Secret Diary Of A CEO 2017

"If you see a spark, make it shine and don't look at deficiencies"

Secret Diary of Piyush Pandey Part-3

Photograph by Soumik Kar

Many a time, your best work comes when pressure is intense. An early insight into this was after a much awaited holiday was cut short quite unexpectedly. In 1993, I was in the US blissfully unaware of what was to unfold. My sister lived in Michigan and I spent a few days with her. The plan was to go to Hawaii and get back to be with her for Diwali. 

I carried only a few pairs of shorts and T-shirts to Hawaii waiting to see paradise. Ranjan had just taken over as managing director (not even officially) when a crisis hit him and then us. The Cadbury account had been with us for many years. We enjoyed a great relationship with them but something had gone wrong in the recent past. Poor Ranjan was told that they had called for a pitch. It was a difficult start in the new position for him.

To be fair, all was not well between the client and us. Rajeev Bakshi, who was the marketing director at Cadbury, was getting impatient. Ranjan called me and I had to get back from Hawaii. My sister was nice enough to quickly send me a ticket. On the first leg to Seoul, I got to work and wrote the lyrics on the back of the boarding pass. This eventually became the ad with the girl dancing on the cricket field. Kuch khaas hai hum sabhi mein was what I thought of and there were ten ads in all. 

The thing was we bounced back in style. In all confidence, we presented the idea to the client and it became the campaign of the century. The insight was that the brand needed a complete breakaway from the existing advertising. We gave it a lot of freshness and it worked.

Cadbury again presented itself with another challenge, which really pushed us to the limit. A worm infestation in Dairy Milk meant they had a huge problem on their hands. The news came to me through the media and Bharat called me. It was obvious the situation was grave. The problem in this brand was that it was edible and one that the family shared. 

Cadbury did a smart thing by introducing the double packaging machine. We then got in Mr Bachchan for a campaign that really worked. What I picked up here was that if you are a lovable brand, people will forgive you. That is the difference between a product and a brand. It was a hard learning but worth it!

One meeting with Piyush Goyal at my home in January 2014 led to the most intense campaign I have ever been involved in. We spoke for close to three hours and his message was clear and to the point. “We need you” was all he said at the end of it.

I must confess to having a few reservations when it came to political advertising. David Ogilvy believed that issues like religion and politics meant the entire team had to be aligned. It is not possible to force it on someone and there is a risk of taking sides. Besides, you may not get paid for the work done! Not a great thought at all.

Honestly, I had said no to several political parties for six-seven years but I was eventually persuaded by Piyush Goyal to take on the BJP campaign. After I said yes, I looked at the calendar and that’s when the magnitude of the work dawned on me. We were in the end of January and elections were due in March. 

The brief was simple. Narendra Modi’s ratings were higher than that of the BJP. Issues such as corruption were gaining ground. My first task was to call my team at Ogilvy and ask them if they were on. The answer was completely in the affirmative and work started. 

Political advertising before this was known to be heavy and loaded with messages like janta maaf nahin karegi. It was always someone talking to you from way above. The way to do it was to make it simple and have people speak. I think about it now and say, “Wow, we made 170 films!” Only we at Ogilvy knew what we went through.This was a mammoth task with respect to scale and size. We had things changing on a day-to-day basis. Challenges were around tailor making ads for small pockets in India. They still had to be relevant. 

I wrote Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar early and stuck to it. There were other lines that were needed and the team was working like crazy. We wanted it to be different from any other political campaign and we surely managed to do that. As a client, the BJP was obviously not like a marketing company. There were a lot of discussions and arguments and they were very professional. I met Mr Modi two or three times during that period, though most of the decision making was left to Arun Jaitley and Piyush. 

I had worked with Mr Modi on the Gujarat Tourism campaign earlier. He first spoke to Mr Bachchan who agreed to do it. Later, Bachchan recommended our name and mine in particular. That led to the formal process of me getting briefed by Mr Modi. 

He was then Gujarat’s chief minister and knew the state like the back of his hand. I still remember the first meeting, which was meant to last for 20 minutes to cover six destinations. Three hours later, we were still on the first one! He was quite funny and said he talked a lot. “But you have to say it in 60 seconds,” he joked. I requested him to just talk, while I picked up my nuggets. Once the campaign was on air, magic happened. This was followed by the 2012 Gujarat assembly election, when we were first approached. The campaign for the general elections two years later remains one of the high points. A lot of credit has to go to the BJP team and the mutual respect for each other really helped in a very successful campaign.

As I saw the campaign, I could not help but think of a time when my first ad went on air. The Luna days came back and with that came the memory of running to my neighbour’s house to watch it on the TV. There are a couple of things I do not believe in. There is nothing called a tough or a bad client. We need to understand it is not his job to think of stories every day. It’s our job. It becomes our responsibility to hold his hand if he is not used to it. There is nothing called a boring product. I am surprised when people say cement is boring or banking is boring. Why is anything boring? The most boring must be an adhesive! In adhesives, we have come out with a consistent body of work for 27 years. No other category can boast of it like Fevicol. 

Chocolates could be interesting to you but that does not mean adhesives is boring or, for that matter, is paints boring? Why does communication have to be boring? There is nothing like a difficult category or an impossible client. That is the premise on which I work. Some ads may not sell but I would stick to it. On cement, we did some great work on Tata Cement, Siddhi Cement and with Mr Bachchan on Binani Cement.

But despite working with celebrities, I have a very strong reservation on such advertising. First of all, I think it is lazy advertising. There is no doubt in my head about that. The problem is when you have not thought about how to use the celebrity. Money really gets wasted then. 

To get it right, you have to think through it well and also plan it out. A celebrity needs to complement your brand. If a celebrity looks good by doing that, you have got it right. There are ads of semi-clad women against a bottle of booze. I am so perplexed when I see that and just think it is idiotic. It will never work.

Feedback is very important. It can come from family, friends or just people around me like competition, my barber, the driver and cook. It can be very funny sometimes but it is still feedback. 

If someone says the music was great, it means the film is lousy. People have a way of being polite and one has to be smart to get it. I remember bringing two ads back home one evening. My cook Goshto joined in. One was an ad for Perk with a girl in a ghoonghat. The other was a Nokia ad, which was artily shot with lots of emotion. Goshto watched both and immediately delivered his judgement — Woh Nokia ka ad award jeetega. Perk ka, maal bechega!

Not every campaign works out well. When someone gets stuck, he will see this as the best I can do. I have a simple theory. You can take a horse to the water, but cannot do a thing if it wants to drink piss. Yes, there are compromises but you must understand that hitting every ball for a six is not possible.

Unexpected successes too might happen. Two years ago, we created a campaign followed by an activity in a mall — There are many objects in a cupboard and they can be taken for free. People try in vain to remove it when a line pops up saying it is Fevicol. Now, that has gone viral and I don’t know why. This reminds me of the ladis during Diwali that burst when you think it has lost its fizz. I received messages from my client at Gujarat Tourism saying it was amazing work. Even after having spent so many years in advertising, one can’t guess which campaign will create dhamaal. 

Very often, I am asked how much I had to change after taking over as the agency’s head. This was a position I had said no to for two years. A senior colleague finally told me that I was anyway the leader. “So just accept it.”

It is true that Ogilvy has had a lot of success. To the outside world, this is linked to Piyush Pandey but that is not true. I have had nothing to do with the Vodafone Cheeka and ZooZoo ads. It came completely from the late Mahesh V and Rajiv Rao. It was great work and required nothing from me. It would have been spoilt had I touched it. 

O&M is not just about Piyush. It would not have survived without SN Rane, who is the co-Chairman. I can do things. I wanted him because he can manage things. There are many things that go into making a company like legal, business and administration. Advertising is not a one-man game. It’s not like Roger Federer, who too has a team of coaches and physios. We have a fabulous team and I just happen to be the captain. There are times when the captain scores a zero and the team still wins. That does not mean he wins every match. It is for the team to win. 

People say every client wants a piece of Piyush Pandey. I do not think so. Just look at the work done by Rajiv and Hephzibah on Vodafone. You have to build people and you have to do work for 10-15 years. I tell a client that I now have a rock star and you don’t need me. In fact, it is not mandatory for them to show me the work. 

Everyone introduces somebody to somebody and that respect has to be earned. Suresh also introduced me and I slowly took charge. Now with Rajiv and Abhijit, it is the same. It is physically impossible to do so much and the youngsters are really good.

Through my career, there have been several emotional moments. When my father passed away in 1985, it left a big vacuum in my life. My mother’s biggest regret was that he did not live to see the response to mile sur mera tumhara, which came two years later. In her mind, it was the new national anthem and would have made him very proud. My mother was very strong and she came out much stronger after dad passed away. I remember calling her quite excitedly from Cannes after winning two golds. She was happy and said “Good work but don’t let it go to your head.” It was worldly advice conveyed in the most beautiful manner. She passed away in 2010. We were all in Jaipur. It was not looking good. I missed her when I won the Padma Shri last year. She would have been very happy.

It’s been 35 years in advertising. Change is inevitable and obviously the way of working is very different today. None of it bothers me except one part. Earlier, there was a sense of stability about a person being around for 10-15 years. Now, people are moving around too quickly. It complicates my job since just as one is starting to build a relationship with a client, he is gone. It’s really the era of One Day Internationals versus Test cricket. 

The good part is learning new areas like digital, where I am a zero and the youngster is at 100. People speak of a lot of things having changed after 1991. In my own head, human beings are human beings. How much can they change?

I always draw a parallel with my career and believe in the horses-for-courses approach. That really means, you do not have to deal with every individual in a standard fashion. There will be some with fantastic ability and those with a shortcoming as well. Some guys work late and you cannot expect him to be in office at 9:30 AM. It is important to balance it out. In life or at work, you have to deal with someone who is short-tempered or someone who is late. Human beings are not made in a mould. Therefore, if you see a spark, you have to make it shine and not look at deficiencies. If you are looking for a standard pattern, you will never find it.

This is part three of a three-part series. You can read part one here and part two here.