The news broke with dawn today. An era had passed. And it passed as peacefully and privately as he would have probably wanted it to. Tarun Gupta – professor to youngsters, boss and mentor to those slightly older, but ‘Sir’ to almost everyone in the vast Indian pharmaceutical industry, was no more.
As the sun rose higher in the eastern skies, so did the disbelief amongst those who knew him well. They had worked and interacted with him and were leaders and mentors now themselves. They reminisced wistfully of the days when he led and mentored in his inimitable style. The young who had transitioned from being his students to junior and mid-level positions in the industry, spoke with awe of the pearls of wisdom that they received from him. In an era where pharma leaders are few and far between, Dr. Gupta had left behind a humongous footprint.
Like those who create legacies, TG – as he was fondly called – was a man you either loved or hated, but never ignored. His love for simplicity was disarming. He preferred simplicity in life and in work. He often said he was successful because he stuck to basics. That, and his ability to communicate ideas in a simple way.
TG’s greatest gift to the pharma world is even after 40-plus years, a ubiquitous tool in pharma selling – the visual aid. He was loved by medical reps for giving them a tool that was simple and helped them communicate effectively with doctors about their medicines. He was hated by product managers who were forced to write detailing stories for those visual aids in less than 40 words, 4 of which were the brand name! No doctor would listen to long winding stories, he would say. Keep it short and simple. Tell the customer what he wants to hear. Wise words indeed!
Another area that TG was ahead of the pack was in recognizing the power of data and competitive intelligence. Along with another stalwart of the 70s – Prof Chitta Mitra – he set up C-MARC, an agency that churned out stellar market intelligence at a time when the only source of information to Head Office was the medical rep. TG was then the head of operations for Glaxo India, and he knew that access to this data moved his team several notches above competition. He fiercely guarded the information, striking an exclusive deal with Prof Mitra. It was only after TG moved to the Americas did his successors allow C-MARC to sell their reports to the rest of the industry. By then, Glaxo had cemented its leadership position in India for several decades to follow. Even today, Glaxo – now GSK – is the only multinational company in the list of top 10 (Abbott is the other due to the Piramal acquisition) and this is in no small measure due to TG’s foresight.
TG had his share of weaknesses too which made him human. For instance, despite being such a visionary, he completely missed out the digital wave where multichannel customer engagement and big data (his favorite topics from 4 decades ago) were challenging the long-held pharma commercial model. I met him last at a company event in March where I presented my thoughts on marketing in a digital world. In his characteristic style he walked up to me in the break and said, “I loved your presentation, but you must forgive my ignorance on the subject. I am a Gadhaaram (donkey),” and laughed heartily.
Much to my surprise, I found TG to be most upset when we discussed his greatest legacies – the visual aid and CMARC. From his perch as an academician, he pored through visual aids and marketing plans of different companies searching desperately for insights and intelligent application of data. Sadly, what he saw, pained him immensely. It pained him that something that was relevant in the 70s was still thought to be so. There were no challenges or improvisations. The industry had made it worse by declaring it indispensable.
An era has passed today. The most fitting tribute that the industry can give him is to challenge his legacy. To dissect dispassionately and intelligently what we held as sacred for all these decades. To herald in a new era. Let us pay our tributes to one of the greats by doing what he always did – tearing apart the old and heralding in the new. As they say, “the King is dead, long live the King.”