Monday 23 June 2008

Rohit Varma remembers...

Prof. Labdhi’s reputation preceded him. Marketing was the star department at IIM Ahmedabad and Labdhi arguably it’s brightest shining star, one of the then three pillars of the Indian marketing pioneer and think tank that was IIM Ahmedabad Marketing Department. These people did not just teach, or just consult. Which they did well. They pioneered new areas i.e. advanced the marketing discipline, especially for the Indian context. And in doing so served as the frame of reference in the 70s and 80s for countless organizations and their marketing departments.

Having spent a couple of decades in marketing jobs ever since I graduated from IIMA in 1983, I can safely say that the above reputation was well-deserved. Marketing grads from IIMA are on an average better trained and perform better than all other MBAs / IIM grads.

To a rookie, impressionable student such as myself, what impressed first was the demeanour. The Prof was a tall figure, as far as I remember, 6’ plus. He favoured white shirts which were well starched. He was invariably on time; one could also sense that every instant of his day was precious. Once in class, he angled his lean frame against the desk and threw out a couple of profound questions regarding the case at hand which the class then debated. Product Policy & Management was the course Prof. Labdhi was best known for and it was where a generation of IIMites learnt “product management.” All in all, an awesome figure.

That the Professor had an impressive resume added to his star mystique. His doctorate at Columbia was on family planning. The latter was an eye opener for impressionable minds. It wily nily provided proof to a student, if any were needed, that marketing was an omniscient discipline, it moved not just products, but entire societies!

I recall two interactions with him. One was during CP (class participation) when he was impressing about the need for logical thinking in attacking a case or a real life problem. I interrupted him saying “What about intuition?” Don’t remember his response, except that it stumped him just a bit. Ah, here is a chink in the professor’s mental armour, thought yours truly, gleefully.

The time I got to really know him was when I did a project with him. My summer placement project, done between the 1st and 2nd years, had - for certain personal reasons - fallen short of the minimum number of days norm .Therefore, the Institute asked me to do a six weeks make-up project with any of the professors available. I chose - among several options - to work with him. He asked me to go a product portfolio analysis for Cadila Laboratories (undoubtedly one of his many corporate clients). This resulted in a couple of evening visits to his residence to discuss the project. Here, one was suitably impressed by the number of tomes sprawled across the living room and on the dining table. It was an interesting project and I got great exposure. The Marketing Manager at Cadila treated me with just a little bit of deference! In hindsight, I realize this must have been because of the guru’s reputation.

Analytical thinking viz. the application of analysis to solve real life problems - as opposed to maths or engineering theoretical problems which is what one had spent most of one’s school and B.Tech days doing - was what I learnt best from him.

So also, though probably at a more subtle level, I imbibed (a) the value of time and (b) the belief and understanding of the widespread applicability of the marketing discipline. Not just products, but also services. Not just commercial organizations, but social ones. And so on.

A role model for all marketers, if he were here today the profession would be undoubtedly richer. Perhaps marketers from IIMA should think of an enduring initiative that bears his name. I would be happy to take this up and promote the same among fellow IIMites at our forthcoming Silver Jubilee Reunion.

*Rohit Varma was a student of LRB @ IIMA.

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