Harindra Singh talks with You & I
After growing up in the rural parts of the country, it was only by chance that Harindra Singh landed in the advertising business. From possessing practically no knowledge in the industry to heading one of the largest PR and advertising agencies (and also India’s biggest and most popular music festivals), he shares his topsy-turvy journey.
Tell us about your family background.
I belong to a service family of professionals. My father was a sugar technocrat, because of which I was brought up across many rural parts of the country. This summed up my nomadic country life right up until the early 70’s, when my father realised that his kids were growing up and needed the anchor of a good education. That’s when he took the decisive call of moving to Belgaum in Karnataka. One day, my dad got a job in Uganda and he promptly moved the family to Mumbai. We lived out of a hotel during the first few months in the city, and life largely revolved around travelling to and from the school and hotel.
I was already in the 9th grade when I came to Mumbai, and my education and exposure to life was extremely limited due to this highly constricted background. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1980, I decided to pursue an MBA in the US, much against my father’s wishes. I soon got admission at the prestigious University of Rhode Island and was all set to fly off when destiny played its cards and laid out a whole new and completely unexpected pathway for me.
I had a friend whose family ran an advertising firm in Delhi – one of the biggest agencies in those days. He ran the firm’s branch office in Mumbai. In May 1980 he mentioned that he was getting married and was going to be headed off for a few months on his honeymoon. He needed someone urgently to take his place and requested me to take over this mantle whilst he was away. In return I asked him to leave me his car and apartment keys, and give me an expense account. This was my first business negotiation, and the deal was done.
How did you manage?
To be honest, I did have a bit of experience in the communications arena. I used to earn extra money in my college days managing ‘branded’ parties. I called it ‘Harry’s Party’ to get a good guest list and of course the best music in town. But when I went to my friend’s office, I knew nothing about the advertising business. Suddenly, decisions were thrust upon me because I was sitting in his chair. In those brief months, business and morale improved in leaps and bounds for that agency. Come September, and my friend’s brother came to see me to convince me to stay back in the company. I took up the offer with the mindset of an owner, not an employee. This continued for the next three years and the agency really grew. But three years later, due to a tiff with the chairman, I decided to quit the job.
How did Percept Limited get started?
Percept had its inception in January 1984. The agency was originally called Perceptions, because the industry purely focused on changing people’s perceptions. A couple of weeks later we found out that there was already a company with that name. By this time I had no money to print new stationary, so I took a blade and actually cut the last few letters off the artwork and the rubber stamps. And that’s how Perceptions became Percept. Today it seems like a very apt name.
It must’ve taken a lot of hard work to start a company like this back in 1980s.
In the early 80s we were the fastest growing agency in the country. Percept grew rapidly through the 90s across multiple specialised services, including public relations, experiential marketing, production, content, sports, talent, out-of-home (OOH), digital media, and more.
How did Sunburn come into being?
Sunburn (Electronic Dance Music - EDM) was one of the first IPs we launched in 2007. At the same time we launched a couple of other properties in the music domain – Metalfest (rock music) and Bollywood Live (Bollywood dance music). By the second year we only had capital for one, so we decided to drop Metalfest and continue with Sunburn alone. In the first two years, we lost money; but by the third year we broke even. And the response to year four (2010) was phenomenal, far greater than what we expected. Given the growing popularity, Sunburn branched from a single Goa festival in December to multiple formats and geographies pan India and abroad around the year. In its eighth year (2014), Sunburn generated more than 7,00,000 in attendance across India and overseas.
So what’s your game plan towards staying relevant in the EDM domain?
EDM originally began in the trance genre, but today is of no specific genre. It can go from house to trance. Brand Sunburn associates itself with the latest and the best, whatever is trending today. The artists we’re getting are ranked absolutely top in the world, and that’s the only way to stay atop the game. --- as told to Niharika