Vikram Pandey confesses (almost apologetically) to being media shy right at the start of the interview, which was somewhat refreshing. But about five to ten minutes into the chat, he cuts short his response to apologise for being talkative.
First things first. At the root of him being media shy is a grouse that nobody wants to know about him, or for that matter what actually goes into making an ad.
Before adland can scream ‘renegade’, he explains the basis for his grouse: “Advertising industry as a group tends to be more appreciative of work than the larger junta. I don’t think they (junta) really care about advertising as it’s an interruption for them until we actually entertain them or tell them something that is very new and different. If we’re not managing to do that then they just press the mute button or skip the ad on YouTube until the regular programming resumes or until they get to the information they want amidst all the clutter.”
The younger son of a railway officer, he had to move to different cities in India at fairly regular intervals. So in Pandey, we have a creative whose ideas - some if not all - come from his time spent growing up in Bhusaval, Jabalpur, Nagpur, Nashik, Jhansi to name a few, before settling down in Mumbai 17 years ago. “My elder brother never liked the change but I used to love it, finding new people and interacting with them. The fact that we moved so much finds its reflection in my advertising.”
Fresh out of a BMM course in Mumbai, he got into Ogilvy and Mather in 2003. It is here where he says he recalls having a realisation: "This is probably the most ‘sane’ 9 to 5 job I can do – which never remained 9 to 5 but that’s just how it is. I don’t think I could’ve done any other job.”
“I chanced upon a BMM course which incidentally was fairly new. By the time I was out of college I had decided that I wanted to get into advertising. One of my professors had told me that the CV had to be creative so I had made something which in hindsight seems silly. It was a Maggi packaging-like CV which said something like ‘2 minute ideas’ and had instructions like ‘Keep Vikram in a cool AC conference room. Add two cups of coffee and a hot idea will be ready to take on the market’. It was hard to be noticed amongst so many others specially when coming from a BMM course that not a lot of people had heard of. I had sent some of these CVs out, including one to Abhijit Avashti. He called and asked me to bring some of my work along and decided to give me a chance. It changed everything for me," recalls Pandey.
'Ek idea tha...'
Much like an idea can strike any time, Pandey was convinced that it can be pitched anytime as well. “The distance between me and Abhijit was huge as he was group head and I, a trainee. But I used to find my time in the sense that when he would go to the loo I would find him on the way and go ‘Ek idea tha Castrol pe...’ which, once or twice, he liked and told me that he would bounce it off the client. I would go to the water cooler and bounce off an idea to somebody there.”
The adlander is a firm believer in the power of advertising. But he adds some riders: “Advertising is fantastic – but only if it is done well. We have enough examples of legendary ads being made purely because of the communication in them reflected a particular personality.”
And he cautions, “The future is going to be really difficult. There’s this theory about the ‘Hollywood-isation’ of advertising which will bring these big, massive commercials which will be about making a big statement for a brand.”
This is not to cause any alarm, he assures: “The only way I can sell something to you is if I tell you something interesting about it. If you put a bad ad out there, the duration, its production doesn’t matter because it will never work.”
Ogilvy is where Pandey was exposed to the Cannes Lions festival through INS’ Think Print initiative. “INS Think Print, almost a decade ago, would take up a famous TVC of that year and hold a competition where we had to come up with a print ad version of it. The first prize for that was an all-expense-paid trip to Cannes Lions. Manish Darji was my partner and we came up with a Mentos ad that won,” he recalls.
'Within the box...'
Cannes opened up his perspective about how to arrive at an idea: “Before Cannes, my approach to a brief was ‘let’s think out of the box’. Cannes taught me that the solution need not necessarily lie outside the box. There are enough number of times that the solution lies within the box if we look hard enough for it.”
By 2006, Pandey was ready to move out of Ogilvy to test himself in a new environment. That’s when the move to Leo Burnett happened. “At Cannes, I met Nitesh Tiwari from Leo Burnett which incidentally was at a time when I was deciding what I wanted to do. Eventually the move to Leo Burnett happened,” he says. The fact that he has been with the agency ever since, he says, says a lot about how much he loves the place.
Since Cannes, it has been a steady series of wins for Pandey but he remains objective about the whole affair. “Advertising is not meant for awards. Awards are ‘by-the-way’. If people like your work then you don’t need a 30-member team to tell you that you’ve done a fantastic job.”
The R&D lab
He thinks of the awards ecosystem as a laboratory for developing creativity. He reasons, “Awards are like the R&D department of the ad industry. You try and experiment with things, you try and create things that in an ideal situation in a lab will be fantastic. There are lots of print ads that if shown to a consumer, there are chances he may not understand it. But something like that will pick up an award because the jury recognises that there is somebody trying to do something different and ahead of the times. Something that won in 2010, we’ll be able to see some work which resembles the thinking of the former in 2012 or 2013.
"It would’ve been nice if it would’ve been divided into a category of ‘work’ and ‘developmental work’ – work meant purely to exhibit creativity. Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen because the line between the two will always be blurred. I’d like to say that if you have to call an ad a scam ad then call a bad ad a scam ad. Because, a bad ad will do more harm to the industry and the brand than any scam ad can ever do.”
From Guru to digital
As for how he gets his nick name, he fondly recalls, “There was one radio spot that I did while at Ogilvy which some people heard and they liked it and in an agency as big as Ogilvy started noticing that there’s one boy who has written this. ‘Woh ek khade baal wala bachcha baithta hai udhar, usne likha hai ye’, they used to say. I used to have spiked up hair then.”
Since the last four years he has been trying to understand digital as a medium. “Digital is not a function but a way of thinking. Sometimes digital may lead and other times it may support your thought but it is indispensable either way,” explains Pandey. It's hard to believe that this was coming from someone who had to be instructed by former Leo Burnett creative head KV Sridhar (now with SapientNitro) to ditch his Samsung Guru and buy a smartphone.
He has moved, again.
(This article was published in the 20 March issue of Campaign India)