How did you get into advertising?
I had not planned for it. I was a gold medalist in Economics. I had a passion for writing lyrics and music. I thought I had the ability to become a professional singer, and decided to pursue that as a career. I took up music training for four years. Somehow things didn’t work out and I decided to try out advertising as a career, simply because I thought it’ll keep me connected to the world of music. I took a copy test at Rediffusion and got hired. So that’s how I got into advertising. Once I got into it, I got so busy that I didn’t get the time to focus on lyrics and my passion for singing.
What kept you going at the agency?
Rediffusion has been an agency that has always given a platform for youngsters to grow. When I was a a junior copywriter at Rediffusion, I wrote my first film for Airtel. I also went for the shoot which happened in London. What really excited me about the agency was the kind of opportunity I got personally at that level.
The agency did not follow a strict hierarchy unlike other agencies. So for me, Rediffusion was an agency that supported young talent a lot. Also, I was on the Airtel account and that kept me going at the agency. I went on to spend seven years at Rediffusion in my first stint.
Tell us about your experience of working on Airtel. And is it one of your most cherished accounts?
I was a part of the team which launched the brand in India, and I saw the brand grow over the years. It was an exciting account to work on; I’ve helped the brand grow, and I saw it grow each year.
You then got into writing for television (with Zee)...
Well, Zee was a client at Rediffusion. I had an idea for them, which I shared, and it so happened that they bought that idea. They wanted me to develop that idea and asked me if I could move on a secondment as a scripting consultant. The script which I had worked on was for a serial, for which I became the executive producer and script supervisor. It was a 30-episode serial. On completion of that project, I decided to get back to advertising. From there I joined Dentsu Marcom where I spent two and a half years.
What are the learnings you’ve picked up from Dentsu Marcom? It was a young agency when you joined...
Yes, when I joined, the agency had just been launched in the country. From that perspective, it was an action packed one year post joining. We pitched for many businesses, and our conversion rate was terrific. I joined Dentsu as the business head with my art partner. In its first year, the agency was one of the fastest growing agencies in India. Since we won a lot of businesses that we pitched for, I ended up working on multiple accounts. So the pace at which we were progressing was very fascinating.
One of the nicest campaigns that I ever did comes from Dentsu. The client was Suzlon, which is in the space of wind energy. They were so impressed with our pitch that they bought the campaign as it is – the way it was presented. Nothing changed. So that’s a moment of pride I still cherish. Ditto with IFFCO Tokio, a key client for us at Dentsu. Dentsu was really exciting. We were converting a lot of pitches into businesses, and there was a lot of great work which we produced.
Did the Dentsu experience help you raise your creative capabilities further? How was it working with the then national creative director Gullu Sen?
As I said, the overall experience at Dentsu was very exciting and satisfying. I learnt a lot on how to win businesses, how to deal in pressure situations, etc. Gullu taught me lateral thinking. He taught me strategic thinking, looking at the client’s problem and how to come up with solutions around that, because often great ideas fail in solving what we call is a client problem. You can do that only if you’re completely clued into the client’s business, if you know the category well.
From Dentsu I joined Leo Burnett. It was a short stint of 10 months. I helped win the Indian Express account at Leo Burnett where I got an opportunity to work closely with Santosh Padhi. Santosh would go to each and every branch and look at the work. He would inspire youngsters to produce good work. So the support system in terms of creativity was very strong in Leo Burnett.
What made you move on from the agency in just 10 months?
Well, I was on the lookout for a far more challenging assignment. I wanted to work with an agency where a lot more effort was required, where I could actually make a difference to the agency. I wanted freedom and I found that in Rediffusion. Since I had already spent seven years in the agency before, I knew it would give the right kind of platform – one which I was looking for. It really gives you the platform that is needed to do what you want to at the end of the day.
When you joined Rediffusion again, the agency was going through a tough phase where a lot of senior people moved out...
I joined Rediffusion when Sagar (Mahabaleshwarkar) was there. The changes in the management happened after eight to nine months of my joining.
How was it for you personally when there was churn at the top? Also, the agency lost key accounts Airtel and Colgate. Did that worry you?
Personally, it was not a big setback. I was focused on doing the best I could. Also, I wasn’t very, very aligned to people who exited, so it was business as usual as far as work was concerned. Professionally, the team had a lot of relationship with Airtel. In terms of business, we did make up for that.
Brands will come and go. It’s about your commitment to give the best work for a client that matters the most. And that is something we continue to do at Rediffusion. That doesn’t change. There is no point getting bogged down on a few unprecedented developments.
But what led to the exodus?
I would not call it an exodus. People move on and these kinds of changes happen in every organisation, in every category.
Does the agency still follow the path created by former bosses – Mahesh Chauhan and D Rajappa?
Yes, what Mash did was put the agency on the track of following an integrated model. He brought in various disciplines such as design, digital etc. to move away from just traditional advertising which was the industry norm then. He introduced the concept of collaborative working in the agency across various functions. That’s something we’re following even today. One thing which Rediffusion has done comfortably is, making this shift of communication. We’re not an agency who had a tough time shifting from traditional media to the way the world is today. It came to us naturally.
What’s your way of handling a client’s business? Do you draw upon resources from across the country or is it the case of different branches working in silos?
As a leader, I would always look to use the best resources available for a client. It doesn’t matter when a client wants a great design done and we feel that there is a better person to do the job in Mumbai or Bengaluru. We will reach out to the best person for that job irrespective of where he is based. Also, I like to focus on my team’s strengths rather than getting bogged down on a few things they can’t manage on their own. That’s something I’ve learnt from Minakshi Achan.
Sam Ahmed has the mandate to make Rediffusion a creative powerhouse. Will we see a lot more focus on winning awards? Is that going to be a challenge - winning awards and living up to client expectations?
Well, if it is a challenge, I would welcome that challenge. Last thing you want as an agency is to just remain in your comfort zone. What Sam has done is shaken up the agency and set the creative agenda internally, which is to produce fantastic work that will be noticed, which will win awards and at the same time do wonders to clients’ business. It’s been about two to three years that we we’ve been missing on the awards scene. The renewed focus would lift the overall confidence of the agency. Sam is giving us the liberty to think of great ideas. So as a creative professional, you can really explore your creative capabilities without worrying too much about clients’ acceptance of the idea… We know we have Sam who will back us as and when required.
Among the existing accounts that you’re overseeing, which of them do you cherish the most?
MTS, because we had pitched and we won the account. The first year we took it on, we gave it a whole new look in terms of really making it more relevant and relatable. It’s not about one campaign, it is about long term. Even Amway for that matter. Amway as a client – they’re really supportive and the third I’d like to mention is Paras. They’re going to come up with a range of dairy products. So that’s a brand again that has trusted us, and I see the potential in the brand. It has been in India for the past 50 years. We’ve done some good work on them, and are looking to build our relationship with them going forward.
I’m particularly fond of a long copy campaign which I had done for female infanticide and that got me the best writer award at London International Awards. This year at Cannes, we should have some stuff to enter.
Who are the people you take inspiration from nationally and internationally?
From our industry, I admire Prasoon and Aggie a lot. Internationally, David Droga, particularly his work on Bing’s Decode Jay –Z campaign. I love the way he doesn’t just stay relevant, but how he redefines relevance. Elvis Chau for his work on Samsonite and David Lubars.
Since you’re passionate about writing lyrics and singing, any plans to make the plunge in Bollywood, like a few other top advertising professionals?
I think every copywriter in advertising aspires to do something or the other with Bollywood, including myself.
I have a feature (story) which I’ve worked on. So let’s see how that pans out. Also, it’s been long since I’ve done an album. It’s something I will try to do now, and the first thing will be to look for a composer.
So yeah, I’ll be happy if these things work out well.
Amway "A humorous campaign on the sensitive issue of bad breath"
Paras Milk "Driving home the benefit of freshness"
LG "A demonstration of how technology can break down language barriers"
Iffco Tokyo "Muskurate Raho"
Femal Infanticide "A long copy that won at the London International Awards"
Paras Ghee "Using Jalebis creatively, the commercial celebrated India's achievement of 50 years"
Suzlon "Powering a greener tomorrow"