Tell us about how you got into advertising.
Actually, I’m quite the non-advertising guy entirely; I never came here by choice. I’m a physics, maths and computer science graduate from St Joseph’s College of Arts and Commerce in Bangalore, and I had no clue what I wanted to do when I finished in 1996. So I sat around for a year doing nothing, and then someone told me of an advertisement for some agency that’s looking for something called a copywriter, and said that since I used to write some stuff for college, and was part of the college creative team, so why didn’t I just go and make some money there. So I walked into this tiny little agency called Renaissance Advertising (they used to do ads for Mahindra dealers in Bangalore), and they asked me to take a copy test. I said, “Of course”, without a clue of what it was. It had all the usual strange questions like “Find 50 uses for a toothpick”, which I filled out while sitting in the reception. I went back to the guy after half an hour, and told him I’d finished, and he said, “No, you’re supposed to take it home, and come back with it.” I was in a hurry to get some money, so I submitted it in any case, and they called me some two weeks later and offered me the position of trainee writer. I asked him how many days of the week they worked, and when they replied five days, some light bulb went off in my head. They decided to pay me some pittance of a salary but it seemed great back then. I started the same day.
Why did you choose JWT Chennai versus a bigger agency in Bangalore itself?
I was there at Renaissance for about a year and a half. Then in 1999, I moved from Bangalore to JWT Chennai; I’d lived in Bangalore all my life (I was 24 then) and all my friends had begun to move out of Bangalore, so I thought I might as well find out what living in another city was like. Chennai was terrible, but JWT was fantastic. The first three months I felt I can’t live in this city, and I gave myself a year, but I ended up staying for seven years. It was largely JWT; I went there when Indu Balachandran was executive creative director, and working with her was fantastic because all this while I didn’t have a mentor. I would say 95 percent of what I know about advertising creative came from her, and from Joono Simon as well. JWT was a great learning ground; it wasn’t just a stepping stone into a larger playing field but it just surrounded you with wonderful minds.
What was the work you hold dear from there?
Trigger was great; at that time, it used to be a pretty iconic brand, and it used to be on television, and heavy on print. AshokLeyland was good, because strangely all through my career, I’ve worked on automobile brands (first Mahindra, then Ashok Leyland, Ford, Skoda and now Renault). Then Ford happened. It was the first time I was working on a multinational automobile brand, and the team was fabulous.
So what made you move out?
I’d worked on every brand at JWT, but that wasn’t why I moved out. I would have continued working on all of those brands, but then, the awards happened. The Cannes Silver happened and then the Gold, and that was the best time for me to be at JWT. But I thought if I continue to stay here, I’m going to get a little too comfortable. Also the best time to move is when you’re at your best. I was in this global network of JWT, with all the resources available, and I thought maybe the next big thing, where I would be pushed and challenged, would be a place that wasn’t part of a big network. That’s when Law & Kenneth happened. I came down to meet Anil Nair in 2006, and I didn’t come with any expectations. So I sat with Anil, and I thought he’d really sell the agency to me, but he didn’t do any of that. We talked about life, and a little about work, and he didn’t even discuss my portfolio which I’d sent him earlier; and he just took me for a walk around (that time, we were on the ground floor), and he said what you see is what you’re going to get. It wasn’t a very large office, but everyone seemed to be smiling, and it just seemed like a place that didn’t bullshit you.
So I came here, and while I’d dabbled with FMCG personal care brands before, they threw me into ITC’s Vivel and Fiama. Here I was from having worked on Ford Endeavour and Fiesta and writing about “rugged style” and I was going to start talking about “gentle beauty”. But the way you sell a car to a guy, it’s exactly the same emotion with which you’re selling a shampoo to a woman; it’s just the other side of the coin.
When I came, we were bursting at the seams with work. It’s a good thing we all held it together, because after the first year, we just started growing. We were on the ground floor, and now we’re on four floors.
What did you feel about becoming national creative director?
I didn’t know what hit me. One day, I was senior creative director, and then Anil said, “You’re executive creative director now.” Responsibilities started growing bigger. I had to stop from working with just my team to the entire team at Law & Kenneth and then we started moving cities. Once Delhi started to get bigger, I started to share responsibilities across offices. At that point, Praveen [Kenneth] and Anil decided it was time for me to start using that role officially. Although, if you ask me, no one at Law & Kenneth takes their official titles too seriously. But we do take the responsibilities seriously. I’m very protective about ITC, even to the extent of being protective about Skoda that I worked on for four years. We really stop treating these brands as businesses in our organisation, and are very passionate about them.
What do you consider as challenges for the creative side of the business?
Increasingly, the problem all of us have is talent. With each passing year, the quality of talent is going down. They don’t seem like they work so hard at it; they just take it a little easy. There’s a little joke here that even though I’m tech savvy, I still write on a notepad. So there is the Microsoft Word generation, which is just going to auto spellcheck, and there’s the other lot that learnt to spell check by reading the body copy backwards.
The first thing I want to see in people is enthusiasm. I don’t care if you aren’t a winner, as long as you try really, really hard to be one. The second thing is don’t ever shut your mind from stopping to learn.
Do you miss the awards scene?
No, I don’t miss it because I didn’t actually chase it in JWT. We just turned the awards shows into another client, and decided to work on it that way. I used to say awards aren’t important but you should win some and say that. It’s not even about physically winning awards, but don’t stop yourself from doing work that is win-worthy. Then you’ll always see good work.
At Law & Kenneth, there wasa shortlist at One Show a couple of years ago, but we haven’t actively pursued awards. We need to get the agency to do it as a whole, not an individual thing. Our focus over the last three years has been on building the agency, growing and winning pitches, which is big for us, and getting the brands we want in. The next big thing is to produce award-worthy work.
From a creative and business point of view, I think “No fear” is the big thing for us. I tell my creative guys, don’t be afraid to say the first thing that comes to your mind when you’re sitting in a brainstorm and don’t be afraid to try something new for your brand.
What would be your plans for 2011 for the agency?
Account by account, we’re looking to up the ante on creativity. We’re doing it in a very focused way, starting with Hungama.com, and we’re looking at what startling work we can do that will turn the brand around.
Fiama Di Wills Here's one of the reasons I have long hair.
Vivel One of my earlier brushes with Bollywood! Contrary to popular belief, I'm quite a Bollywood fan!
Trigger One of the earliest brands I worked on. It was some of the most fun I've had in JWT, working with the maddest bunch of people!
Red Cross One of my most memorable advertising experiences so far! Second only to the absolute inspiration of working alongside Joono Simon on this.
Radisson One of the many ads I've done that involved a fork! Winner at Communication Arts.
Skoda Laura Some of the things we planned on this weren't decent enough to air on television! And I think the moral police might arrest me if I told you why.
Hungama Again, I've been blessed with great clients in my career! We just couldn't stop writing films for this series!
Ford It's nice to know that we can laugh at ourselves in a commercial. It was nicer to have a client ballsy enough to run this.