Arati Rao
Aug 27, 2010

"It’s about the honesty in your relationships:" Elsie Nanji

Red Lion’s Elsie Nanji speaks to Arati Rao about her career, about design, about print, the Internet and about Cannes

Red Lion's Elsie Nanji
Red Lion's Elsie Nanji

Was a career in art always the first choice?

I saw the foundation course both in JJ and at Sophia. I got into Sophia’s and did the five years there. I knew from then on, I wanted to do commercial art in some way. At that time, advertising was all about people who smoke, schmooze and drink and go to parties, the English-speaking people. Everyone advised me against it, but I was quite convinced.

And then, you joined Lintas, first...

At Lintas, I wasn’t doing anything, just mostly cut-paste work. O&M gave the opportunity to do things on my own, within one year of my being in the business. I launched Flying Machine jeans, I worked on Cadbury and Johnson & Johnson. After Ogilvy, Mohammed (Khan) came and sort of grabbed me for Enterprise. I worked wonderfully with him for four years and won my first Art Director of The Year award there. And then Ashok [Kurien] came and grabbed me for Ambience and told me to come and do work for two great clients that he’d got: Garden and Thums Up; at that time, there was no Coke and Pepsi, and there was no readymade fashion as such.

Some clients have stayed with you for years...

We had a wonderful first five years at Ambience, with two clients a year. We were really very snobbish and a bit arrogant also, but we had great clients. And they were all happy with us. Till today, I have those two clients – we do all of Bisleri, with Ramesh Chauhan. For Garden, they do the work downstairs [at Publicis Ambience], although they show the work to me. And we got Lakme in our first year of Ambience. That relationship ended when I left advertising, but they’ve appointed me again for the packaging.

It’s about the honesty in your relationships with your clients, and that takes you a long, long way. With people also, it’s the same philosophy, if you back them to the talent they have. I was never afraid of the competition, because I knew what we had, we were the best in.

Is there is a shift of focus from print these days?

For print, I don’t know if people read less. Maybe I’m old fashioned, I like holding a paper, I like the smell of the printing, I like reading; there are still people like that. On the other hand, that same experience of working on a page can easily be transferred onto the computer screen. It’s a great opportunity, because in one website, you’re designing 10-15 layouts within it from all perspectives. It’s like that movie ‘Inception’, when you see the road flip up, that’s what you can do on the internet.

Your opinion on Indian design...

Indian design has very strong roots. It comes from our background, everything we look at has some sort of design; the trucks have design on them, the way the guy lays out his mat and arranges his combs, the way the women lay out their fish...that sense of design has to be channelised to use it more effectively, and to see it in a global setting.

And about design shops making the cut for Design Lions...

It’s a very expensive fee to pay; design shops are usually divisions of agencies, so they need to have a budget to enter and the ability to make that entry comparable to the others. The other thing is that designers are very happy people. They’re not hankerering after some accolade to get higher in the ranks. Out of the 16 judges on the Design Lion jury, 13 or 14 had their own design companies, they’re not going back to get some award. You’re looking at a different playing field.

Things that keep you doing what you do...

It was always a basic love I had for design and art. Every weekend I go away and see a beautiful monsoon sky, it always keeps me alive. I don’t know what I would do without that feeling.

Elsie Nanji’s Creative Highlights

1987 - ThumsUp Relaunched with "Taste the Thunder". The concept is still running 23 years later, along with the jingle composed by my husband Hossi.


 1988 - Garden Vareli For Garden Vareli, we reinterpreted the saree as a fashion garment. The campaign proved to be a platform for identifying future beauty queens – 3 consecutive Miss Indias (NamrataShirodkar, MadhuSapre and Aishwarya Rai).



1990 - Vadilal Ice Cream Rich visual appetite appeal turning ice cream into an object of art.








1990 -2011 - Bisleri We ensured that it went from strength to strength through innovations spanning from changing the category code of mineral water from blue to green to magical experiments with packaging to give the bottles a collectible status.






1994 - Sil Jams with an insight that struck me watching my husband behave like a delighted 4 - year old, gorgingon his favourite dessert.


1994 - Saffola In 'Life insurance – heartbeat’, we used fear and a harsh reality treatment urging housewives who care about their husband’s health to switch to Saffola, a cooking oil.



1995 - Tuff Shoes It unwittingly captured one of the biggest conflicts between self - appointed cultural police on one hand, and a pure artistic license on the other. After a 14 - year battle, the High Court ruling said"it is important to take into account the artistic and literary value" of the material.






1996 - Lakme Peach Milk captured the heightened effect that beauty and soft skin had on an adolescent boy.

1998 - Planet M Simple ideas rose to the challenge of selling music visually without the sound of music for Planet M.




2010 - Aer Bar A futuristic design with an egg shaped bar resembling awhite spaceship poised to take off from the 35th floor of Four Seasons Mumbai - in sharp contrast to the Mediterranean casual chic of Olive, my first restaurant and bar design concept.




1994 - Sil Jams with an insight that struck me watching my husband behave like a delighted 4 - year old, gorgingon his favourite dessert.
Campaign India

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