Ananya Saha
Jan 21, 2016

‘At one level, you are Michelangelo, and at another you are a housepainter’: Nirmal Pulickal

Nirmal Pulickal, MD and co-founder, M&C Saatchi February, tells us about his advertising journey, the ‘industry-in-flux’ today, and the glory of awards

‘At one level, you are Michelangelo, and at another you are a housepainter’: Nirmal Pulickal
M&C Saatchi February India’s office does not sport any awards or trophies. However, that does not mean that the co-founder of the agency February has not won any. In fact, Nirmal Pulickal doesn’t mince his words to announce: “Hurrah for scams”. Because they helped him win several awards and get recognition from the likes of the One Show, the Cannes Lions and the D&AD, besides local metals.  They also helped him get a job in Singapore with Young & Rubicam, he reveals.  
Circa 1998
Pulickal is among the few who knew he wanted to get into advertising, and has also made it big. Having grown up in Bengaluru, he was tempted to do something different from the ‘regular’ engineering.
“It was those years when advertising was still considered a glamorous profession,” he reminisces. Keen to make money out of persuading people with art and words, he started his advertising career in 1998 with a short stint at Bates-Clarion. After 10 months, when the agency folded, he joined Contract Bengaluru as copywriter.
“Joining Contract was probably the best decision in my life because that place taught me how to
make good decisions,” he says. He claims that the agency could give Trikaya Grey and Rediffusion a run-for-their money. Pulickal was excited to join people like Ravi Deshpande. Two short stints in Bengaluru – at McCann Erickson and Ogilvy & Mather – followed.
In 2001, he met Josy Paul who was starting RMG David. He joined as associate creative director at the WPP-owned outfit’s Delhi office and spent the next four years at the agency. “When I was trying to figure my way in advertising, I realised that I really used to do well in the jobs where the list of people I had to take s**** from was really small. Josy gave me that freedom,” says Pulickal. He calls it his ‘people theory’.
At RMG David, Pulickal put together his own team. But after Rajiv Agarwal (then CEO, RMG David) parted ways with the agency, and Paul was moving out, Pulickal decided to take the next leap of faith. Armed with awards, thanks to “scam or whatever you choose to call it”, he secured a job at Y&R Singapore as senior creative. Even though he was impressed with systems and processes in the foreign land, and he delivered on account of winning awards, ‘it got boring’. The small scale of advertising did not stir him, and he started missing the buzz of Indian advertising. Around the same time, he got married.
Call it a personal or professional decision, he was happy to move back to the country with Wieden+Kennedy Delhi as ACD. “It was good to come back to work on Nokia, with a great bunch of people. But it got stifling after some time,” he recalls.
In 2010, he moved to DDB Mudra as ECD. Bobby Pawar had just joined Mudra, and the place turned out to be just as he had expected. This is where he met Gopal Krishnan, his business partner with whom he decided to launch February.
February 2012
“The longer game I had in mind when I moved from Singapore, going by my ‘people theory’, was that I wanted to start with my own thing. But I wanted to start it with a business partner who I could blindly trust. Gopal was the perfect person in that sense,” he notes. Thus, was born February. Named so because they started talking on 1 February, and the name had ‘a nice rhythm to it’.
“Also, it looks good in my favourite typeface Helvetica,” quips Pulickal. Another choice for the name was Saturday, but he decided against it because it might have given clients the impression that they work weekends!
Pulickal calls it a good time to start an agency. “Agnello Dias had started Taproot, and CLA had emerged. Clients have also realised that just because an agency has 1,500 people, it does not mean that creative product will be 1,500 times better. Ultimately, three people work on your brand and the rest is deployment. More often than not, most of the big agencies sell their creative product for nothing and make money on factory – wherein they monetise on using their equipment or studios,” he explains.
Given that ‘Delhi’s non-existent independent agencies’ churn out ‘dhandha’ kind of work, gave February’s team an impetus. Their first client was Blossom Kochhar, the cosmetic brand, which paid them a three-month retainer in advance. The agency broke even in the second month of its existence.
The agency has the stated belief of creating great work that works for its clients. “In the big bad world of advertising, you have to do three different options of logo by Wednesday and change the colour by Thursday because the client’s wife doesn’t like it. It is cruel but it is the truth. At one level, you are Michelangelo, and at another you are a housepainter. You are taking money to do something, and you have to agree to their specific needs. My philosophy is that I will show you my way and give it the best. And if you don’t like it, I will do what you or your wife wants as gracefully as I can because I am in the service industry,” Pulickal articulates.
Having spent close to 18 years in advertising, Pulickal wanted to bring fun back at work when he started the agency. “Over the years, advertising has become more like call centre work – it is about clocking the hours at office. When i joined, you had more fun at work than on weekends,” he underlines.
M&C Saatchi has been present in India since 2005. In August 2014, M&C Saatchi Worldwide acquired minority stake (20 per cent) in February. 
“M&C Saatchi clients merged with us. We inherited some good talent as well, like Anjali Nayar (president). We become more solid as a structure,” recalls Pulickal. What started as a five-member outfit has now expanded to a team of over 30.
The network has offered to pick up more stake when the duo wish to sell, but Pulickal wants the authority to say no – ‘the power that comes only if you are a majority stakeholder’.
“You need to have the power to say no, even if you need not say it. This is what I learnt in Mudra,” he adds.
Today the agency boasts of clients such as SBI, DLF, Godfrey Phillips India, Typhoo Teas, Blossom Kocchar, Panasonic phones, Avis Cars and Times Internet (Gaana). 
2016 and beyond
The only thing that February lacked was a digital team. “My KRA in 2015 was to set up digital, and we did so. We got a fledgling team led by Ananya Gambhir, former senior manager at Affle. And for every client that we win, our digital team wins three,” announces Pulickal. The agency recently added another floor to its office to accommodate the new team.
The agency still does not enter awards. “I don’t discourage young people to do it. They should do anything it takes to get ahead in the industry.  I did it. But I find it silly for the ‘grown-ups of the industry’ to chase awards,” pronounces the 39-year-old. He adds, “It is not commercially viable. Earlier you could do a clever line in December, and win an award. It is called December awards. Now, to win an award you have to start planning in January and make a case study, present measured results. It is serious money to put in behind your best creative people unless your client is paying for it.”
He further highlights the challenges the ad industry is facing worldwide, including in India. “Revenues have been falling for some time. The time when we used to get 15 per cent commission – we were an important part of the core discussion. Now, the creative agency is just a part of your bag of tricks. We have become vendors from partners,” explains the agency co-founder.
He also underscores how the shift in consumer pattern is shaking up things for clients. “We all are in a state of flux. Coke has been losing money steadily over last three to four years. People are cynical about advertising, they want to eat healthy, and opt for mass-produced cheaper, faster products. The manifestation of this with clients is – ‘make me viral’. Hence, the birth of hash tags. Long-term planning seems to be dead,” he quips, adding that brands like Zara, Mango and Apple still succeed without much advertising.
Pulickal talks about how Guinness has been consciously spending on digital for past few years. Yet, he points out that their study on effectiveness revealed that their most remembered tagline was, ‘Good things come to people who wait’. It was an ad they had last advertised on television 18 years ago.
“TV is certainly not dead, as digital evangelists would like us to believe, even though it (digital) has displaced some other mediums. TV is ironically the best way to create brand, if you have money,” he notes.
So what would be the creative’s prescription to win back the respect, dignity, and put fun back into the profession?
“Offering things of real value, and finding ways to monetise it from the client,” surmises Pulickal.
(This article first appeared in the 8 January 2016 issue of Campaign India)
Campaign India