We’ve heard you had a tough time in your initial years in advertising.
I got rejected in my first interview with Lowe Lintas because they thought I should be an account executive, not a writer. And the account management guy thought I should try writing. So, it was very clear they didn’t want me. After that, I joined a young agency where I got rejected by the managing director in one month, because he didn’t like the way I spoke to him (I think he was right, I was rebellious). At the next agency, I got kicked out in two months, because the managing director didn’t like the way I looked at him. I took the money he gave me as a severance package and went to the Himalayas. I had a fantastic time leading the ashram life in Manikaran: there’s a langar there, they feed you, you meet people and everyone’s talking about the arts. After I came back, I got a job in an agency called Image Ads; they were kind to me. But for me, it was all about what happened in the hills: that was beautiful and magical. I gatecrashed a party one evening, and very drunk, I stood on a table and spoke passionately about what it means to be really creative. The guy who owned the house kindly brought me down, and said he loved my passion. He asked me where I worked, and a couple of days later, a chauffeur came asking for me at the office, with an envelope that said ‘Cadbury’s’: the house owner turned out to be the marketing director of Cadbury’s. He invited me to be a judge in the promotional campaign that Cadbury’s was running for 5-Star, a ‘Win a flat’ contest. When I went to judge, I saw the biggest guys sitting next to me – NCDs of Lintas, Ogilvy and JWT (all the agencies that Cadbury’s worked with), and I was 22 years old at that time. During lunch, there was a guy from Ogilvy sitting next to me, Ashok Sarath, and he asked me to come and meet his creative director, Suresh Mullick (he had written ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhaara’ with Piyush and the ‘Torch of Freedom’ ad). He asked me for my portfolio, and since I’d been writing for finance advertisements, I didn’t have one, I only had lots of talk. He noticed I have a tremour; it’s a hereditary thing, but I saw it as an opportunity. I told him, “I’m not nervous or scared of you, it’s called creative vibrance.” He started laughing and said I was a crazy guy. He showed me his work instead, and then gave me a job.
What was life at Ogilvy like?
I was there from 1985 to 1989. Ogilvy was a huge agency, with great repute. Everybody there looked like they were advertising guys. My first impression was that to survive there, you had to be special. I started looking for my stupid side and what was unique about me. I was lucky that Suresh was fond of me and made me do a lot of work with him. I was working on Philips and Cadbury’s and getting into trouble: an ad I did for Philips got the account director in jail because I wrote something that offended some lobby group; then I wrote something for Cadbury’s (where a guy in a wrestling tournament who’s been pummelled down says that he’ll still win because he’s bribed the jury with Eclairs) because of which I got pulled off the account. So I’ve had controversies since then, but at no point have I told people around me that they should not do what they believe in. Rejection, embarrassment and failure are the roots of creativity.
And then you joined Lintas?
Lintas was a great organisation again, because Alyque Padamsee and Kersey Katrak, who were two giant figures, took my partner Neville D’Souza and me under their wing. They called us the "Special Project"; we had no responsibilities and just had to go from city to city to look at the work at the branches, and if there was a problem, we had to solve it. We launched Tanishq, Timex, Fastrack, MasterCard, Motorola, Reynold’s pens. I was at Lintas for 10 years, till 2000.
Tell us about David.
My best work at Lintas was my last work, which is when we launched indya.com. We made the front page of the 16 April, 2000 edition of The Times of India blank. For me, it was the first significant act that I’ve done in my life. I thought, “I can’t get bigger than this in Lintas.” We were based out of Bangalore then, and one day, I was walking on MG Road and saw a half-trodden, torn Esquire article on the road that read, “How much money is enough money?” It was the story of Alexander The Great, and how he and his army were rejuvenated after they threw their bounty in the fire. I thought it was amazing: we too were getting fattened by the promise of more money in the dotcom world. I thought it was time to start from zero. I went to Ogilvy and they were looking for someone to set up a second agency. I thought it was a great challenge, and started David along with Madhukar Sabnavis. David was a name chosen just before a pitch: I told Ranjan Kapur that David Ogilvy had chosen the wrong end of his name for Ogilvy, because Ogilvy is just a name, while David is an idea.
What’s the work you’re proudest of at David?
The work that made us famous was the ‘Lage Raho’ piece for Alpenliebe lollipop. It became a part of the regular lexicon. We introduced the concept of social purpose in brands: for Essar, we had a whole campaign called ‘Open Your Mind’ when it was going through a crisis. We launched CNN-IBN and worked with Rajdeep Sardesai and his team to introduce citizen journalism. We won international awards in print, but we also explored peripheral mediums like outdoor (for WWF, we painted animal skins on the trees in Connaught Place in Delhi to connote that you don’t just kill a tree, but the ecosystem, when the cops were busy with the Republic Day parade). David was all about, "Who gave you permission to do this?"
What made you leave for the JWT joint NCD position with Agnello Dias?
David merged with Bates and I couldn’t accept that, so I left the day of the merger. I was completely broken, and didn’t know what to do. Colvyn Harris was very kind and asked if I would come and work with Aggie to be joint NCDs. I thought I should try it out. It lasted eight to nine months; it has less to do with Aggie and me, and more to do with the fact that I was still living the David dream.
How did BBDO happen?
One day, I got a book called ‘The Pirate Inside’, and the inscription inside said it was from a secret admirer. When I found the wrapper in the garbage, I found it was from Chris Thomas, chairman of BBDO APAC. One thing led to another, and we started talking about setting up BBDO in India. I was clear that the first thing I would do if I was signed was start with the best possible teammates, and not with any giant thought. It was like The Dirty Dozen, and that’s how I found Sandy (Sandipan Bhattacharya), Raj (Raj Deepak Das), Ajai (Ajai Jhala) and Rajesh (Rajesh Sikroria). We decided to not model ourselves on ad agencies, but to be in the business of creating news and views for our brands. That’s how we found a new way: to create acts, and not ads.
A lot of your work is movement-based. How difficult is it to convince clients to think not just TV?
Clients like P&G and J&J are asking for it. People haven’t moved out of the single-medium phase, and hence they aren’t able to deliver. There are no champions for integrated work as yet. Our jury thinks of integrated as a TV spot plus three print ads plus one radio spot. Clients aren’t thinking like that: they ask for an integrated thought that every partner can engage with, and hence consumers can engage with it.
How validating is the Creative Effectiveness Lion and do you feel the pressure of winning more Lions next year?
All through my life in advertising, I’ve heard of these two opposing forces, creativity and effectiveness. This Lion brings it all together – it’s passed through juries of creatives planners and auditors. Ajai joked that the award is black because it’s been through three fires. This award has the power to convert people. For the second question, when I was in college I used to play football and hockey. Manipandey Somaya was our hockey captain, and he went on to become captain of the Indian team two years after college, and win at the Olympics in Moscow. I was in awe and wondered what else he would achieve in his life. Today, I don’t know what’s happened with him. That’s the fear: what do we do after this? That fear is life-giving, and forces you to do something fresh, not because you want to win, but because it’ll help you explore again.
Gillette WALS "Won at the world's first Cannes Lions for Creative Effectiveness. A seamless collaboration between client partners MediaCom, Weber Shandwick, Encompass and GRIPS. A tribute to P&G's belief in uncoventional ideas."
Quaker 'Mission To Make India Heart Healthy' "Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi Worldwide, said, 'The Quaker 'Mission to Make India Heart Healthy' is the best Quaker initiative that I saw across the entire globe'."
White Collar Hippies "The campaign won a Lion and 5 nominations at Cannes. Helped us rank No 2 in India in less than 3 years of operation."
'Quit India' Movement "A highly engaging PR program for Nicorette, in partnership with The Times Of India. BBDO India was born to create news for its brands."
Indya.com "Never before had a mainstream newspaper done something so unthinkable. It's probably our most audacious campaign - created in early 2000 for indya.com"
7 Up 'Gussa Hatao, Chill Machao' "Another useful idea for the new world. To work with Raju Hirani has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life."
Nicorette 'Ash trays' "This father and son ashtray communicates the ill effects of passive smoking. Created by a sculptor who lives and works at BBDO India. We want to attract talent beyond advertising."
David Cards "My mission was to create an environment so fertile that even if we were to sow a seed of doubt it would flower into something beautiful. At RNG David, everybody resigned from adulthood."
Gillette 'ShaveSutra' "One of the big reasons why BBDO India won 4 Cannes Lions and 14 nominations at the world's greatest gathering of creativity,"
7 Up 'Lemon Pattalam' "An example of how brands can be useful and socially relevant. Sometimes it's better to create engaging platforms than write catchy slogans."
Aviva 'Great Wall of Education' "Over one million books collected... Based on Aviva's commitment to "Education is Insurance". An example of BBDO India's living philosophy 'Create acts, not ads'."