The end of an era in Sri Lanka's ad industry Farewell, boss

by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya - Sunday Observer Dec 14 2003

A black flag with a cross hangs outside the office of Sri Lanka's biggest advertising agency, Grant McCann Erickson, in Colpetty. It signals the end of an era in Sri Lanka's capricious world of advertising, as it marks the death, on December 6, of its founder and chairman, Reginald Sebastian Rodrigo Candappa.

In the many interviews he has given in the course of his life, Reggie Candappa has repeatedly been asked by journalists what the secret of his success was. His modest claim that he was simply "in the right place at the right time," belies the evidence of talent and entrepreneurship that must surely have gone into building the formidable business conglomerate he left behind. He lived his life to the fullest, and at 78 had the satisfaction of saying, "Looking back on my life, I would say that I have achieved what I wanted to."

The last time I met Mr Candappa (or "boss" as he was affectionately called by his staff) was earlier this year at his residence, on a part-business, part-personal visit. He had just acquired a new silver Benz, and at 84 took as much delight in showing off the car as he probably would have if he was 19. While there may be other self-made men who would do the same, not all of them would have the humility to recall, as he did in the same breath, the early days when his mode of transport was a push bike. That was at a time when he was newly married, disowned by both family and in-laws and living in a rented room. The fantastic story of his love affair with, and run-away marriage to Therese, a Mudliyar's daughter, has been related many times over by eager newshounds.

It was the stuff of romance, the prototypical young-artist-living-in-a-garret, in love with a seemingly unattainable 13 year old schoolgirl. A story replete with love letters written in invisible ink, secret trysts, a lady-love locked up by an irate father and a gallant knight to the rescue. It was a marriage that lasted over 50 years, ending with Therese's death in 2001.

Four generations of the Candappa family

Equally extraordinary is the story of his childhood. Reggie can truthfully claim to have had four fathers instead of the customary one. This mixed blessing came about as he was an unwanted infant. His 18 year old mother died a few weeks after his birth, leaving his distraught father convinced that he, the newborn, was the cause of it.

The "bad-luck-baby" was unceremoniously dumped on three bachelor uncles and an unmarried aunt, who, mercifully, accepted him with good humour and surrounded him with all the love and material comfort a child could want. Until his marriage, at which point they disowned him, cutting him off from the family fortune. The details of how he made his own, are history now. Again, we have one of the most colourful stories imaginable.

The man whose company is affiliated to the world's biggest international ad agency, now raking in millions, started his career in 1939 at the architects firm of S. Sanmuganathan, drawing posters for the Suriyamal campaign (protesting Poppy Day). Candappa's dream was to have an office just like S. Sanmuganathan's. In 1943 he joined Swadeshi Industries as a freelance commercial artist, on a salary of Rs. 150/- per month.

Those were the days when he designed covers for an underground communist magazine, hung out at Paiva's Tea Room and made friends with Pieter Keuneman, S.A. Wickremasinghe and other left intellectuals. In 1944 he fulfilled his ambition of setting up his own studio, with a telephone and an assistant ("No one rang me in those days!"). He even published a (short lived) Sinhala magazine called Lanka, together with Anandatissa de Alwis.

Reggie Candappa in his youth

Under pressure from a disdainful father-in-law, Reggie sought a "real" job at Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL) in 1946. When he demanded a salary of Rs.350/- per month he was asked by D.R. Wijewardena "why he wanted so much money." After confessing that he wanted to get married, he was hired as a commercial artist at Rs. 300/- a month.

Reggie's big break came when Grant Advertising International Inc. of USA wrote to ANCL's Managing Director George Gomes asking him to recommend someone to head the branch agency they hoped to set up locally. Reggie was not only released for this project but sent on a two month scholarship to North Western University, Chicago, to study journalism and tour the US. George Gomes's wisdom lay in the knowledge that advertising would play a major role in the future newspaper industry, and that Reggie would be a "friend of Lake House" in advertising.

And so, in 1958 was born Grant Advertising (Ceylon) Ltd., with one client (TWA). Others like Brown & Co., Shell Co., Singer and Reckitt & Colman followed. While some of those clients are still on GME's client roster, those early days represented a very different marketing context. This is reflected in Reggie's remark that "fridges in those days were so rare, those who owned one kept it in the drawing room with a vase on top."

Deshabandu Reggie Candappa the artist, the journalist, the publisher, the photographer, the cartoonist, the philanthropist, the chairman and president of so many clubs and associations, will go on record for varied contributions to media and society. But perhaps the character trait he will be best remembered for is his impish humour and ready wit. Everyone who worked at Grants knew, when they heard loud collective guffaws (male) or shrieks of irrevent laughter (female) emanating from some part of the building, that "boss" was in that area.

The numbers of ad agency people who have passed through Grants in the past 45 years are legion. Reggie's daughter Neela Marikkar, Managing Director of Grant McCann recalls the many who started at Grants and went on to head agencies of their own - Lilamani Dias Benson (Lowe Lintas), Ranjit Jayasuriya (Ranjit Jayasuriya Associates), Anandatissa de Alwis (De Alwis Advertising), Herman Gunasekera (Creative Services), Shantha Saparamadu (Grace Advertising), Garad Jayewardena (Garads), to name a few, some of whom are now dead and gone. "He was very proud of their success."

Celebrating a triumph at SLIM Awards

Neela, who inherits the Grant legacy, asserts that the one thing she would hold on to is the integrity of the business. "He was someone who believed in ethics and integrity. The industry has changed a lot. But we won't compromise on that." Grants has sometimes been portrayed (by detractors) as a "family business," implying family interference.

But surely it is values such as these that have set Grants apart from the whole slew of ad agencies that mushroomed in the latter half of the century. Being a business that yields a quick return on investment, all too often the tendency in the industry has been to think of little else.

This is why the passing away of Reggie Candappa marks something of a watershed. Advertising people are generally not given to observing hushed silences. But metaphorically speaking, if ever there was a moment for such a pause, for them it would be now.

Appreciation: Those were the days...

Those were the days, my friends..." Those were the rose-red days. Scarlet and gold days. The days when we were young and GRANTS was younger. For us it was the morning of the world! We were a small group but oh - so- exclusive and everyone of us bursting with an exuberance of talent! Ananda Tissa de Alwis, Ranjith Jayasuriya, Joan Collette, Chris Greet, Sharm de Alwis, Ronnie Nathanielsz, Harrischandra, Anon Wijesuriya, Gavin Aserappa, Carol Drieberg, Daphne Berenger, Ruth Amerasekera, Maureen Balthazaar, and so many others - And above all at the head of it, the GREATEST of all among us, our dear friend, our Guru, our Boss, Reggie Candappa; the IMMORTAL.

How could that small building, which was Grant Advertising then, contain so much verve, so much enthusiasm, so much creative energy, so many ideas? Every single one of us who learned our Advertising under the firm and sure, the guiding hand of Reggie Candappa went on from GRANTS to shine in our own respective or further careers. To make a mark, he had spurred us on, taught us how to use, to develop the small talents which were all we possessed when we came to work with him, and mightily together make GRANT ADVERTISING as it was then known, one of the leading Ad-Agencies in this country.

And what FUN we had working together, under Reggie's inspired direction - as a Team. Our brain-storming sessions, where unlimited cups of coffee were served and consumed, were not only remarkable for the creative advertising soft and hard sell they produced, the visuals and the copy that came out of them, but for the deviations and interpolations that make them unforgettable to me even to this day. Everyone had a joke up his or her sleeve to crack, a tale to tell, a case of one-upmanship (always the Client at receiving end, of course!) to relate and raise everyone's spirits (Clients were the Necessary Evil everytime).

What FUN it was but how we worked! Time was not our master - at GRANTS during those golden days. We never counted the hours. They were so absorbing, so interesting, so much packed with creativity.

At GRANTS because of Reggie's extraordinary artistic talents the Visuals took the lead but Deputy Manager, Ananda Tissa was a Master Copy Writer, and there were others too who could get the right words at the right time, for the product or service that the Client considered so precious.

"Can't lightning blast them!" Ananda would exclaim in a torrent of rage at some Client's fitfulness. Reggie would look round fearfully in case Client's shadow or spirit or whatever was around or the walls had ears. "Man," he would say in that gentle voice of his, "Client is what makes our world go round!" Oh, we soon came to learn about that. "Even the great Livy (Poet of Ancient Rome.) or the greatest Shakespeare needed patrons, remember?" Reggie would remind us, "Now we need Clients. We have to keep them happy," he would insist. But, an aside from Ananda, "Yes even if it means going to the bathroom for them!" Reggie would laugh as heartily as the rest - but he possessed that rare talent also to make friends of GRANT Clients, and it stood the Agency in good stead.

Another talent (he had so many) was to attract the best in Radio, Journalism, later TV. There is hardly a single Media-great in the country who has not at some time or the other worked at/for GRANTS. They flocked to GRANTS where one received so much satisfaction from one's job. When I took back on those wonderful days now gone forever, I am reminded of a green and shining oasis in an arid desert. An oasis where a thousand flowers bloomed. It was an arid era, the early to end of the 1960s, the days when private enterprise was being rapidly styled and a fever of "Nationalization" gripped the then Government. Our salaries were so small, compared with what Ad-people are paid - today - but money was not everything in those days. Life was simpler by far and we, none of us, felt no need to show off.

The world of Advertising, smaller then but large enough, knew our mettle and Clients flocked to GRANTS because of the unchallenged and unchallengable superiority of Reggie Candappa and his Team.

And yet what do I remember most of my dear friend and guru, Reggie? That he was kindness incarnate, gentle, unassuming, of an even temper, ready to help one and all, just and fair, he did not have a mean bone in his body. More-over he taught us EVERYTHING he knew. He was not like some "Masters" who keep back the core and only give away the rind. There is none to match him. There is no-one like him. No one, I repeat, no-one is fit to inherit or wear his mantle nor will there ever be.

There was only the ONE Reggie Candappa and I am proud and thankful I had the honour and good fortune to associate with him in those rose-red days gone by.

Gone, too many gone, "the old, familiar faces..." So much so that I feel I should have said in that long gone time, with the poet.

"O time, suspend your flight, and you, happy hours, stay your feet! Let us savour the swift delights of our life's loveliest day!" (Alphonse De Lamartine, 1790 - 1869).

Maureen Seneviratne - Sunday Observer Dec 14 2003