Did being active in dramatics during your days at IIT Bombay lead, in some way, to your getting into advertising?
I used to write scripts and direct plays in college, but I didn't know anyone in films to get into the movies. When I was in third year at IIT, I did a brief project at RK Swamy Advertising (1995). I was fascinated by the way the writers functioned, wore informal clothes, and pulled pranks while at work. After graduating, I landed myself a software job at TCS. Three months into the job I realised software wasn’t my cup of tea. I applied to five leading agencies. Of those, Trikaya Grey and FCB-Ulka got back and the latter was more responsive. Perhaps Ambi (MG Parameswaran) and Shashi Sinha (ex-IITians) were curious to know who this poet from IIT wanting to be a writer in advertising was! After two 45-minute conversations each with Ambi and Yatin Hattangdi (CD at FCB-Ulka), wherein they opened me to the world of advertising and washed away any rosy pictures in my head, they gave me a copy test. I was terrible but I still got the job for they liked one of the few poems I had sent them. What I did for leisure at college finally got me a job in advertising.
How was the experience of working at FCB-Ulka?
I loved my work but finances had to take a serious beating when I left my well paying job at TCS. I was getting Rs 4,300 per month which was the standard pay-scale at the agency but I was barely hand to mouth. I started taking math tuitions to get extra pocket money but left it in two months because the kid was not interested in learning. So, the first year was a struggle but things became better after that. After doing the usual stuff like translating English copy to Hindi (since Hindi was my forte), doing leaflets and back of pack copy for four to five months, I was pulled into writing scripts for TVCs by Subhash Tendle, my immediate senior at Ulka. This was for Captain Cook. It was nice of him to have considered me because juniors normally don’t get such chances that early in their career. During my four-year stint at Ulka (1996-2000) I worked under four CDs - Yatin, Subhash, Harish Murjani and Subodh Poddar - and thus got a chance to work on many brands: Captain Cook Atta, Captain Cook Salt, Amul - the mother brand, Amul Ice Cream, Amul Malai Paneer, CEAT, Castrol, Double Diamond tea and Tata Indica.
Then you moved to Lowe and started at a lower designation...
I moved to Lowe as a writer in 2000. I was working as a creative supervisor (equivalent of group creative head) at Ulka. Priti asked me why I am willing to take a lower designation to which I simply told her that I want to learn advertising, and I don’t care about designations. I wanted to focus on writing than get caught up in managing people and stuff. I got into her group and the next three years at Lowe were fantastic. Balki, Priti and Pops (KV Sridhar) were terrific bosses. They would give us the leeway to make mistakes provided we learnt from those mistakes. Both Balki and Priti were fiercely protective of their people and they helped us do really good work. I was purely dedicated to Clinic Plus but Balki would pull us into a lot of projects. Hence, I also worked on Axe, LG, DSP Black and the Balbir Pasha campaign.
Any anecdotes you can recall for us from the time you spent with Balki at Lowe?
Balki is instinctive and impulsive. Once we were working on a Clinic Plus brief, which had to indicate that soap damage hair (so start using shampoo instead). I was grappling with ideas and Balki shared this simple insight of how in our country, mothers and daughters sit on the floor when the former has to comb the latter’s hair. Tangled hair causes pain, causing the daughter to distance herself from the mother, and become reluctant to combing. With shampoo, the texture would be smoother, making the process enjoyable for the daughter. It was a simple execution and it made me realise that one need not be clever when a simple idea is there for you to grab onto. There were many such times when Balki would think of such ideas and I would question myself as to why did I not think of it! His relentless passion for work has only grown the respect I have for him.
What is that one key lesson you learnt from Priti Nair and Pops, and one thing that you unlearnt because of them?
Pops and Priti taught me how to spot talent and nurture it. What I unlearnt, thanks to Priti, was that advertising is not about coming up with clever ideas; you should start with the brand first and think of the idea later. Most of us do clever advertising, thinking of a great idea and then fitting it to a brand. I interacted with Pops more often after joining Leo Burnett (LB). Pops made me see the power of global ideas. I opened up to international advertising after joining LB, under his aegis.
Is there an interesting story behind joining LB?
Yes. Before I joined Lowe, I had shown my portfolio to Chax (KS Chakravarthy) who was with LB. He liked my work and was keen on hiring me as well. Then one day he called me to tell me that there might not be enough scope for my storytelling skills to get honed on the brands LB would offer me. He left the final decision on me and within a week I was taken up by Priti in her team at Lowe. Three years hence (in 2003), Chax called again to tell me it was high time I joined him. It was difficult to leave people like Balki and Priti. I moved on because there were better opportunities at LB at that time. It took me quite some time to take a final call. I get attached to places and people. Perhaps that’s the reason that in my 15 years in advertising, I have worked with only three agencies.
How did you adapt to LB's new structure wherein you were one of the nine creative directors?
At LB, I was working with eight other CDs, namely, Kainaz Karmarkar, Harshad Rajadhyaksha, Paddy (Santosh Padhi), Russell Barrett, KB Vinod, Mohammed Tala, Nishant Gangadharan, Sharmistha Mukherjee and I was solely responsible for two brands - Glucon D and Tide. From a secure environment, I found myself in a place where I was accountable for everything good or bad related to these two brands. But we had Aggie (Agnello Dias) and Pops to guide us if we had any trouble. At LB, the applause and appreciation that I have got for my work has given me a constant high. It means a lot more than any monetary rewards or senior designations.
How would you describe the experience of working on brands like McDonald’s and Kaun Banega Crorepati?
Your job becomes difficult if you have to say the same thing the tenth time in a refreshingly different yet relevant manner. That was the biggest challenge on any of these campaigns, be it McDonald’s or Kaun Banega Crorepati. Take the Happy Price Menu, for instance. It’s been there for quite some time now. How do you reinvent and present the same menu is the challenge. With KBC, the previous agencies had done a fairly good job of communicating everything that was there to be told about the show. What else do you say? Then you come up with koi bhi sawaal chota nahin hota, and then koi bhi insaan chota nahin hota. After these two campaigns, people are expecting what’s next. That eagerness motivates you.
Have you ever thought of quitting advertising or setting up your own creative hotshop?
The thought of quitting had crossed my mind when I had taken leave to make Chillar Party. When I came back I realised I am too much in love with advertising. As for going independent, hats off to those who have, but I can't. I find people management extremely difficult. I am a writer at heart and happy being just that.
A word of advice to young adlanders?
Be nice to people on your way up, for you will be meeting the same people on your way down. You will also have juniors. You’ll also have to accept and reject ideas on a daily basis. Don’t be unreasonable. Be fair; be right when you are dealing with rules. It’s all going to come back to you sooner or later.
On the most memorable and hard fought pitches...
“Balbir Pasha at Lowe and Reliance Mobile at LB were my most memorable pitches. We created Balbir Pasha at the last minute and it's the only pitch I was a part of where everything presented was taken up. Reliance Mobile was the hardest fought pitch.”
One thing he would want to change and one thing he would never change - about Leo Burnett...
“One thing I would want to change about Leo Burnett is the parking space. What I'd never want to change is the people at LB.”
He admires Steven Spielberg and Big B. On the equivalents in the ad world...
“My love for ad professionals is restricted to Indians. My Spielberg of advertising would be Piyush Pandey and Amitabh Bachchan would be R Balki.”
On feature films vs advertising...
“Chillar Party was the biggest assignment of my life so far. I do like feature films more than advertising. Both come with different set of challenges in terms of scope of expression. None allows you to be self-indulgent.”
On best and worst work , so far...
“Koi Bhi Sawaal Chota Nahin Hota is the closest to my heart. I'm really proud to have thought of it. I don't hate any of my work, may be the term 'Double Dhamaka' that I came up with, for Zee Cinema.”
KBC Akbar ka baap “It’s not easy to refresh a game show about which everyone knows everything. And it’s a great feeling when the solution happens to be an idea like 'Koi bhi sawaal chhota nahin hota'.”
KBC Shukla Ji “The biggest challenge was to take “Koi bhi sawaal chhota nahin hota' to the next level. 'Koi bhi insaan chhota nahin hota' managed to exceed our expectations.”
McDonald’s Boy Friend-Girl Friend “It effortlessly communicates the affordability of McDonald’s Happy Price Menu in a very charming way.”
Reliance Mobile Apun Ka Sapna “Cracking a fresh idea on cricket is the most daunting task in this country. Little cricketers with their little dreams tied-in beautifully with the fact that though T20 World Cup was a shorter format of the game but our expectations were as high as ever.”
Chocoliebe Broken Arm “I always wanted to tell a story without any spoken words, I am glad I managed to write this one.”
Reliance Mobile Bol India Bol “It was a very different take on the oft repeated promise of cheaper call rates. And it had a great mass connect.”
Heinz Ketchup Housewife “A promise of a thicker ketchup communicated in a way like never before.”
Bajaj Fans Face “This is probably the best demo film I have done so far.”
HDFC Life Singapore “It’s the kind of relationship I would like to share with my wife when I grow old. And hopefully many more husbands like me feel the same way.”