‘Third time lucky’ could well be the phrase to describe with Pranav Harihar Sharma and Rediffusion Y&R. The current ECD has completed six months of his third stint at the agency. Sharma’s current tenure has coincided with an upturn in the agency’s fortunes.
The past six months has seen Rediffusion in the news for campaigns for Hamdard’s Safi, LIC, Amway Nutrilite, Resurgent Rajasthan, Videocon and Magnetic Maharashtra (at the Make in India week). Sharma has been part of the work in either a dual role of direction and writing, or either of the two.
The early days
While the career seems to be taking a rosy path, the beginnings weren’t that smooth. Sharma recounts, “A lot of things happened before I joined advertising. I did my MBA from Indore University. I was in IIT Kanpur before that. After my MBA, I appeared for my campus placements, but didn’t accept the job I got, and instead joined an Indore-based advertising agency as a proof reader for around Rs 600 per month.”
His advertising journey had begun prior to that, with a stint as a trainee in the client servicing team of another small agency in Indore.
It’s during his stint post his MBA, that a contest conducted by Yahoo in association with Cannes Lions changed his career.
Sharma says, “I won that contest. I had made an animation film, and three people from all over the world were picked. I was one of them and represented India, while the others were from the USA and Spain. I knew nothing about Cannes Lions at that time. They (Cannes Lions) had organised a dinner for us with Piyush Pandey, Neil French, David Droga and Bob Greenberg. Other than Piyush Pandey, I knew none of the others. Piyush Pandey told me I was too good to be in Indore and offered me a job; but I didn’t join the agency then. The people who were working below Pandey didn’t think I was good enough for advertising in Mumbai and that move didn’t work out. Pandey did tell me to join irrespective, though. But I didn’t. I told him that I’d end up working with him maybe only once in two months, but would work with the certain someone on a regular basis, and I wouldn’t be happy. It gave me something to prove though, and I think I’ve proved my caliber in front of the same person twice.”
So while he didn’t join Ogilvy then, four months post his Cannes visit, Sharma got his break into the big league. He says, “Three or four months after Cannes, Mash (Mahesh Chauhan) offered me a job at Rediffusion. I came to the office, and had seven interviews with different people. From Rahul Jauhari, Ashish Khazanchi, KS Chakravarthy, to Mahesh Chauhan, everyone interviewed me. They gave me the offer in the evening itself, and I accepted it. I joined the agency in October 2007 as creative associate. The real advertising journey for me began here.”
That stint at Rediffusion was cut short because a lot of the people who he worked with decided to leave. Sharma explains, “Khazanchi left, so did Jauhari. I had met Madhukar Kamath at an awards function, and he had offered me a job, and so I then moved to Mudra. I worked at the agency for three and a half years. I worked on Big Bazaar, Godrej, Volkswagen and LIC. While there was a lot of work, none of them were films. At that point of time in Mumbai, it was difficult to get a film out. And, I’m a film person. So, I was more interested in AVs. While I wasn’t getting films, I started writing radio scripts, and won the Radio Writer of the Year in 2011 at the Mirchi Kaan awards. Mudra got the Agency of the Year title. But, I wasn’t happy. I had a lot of films inside me. I did some market mapping and figured all the films were coming out of Delhi, since all the big ticket clients were there. So, I joined JWT Delhi as a senior creative director. I worked on Nokia, Pizza Hut and completed a year, before Rediffusion Y&R Delhi called me. MTS was a little shaky there and since I had experience on Nokia, they wanted me. So I joined as creative head. I worked there on MTS, made eight films in a year for them, and four for Amway.”
He adds, “After that R Balki’s personal secretary called me, and they wanted my partner (Jaideep Mahajan) and me to join Linen Lintas, on Dabur. It was a risky affair for me, because that was their only client. But that gave me a little bit of an entrepreneurial type of a feeling. I ended up working there for three and a half years. We then started winning a lot of accounts, Cardekho, Panasonic and Yebhi among others. We made a lot of TVCs there, one of which was the celebrated ‘Brave and Beautiful’. Then post Goafest in 2015, I joined Grey. I met Malvika Mehra and she asked me to join the agency. Unfortunately, Malvika left soon after, and I was looking forward to work with her. I wasn’t so kicked about it, but got some work out, and left soon after.”
The stint at Grey ended, and Sharma looked towards his passion of film directing. With that, a return to Mumbai beckoned. He explains, “I was looking forward to coming back to Mumbai. This was because I’d made one short film, for which I was awarded at Adfest last year, and it was also screened across the world, and won awards. Post that I started directing films and ad films also. So for this stage in my career, Mumbai is the place to be. I spoke to Rahul and met Dhunji, and got here for my third stint. The old people who were here during my first stint had returned. When I’d shifted to Grey my partnership with Jaideep Mahajan had broken. I asked Dhunji and Rahul, if they could get him on board too. They did, and he’s heading the Delhi office. I end up going to the Delhi office too, around four or five times a month. Delhi is currently more work heavy for us.”
And since this move, Sharma says he’s got his hands full – something he thrives on. “When I returned to the agency I told them (Jauhari and Wadia) that my hobby lies in directing too, and I just don’t want to be a creative director. They gave me a free hand and asked me to choose whatever I wanted to direct. I’m handling a lot of things right now, but I’m enjoying it. It’s good to be in the thick of things. Advertising after a while could get boring if you keep doing the same things, and so you have to branch out. It (directing) also helps when I present a script to my client; I’m portraying a picture in front of them in terms of a screenplay. So, it’s easier to get approvals from them. For example, the Rooh Afza campaign, that’ll come out, is one which isn’t expected from the company. Similarly, I know that a lot of people thrashed the Safi campaign, but the client is really happy with it as it’s helped the bottom line go up. And after 15 years Safi came back into discussion. We were aware about the negative criticism, but these days any publicity is good publicity.”
The current mandate
The agency has been in the news with more films, and Sharma explains that it’s a part of his mandate. “So far in my career, which I see beginning in 2007, I have done about 70 films. In Rediffusion, my mandate is very clear. I need to get work out. The work which is popular, interesting and what can build the agency as one to reckon with. We have brands and the people. We just need to push the client a little more and then get the kind of work out that not only we think increases the bottom line for the client, but gives us a name and visibility for the agency in the market. It’ll take time but we’re on the road, and a year and a half later, by say July 2017, we should have some big ticket campaigns under our belt, and some big clients too. I’m in a happy space – the clients are happy, my team is happy, and the agency is happy. We’ve consolidated now – Rediffusion and Everest. So, we’re a big group and the mandates are shifting. I have no (fixed) set of brands, I can work on any brand right now. My life has become like that. What I see, in the last six months, is that the agency is more visible. And it’s not only one brand. We have multiple brands and the range is a lot. That’s how I like the agency to be, enough of a portfolio that allows a lot of categories. I handle 25 people now across both Mumbai and Delhi. It’s not only TVCs – but also the new media, which is digital. People are thinking a three-minute film on YouTube is a digital campaign. I disagree.”
Having worked on Airtel during his first stint at the agency, there’s one complaint from Sharma, and that’s the absence of a telecom provider brand. He wants one back, he says.
Sharma labels his dad as the biggest mentor in his life. He says, “I don’t belong to a strong financial family, and he gave me the permission to join an agency for Rs 600 per month. In advertising, I respect Piyush Pandey. I talk to him regularly. I like the openness he has. I respect Balki, because he’s a filmmaker too. Rahul Jauhari, as a creative person and boss is someone who I respect. Sometimes there are bosses who are threatened with the junior’s work. But, with him, I had that confidence that it’ll go with my name. I’m trying to be a similar boss with my team. Dhunji for his cheerful smile, and giving a positive impression.”
Sharma on Brave and Beautiful (Dabur)
Dabur had a management change in 2014. Kishore Chutani came on board as marketing director of all the brands. He is the kind of a guy who pushes you to do good work. His brief for me when I first met him from Linen Lintas, was to win Cannes on real work. So, I told him that Dabur has a certain kind of imagery, and that may not be possible. He told me to forget the imagery and gave us the freedom. I thought he’d forget about it. But one day Dabur called us and they showed us one campaign they wanted to do for cancer survivors. It was shown by some other agency to them. They wanted us to make a film on it, because the agency was a direct marketing agency. I saw it, and I’d seen something like this done before in the US. It was for donating your hair for cancer survivors. So, I discussed this with them – first is that it has been done. They said they have permissions, and it can be executed in India. Secondly, Dabur being a herbal brand, it has a positioning about herbal products, so you can’t make artificial wigs. Thirdly, India is not a vanity society like the US; we celebrate the bravery. I salute cancer survivors. In the US, what you look is what you are, but India isn’t like that. Making a wig for survivors, could have started a Twitter outrage, since we (Indians) are emotional suckers. I asked these questions in the meeting. They said that these are valid points, but they were okay with it, and just wanted the film. We got budgets sanctioned. They wanted integration between the campaign and the brand. I thought about this film. Sometimes simple things become big. I thought of the woman who has overcome cancer, and it’s the first day that she has to return to work. She’s fit, and healthy, but she’s bald. She had to face all these inhibitions, and the world had to see her. I saw it, wrote it and presented it to them. They liked it and asked for the different legs in the campaign. We then suggested to them to launch a product, a milder shampoo, a Brave and Beautiful shampoo. We then launched a book, then events. It had a domino effect; one thing led to another. I got Salim Merchant to sing the song. The campaign made a benchmark in Dabur. Since then the work has improved for the client. It’s interesting work now.”
Cancer survivors connect with me to celebrate this campaign. These things are bigger than metals. I don’t believe in awards and that’s why I don’t have any of them here (in his cabin). I believe in the reaction I get from the people. I believe in popular work – it should make someone laugh or cry, and should increase the bottom line of the client. What we did with ‘Brave and Beautiful’ – where the film triggered other legs. The client gave us the trust to launch a shampoo, and that’s the biggest trophy for me. Now, I can see the product in the market and people are buying it.”
(This article first appeared in the 4 March 2016 issue of Campaign India)