From a double major in mathematics and economics, how did you end up in advertising?
Advertising was not a part of the plan, in fact I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was enrolled in a work-study program at Berea College, Kentucky, where I did multiple jobs on campus. I started off as a waiter at the college hotel, a tour guide and later as a mathematics teaching assistant. Thereafter, I did an M.Sc. in applied mathematics. My father used to be a professor at IIM and had advised me to do an MBA. So, I did an MBA from McGill University, Canada. During those days, we studied an introductory course on advertising and I found that fascinating. In my last term at McGill, I wrote a slogan for French Tourism for a competition and won. It further encouraged me to be associated with ads. Having spent close to eight years in North America, I came back to Kolkata (my hometown) in 1992, and joined Ram Ray’s agency, Response, as a trainee copywriter.
How was the experience of working with Ram Ray? Which brands did you work on?
Ray was an agency head but he was heavily into creative. He taught me the basics of copywriting: “Try to cut every word you can, without changing the meaning.” It has stood me in great stead. At Response, I was handling brands like Dabur Nature Care, Jenson & Nicholson India and American Express. I did a lot of print and direct marketing (DM) and less of TV, given the prevalence of the former two mediums in the market. Doing DM had its own advantages; it gave you instant feedback on your initiatives and it’s a good thing to learn from during your initial years in advertising.
When did you decide to move to Ogilvy Kolkata?
Response was a Kolkata-based agency and I had realised that to make a career in advertising, one has to be in Mumbai. It was around the same time (1993) that Piyush Pandey was starting to get famous. It drew me towards Ogilvy and I joined Ogilvy Kolkata after working for a year at Response. There, I got my first taste of working on a national brand like Asian Paints. Soon after, I met Piyush Pandey and asserted that I wanted to move to Ogilvy Mumbai. I had also approached Rediffusion and Trikaya Grey, the hot agencies in Mumbai at that time. Rabia Gupta (founder of Rabia Gupta Designs) from Trikaya Grey advised me to join Ogilvy instead, and said, “The future lies with Ogilvy”. How I thank her for that advice!
You were handling brands like Dove very early on in your career. Is advertising for Unilever’s brands any different?
I used to work on Dove with Rajiv Menon (cinematographer and film director). Now, Dove used testimonials of real women and Menon taught me the art of making a woman, who has never been on camera, feel comfortable. I have worked on a lot of other Unilever brands like Pond’s, Lakme, Comfort and Huggies. Unilever advertising is very different. It works on a measure of effectiveness. Millward Brown does a second-by-second break up of all these ads to observe when the interest levels went up, and only then will an ad pass their test rigour. These ads may not necessarily win awards, but if you only want to do award-winning work, you can’t really work on Unilever brands. I wear a different hat when I go for a Unilever brief. When you are young, winning an award means everything. Gradually, you realise that the efficacy of your adverts is highly critical. Because advertising can kick you in the face if you spend a crore on it and it doesn’t work.
Staying with the ‘kicks’ - you have an inclination toward martial arts, theatre and modelling. Does it have any influence on you as an ad professional?
I have always been into fitness and that’s how I learnt Capoeira (Brazilian martial art) a few years ago. It has introduced me to another language, Portuguese. In advertising, you tend to mix with people from the same fraternity but Capoeira has brought me closer to people from all walks of life. Capoeira is also about surprising your opponents, just like advertising is about always doing something unexpected.
Theatre has fascinated me from my graduation days. One of my first assignments after joining theatre was a play reading I did with Gerson da Cunha. It has taught me various aspects of stage sets. That always helps when one is shooting an ad. I had started modelling during my initial years in Mumbai because it paid well - as compared to what advertising paid someone at a nascent level. It gave me the opportunity of working on both sides of the camera. All of this has had an indirect influence on my advertising skills.
In addition to your role in Mumbai, you are also involved in overseeing Ogilvy Kolkata and Sri Lanka (Phoenix Ogilvy). Any work in particular from these markets that you are proud of?
Phoenix Ogilvy and Ogilvy Kolkata are the only agency offices from their respective regions to have won at award shows. I am really happy with the on-ground activation campaign we did for Iodex in Sri Lanka (Gold at Adfest 2010, Bronze at Goafest 2010). We placed Iodex packs on lower shelves in stores. We had dwarfs distributing leaflets, informing customers that they would help fetch the Iodex if their (customers’) back aches didn't allow them to bend down to get it.
In addition to that, there have been interesting campaigns done by our Kolkata team like the Lafarge campaign (won 10 metals at Goafest 2007). We have also won the pitch for ABP recently and interesting work is about to come out on the Bengali tabloid that they have announced.
Talking of launches, you worked on the launch of The Economist in India… Tell us about that campaign and some of your other popular campaigns.
When we got that brand, everybody had huge expectations from us. The first few ideas we presented to the client (who was UK-based) were based on ads we had seen in the past, which had won awards. The client said that it looked like the advertising they did in the UK in the 90s. Then we delved deeper into the brief to create effective creative pieces of work that would work outside our circle - for people who don’t even know about the magazine. The results were terrific. The subscriptions for the magazine soared considerably.
I have also worked on the Tata Steel campaign, where we worked with documentary film-makers (non-advertising people, so to speak), which was highly acclaimed both by the client and the fraternity. I also did an adoption awareness campaign for IAPA where Rajiv Rao was the art director, which touched many lives and won an international award.
Each campaign that I have worked on so far… sometimes it has won me awards, sometimes it has revved sales figures, sometimes it has just made the client smile. There’s always a new challenge and a new lesson to learn from it. You just have to align yourself in a particular way and I am perfectly happy doing that.
A word on how Piyush Pandey and Neil French influenced you?
With Piyush, it’s all about not getting complicated about anything. Simplicity, observing life and connecting to real life emotions, real life people - that’s his mantra.
What Neil French taught me was that I need not get clever with my layouts. He would always advise you to reduce the number of elements in your print advert. “Count everything as a unit – baseline, headline, body copy, visual. Put only what is required,” he would say. I keep pointing this out to my juniors now. Neil introduced me to this book titled, ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’. It was nothing short of a primer for copywriters.
What is that one thing that can lead you into quitting advertising?
I take advertising as my home. Every time there’s a pitch, it charges me up. And I also love nurturing creativity in other people. Leading people and being the leading edge of a brand and a team keeps me enthusiastic. But the advertising business is constantly changing. The day I am not be able to cope with those changes, I might quit.
A word of advice for the new entrants in advertising…
Don’t give up too easily. Don’t take hasty decisions on whether an agency or advertising itself, is working for you or not. The initial part of your career is about learning, not about money or promotions. Also, from my experience, I would like to share that I got a lot of offers to work abroad, but didn’t take them. I will suggest youngsters to do take such opportunities. It exposes you to wider markets.
The Economist ‘Football’ TVC When you read The Economist, you can make connections that elude the less informed. With a promise like that, no wonder The Economist has doubled in circulation in India over the last five years.
Huggies ‘Shadow’ A baby kissing its mother’s shadow. Impossibly cute? Almost impossible to shoot! (This baby’s onscreen charm and performance rivaled even those of his co-star Kajol.)
Pond’s Pure White Facewash ‘Yoga’ A face you can fall in love with – wherever in Asia you are from. (Creating advertising that works across the region is a challenge all its own.)
Press ad for IAPA, the adoption agency A role reversal can open our eyes to the true beauty of a bond – such as the one between a child and its adoptive parent. Thankfully, attitudes have changed and many Indians are opening their arms to adoption.
The Economist When you read The Economist, you can make connections that elude the less informed. With a promise like that, no wonder The Economist has doubled in circulation in India over the last five years.
Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped Sometimes a person you think of as disabled is, in some ways, more able than you. The boy in the film (who is visually impaired in real life) demonstrates this beautifully.its own.)
The Deccan Odyssey – the ‘palace on wheels’ of Maharashtra Tourism (Poster) Long copy written by hand. Truly enjoyable albeit a bit messy – just like eating a mango can be. (This series of posters was turned into art prints and found its way into coffee table books.)
Videocon AC ‘Clinic’ TVC There are so many things that can make one’s blood boil. For the sake of your health, stay cool!
The iFold initiative Just fold the letter you are posting an extra time and you can use a smaller envelope. Simple, isn’t it? Effective too. Vodafone and other companies are saving trees through this initiative.
Videcon Washing Machines I wish we could really deal with corruption this easily. India would be a cleaner place!