What drew you to advertising?
I was brought up in small town India, in the mountains. I remember my father telling me I couldn’t survive on poetry. That’s the time I took the decision to pursue an MBA. I had no clue what advertising was before I joined the Institute of Management Technology; I learnt there that communication as a business exists, and there is something called an advertising agency. When I did my summer training at Trikaya Grey (in 1990 or 1991), I learnt that this is a profession where I could employ a combination of my training (business management), and my interests (literature, writing, poetry, music, narration, and ideas). Until then, I didn’t know what I could do with my interests. Everything that I did had a use in advertising. If not for my discovery of advertising, I would have been in a marketing job and fairly unhappy - because I would have wondered what I am doing with my interests in life.
I feel it’s important to be confused in life; it's a significant moment. It is your way of understanding your strengths, and striking a balance of that with what you want to do. The trauma and frustration of that phase is your personal journey. That phase made me experiment and encounter advertising. I thank my parents for never having a fixated mindset about what I should do in life.
Do you remember your first brief, and the ad that came out of it?
The first ad I wrote at Ogilvy was for Modi Tyres, a truck tyre. I still remember the baseline: ‘Tyre mard, toh kaisa dard’. I still have the poster in my office. There was a film as well. In those days, it was very rare for a junior copywriter like me to get a chance to write an ad film; only creative directors got a shot at them. I can’t thank Suresh Mullick enough; he was the national creative director of Ogilvy at that time. He had come down to Delhi and sort of took a liking to me. He spotted something in me and used to encourage me a lot.
‘Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola’ and 'Paanch matlab Chhota Coke’ were iconic ads. Any memories that come back to you now from that production?
‘Thanda matlab Coca-Cola’ is a campaign that I really enjoyed. There were many things we were doing in that. Apart from establishing the generic word ‘Thanda’ as Coca-Cola, we were also trying to get closer to people. I believed that India had this new-found confidence about one’s own identity which I wanted to express in the campaign. The third thing was that I also felt the oral tradition of this country has been well understood by Bollywood, but advertising hadn’t used it very well before this campaign. That’s why there was no twist in the end, and every layer and the way the dialogues were crafted were important (lines such as ‘Yeh finger kitna hai, counting karo toh’, ‘Yaara da tashan’ became very popular). I always feel that Indians are more about the ‘how’, rather than the ‘what’. When we go to watch classic Indian cinema, mostly, people know what is going to happen; they want to know how it’s going to happen. So, every moment is important, and I wanted to explore that as a genre. ‘Paanch’ itself was a challenge, because when you have to create a price announcement, you normally do it as a tag. We thought about making it part of the same campaign (‘Thanda matlab Coca-Cola’) with the same texture and dialogue writing. That’s how I wrote the story of these girls going to a store and the owner over-charging them and Aamir stepping in, and then crafted the dialogues around it. It was a milestone campaign for me as well.
Tell us about the other campaign that we would consider a milestone – Happydent ‘Palace’.
Happydent has a long journey, because before the ‘Palace’ ad was the ‘Photographer’ ad. It was the next step in the series; the client had already seen the success of the exaggeration in ‘Photographer’ and he allowed me this bizarre story of a man employed as a bulb at the palace. That’s where trust comes in. With an ad like Happydent, you can’t even test it with consumers. And then comes the director - Ram Madhvani did a great job of portraying what I had in my head; without him, it wouldn’t have become a reality. All these constituents - the client’s trust, your imagination, and the producer’s execution - put together make the film.
What has been the highest point in your career, and the lowest?
There are many highest points. Some that the industry would consider, would be Happydent which went to Cannes and won, or a Coca-Cola. For me, my highest points are things like a campaign I’m working on right now where I’m doing 50 ad films on malnutrition (Aamir is also a part of it as brand ambassador). Members of Parliament of all parties have come together to forge an alliance called the Citizens Alliance, and they approached us to do this campaign on behalf of the Prime Minister. Now the campaign is almost ready. For me, it’s a significant milestone to be trusted by the Government for such an important task.
The lowest points would be when I have been disappointed with the thanklessness of some clients. Just because of the political scenario changing at the clients’ side, sometimes campaigns and ideas are hit.
No, I don’t have any regrets.
Brands signing multiple agencies on its roster, on one side - and multiple agency brands collaborating, as in the case of Commonwealth: how do you feel about those as a creative person?
The concept of multiple agencies is something that I don’t like, honestly, though it’s a reality that we all have to live with. I like to be trusted with a brand, because I put my heart and soul into it. I believe in being faithful and loyal, and that’s why I don’t change jobs unless there is an ideological reason to do so. That’s the kind of relationship I would like between a client and an agency - when there is transparency, trust, and we all put our necks on the line. That’s when magic happens.
I love Commonwealth. It’s the other extreme, where maybe there are two agencies but there is one brand. Commonwealth is a unique example and I hope it becomes very successful. It’s an evolving model, and it has just started. It isn’t easy, but at least we are all committed to making it successful.
In the case of Prasoon Joshi ads, perception often prompts us to think of the song that will play in the background…
Yes, I am a songwriter, and my songs are famous. However, for the public, my most famous pieces of work like ‘Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola’ and ‘Palace’, are not known for the songs (or they have them in a miniscule form); they are more idea-based. So, it is about the way people want to think - it is a convenient way for people to put me in a corner and blame me (because they aren’t complimenting me) that it’s an easy way out for me (using songs).
Being an accomplished songwriter should be considered an added strength for me. But we live in a competitive atmosphere. So if you have to take a potshot at someone, you make his strength his weakness, which I feel is small-minded and mean. Wherever required I use my strength; but I don’t misuse it.
How do you find a balance between all your interests?
I don’t take on (other) projects which have immediate deadlines, because my primary job is to run McCann and that takes 90 per cent of my time. It’s not about me being arrogant and refusing projects. I have written a film called Bhaag Milkha Bhaag based on the life of Milkha Singh. Rakeysh Mehra told me three years ago about this thought; so I work with people who have patience and love for my craft.
The other principle I have is that I don’t touch things that don’t drive me.
You’ve served as the chairperson of the global creative leadership council. What are some of the best practices of other countries that Indian creative guys could imbibe, and vice versa?
I’ll be handing the chairmanship over this year to Linus Karlsson, who is our creative director for New York and London. I think we have a lot to learn from Latin America, where they have a very similar market and culture. They’ve also been able to keep the youngsters very excited about the profession. I fear that in India, we aren’t able to keep youngsters as excited about advertising as my generation was. Besides the fact that they have other options, they have a fear that advertising is dictated by clients now, and it’s too much of strategy and no imagination.
The biggest concern today is to bring more fun into this business. This is my request to our clients – they have to understand that creative people are very moody; some of them in fact run away to the mountains or wherever when they feel they can’t take it after some time, and we need those imaginative people. We need to protect them.
Not everyone is like me; I have a fighter instinct and am a self-made man. I could protect myself, and some people like Suresh and Piyush (Pandey) gave me support. Our clients used to be much more indulgent with creatives. If you don’t do that, how will you attract the dreamy talent? We need those dreamers.
I still feel our advertising is very interesting compared to other advertising around the world. When people come from Cannes and lament that we didn’t win enough, I always point out that everyday advertising in our country is much more entertaining, and some ads are really loved by people.
What about advertising still excites you?
It’s the ‘instantness’ of advertising.
A word for creatives looking to emulate Prasoon Joshi. Or even, looking to make it big in advertising.
Take the weirdest things that come to your mind seriously. And hone your craft.
Campaign India asked Prasoon Joshi to pick some of his all time favourite campaigns. Featured alongside are his picks from ads he's written (as copywriter). Joshi explains, "It’s not a simple task to pick and choose your own work and one doesn’t really know which filter to apply. So I'm randomly picking up what comes to mind, some old and most of it recent; may miss some nuggets."
Other ads he would have liked to see featured here, but we're unable to carry because of space constraints: Ponds, Asian Paints, Cadbury Khane walon ko, Goli Ke Humjoli, Pulse Polio Programme, Nokia (all from his O&M tenure), and Greenlam, Britannia Good Day, Dabur and Chevrolet.
Coca-Cola ‘Invisible bottle’ / ‘Diwali (Do diye zyaada jalao)’ The first introduced a new language and the latter built on the role of Coke in life.
Coca-Cola ‘Paanch’ Significant price announcements tend to be 5 seconders. ‘Paanch’ was conceptual with a narrative and redefined price. communication.
Coca-Cola ‘Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola’ When a brand starts reflecting life, its voice is most powerful. With this, Coke became a part of life in India.
Tehelka ‘Crow’ Creating imagery and connect around the old Indian proverb of the crow, which then went on to become a symbol of Tehelka’s identity.
Metlife Insurance fixed income plan 'Aaja Aaja' I particularly like this as one managed to make a charming and human story of a mundane issue like financial planning.
Happydent ‘Palace’ Fable-like exaggerated product benefit. Instead of taking the logical route to show teeth brightening, decided to suspend logic and played in the fantasy genre.
Saffola ‘Thief’ ‘Abhi toh main jawaan hoon’takes off from the insight that we may believe that we are fit but the reality when put to test spells otherwise. So the need for action.
Xbox ‘Yuvraj & Akshay’ Juxtaposition of the two extremes; gaming technology and rural Indian imagery
CNBC Awaaz: Night drive The base line “Waqt se pehle, kismet se zyada” sums up the sentiment behind the thought that money ‘earned’ is not evil and brings in happiness and satisfaction.
Chlormint ‘Dobara mat poochna’ Created a sense of absurd which went on to become the tenor of the brand. “Dobara mat poochna” went on to become a popular phrase.
NDTV India ‘Sach dikhate hain hum’ A powerful and evocative voice of the brand.