I have not had a formal education in advertising. Whatever I have learnt, I have learnt on the job from my bosses, colleagues and juniors. Over this quarter century roller coaster that has been my career a few phrases stick in my head. These phrases or ‘lines’ as we call them in the profession taught me more about advertising and communication than entire volumes of text books could. These short, simple collection of words created epiphanies and took my education to the next level.
I used to work at Sista Saatchi & Saatchi, Mumbai in the mid nineties. One day I was walking past Rensil D’Silva’s cabin and he waved and called me in. 3-4 creative people were huddled around his desk peering thoughtfully at a layout. It was an ad for a Sony portable stereo system or a ‘boom box’ as it used to be called then. The client had bombed all headlines and everyone at the table was trying to crack one. The ad was targeted at teenagers and young people who were the primary consumers of boom boxes. Someone came up with, ‘Let the music that moves you, move with you.’ There was some nodding at that but we all felt it was missing something. Suddenly Harshad Sharma who was a creative director, and my boss then, walked into the room curious to know what everyone was up to. Someone told him the brief and he was silent for a moment. He then rubbed his face with one hand vigorously as was his habit, coughed his raucous smoker’s cough and said ‘Now you can disturb other people’s neighbours too.’ Then he walked out to find more amusing things to do. We were left gobsmacked. How effortlessly the line magnified the benefits of the product, mainly portability and loudness and how strongly the line was based on an understanding of the young person’s psyche. It may have taken Harshad 40 seconds to come up with the line but it was a lesson of a lifetime for me. It taught me how all ads need to be based on an insight and understanding of the person you are talking to. And how it needs to magnify the benefit in an interesting, relatable and entertaining manner.
Another line that taught me something new was written, happily, by my friend Satbir Singh. Now Satbir is a copywriter of the classical sort who writes the kind of English copy you want to lick off the page. But the line that impressed me most was the one he wrote for Red FM, a radio station, sometime in the early 2000s. Two words. In Hindi. ‘Bajaate Raho.’ This is advertising at its absolute best. It is a call to action to the consumers and it simultaneously positions the radio station as one with an irreverent voice that takes on people and institutions of all sorts and ‘bajaaos’ them if they step out of line. All using just two simple Hindi words. Apparently the line led to programming choices as well. And the radio station went from strength to strength. Amazing what two words can do.
Ashish Khazanchi is another friend of mine. He owns an agency called ‘Enormous.’ My conjecture is that he’s named it after his brain. An IIM Bangalore alumnus, Ashish is one of the most brilliant, and definitely the whackiest creatives in Indian advertising. But when he wrote the line ‘Isko laga daala toh life Jhingalala’ for Tata Sky I thought he’d gone overboard even by his standards. What does it even mean? Why Jhingalala? That’s just a nonsense word created for a Bollywood song. What was the consumer to understand?
But what do I know.
The line became a rage. It was unique. And Tata Sky reaped the benefits of being distinctive. The consumer enjoyed it. Children would keep screaming the line till their parents begged them to stop. Despite changing agencies Tata Sky has retained the line for more than a decade. And it is now part of advertising folklore. It taught me that consumers are intelligent creatures who enjoy being entertained. And while ‘Jhingalala’ might not mean anything the consumer knows it’s a good thing anyway. Besides it’s fun. And that, above all, is what advertising needs to be.
While the advertising lessons I learnt over the years from the magnificent Piyush Pandey would fill a book, one line sticks in my head for some reason. We had a brief from a financial company to do an ad for their loans department. It was a convoluted brief with numbers and percentages and it was not clear on who it was targeting. We were all struggling with it and were not getting anywhere. That evening Piyush happened to be in Delhi. I went to meet him and in his customary manner he asked me, ‘Haan bhai, Kya chal raha hai?’ I told him about this brief. He thought for a moment and said, ‘Hum loan dete hain, ehsaan nahin karte.’ How brilliant was that! In one stroke he cut through the bullshit and the unnecessary numbers and went to the core of the matter. People who take loans somewhere in their hearts resent the institutions they take the loans from. After all they are paying huge interests for the loan. And on top of that the institutions harass and fine them for the smallest delay in repayment. They feel,rightly so, that the institutions are not doing them a favour by giving them a loan and are doing so purely out of self interest. Piyush’s line addressed that head on and allayed the concern of the borrowers. At the same time positioning the client’s company as a different, more empathetic organisation.
Advertising has taught me a lot about life.
Above all it has taught me that words are the most powerful force in the world.
(This blog was first published on Facebook. Campaign India reached out to the author, Ajay Gahlaut, before republishing it.)