Tell us about getting into advertising.
It was by sheer accident. At St Josephs Arts & Science College in Bangalore, I was majorly into sports. When I had to stop cricket for a year, that was in some way providential because that’s where I discovered music. I was also an active part of the Bangalore theatre scene, and by the end of college, I was president of the cultural society.
When I finished college, I had done pretty well, much to the surprise of the fathers. My history lecturer said, “You seem the creative type. I have a friend who owns an ad agency. Would you be interested?” I joined Graphic Arts at the princely sum of Rs 325. I was a general dogsbody there. After that, I did a one-year post graduate course in mass communication from Bangalore University. That's where I became interested in film. I went to Clarion as an intern for three months, and since they couldn’t absorb me, I joined Parade Advertising as an account executive.
After a year or so, the numbers started coming in. I’m pretty good at dealing with human beings, but when it came to the financial bit, I went bonkers. I just quit. Ravi Achan, who was the copy chief at Clarion, had been pretty impressed with me during my internship. He asked me to join as a trainee copywriter in 1986, and that’s where I think my career really began. The first piece I wrote was a 16-page brochure for the Karnataka Milk Federation to be written in 24 hours. After that there was no looking back.
You’ve spent the bulk of your career split between Clarion or Bates and Mudra. What is the difference in cultures between these agencies and what drew you to them?
Clarion was an institution in those days. When I was there, it was at number 2 and lots of leaders of Indian advertising today have passed out of Clarion. It had solid processes and it was an excellent people’s place. By the time I joined Bates, the culture set up by Kiran Khalap and Ajit Varma continued the Clarion tradition of having human values, even though it was extremely competitive and hardworking.
Mudra, on the other hand, was growing like crazy when I joined in 1989. And Mudra gave you opportunities like no other agency at that time could. You were just thrown in – it was sink or swim. There was a lot of chaos and passion, and there were lots of youngsters who were raring to go.
Which were the early creatives you did that you remember?
Walter Mendes came and said there was a brief for a new range of ice creams from Kwality Walls. The range was youth-oriented, but the brand was seen as fuddy duddy. He told us to change the brand image overnight from a 60 year old man to an 18 year old dude. Ashok Karnik, who was in art, and I were to work on it and in those days, the concept of teams was just creeping into Indian advertising around 1990. That’s also where I picked up the value of a great creative director – which is to inspire the team and pick a gem from the ideas presented that the creative guys don’t even know about. We decided to come up with a phrase “Go bonkers” and we sat and wrote a jingle and AG Krishnamurthy loved it. Leslie Lewis composed the jingle and it became a big hit.
You mentioned your interest in film developed in college. Was it difficult making the leap from print?
I and a lot of others in my generation were on the cusp – we had print but television was already in. Cinema was big and we grew up watching a lot of it when we were kids. Therefore, by the time we got into advertising, we were fairly literate with the film medium. If my daughter gets into advertising, the internet is part of their lives. It’s not like there’s any learning curve for them.
I really became good at film in that sense, because it was the need of the hour. I attribute a lot of that to my growth also. There were other creative directors who were so print focussed that they couldn’t make the leap. Therefore, their relevance to the entire industry sort of diminished. But I still enjoy print, and that’s why it’s great to work on a brand like Volkswagen.
What’s it like to work on Volkswagen for an Indian audience?
One first had to understand the brand and the beauty is that there is no adaptation as such; we are given global guidelines in terms of the template in print (the legendary format was 60:40 for white space and the creative, which is what you see in the Helmut Krone layouts for ‘Think small’ and ‘Lemon’ ads. Today, the principle of white space is still followed). And then there is a tonality; a sense of understated wit, a sense of charm, and humaneness. These are the things we imbibed in the initial learning process of the brand. Today, we’ve really understood it. It’s now really about taking the brand to the next level.
The international ads being done for Volkswagen are very different and suited for each different market. If you go on Youtube and you just type in Volkswagen, any creative guy would get scared because the quality of work is so incredible and every idea that you think of has been done. That’s the first thing we do when we get a brief even now. There is pressure but that’s the price of working on an iconic brand.
Have you ever come across a perfect brief?
Walter’s brief really led to something. For a lot of the Volkswagen advertising also, the briefs are open enough to allow us to generate a wide spread of ideas and focussed enough to get it right.
So how do strategy and creative help each other? And where does retrofitting come in?
It’s a very thin line where if either tends to dominate, then it isn’t an ideal situation. The interaction between strategy and creative should be a free flowing, non linear process. If strategy becomes so watertight or demanding of creative that it doesn’t allow flexibility, it’s like wearing a pair of trousers that’s a bit too tight for you. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve agreed to a strategy and then struggled to find a creative idea to match it. Maturity and understanding are very important. Sometimes, when you open up the brief, something incredible happens which you wouldn’t have thought of in the first place and that's where strategy is rewritten for the creative idea.
As NCD of DDB India, Tribal DDB India, RAPP India and DDB Health & Lifestyle, what’s your view on convergence?
Mudra is one of the agencies that has gone beyond lip service. For a lot of our projects, the various teams are briefed together. They may, of course, put on their specialist hat, and from that you might get a different perspective coming into the melting pot. It’s just a question of adapting it. That’s why the concept of having a common NCD and planning head across the four units. ‘One voice’ is really what we’re talking about.
A lot of youngsters say there is no life outside advertising. How have you managed to club your job with being a part of two bands?
It’s absolutely ridiculous to say that. You just have to work harder. I have composed the music for a Bollywood film called ‘Bas Yun Hi’ and I used to wake up at 6.30am, Merlin [D’Souza] and I used to meet at 7.30, compose till 9.30, then I would leave for work and be there till about 8 in the night, go home for the rehearsal of my bands, play till 11pm, and do the whole process again and still have the time in the weekends for my family. Of course, there’s work but you can make time for things.
Volkswagen 'Polo' (2010) A humorous 'torture test' series of ads to underline German engineering. Made in India.
Volkswagen 'Innovation' (2010) A simple idea and complex execution to highlight the tricking down approach Volkswagen has to innovation.
Volkswagen 'Brand film' (2009) A little boy talks about his plans for the future while benchmarking Volkswagen's range of cars.
Virgin Mobile 'Cop' (2007) An ad in the 'Think Hatke' series of a young biker playing on the sympathies of a cop by calling his 'Papa'.
Virgin Mobile 'Mahalingam' (2007) This one highlighted the 'earn for incoming calls' feature by creating a sleazeball called Mahalingam responding to a fake phone sex ad.
Virgin Mobile 'Goa' (2007) 'The first in the 'Think Hatke' series of a girl outwitting her parents to take off to Goa with her boyfriend 'Tensing'.'
Nokia 'Har Jeb Mein Rang' (2006) A film that beautifully communicated the message of 'cheaper' colour phones in an expensive fashion.
Tata AIG 'Tree of Life' (2004) A charming boy meets girl ad underlining the importance of thinking ahead.
Peter England 'The Honest Shirt' (1996) A brand that made no tall claims, but simply offered an 'honest to goodness' shirt 'honest to goodness' prices.
Kwality Ice Cream 'Go Bonkers' (1990) Created a younger, more appealing brand persona for Kwality Ice Cream virtually overnight.