I must have met Labdhi in the late 1970s or early 80s. At the time, I was part of the Bombay Oil Industries, which was a typical family-run firm selling largely unbranded products like hair oil. I wanted to start branding our products but we had no in-house knowledge/expertise of marketing or brand building. I myself had no formal management education and since we were a small company located in the midst of Bombay’s commodity markets, it was quite hard to attract talent.
That’s how Labdhi came into the picture. By that time he already had a reputation as the top-most marketing academic in the country (not as a practitioner). We were probably introduced through an acquaintance and I asked him to fill in the gap in my training about marketing and brand building and act as our in-house marketing expert.
We must have spent about a total of 15-20 days together during that time. From our interactions it was clear that he was very bright - extremely sharp. He was also very, very hard working. I remember he used to be very busy during that period and would not have time to meet when he was in Mumbai. So, often, I would meet him at the airport, catch the flight with him to Ahmedabad and we would work all night and then I’d catch the flight back to Mumbai in the morning! That was the sort of inner drive he had to excel or succeed.
He was guiding me at a personal level through many one-on-one sessions that we had during that time and pretty much gave me my first exposure to the entire field of marketing – how to position a product, market research, segmentation, brand building, etc. In some sense, he sowed the initial seeds for Marico’s later successes. We went from what was then a 50 lakhs company to a situation where our branded business for the year 2007-08 was Rs.1907 crores.
I remember one story. In those days, television had made a big splash and unlike today, there was only one channel – Doordarshan. Also, unlike today, where the channel produces programmes and then sells advertising time around it, in those days, the advertisers would be identified first and they would actually sponsor and produce the programmes on a theme around their product. Labdhi had given us a suggestion at the time which, to our regret, we didn’t take up. He had advised us to sponsor an epic serial from Indian mythology like Ramayana or Mahabharat. We didn’t take it up then and a few years later someone else picked it up and it was a huge, runaway success. We did use another of his ideas to advertise for our hair oils though – a programme concept on the traditional women of India, which we implemented as a TV series called ‘Tera Panne’ starring Hema Malini and directed by Vikas Desai.
Labdhi was on one hand very professional, demanding and ambitious and on the other hand very humble and easy to get along. He was not at all financially minded. He was driven by building something, by his interest in helping people and making an impact. And he certainly did make an impact.
* Harsh Mariwala knew LRB in the 1980s. He is the Chairman and Managing Director of Marico, a leading FMCG player in India.