Star Struck

Anant Rangaswami, March 1, 2021

The rules that Peter Mukerjea broke, and the first thing he got absolutely right.

‘When Star India was given to me to manage, I had a team of young, relatively inexperienced executives, and  we were operating with a Johnny English approach: “He knows no FEAR, he knows no DANGER, he knows NOTHING”.’

I’ve added the single-quotation mark at the end of the blurb I’ve copied from the book because it needs to be there and isn’t.

Star-Struck: Confessions Of A TV Executive

When I read these few words, I nodded in agreement. That’s what Peter did. He created a team without fear and without knowledge of danger. A team that knew nothing.

I read the book, the first time in a rush and the second time with the luxury of time. And I think Peter did himself a disservice – by not spending enough time on the culture that he created.

Notice that I’ve used ‘Peter’ twice in the few lines above. Not ‘Peter Mukerjea’, not Mr. Mukerjea, not “Peter Mukerjea, CEO, STAR India’.

Just ‘Peter’.

That was the foundation of the culture that Peter created. The first name. At that time, in the early 1990s, the corporate culture in India dictated the use of ‘Mister’, the use of the designation (VC, MD, was the BCCL culture) or the use of ‘Sir’.

Peter broke these rules. That was the first thing he got absolutely right.

The use of the first name dictated the org chart at STAR. Everyone was referred to by the first name and the hierarchy immediately disappeared. The ease is apparent throughout the book; everyone of consequence is referred to by the first name. Rupert Murdoch is Rupert; Amitabh Bachchan is Amitabh, and so on. Compare this tone with the references in the first book on STAR – The Making of Star, by Vanita Kohli-Khandekar. Vanita would have met Peter dozens of times over the years and would never, ever, have called him anything other than ‘Peter’. In the book, it’s a staid ‘Mukerjea’. (It’s a good book, though).

When one reads of ‘Peter’ in a book, it becomes a sort of signal for a ‘lean-back’ book; when one sees Mukerjea, you lean forward.

All of STAR was lean-back in the early days of Peter’s run. It was relaxed, confident and unafraid.

Especially in the ad sales team.

That is where Peter excelled and flummoxed the environment. Star’s sales teams behaved unlike any sales team in existence. Zee TV and the print majors (ToI, India Today, Hindustan Times, The Hindu and ABP) all suddenly looked staid and jaded in comparison to the Star team.  The Star team walked differently, talked differently, partied differently.

Perhaps it’s because they knew nothing.

Actually it was a little more than that. Peter armed the team with unusual tools that served to increase the confidence and self-belief of all who worked at Star.

The salary package was structured so that even junior sales people could afford to buy and run a car. Entertainment expenses were approved with a minimum of bureaucracy (and sales teams were encouraged to entertain). Investments in hardware (Star sales teams were about the first to get pagers, at a time when pagers cost Rs.15,000) including mobiles and chargers.

And, most importantly, you could phone Peter 24X7.

Stuck with a painful client? Call Peter and he’ll happily meet the client. Over breakfast, over lunch, over coffee, over a drink.

Peter had your back.

But you needed to have his. Neither Vanita nor Peter in their books spends time on the frenetic work culture at Star. Sure, you could party hard – but only if you could be in office on time the next morning.

Peter set the tone. Irrespective of the travails of the previous evening, Peter was done with his squash early morning and was at his seat for business by 8.30 am.

It seems impossible, but who, in a team that knew nothing, knew that it was impossible? Peter created a team that worked hard and partied hard.

He created barriers for other media organisations that couldn’t be surmounted. It would take too much restructuring for, say, Times of India to buy mobile phones for all their sales teams and emulate the entertainment expense culture of Star.

More importantly, it would be well-nigh impossible to replicate the first name culture.

And the first name culture had ramifications beyond the internal impact.

The Star sales team, having tasted the first name culture internally, embraced it externally as well. All clients were referred to by first name; something no ad sales executive in any other organisation would dare to do.

Let’s take stock of what Peter had done. Clients were referred to by their first names. The Star sales executives were seen travelling in their own cars, driving to the finest hotels in every city, taking flights and talking on mobile phones on the way to check in at the Taj or the Oberoi.

The Star sales teams were virtually social equals of their clients.

Think about it. It was completely impossible for any existing media organisation to think of emulating.

The use of the first name was the bedrock of Star India.

Think about that, Peter.

Think about that, Rupert, Lachlan and James.