was running the 40-second version of a Surf commercial, not the 30-second one rejected by his marketing controller, which went on to make a marketing legend of Lalitaji."

Surf's revival also gave Shunu the time to move down market and challenge Nirma with Wheel detergent.

Astonishingly enough, Hindustan Lever, in the pre-liberalisation days, an era of lesser competition, seemed to be far more agile and aggressive than it is today.

It was Godrej against HLL in the soaps, HLL and Balsara Hygiene Products (Promise had achieved a major marketing breakthrough those days and stunned the competition with its absurdly simple focus on clove oil which is present in all toothpastes) up against the dominant Colgate in toothpastes and HLL v/s Proctor and Gamble at one end and Nirma at the other in detergents.

If Nirma blindsided HLL, then Godrej was no less formidable.

As a junior correspondent who also covered advertising and marketing in the 1980s, I remember Godrej's marketing chief Pratap Roy (another great marketing mind who passed away at the untimely age of 43), not only used to be so clued on to HLL's every move, he would fish out and show me all of HLL's soaps brands that were being test marketed across the country.

Many of them failed the Shunu's market test and were never launched. But anytime HLL got ready to launch a brand, Godrej used to be ready with a similar product to steal its thunder. Often both products were quietly buried in a few months.

They also sabotaged each other's tests by leaking information or buying up products to generate a misleading market response. But that was in the eighties, when Shunu was a livewire and nimble in mind and body and apparently as passionate about jiving to 1950s music as he was about marketing.

In 1990, a spinal problem trapped him in a wheel chair for the last decade or more of his life and it brought out another formidable side of Shunu, that he tried to hide behind those incredibly funny quips and wicked humour.

He demonstrated that a wheel chair and a pair of nifty gloves could be used to speed up his work rather than slow him down.

He worked relentlessly hard, travelled more than most busy executives, and used his post-retirement consultancy as an opportunity to work on a much larger range of products and ideas.

One of these was to help the Confederation of Indian Industry and the government build the Made in India brand. He began writing newspaper columns and was a sought-after speaker at all marketing and advertising events.

In 1998, he became CEO of Quadra Advisory, a marketing consultancy company that became part of Sir Martin Sorrel's WPP empire.

Was it easy? I am certain it was not -- it must have required the most ferocious will power and determination. Shunu never ever showed the strain in public. Instead, I have often heard him convert some of the most agonizing and mortifying situations into hilarious tales.

There was one particular story about a couple of friends trying to get him into the Rippon Club at Mumbai for its famous Dhansak.

Having laughed when Shunu told the story, I couldn't get it out of my mind for days and marvel at his ability to make a joke out of what must have been a very painful experience.

That is when it struck me that it never happened that I met Shunu and not been reduced to giggles in under two minutes. That is because Shunu, with his sharp intellect and inevitable witticisms, never allowed you to think of him as anything but fit and agile.

Shunu's formidable work at HLL and after will always remain part of marketing lore, but it is his monumental ability to celebrate life in the face of adversity that will always remain with the thousands of us who believe we have lost a dear and inspiring friend.

Sucheta Dalal

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