In October 2013, you set up Enormous with Ajay Verma and Vivek Suchanti. How did this move come about?
After a five-year stint at Publicis Ambience, I believed that it was the right time to set up an agency and scale it up. During my first attempt at setting up an agency (Index Communications, in 1995), I was very young and just had the arrogance of youth. To start an agency one must come in with a certain kind of experience and also have a much better world view on advertising and how it is going to evolve etc. This is the most perfect time for me to have done it. Firstly, I had gained a lot of experience. Secondly, it always helps if you have certain campaigns you have done, so that you can discuss them with people and prospective clients. This was perfect timing to set up Enormous. Ajay Verma and I had worked together earlier at Rediffusion and we were ‘thick as thieves’. His planning ability and business acumen is incredible and so it was a natural fit for us to work together.
I was very clear I didn’t want to own a garage shop. Being one meant it would be difficult for us to afford the people I wanted to hire and we would be scrimping on expenses and so on. I wanted scale and the fearlessness to do good ideas. If one is forever scared then you will do lousy work. I had a common friend with Vivek Suchanti. We decided to have a beer together and within two months we set up the agency.
What is the USP of Enormous? Why would a client pick Enormous over others especially since there are so many small and mid-size agencies?
There is this universe of Ogilvy and Lowe, JWT. They bring a lot of stuff to the table in terms of the creative product. They also have the wherewithal in terms of number of people required to service an account like Airtel or Vodafone. Enormous can take on any agency barring these three. And we wouldn’t be scared; there is a good possibility that our competition will be scared that we are in a pitch. A client really needs ideas that will turn things around for them.
I have a thing against mid-size agencies as I believe they have ruined the entire industry like nobody’s business. The big agencies are good, they are legit and are doing things under the sun and have earned it. You can’t say the same for the mid-size agencies because I don’t think they brought that much to the table for clients. Secondly, they started chasing the bottomlines so badly. All the top three agencies are very cash rich they have their self respect and dignity. The mid agencies have very little self respect, they short-sell themselves and get people in just because they need hands and legs. And you keep promoting them. These agencies kept talking of digital and new media but actually did nothing about it. They make the right kind of noises but don’t actually perform.
There has been a burst of indie agencies of late. Do they receive the same status as network agencies?
People talk with you with the same lens which they used when you were at a bigger agency. No one treats you like small-timers anymore. For this, all indie agencies owe a big one to Agnello Dias - he gave indie agencies the legitimacy of being a solution shop. Taproot did better work than most of the big agencies. A part of the respect indie agencies get comes from what we may have done in the past and that indie agencies provide viable solutions. In a way, it’s great the media has moved out of the whole agency system and all that an agency is supposed to do for a client is provide ideas that are giant killers. It can come from a hole in the wall and can come from a 24-floor glass-and-chrome building.
How did the move to advertising happen after an MBA degree from IIM Bangalore?
At that time (1993), it wasn’t unusual for MBA graduates to move into advertising as the salary difference between bankers and ad guys was not such a giant rift that you could not cross (if you were extremely passionate about advertising). Some of us did. And I can say that I have never regretted making lesser money than what I would have possibly made elsewhere. But today, if a person from Ivy League moves to advertising, then I would give him complete respect because I know what he must have given up and it wouldn’t have been easy.
I started out in client servicing at Rediffusion (Delhi) in 1993. The mid 90s were the magical times when there was so much buzz - now the forecasters keep talking of gloom and doom. It was a boom time with giddy happiness all around us, and everybody there was there for a reason as they loved what they did and had fun doing it. After two years, I moved to the creative side with my agency Index Communications, as I was more interested in writing.
At Index, the Moser Baer (storage media) pitch stands out in my memory. I went singlehandedly with just three ads in my briefcase while there were other agencies armed with big mock-ups of shop displays etc. Mentally, I knew that I didn’t stand a chance. At the beginning of the meet, I went in and told them, “I don’t have a big set up with me, but I have one idea that either you will love or hate.” This set up the meeting in a candid and disarming way; they saw the idea and chose to go with me. The concept was very interesting; it spoke of data failure instead of the functional benefit of the product, and this made it stand out.
How was your stint at Ogilvy & Mather?
However, my real initiation in creative happened in 1999 when I moved to Ogilvy - the temple of advertising. This was the most fantastic period of my working life. I had magical bosses like Anil Bathwal, V Sunil, Prasoon Joshi. At Ogilvy, people were so full of enthusiasm. It was a brilliant place mainly because the place was put together by the creative director and the management with a certain vision for the agency in mind. They knew exactly how they wanted the agency to be, they knew the DNA of the agency and knew that they were not there for crass commerce but to create magic. Hence, the DNA kept on replicating itself and therefore the people who got hired were looking in the same direction.
So if you have all the people looking in the same direction, enthused about the same goals - that’s when real magic happens. There, I worked on Dabur, Godfrey Phillips, Kelvinator, Royal Stag and Pulse Polio.
How was your second stint at Redifussion?
My second stint at Rediffusion happened in 2005 when I joined the Mumbai office as ECD. Some of the big campaigns happened during this stint. The ‘Jinga lala’ campaign for Tata Sky, launch of DNA newspaper, films for Indian Oil, Sugar Free, was all mainstream work that was being recognised in the industry and creating buzz in the market.
You spent five years at Publicis Ambience - one of your longest tenures....
In 2008, I moved to Publicis Ambience as NCD. It was the first place where I earned my gratuity! For me, Publicis Ambience was more memorable for the clients I worked with. Half of your work gets done if you have good clients. So if you have clients who will call you and ask for your help in creating solutions, one is really fortunate. Park Avenue, Citibank, Nerolac... all had the intent to work together. They respected your point of view and treated you like you are a part of the brand. They were even willing to change products if a good product idea came from the agency, like Nerolac’s ‘Healthy home’ campaign for instance. They were brave with a great appetite for risk. Himani Fast Relief, Nerolac’s 'Umbrella' campaign, Park Avenue’s face wash are all audacious campaigns we executed with the help of the client.
Who are your mentors?
Prasoon not only guided me to write but also told me how to conduct myself in this industry. KS Chakravarthy (Chax) was an outstanding creative leader and a pillar of support for me. Once I remember when I went to him unsure of the work I had done, he reassured me and said, “If it works, it’s your success; and if it fails then I am there no?” That’s incredible and one has to have shoulders mile long to develop such an attitude. I don’t think I have developed huge fortitude and magnanimity like that yet. It is a big deal and I don’t think there are too many people who can do that.
To be a good creative director you have to have a very good sense of art for you to help your team members and directors. I picked up a lot of in terms of visual crafting from Prashant Godbole when I was at Rediffusion.
Looking back at your career, what advice would you impart to freshers in advertising?
Expose yourself to as many influences as you can. If you don’t see the best of advertising, you do not know what you are up against. You have to know your competition. Do expose yourself to art and music along with advertising.
It’s incredibly hard to get a good ad out as it is dependent on so many people. Learn how to collaborate with the best people you can, and realise it is a team effort. Remember that between a ‘nobody’ and ‘star’ there is a difference of two commercials. So try and max every opportunity that you get. For the seven times you write a good script, only one of them will actually be executed in the form that you conceptualised. So give it your best every time.
What changes would you want to see in Indian advertising?
A lot of it would get sorted if people were hired at substantially more monies than they do right now. That by itself would change a lot. I think we screw it up by just taking hands and legs. Two years later, the person has to be promoted and before you realise it he is the branch head - and he is an idiot who was hired to write service reports. Likewise, in copy, somebody becomes a creative director but he was hired to just write leaflets and brochure. If you paid people a lot more than you did right now, you would hire better talent.
This industry needs to give a lot more back to creative than it does right now. They ought to have part ownership in the agency and should have a bigger say in how the agency is run, the kind of thought leadership, the vision of the agency and so on.
DNA Mumbai launch Newspapers are said to be the one of the toughest categories to break into. The launch campaign for DNA Mumbai created a big buzz and we had a brand even before we had the product.
Tata Sky ‘Einstein’ Was adjudged one of the top ten films of the year by a n English daily.
Nerolac ‘Umbrella’ Created a huge pull for the brand in a category where traditionally the market leader usurped the recall even for advertising done by any rival brand. Adjudged one of the top spots of last year by economic times.
Himani Fast Relief ‘Human machine’ The most ambitious film I have ever attempted. Won several awards from around the world and more importantly generated tremendous pull from trade.
Park Avenue ‘Soongh ke dekho’ While the category was screaming ‘chick magnet’ the buying behavior was determined by shop level sniff test. We had a great product and therefore decided to tap this purchase level reality.
Park Avenue ‘Recycle your face’ Didn’t too well in the market-place but still one of the ideas I thought broke new ground.
Bharti Axa ‘Working patient’ Fun campaign for an insurance product. A Gulzar song as the background score. Can’t obviously ever take it out of my reel.
Publicis Perspective Ads ‘Mountain’ This one won a Cannes Gold. Decided to go to Cannes just for a day (in the middle of a pitch) to collect the award.
Sanctuary ‘Everyday super heroes’ Won multiple golds in Abbies. One of the best Press pieces I have ever done.
Park Avenue Beer Shampoo ‘Get out of my hair’ A product promoted only through digital to give voice to the youth and their problems with moral policing. The fan base on Facebook jumped fivefold. Won the Integrated Digital campaign Gold in Goafest.
Ponds ‘Matra’ A blast from the past. But still a favourite because it was the first Hindi campaign to be featured in international award books.
Tata Sky ‘Grassman” Definitely one of the maddest films I have ever done. One of the first few campaigns to establish the Jingalala appellation for the brand.
Rotaract ‘Sari’ Won two Golds at Goafest. A pro-bono project done almost entirely in-house.
Bang Bang Was in D&AD and won a Design Lotus at Pattaya. Not bad for a writer.