How did you get into advertising?
Unlike most people, who got into advertising by chance, I wanted to get in to advertising. In college I used to participate in this contest called ‘Mad ads’, which was basically spoofing ads. I was pretty good at it. To spoof ads, you need to watch ads so invariably I would know every ad. So, by the time I graduated, I really didn’t know what else to do, as this was the only knowledge I had.
I applied for a copy test in a small agency called Renaissance in Bengaluru and got selected. They told me the vacancy was not for a copywriter, but for client servicing. I was told my copy test was pretty interesting, but they had already hired a copywriter. I asked if I would be allowed to contribute ideas and they said: ‘Yes, everyone in advertising should be contributing ideas’. I realised client servicing was a different ball game altogether. The title stuck and the next job was again in client servicing with another small agency called Mass. It was mostly dealing with government jobs, tender notices and local restaurants.
I was desperate to move into a big agency but I was just not getting a break. I was a big fan of Contract Advertising and would seriously go drop my resume every other day. There was an opening for client servicing at JWT in Chennai. I went for the interview and was selected. I was over the moon and worked there for a year. I took a transfer to JWT Bengaluru where I worked for another two years in servicing. After which, suddenly, the reason why I joined advertising - being a copywriter - came back into my head and it was eating me alive.
At JWT, on the account I handled, I would keep doing my own ads on my own briefs and nobody would object to this as long as I wasn’t bothering anyone. One day I walked into the GM’s office (Dhunji Wadia) and asked him if I could become a copywriter. He thought for two seconds and said yes. I asked him if I would have to start all over again. He said no, and said I could move within a month. So, I got cross-promoted to creative and for a while I played a dual role as I was receiving my own briefs.
I had written a script while I was in servicing and executed it when I moved to creative. This was my first campaign. It was for a local beer called ‘UB Export' and the campaign was called ‘Yella Ok Cool Drink Yaake?' (Everything else is fine, but why cool drink?) And the whole funda for this was that UB was launching a pint at Rs 18 and I was at servicing at that time and the first thing I thought when I was shown this, was, “Wow, who’ll drink Pepsi!” They had a brand ambassador for this - Upendra. He was a big draw for people in the local bars and pubs and the campaign was to be in Kannada. The advantage for me was that I knew the language while no one else around did. So, I wrote this line and it caught on. People started going to wine shops and asking for Yaake in a quirky pose like Upendra did in the poster. The client then called and asked me to do a campaign for this and make it even more popular. We did hardcore local stuff for this. I kept my area boys in mind when I wrote this campaign. The big surprise for me was this worked everywhere! Upmarket pubs, RJs, etc. - everyone used it. It was quite a rage and even the advertising industry loved it. It got recognition in some AAAI event as well and Balki as a jury member also campaigned for it. It got me the best copywriter award in the Big Bang Awards. So, I really started with a bang.A few years after that I moved to Lowe.
How’s your journey been at Lowe? Which brands did you start with?
I worked on Britannia to start with before moving on to Sonata and Fastrack. The first commercial I did for Fastrack was the ‘Ulta’ campaign. It was in the college and teen space. They had done the ‘Yes sir’ campaign before I had joined and that was the kind of mood and we had to maintain that.
Then came the ‘Move on’ campaign. With this, we were looking to take the brand to the next stage. After this, Fastrack hired a brand consultant to figure if the brand was going fine and his point of view was that everything was fine and the brand was doing well. Somehow, every commercial was being very different from the other and he said that we must keep it that way. The brand still wanted some holding thought. I thought, let’s keep ‘uncommitted’ as the brief. We looked at the uncommitted nature of youth and continued with that.
After these campaigns, I was promoted.The head of Bengaluru was moving to Mumbai, so they decided to make me head the place. I was looking after all the brands and that was new for me. I wasn’t really prepared for this, but I took it on. I started working more actively on Tanishq after this and Arun Iyer was my new boss. This whole new equation gave way to new ways of thinking. I started realising what real advertising was and from then till now, I’ve been working on Redbus, Bharatmatrimony, Tanishq, Sonata, Fastrack and Britannia, along with managing the Chennai office.
The Tanishq (remarriage) commercial has received a lot of praise... Tanishq has taught us how to really think like a team. It has been a fantastic journey. The first film I worked on was straight after the ‘Wedding’ campaign featuring a mother and father preparing the daughter for her wedding. I was totally blown away. It made me rethink the way commercials can be written. After that we worked on the Amitabh Bachchan campaign, which was about educating men about diamonds.
When I watch last year’s Diwali campaign, I still get goose bumps. Till the last minute we hadn’t got the cast, we were all over the place. But on the night before the shoot, we landed with the star cast and everything fell into place. It was the most chaotic shoot, but turned out to be the most charming. Sometimes you just need to be open minded and receptive to things.
The latest ‘wedding’ campaign for Tanishq shows how a team works in advertising because it’s really very difficult to pinpoint whose idea this was. We have thrown the thought of one person bringing up the idea and the other taking it forward long ago. Almost everybody in the team contributed to the ad. We knew from the beginning that we had something special in our hands, but still didn’t think we’d get such a response. We got lots of personal letters on what the commercial meant to people. After a long time, you feel that yes, people do watch ads and think about them and it can touch people. The wedding campaign was the first time we worked with a woman director. The thought is so sensitive, that every part of the screenplay had to be perfect. Little things like her walking into the mandap, and where the kid walks (in front, behind or together), mattered. It’s strange that most of the scripts that have been written have been written by men.
Lowe doesn’t participate in creative awards. What’s your take on awards?
On one hand, I look at it and think that the industry could do with some kind of recognition or some kind of ‘pat on your back’. But, it’s also very important who’s patting your back and how valid that pat is. The kind of work that gets celebrated is important. A lot of correct work that gets celebrated is fine, but then it’s the few wrongs that create the problem. If that is cleaned up, and somebody can approach awards wherein a popular, appreciated ad, which has entertained people, wins, it’ll solve the issue. We are seeing how much closer we are getting to the West instead of celebrating work that works. If I go back and see the work from Cannes as well, it’s always the work that works that stands out. It’s not a bias towards real work, but I’m watching it as a consumer and I’m going ‘wow’. It’s stuff that works that touches you.
People are talking about the 30-second commercial not being that important anymore...
I don’t think the 30-second TVC has gone out of the window. It’s such an ironic thing; the attention span of people is getting shorter yet you want to see longer commercials and that’s what is creating more impact.
Earlier it was about giving a message. The distinctiveness of the message was enough for somebody to sit up and take notice. But now, it’s not only about the message. It’s about how consumers feel what your message is. It depends whether you need 30 seconds or more time for that. If your ad has not made a person feel what you want him to feel, it’s not done its work.
I think we’ll start moving out of the conventional 30-second spot and more towards the content space. It may be concepts like The Dewarists. It’s not about just communicating a message anymore. Sponsored programmes, internal placements in places were its not intrusive but a little more participative, will work well.
Who would be your mentors?
My mentors start with Ramesh Srivats, who was my boss at JWT Bengaluru. I spent four or five years with him and he taught me what advertising was all about. He is absolutely one of the most intelligent and laziest people I know. He’s hilarious, and doesn’t take anything seriously. I have never seen such a combination before.
Balki, certainly, is a mentor. He’s a very charismatic personality and you have to listen to everything he says. Strategically, rationally and emotionally - in every way.
I’ve learned a lot from my current boss Arun Iyer, who has made me understand that one should never ever lose sight or focus of what the task is. So many times you get carried away. He’s made me understand how I must stay focussed.
Piyush Pandey – he is so flamboyant, large hearted, full of life, and at the same time so down-to-earth. When you talk to him, he talks to you like he knows you for years. He certainly is an inspiration for me.
YELLA OK COOL DRINK YAAKE? This is the campaign that got me to where I am now. A campaign for a local beer brand 'UB Export' priced at just Rs.18. I wrote the brief for the ad, and ended up writing the creative for it too. It was the first thought that came to my head 'Now who would want to have soft drinks!" which then became 'yella ok. cool drink yaake?', which translates to 'everything else is fine, but why cool drink?' I loved Upendra. I found him extremely raw and unrestrained in everything he did. I actually made the campaign keeping all my hardcore kannadiga friends in mind, but never expected it to become a rage across all kinds of people. The entire campaign came from some random place inside my head. I now hope that after all these years, that part of me is still alive, somewhere inside.
SONATA IPL This just happened. Kishore Subramaniam the planner came up to me and said "machaan, let's do something on Dhoni being the captain of Chennai Super Kings. Something crazy. It's a good opportunity" I don't follow too much cricket. And this was the first IPL. I instinctively felt something odd about Dhoni being the captain of Chennai, and I thought many Chennaites would feel the same way too. And it worked wonders. It appealed to the fanatic tamilian side and Dhoni turned out to be so convincingly chennai..ish. But Balki saw it later and had only one thing to say "fantastic idea, but why did you not shoot this in Chennai?"
Britannia Marie We've managed to do some good work on this brand, consistently. I love working on this brand because I know my mother is the target audience. And there is something very simple and nice about this biscuit. Adarsh, the writer on the team came up with this idea, Ayyappan, the servicing head wrote the lyrics and I decided to direct it. For people who know us closely, this would sound like an extremely dangerous idea, but my boss Arun Iyer and my client Anu Narasimhan had the confidence and asked us to 'just go for it'.
Tanishq Diwali I love all the Tanishq ads. And have enjoyed working on all of them. But as a viewer, this is the one that does it for me. I manage to watch it like I was not a part of it. A day before the shoot it was absolute chaos. We had many versions of this script and no cast. We had no clue what we were going to end up with. The fights we have internally are epic, and then when it reaches Vivek Kakkad (the director) it reaches new heights. But somehow everything just fell into place. The cast, the performances, the music, and their chemistry, I can't imagine this ad in any other form now.
Flying Machine 'Boys dont fake it' No big budgets. No grand sets. No time. Short duration. The only thing we had was a whacked out idea and absolute freedom. I don't know how we did it, but we pulled it off.
Bharat Matrimony One of my favourite ideas where a husband stands up for his wife against his own parents. It is an extremely relevant ad for Bharat Matrimony, but at the same time it ends up making a larger point.
Tanishq Diamonds are a man's best friend Sometimes it could be very refreshing to think like a man for a woman's brand. And strangely we are all mostly men working on a woman's brand. The client keeps asking us 'Why are there so many men on this brand?'. But this time, thinking like a man paid off.
Fastrack Move On This was the launch of Move On. Maybe there are better commercials than this now, but this was the first of it all. It has a little amateur kind of feel to it. But I like it for that reason. And noone noticed this but I slipped in a tamil word 'chumma' in it, for 'chumma' sake.
Britannia Nutrichoice I had never done an absolute product kind of ad. And also my first attempt at stop-motion. I haven't done an ad that is simpler than this. We had something bigger in mind, but I'm glad the client forced us to think again.
Tanishq Wedding I am glad that I got to be a part of this idea. It's gone beyond being just an ad. This one has touched so many of them deeply. We have got so many emotional letters from people telling us what this ad means to them. It is a very reassuring feeling to know that an ad can really influence and touch people in so many ways. It's a very special ad for all of us.