August 1, 2014

My Life off Advertising: Pratik Thakar

By Payal Khandelwal

“If everything seems under control, you are not going fast enough.” In the middle of the phone interview, Pratik Thakar, vice president — Pacific Group Creative & Content Excellence at the Coca-Cola Company (based in China) quotes Mario Andretti. This particular line seems to bind the entire conversation about his life, an almost conscious manifesto of the extremely fascinating professional journey that he has charted so far, which in turn is intricately linked to the person he is.

Thakar grew up in Ahmedabad where his father had a job with the All India Radio (AIR) and his mother was a radio artist. Words like programming, artists, live music etc. were scattered in his everyday conversations with his parents. His father’s hobbies of reading, collecting autographs and stamps were also some of the early influences in his life.

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His childhood in Ahmedabad

Studies and Thakar did not really have a cordial relationship. “In my family, everyone was doing really well in terms of education and I was the only odd one out. There was this initial pressure from my family and peer group which led me to finally choose Biochemistry as an option.” Along with his Biochemistry studies, the lure of making some pocket money took him to various market research agencies where he would earn about Rs 60–80 per day.

What seemed like an inconspicuous part–time job at that time was actually the beginning of a lifelong journey centered on understanding consumers and brands. This phase also introduced him to Mudra Communications in Ahmedabad and gradually, his interest started trickling towards the world of advertising.

Post his graduation, there came a rather dark period in Thakar’s life where he had to come to terms with his father’s recent death. By this time, however, he was quite sure of his deep interest in consumers and brands and thus, he decided to get a formal degree in marketing. In Ahmedabad, Thakar worked for Pressman Advertising and Mudra which were both critical early experiences of his professional life. “Pressman was an amazing experience and had a huge impact in my life. It was a very large agency in India at that time. It had a niche category of financial advertising and was a market leader in that.”

Even though he wanted to work in creative hotshops, most agencies ironically eluded him that time as his background was market research. Pressman gave him a job on the condition that he would finish his marketing degree during his probation period. Pressman, at that time, was handling clients like Tata, Birla, Reliance, Adani etc. and Thakar used to travel with senior people from these companies. This gave him a great understanding of how people actually do businesses.

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After this, Mudra hired him as a full–time employee in the market research space. He then started realizing that he can’t really grow till he goes to Mumbai so he decided to shift base. He got a job offer from Pathfinders, the market research company of Lintas India. At Pathfinders, he got to learn about strategic planning from consumer and qualitative research angles.

Coincidentally, he soon got an offer from Saatchi & Saatchi which had newly acquired a local agency, Sista. V Shantakumar, who was the CEO and chairman of Saatchi at that time, interviewed the 26 year old Thakar and gave him the mandate of creating a proper planning function in the agency. Being with the right people at the right time has been one of the biggest reasons of his highly successful expedition at each agency he has worked at.

At Saatchi, Thakar realized that he had the knack of understanding consumers and not just making research presentations. For him, the biggest learning from Saatchi was that planners need to be responsible for creating great work and they need to be partners in producing outstanding creative output too. Thakar was sent to Hong Kong for his induction into the Saatchi system.

Soon, he also started travelling to Greater China for Saatchi’s work. “It was kind of an ethnography — looking at people, culture and society — visiting small schools, farms and hospitals, taking pictures, observing, studying and living life like those people.” It was a dramatically different experience for a vegetarian Gujarati boy that Thakar was.

Pratik, Neil and Brynn with David and team

Thakar at Cannes

He then came back to India and soon got an offer from McCann Worldgroup Malaysia which was completely restructuring its top management in Malaysia and approached Thakar with the position of planning head. While his stint in McCann Malaysia was successful, he felt that the Southeast Asian market was a bit out of radar and not a priority for the global system.

McCann Worldgroup’s worldwide chief strategy officer, Eric Einhorn, took note of Thakar’s talent and started involving him in many high profile China oriented projects. “This was an interesting time for me. And this was just before the Olympics so I got to work on some very large Olympic campaigns for brands like Puma, Coca Cola, Mastercard etc. So on one side I was building agency resources and on the other, strategic campaigns for big brands.”

At Greater China, Thakar has worked with some of the most creative and influential people including Carol Lam, Spencer Wong, Tomaz Mok, and Canon Wu. Apart from these, a person who had an enormous influence on his life is TH Peng who is often known as the godfather of Chinese advertising. Peng was his boss at McCann, and later at Grey too.

TH & Pratik2

With T H Peng

At McCann everything was going absolutely fine and Thakar had spent around ten years there. But since everything was under “control”, there came a sort of a plateau and the question was ‘what next’. Two critical things happened – one of the senior guys from McCann’s US office moved to Grey and invited Thakar’s boss Peng to be a part of the Grey’s Greater China’s operations. Around the same time, McCann had a new global CEO with whom both Peng and he had ideological differences. This is when both of them decided to move to Grey.

Eventually as Grey was flourishing, Mario Andretti’s words were echoing in Thakar’s ears.  “Everything was going well, everything felt perfect, so decided to jump the ship and enter the totally different world of The Coca-Cola Company.” Interestingly, after years, he is no longer just a spectator of Indian advertising as it now falls under his region.

Thakar’s life beyond work is equally charming. At home, his world comprises of his wife and two children. “My children (aged 9 and 7) are proud of me working at Coca-Cola. When they come to my office, they understand it’s creative and colorful and they know their father is doing something interesting and unconventional. They are growing in a truly multinational culture.”

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Apart from hobbies like music and reading, a new activity that has become his passion over the years is scuba–diving. “It’s a completely different world out there. It is akin to meditation for me.” Probably, this is the ultimate secret of how Thakar manages to be so humble and balanced despite of his remarkably successful fast paced life, with no controls whatsoever.

This article originally appeared in Kyoorius Magazine 17.

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