Your degree in college was a bachelor in pharmacy. How did advertising happen?
A medical rep’s job is a tough one. I did pursue it for a while, but it was too tough for me. Coming with a very feudal sense of majesty coming from an army background, it didn’t do much for my ego.
One had vaguely heard of advertising; to be very honest, without putting forth the fluff, I joined for the glamour. But once the mental kick started setting in, that’s when some sort of cementing happened. I started off in Kriti Communications, a small agency in Pune, as a client servicing rep, and started writing because there weren’t enough writers there. When I moved to Mumbai, that’s when I started working as a copywriter.
Writing did come naturally. You can always see the creative inclinations of a person in school and college itself. What took time was getting to be more versatile, which is being able to exercise as much fluency in Hindi writing as in English, being able to conceive and understand television (till date, I feel 70-80 per cent of creative people are television illiterate), and now of course the challenges of digital. While the skills remain very classical there (of film and print), understanding the medium is a challenge.
What were your learnings from your years in network agencies?
At all of the places, you learn about a few things that you must do and a few things you must never do.
Triton was in the midst of a spanking new creative reputation when I joined the place. It had recently opened shop, and Ali [Merchant] and Munawar [Syed] were some of the best known names in the industry. Yet that place never took off as expected. I’ve often wondered why. Then, I went to Trikaya Grey which had seen its heyday and, like the civilisation of Rome which was built by someone else and then the corruption and incestuous wrangling set in, it was in the midst of going down, from people who look for creative solutions to people who look to propagate the Anglo cult (Trikaya at that point was creating ads for the Malabar Hill drawing room and not its audience). Even as a young person, I could sense there was something that wasn’t correct here. I went to Leo Burnett, which had just bagged the Coke business at that time. Learnt a lot about people, how to treat them and how not to treat them.
Ogilvy, of course, was defining in many ways. I started winning awards from my second year itself. The mass market sensibility, which is very naturally me, was encouraged and celebrated for the first time by an agency. There came a time when I thought I must run my own show, so I moved to Ambience Publicis, which was an unmitigated disaster.
What made you decide to start your own agency?
I’ve always loved the creating part in advertising. But the politics, the fiefdom and the feudal wrangling had so gotten to me that I just wanted to do something else for a while (the normal clichйs from doing a film to writing a novel, and on a more serious note, I almost took a job as head of programming at a media channel).
But then I thought why not open a shop and do work that makes me happy at a personal level?
And that was the intent of starting Saints and Warriors. But once I got into the business and spotted the huge demand-supply mismatch, I realised how mismatched agencies were with current client cultures, and to let go of an opportunity like this would be criminal. If you see most agencies, the way they are staffed, structured and operate, it comes from a very Anglicised lineage. But look at entrepreneur businesses and others that are coming into their own; now everyone knows that if the India success story happens, it’ll be because of these businesses. Today, India’s probably one of the few countries in the world where the multinationals are getting good solid competition on the street from local FMCG companies; it doesn’t happen in too many markets. But I don’t see a multinational company ever being able to work with a Cavinkare or a family-run business. Now that flexibility one had. What was also fortunate was that one had the possibility to start and create a culture which would match these emerging businesses. Today, I’d like to think that, as far as Indian businesses and entrepreneur-led businesses go, we have the best calling card. Because you can sit down and discuss strategy, not the way the American brand management model has taught you, but by using astute common sense.
And how did the name come up?
In any creative guy worth his while who I’ve ever met, there’s always been an element of purity to that person. Good creative guys are nice people. So “Saints”. And “Warriors” because I haven’t met a successful businessperson who wasn’t aggressive. Hopefully, the right combination shall prevail.
What are the positives of being an independent agency that you love?
We all know the pace at which business in India is growing. Today, it makes more sense to be an independent than a network agency. Having said that, it doesn’t undermine the pain and effort it takes to build something in an industry where your produce is largely an emotional one.
Why does it make more sense to be an independent today?
First, the flexibility to take on any client, which does not mean you’re not battling alignments. But because India is becoming bigger and bigger, it’s no backwater for multinationals; it’s probably the main market. Indian managers are exercising the choice of who they can work with. Second, the kind of nimbleness needed for the market. If you’re reporting to London or New York or Paris, you can never be nimble enough to fully realise this opportunity called Indian businesses. Third, I do believe, and time will prove me either right or wrong, that the way the advertising business is structured, the way ad agencies are ranked, staffed, trained and “cultured” will undergo a change. Why will it come from India? Because the world doesn’t have a market as homogenous as India. We have clients like Danone in Germany who are simply amazed at the number of hours we put in, and the speed at which we conceive creatively and put activation activities into the market. I do believe to best realise this opportunity called India, we need to structure our agencies differently.
By structuring differently you mean…?
That’s a book by itself; it’s one of my favourite topics. But the classic ghetto compartmentalisation, in the name of being specialists, that will not stay much longer.
And the positives of being in a network agency?
For one, you sit and wait for businesses to fall into your lap.
You mentioned the challenges of digital. How do you keep yourself updated?
I read up every day at least 3-4 hours on it. The conclusion that I am arriving at is that no one really knows, because Indians have a different way of accepting and adapting to technology. The classic one is that we skip one generation of technology always. I don’t think the PC revolution is going to happen. We’ve already moved on to the mobile. There is no precedence from the West for this. This is probably for the first time that we’re going to have to use our own intelligence and figure out a way forward.
From all the years and the campaigns you’ve worked on, was there any that was particularly satisfying?
One of the biggest banes of this industry, despite having a very mature workforce, is navel gazing. There are campaigns that are celebrated because they fit a certain incestuous ritual and rhythm, and there are campaigns which really go out and make a difference and don’t get celebrated too much. A prime example (from outside my agency because it’ll sound logical and fair) is the campaign for i-pill. I would think it’s mindbogglingly fabulous. Considering it has built a Rs 60 crores brand in a few years, has the industry celebrated it? No. Does that make the campaign anything less than great? No. Take Amul innerwear. Considering the price point at which it is sold, it is completely in the unorganised market. We did a television campaign and the next day we could hear it on the streets. Overhearing someone talk about your work in a train or in a bus is a bigger kick than winning awards and is real.
Do you miss the thrill of award shows?
It’s such a tragedy because we had a very mature award scene in our country and then it got politicised and polarised to the point where if one set of agencies were taking part, the others would not. Enough of a proof that it was highly rigged and still is so. That’s why I don’t really miss it now.
Navbharat Times (2000): Literal translations of English phrases to drive home the fact that the flavour and impact of Hindi is special.
Amaron (2003): Claymation arrived in India with Amaron. By the time I left Ogilvy, every writer had an Amaron script he wanted to present.
Close Up (2003): With Levers it is not about producing great work but protecting it past the processes. This one got the country singing. Most think we spoofed Saigal's voice. It is actually CH Atma.
Sumo (2005): "Anjaan nahin hain duniya dari se, phir bhi dil ki sunte sunaate hain." I think I painted a bit of me in this one.
Videocon (2006): I can vouch for the fact that this is Pradeep Dhoot's all time favourite campaign.
Frankfinn (2007, 2008, 2009): Legitimising glamour for the small town girl. Frankfinn is perhaps the only aviation training business that has stood tall in the recent downturn
Amul Bodywarmer (2008): On a cold winter morning in Varanasi, when you hear street urchins sing 'thandi', life seems a little more meaningful.
Amul Macho (2007, 2008, 2009): The campaign that launched an agency called Saints and Warriors. Toing is today a phrase in popular culture. What more can one ask for.
Zatak (2010): Deodorants are the perfume of India. This one smelt of success the moment we began shooting it.
Skoda Fabia (2010): A rival marketing head summed this one up as "Finally a non blind spot in car advertising."