What drew you to copywriting?
I wasn’t an ambitious guy, probably am not even now. I was more interested in having a good time than anything else. My dad wanted me to become an engineer, so I joined an engineering college in Andheri for a year and I wasn’t doing so well. I wanted to move from mechanical to computer engineering, so I shunted off to Pune. It turned out I was equally disinterested in that. I hung out with moto-crossers more than hanging out in class. After two years of doing that, I dropped out (my dad had passed away, and I figured this wasn’t my scene). I took up a BA in English literature, but didn’t know what I would do for a living after that, and I wasn’t particularly bothered either. A friend of mine decided to become a copywriter, and that’s how I got into the business as well.
What were the learnings from your stints at Tara Sinha McCann Erickson, Rediffusion, and Ogilvy in India?
I didn’t care about advertising before I got into the business. When I did get in, I wondered how hard writing a line or five lines could be, as I’d written essays for my English Literature classes. One of the things I learned at McCann was that everything takes time, and you just have to keep at it. In the beginning, I was told, “You aren’t a writer. Have you thought about account management?” My first creative director spent more time teaching me how to eat with chopsticks, than how to write. Fortunately, since I never did learn how to eat with chopsticks, I’m grateful he didn’t teach me how to write; sometimes you have to thank the lord for what you did not receive.
At some point, I fell in love with the craft of writing – I started going through the One Show books, and saw the great ads from DDB and they really spoke to me. I remember reading an ad for an airline called ‘My son, the pilot’ and I was in tears by the end. I started thinking that this is what I want to do – I used to be the person who would ghost-write love letters for people, make up stories that they could go tell their girlfriends and so on, and I liked the power that words can have.
From McCann, I went to Rediffusion. All the big writers left at about the time I joined. The average experience of the people who were left was about three years (I had one year at that time). We were running amok on so many big brands. That just taught me how to swim. One had to grow up really fast.
At Ogilvy, I was hired by Sonal Dabral. I was on Pidilite, Cadbury Perk, all the Tata Motor brands and so on. Sonal gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to; I came in to run a group of four or five people and that was interesting, since with some three years of experience, I was trying to mentor a writer (that was Ramanuj Shastry). I also learnt how to stand up for my s***; Pandey (Piyush) did not always agree with what I did, but once he saw that I had my s*** together, he gave me the freedom to do what I wanted as well.
Neil French became a mentor, and so did Piyush. I used to be a terrible presenter, and perhaps, am not the greatest in the world even now. I was always diffident about my ideas and Pandey helped me get over that by making fun of it all the time – he used to say, “If you want to get your idea killed, just tell Bobby to present it.” He taught by example. Neil was a different kind of teacher; sometimes he’d scar you so badly emotionally, you’d never forget it.
Tell us about the international stints.
Anil (Bathwal) and I were pretty well-known at that point. With some seven years in the business, I thought I can’t be as good as people are making me out to be. Before I started buying the hype, I wanted to find another challenge. I spoke to Anil and he was of the same opinion, and in 1999, after Cannes, we went to the US, and sent our work to Dany Lennon, a headhunter who’s very picky about who she represents. She liked us for some reason, and set up a meeting at BBH with Ty Montague. We went there, waited for an hour, were told he was in a meeting and somebody else called John would come and meet us. We thought we’d been blown off by Ty, and some junior was going to come in his place. Then, an oldish man walks in, and he gave us comments about all our ads, and we were whispering remarks about him to each other in Hindi. When we left, we heard the receptionist say to the man, “Good night, Mr Hegarty.” We just freaked out (in those pre-Google days, we’d never seen a picture of Sir John Hegarty). Any case, we got offers from three or four places, including Ogilvy New York. Frenchie (Neil French) was pushing us to go there, saying, “I’d rather have you in the tent, p***ing out, than having you outside the tent, p***ing in.” That worked, and we really liked Rick (Boyko).
It was obviously a bit of shock. Americans are far more disciplined as people. Office started at 9am; for me, that itself was a shock. Meetings would happen when they were scheduled to, and that became a part of me; till date, I can’t abide being late and other people being late either. The culture was obviously very different; I used to watch TV as much as I could, and learn their sports (basketball is still my favourite sport, more than cricket).
When I moved to BBDO Chicago from Ogilvy, Marty (Orzio) was there and it was a middle of the road shop and wasn’t known for great work. I was one of the four creative directors, and had the chance to help build a place with a creative reputation in the Midwest. Those kind of interesting challenges always appeal to me, and that’s what drew me to Mudra as well.
How successful do you think you were at DDB Mudra?
Mudra in 2007 seemed like the most challenging thing out there. A lot of people were of the opinion that the system would not let the culture be about creative. For me, the biggest mountain to climb is the best one.
I’m the sort of person who on looking back, can only see the flaws and what I could have done better. The only thing I will say is that five years ago when you spoke about Mudra and its work, people had a particular reaction. Now, it’s different. Obviously, we made a difference.
What do you think you could have done better?
I think we could have done more on the digital front, though we did some interesting things.
What pulled you to JWT? Was it the next challenge?
It was probably last May that Colvyn (Harris) started talking to me. In the last two or three years, we had picked up steam at Mudra, and it was a place we had built and it was unique. There was no real reason for me to move. I suppose the louder the noise got about JWT, the more interesting it became to me. I thought if I can do this, it would be one of the bigger adventures of my life, so why the hell not.
What has the adventure been like so far?
It’s been about seven months. I never act quickly in the beginning; from the outside, you have prejudices, you learn the truth by being within the agency. It’s just been about getting to know people, helping them solve their brands’ problems. Now we’ve slowly started changing how we work a little bit – become more collaborative, a little bit more organised. The most important thing is to keep the focus on the work. Why should anybody pay us a little bit more for our solutions, unless they’re the best in the business? We’ve started pushing hard on that. That kind of journey is going to take some time, but the work has started to get better sooner than I thought. Right off the bat, we did Nokia ‘Channel Me’ for IPL. Then the Ranbir football TV spot for Pepsi, the Airtel Money and Airtel Music campaigns, Set Max’s IPL campaign, the new TVCs for Godrej Security and Goodknight’s ‘Challenge’. We still have a long way to go, but if you ask me the same question five years from now, I’ll still have the same answer.
One of the biggest reasons for me to come on board is that Colvyn and I are on the same page on what needs to be done. To do many great things, this needs to be a partnership. We want to create a place that leads where this whole business is going. We’ll keep a low profile because the work will do the talking.
What about advertising keeps you here?
Some months ago, I completed two decades in the business. The thing that keeps me going is that I’ve got two sides to me – I love the craft of writing and of creating something; the other part is I like solving stuff. This is the one business where I can indulge both those cravings. I also love the fact that you get to see the results of what you do. It’s also exciting to play so many roles – I’m a shrink, a teacher, a writer, the one who garnishes the idea, the one who makes sure the idea is presented in the right light, the executioner of ideas, and also part businessman.
Lifesavers ‘It’s good to be sweet’ Lifesavers is the original round candy with a hole in the middle and we had the job of re-launching it. The year was 2007. ‘Nice guys finish last’, was the phrase of the decade. Our solution was to go counter-culture and reconnect Americans with their own sweetness. The protagonist in each commercial demonstrated how being sweet paid off and he/she got a Lifesaver halo at the end of it, followed by the baseline: 'Lifesavers. It’s good to be sweet.'.
Airtel ‘World’s biggest friendship band’ The idea was to get people to collaborate in building the only friendship band that would be shared by millions. All they had to do was add their best friends to the Airtel Friendship Band App in Facebook. The app was promoted digitally and with one very cool media innovation. The RJs of one radio station called their rival RJs from other radio stations, while the shows were on and told them that they should forget the rivalry and become friends. Then the RJs who were calling asked if they could add them to the Airtel Friendship band. This while people were listening to the shows. The result? Well 12.6 million people were on the band. In 2 weeks.
AT&T Wireless ‘Welcome to mLife’ How can the number three cellular service brand get thought leadership? Well, we found the answer by talking about a life that would be enabled by current and emerging technologies. And we branded it, mLife, short for mobile life. It was launched with a Superbowl ad that started with the belly button of an old man, then showed the belly buttons of progressively younger people, till we saw a baby with its umbilical chord attached. A doctor cuts it, and the super came on,‘We were all meant to live a truly wireless life. Welcome to mLife.’ And oh, the Superbowl spot became part of a Museum Of Modern Art exhibit.
Volkswagen ‘Talking newspaper’, ‘Flying man’ etc In two years the brand went from no awareness to one of the buzziest around. And we did it with a smaller budget than most people imagined. We wanted to make the point that innovation is a big part of our cars, so we innovated in just about everything we did. When an ad that runs here is covered by the BBC, you know you are doing something right.
Nokia ‘Channel Me’ Nokia wanted to do an IPL campaign. The problem was they had no new products, no new news. So decided to invent it. We created a piece of technology that added something new to Nokia phones. It started with the question, can we turn IPL, the most watched event in the country, into the most broadcasted? The answer was an app, branded Channel Me, that let people broadcast what they were shooting on their Nokia phones live onto the Channel Me site, where their friends and family could watch it. We turned phones into TV stations and people into channels.
Pepsi ‘Ranbir learns football’ A cricket fanatic tries to convert a soccer bhakt. The viewing public said, ‘Goaaaaaal!’ Yes it was popular, but more importantly it was the first salvo of the brand defying the notion that India is a one sport nation and tapping into a growing youth affinity for football.
Goodknight ‘Mosquito challenge’ A feisty old woman challenges her crotchety old husband to find a single mosquito in their home. Hilarity ensues.
Big Cinemas ‘Silent National Anthem’ The idea is super simple. It popped into my head after days of empty scribbling. Honest confession: I cried buckets while we were shooting. So did many of the crew. The kids were awesome. It struck me that it is not they who are physically challenged, but we are mentally challenged because we don’t see their potential.