It wasn’t Madison Avenue by any stretch of the imagination, but when Reggie Candappa returned home from the US, one day in 1958 with a thousand American dollars in his pocket, his dining table at home – 91, Galle Road, Bambalapitiya – was where “the business of ideas” took off in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon [...]

Business Times

Grant: Reggie Candappa’s business of ideas celebrates 60 years


It wasn’t Madison Avenue by any stretch of the imagination, but when Reggie Candappa returned home from the US, one day in 1958 with a thousand American dollars in his pocket, his dining table at home – 91, Galle Road, Bambalapitiya – was where “the business of ideas” took off in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was called then.  Reggie, at 39, was no spring chicken but if ever the catch-phrase ‘Life begins at 40’ held true, it was typified by his story, one which will make you believe that everyone has a calling in life, and that he was truly destiny’s child.

First Grant team in 1958. Founder Reggie Candappa is seen kneeling (front row extreme left) and behind him is Anandatissa de Alwis.

For how else, could one explain the genesis and success of Sri Lanka’s pioneering advertising agency, the first to have an international tie-up going back six decades. As the company he founded celebrates its 60th birthday today (April 1), his daughter Neela Marikkar, chairperson and managing director, Dentsu Grant and Dentsu Aegis Network, narrates a fairytale story.

It all began inside the bowels of Lake House where Reggie was plying his trade as a multi-tasking journalist being a writer, photographer, political cartoonist and graphic artist all rolled into one. “My father was a very gifted man but most of all he was a people’s person,” describes Neela. “He had all the right attributes to take on something like this.”

What Reggie took on his shoulders was the responsibility to start a new advertising agency with links to Madison Avenue in the US. Grant, which had a branch in India, had approached the managing director of ANCL, George Gomes, and asked him if he could be their front-man in Ceylon. Remember this was in 1957, a year after SWRD Bandaranaike had become Prime Minister and had introduced the Sinhala Only Bill in parliament. It was also the year British bases were closed in the country and the island became ‘non-aligned’. It was a different time, and people had a different set of values.

Today, most people would have grabbed the chance to head an international advertising agency, not George Gomes. He knew he had a person working for him who was far more suited to the task – Reggie Candappa. “My father was placed in a dilemma for he had just been awarded a scholarship by the newspaper to study journalism at North Western University in Chicago. When he was told by George that a US-based advertising company called Grant wanted to start an agency in Ceylon, my dad asked ‘what about the scholarship’,” relates Neela.

The Lake House managing director said he would tell Grant to wait one year until the scholarship was over. Reggie left to hone his journalism and at the end of one year, visited Grant which also had offices in Chicago. The advertising company gave Reggie US$1,000 and told him to return home and open a company and represent them.

The visit of Will C, Grant (Second from left) the founder of the worldwide advertising agency Grant Advertising Inc to Sri Lanka with his wife Mary Grant in 1969. They are seen admiring the gift of jewellery given to them by Mr & Mrs Reggie Candappa on behalf of the staff of Grant Advertising Ceylon Ltd.

“It was a very big thing of George Gomes to have done. He knew Reggie would leave after his scholarship yet he recommended him. And Grant’s was willing to wait one year. It was a life-changing episode for my father, actually for all of us, my mother Therese and elder sister Sriyani, too,” Neela acknowledges.

Reggie began with a couple of big accounts handed to him by Grant – TWA and Shell – and within a couple of years had won a few big accounts, Singer, Reckitt and Coleman, and Browns. The first two local accounts are still with the company proving that Reggie, who died of a heart attack in 2004 aged 84, did a good job.
“It is admirable that my father was able to build a business that has remained at the top of advertising industry for decades. We were the university of advertising in this country. It is great legacy, a brand that he built, and it has a very special culture as well,” says Neela proudly.

“Many people have passed through our doors, learning the business and gone on to open their own advertising companies and businesses. It has been the Home of Advertising, and to have remained for 60 years at the top of our league has been quite a challenge and also a great and fantastic journey,” adds Neela who joined her father in 1986 having returned from London. She worked seven years as an art director, before being appointed chief executive in 1993.

It’s a virtual Who’s Who of the people who learned the trade under Reggie. Anandatissa de Alwis, Lilamani Dias Benson, Chris Greet, Laddie Hettiarachchi, Ranjit Jayasuriya, Michelle Leembruggen are a few to mention. But the person closest to Reggie was his second daughter Neela who would listen to him at the dining table where it all began.

“Advertising was always the topic of conversation at our dinner table I remember as a child. I grew up with advertising around me and I was very close to my father and even as a child he used to take me everywhere. I used to spend hours at Lake House, used to go to the block printers where I sat while they made the pages using blocks, linotyping, metal filling. I was completely saturated with the whole business from a very young age, the whole idea of creativity.

Culture at Grant
“The whole culture at Grant was one of family. It reflected my father’s personality. He was a wonderful human being, very generous, kind man, always helping people. It was part of his DNA and that culture was there in the agency because of him, his leadership. Even today people remember that part of it and I have tried very hard to retain that quality,” Neela discloses.

The company has played a massive role in shaping major corporate strategies locally, an example being paving SriLankan’s smooth transition from AirLanka. It just wasn’t only about corporates, however, with Grant Advertising playing a huge part in eradicating polio in this country by taking the message of immunization to young mothers.

Today, 130 people work for Neela, as she busily juggles all her clients. And the biggest challenge still awaits with Dentsu Grant recently winning the biggest advertising account in Sri Lanka, a Rs.4.5 billion spend on a media and digital campaign by Sri Lanka Tea Board to create awareness of the Ceylon Tea brand and the association of the Lion logo.

Last year, Grant – the Americans pulled out entirely in 1983 with Reggie buying over the entire stake of shares but the name was retained as it had itself become a brand – tied up with Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Aegis which has controlling shares. The wheel has turned full circle. Reggie stopped over in Tokyo and visited the offices of Dentsu on his way back from the US in 1958. He was energized by the visionary ideas he saw. Today his daughter is making them become a reality.

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