Close-Up: "Grey was like an underdog, and I love underdogs"

Malvika Mehra shifted to Grey as NCD after 16 years at Ogilvy & Mather. She talks to Arati Rao about her stint at O&M Bangalore, the past eight months at Grey and their big win of Reliance Communications in 2010

Jan 14, 2011 10:52:00 AM | Article | Arati Rao

Was advertising always the plan?

 Honestly, no. It was just that I was very fond of art and sketching as a kid, and my mom was very keen that I do something in a related field. Strangely, I was also very good at academics. I had just finished my eleventh at Delhi Public School, RK Puram, in Delhi, and I knew somebody who was teaching at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai, and she said, “If you’re so keen, why don’t you try for applied art?” So I tried and got in in the first shot; I left after the eleventh, and did my 12th through correspondence. Nothing was planned as such, I don’t plan too much. After the course, I was lucky enough to be hired at Ogilvy by Sonal [Dabral] the minute I got out.

What was your experience at Ogilvy like back in 1994?

 We were at the Churchgate office and Sonal was this mad guy. I remember when I’d gone to interview with him, I was waiting in this room and this dude walked in in a yellow t-shirt and with strange hair, and he asked to see my work. So I showed him my work, and I asked him, “When is Sonal coming?” and he said, “I am Sonal.” He still hired me, he seemed to like my work. I think Sonal was a great guy to learn from, he really made me work hard. There were times when I cried over artworks (I find that so silly now). But I was very passionate about my work.

I think the bunch that time was slightly different from the bunch now. I don’t think we bothered about money; we were just enjoying work and doing stuff for a pittance. It was great energy, it was a good vibe; I think we had more fun at that time.

The first few pieces as an art trainee are a lot of packaging, design and graphics, and finishing layouts for senior creative directors. But I used to be this very enthused cutlet. If it was a packaging brief, I used to go to Crawford and get these wooden moulds done, and the client would say, “Very nice, but we can’t afford this.” My first big piece was really a little ad I’d done for Asian Paints at Janamashtami. There was the ‘Mera Wala Blue’ campaign at that time. I had done this little blue Krishna for that and said, “Mera wala blue”. I showed it to Piyush and he said, “Why don’t you make it ‘Meera wala blue’?” I won the CAG award for that, so I was very happy. Piyush has always been there as a super anchor while I was at Ogilvy, and even now. Subsequently I did stuff for Dove and Cadbury’s.

When did Amit Akali and you team up?

I never really had a fixed partner – I worked with Sumanto [Chattopadhyay] for a bit, and Manoj Shetty for a bit. One day, back in 2004, I told Kinu [Abhijit Avasthi], it’s nicer if I get a group of my own and I’m sure I can do better if I get a little more responsibility. He asked if I wanted a partner, and I didn’t mind if there were people who were willing to work with me. He knew Amit from earlier days and he asked us to meet for a coffee. Both of us are, in a strange way, very different. He talks a lot, and the first thing I thought is, “This guy talks a lot, I’ll go mad.” But our sensibilities on work are very alike. Today there are very few teams left, Raghu-Manish [of Scarecrow] is one that comes to mind. Amit and I just happened to do some good work together, so we stuck around.

What brought on the move to Bangalore?

I think Piyush is very sharp and thought both of us could do a little more than what we were doing at Ogilvy Mumbai, after the ‘Surprisingly SBI’ campaign. We didn’t go in the best of circumstances. Mahesh had just passed away and Rajiv had to come back. Piyush asked us to come to his cabin one day, and I thought it was because we’ve screwed up or fought with some client. He asked us if we wanted to go to Bangalore, and my first reaction was “Are you crazy?” But after five minutes, I wondered why am I saying no? Amit and I both decided the minute we walked out to just take up the offer.

How was the Bangalore ad scene?

 I thought it was super. When we landed, it was very different from Mumbai, in the sense that it was very chaotic, because the circumstances weren’t the best. It’s not very easy sometimes to accept a sudden new team coming in and replacing your boss who you’re very fond of. Mahesh and Rajiv’s shoes were very big shoes to fill in; I completely love the work that they’d done. We were under a lot of pressure, maybe more in our own heads. It was a little daunting, but you have to give a place some time. Piyush let us make a few mistakes, and soon we were absolutely okay. You just learn a lot of human skills. I think both of us grew up professionally and personally in our heads, because the buck stopped with us, and we couldn’t be the ones throwing the tantrums, because somebody else was doing that. If it wasn’t for Bangalore, I don’t think I’d have become NCD at Grey.

So how did Grey happen?

 We were very lucky to have got a client like ITC and Bingo, and got to do some good work on that. Then in the first year, we picked up the Campaign Of The Year Award at the Abbys for Ranga Shankara. It was such a high, and you realise there’s talent everywhere. This whole thing of the talent being only in Mumbai is a whole lot of crap: it’s an excuse for lazy creative people. I think you automatically get importance if you’re doing good work. Good work will shine wherever you are.
We finished about three-and-a-half years, and we were getting very comfortable in Bangalore. With me I had some friends there, but it was just some restlessness that set in. If something else had come up even within the Ogilvy system, we would still have continued. One fine day, I got a call from Anju [Kurien], who said, “Why don’t you meet our worldwide creative director Tim Mellors?” I said, “Are you crazy? I’m an Ogilvy girl and I will never leave.” So I asked Amit, and he said “Let’s go meet him, he’s in The Copy Book after all.” We met him in Mumbai (we were there for a shoot) and he’s a very nice person. We talked more about life than advertising. He asked us how long we’ve been with Ogilvy. I was 38 at the time and I’d been there 16 years. He said, “Get out now, and see what there is outside.” It just hit me like a ton of bricks that if I don’t get out now, I’m never going to get out. So it was more to just throw myself out of the comfort zone.

What’s Grey been like?

 When we came, we knew there was a little baggage with Grey: it didn’t have the best creative reputation, it had creative directors who came and went (it had peaked during Raj Kurup’s time when the agency picked up some awards), and it had gone through a lot of churn. So it was a little daunting in the beginning. Also, we inherited a team, of whom some were fantastic and some were okay, but I realised sometimes people just need a little guidance. We were lucky we got a team who were willing to accept us and give us a shot. We didn’t lose too many people, but we didn’t hire crazily till Reliance Communications came in.

For us, it was going from a team in Mumbai to an office of 50 creative people in Bangalore and then to something that’s bigger and included Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai. The first thing that hit us was the travel. The first few months were a little crazy, because we were trying to get a grip of every office and yet solve the problems. Eight months down, we’re fairly settled, and that gives a lot of satisfaction. Picking up Reliance was the biggest kick; we were thrilled.

Also, when we first came in, Grey was pitching like mad. We reached a point where we told Nirvik [Singh], we need to slow down a bit. The idea is to pitch for 5 things and win 5, and we proved our point when we won Reliance.

Tell us more about the Reliance pitch.

 Even if we hadn’t won it, it was one of the best experiences for me pitch-wise personally in my 16 years. It’s a very tight team at Grey Mumbai and it was crazy how we worked on that. Amit and I joined in May and by the end of May we were briefed on this creature called Reliance. We knew it would be a long haul, and all the biggies, including Mudra were there. And Grey was like an underdog, and I love underdogs. The good thing is we went with one campaign every single time, and there were close to 10 rounds. I think what worked for us is that we were very consistent and very dead sure that this is what we wanted to do. The eighth or ninth time, they asked us for an option and we had something up our sleeves, which was already ready. And when they saw both of them, they decided this was what they wanted. It was a great thing for the agency, after three months of pitching. We came back to office and there was dhol and everyone sitting on the terrace and drinking. The campaign should be on air really soon.

Is there anything you’d still like to work on?

 I’m happy working on anything. When we got briefed for SBI, I was like it’s one boring bank. But it’s really all in the head, there are always ways to make things sound interesting. This whole clichй of women should work on cosmetics, and diapers is crap, because I honestly don’t think I’m very good at those. Having said that, I really enjoyed working on Bingo and Vodafone in Ogilvy, and here I’m happy working on all of the businesses.

Are you gunning for awards in 2011?

 Yes, we are. But for Amit and me, the biggest thing is to set the brand work right. I’d rather do work on a Bharti AXA and Britannia, which is better than what’s been done in the category, than pick up a Lion. Of course, we’re hoping to convert some of the brand work into awards.


Britannia Cakes - Grey 2010 Amit and my first attempt at a jingle and our first release at Grey. It will always be special.


Bharti Axa Insurance - Grey 2010 The idea came from the junior most writer in the team and it goes to prove that no idea is too small. Just keep your eyes, ears and heart open.






Click on image to enlarge

State Bank of India - Ogilvy Mumbai, 2005 One of my bigger campaigns after a lot of one offs. And the reason behind Piyush gifting us Ogilvy Bangalore. Will always be grateful for this.


Hutch Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival '06 - Ogilvy Bangalore 2006 This picked up Campaign of the Year at the Abbys that year without us even entering it in that category. It was an ambient piece, not even a film but the judges gave it a wild card entry and it won. It’s my most precious underdog till date. And it proved two things for me. 1. The idea comes first, the medium comes second. 2. Mumbai is NOT the mecca of Indian advertising, the mecca is where the idea is.





Hutch Bingo! - Ogilvy Bangalore, 2007 The stars had really aligned for this one. I had the good fortune of working with the best writers, servicing and planning partners, the best directors and of course the best client on this. Never had so much fun on any other brand as I have had on this zany one! Now of course, it is competition. The ironies of life. Sigh.






Vodafone Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival '07 - Ogilvy Bangalore 2007 What does one do if there is a font restriction on a brand and your whole campaign is copy led? Simple. You design the typography to look like illustration!


Vodafone Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival '08 - Ogilvy Bangalore 2008 We had very little money but a lot of gold paint! Suresh Natrajan added his Midas touch and this got something somewhere in Craft for Art Direction I think.



Vodafone Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival '08 - Ogilvy Bangalore 2008 Again, no money. But a good paint job I thought.


Canara Bank - Ogilvy Bangalore 2008 Brushed up on my Punjabi before writing this with Amit.


Fortune Cooking Oil - Ogilvy Bangalore 2009 We shot this in the kitchen of the Dean of Welham’s Girls School, Dehradun. Why? Ask Shivy!


Titan Raga - Ogilvy Bangalore 2009 Upped the sensual quotient on Raga, the collection sold out. Job done.