Secret Diary of Piyush Pandey, executive chairman, South Asia, O&M | Biography Part-1 | Outlook Business
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Photograph by Soumik Kar

Secret Diary Of A CEO 2017

"Do what you feel like and not what makes you comfortable"
Secret Diary of Piyush Pandey — Part 1

Krishna Gopalan

Piyush Pandey, executive chairman, South Asia, O&M

Born into a household after seven girls meant I ended being both pampered and a brat. Thanks to the substantial age gap, at times I did feel like I had eight mothers — seven surrogate! My sisters played a huge role in giving me not just what they had but also what they did not get. All my sisters went to government-run Hindi-medium schools, but it was on their insistence that I went to St Xavier’s School in Jaipur. It’s hard for me to forget what Uma, the third eldest sister whom we lost early, did for me. Be it ironing my clothes or getting my hair done, she was always there for me. At the same time, she was a tough customer too.

Piyush Pandey family pictureI had reason to be reprimanded at least five times a day. I would be beating up someone in the neighbourhood or stealing fruits from a tree. Even in school, I was not easy to manage. The diary would always have remarks in red and, I think, there was an expectation that I would always be in trouble. My sisters groomed me and would often sign the diary, only to see me go back to my mischievous ways.

Boy, it’s such a joy growing up in a large family. I enjoyed the odd balance of being pampered and yet being treated like any other child. There were no expensive toys and we all ate what we were given. Working in a cooperative bank meant, dad got to travel to small places for giving out loans to farmers or to collect what had been lent. He travelled in a Willy’s jeep and as an eight-year old, on occasions, I too used to tag along. 

ek numberI vividly remember his long hours and him bringing files back home. But despite the responsibility of a large family and a hectic work life, dad loved poetry and literature, especially the lighter side of it. My school used to have elocution contests and once my father taught me the Mira ka vishpan poem, which was quite intense. He sat with me and I learnt the style of recitation and delivery from him. I executed it so flawlessly and yet, I lost, as the teachers did not understand a word! My father kept my spirits up by saying that I would do better next year. Next time, I got a gold medal. The poem, “Idhar bhi gaddhe hain, udhar bhi gaddhe hain, jidhar dekhta hoon, gaddhe hi gaddhe hain,” was a political satire. It spoke about how inappropriate people become leaders and the common man gets nothing at the end of it. My father was a repository of poetry. He was, in particular, a huge fan of Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Kaka Hathrasi, though I never saw him writing. 

chldhood pic of Piyush PandeyMy dad was neither an optimist nor a cynic. He was quite cool, but there was no question of being lenient. If I beat up my brother, who is seven years younger, or fought with my sisters, he thrashed me. My mother too felt the pressure but she had a “life goes on” attitude. She was clear that she paid the fees and had eight other children to take care of. She told the teachers to punish me if I behaved badly. In her mind, 9 AM to 3 PM was the responsibility of the school. Today, parents are obsessed about the well-being of their child. In those days, there was a lot of trust and it was normal to get caned. I had a Hindi teacher called Mrs Sinha. One day she compared my naughtiness to Hanuman's. “If someone puts you on the constructive path, you can create magic. If you want to be destructive, you can be very destructive.” It was a lovely way of putting across the fact that I was not using my abilities in the right fashion. 

In Class V, I had my own cycle and would often go double to school with my brother. By 11, cycling down for picnics with a group of 30 other pranksters was a normal thing to do. On occasions we would travel to a spot 35 km away in the middle of a mountain. I cannot recall one occasion when my mother was crazily protective — she just let me be. 

That journey from my childhood taught me a valuable lesson of being allowed to grow up, in your own way. Without a word being uttered, the voice said, “Go ahead and play. We are backing you.” In later years, I imbibed that lesson in my working style — I do not want to control my colleagues and certainly not the younger lot. They are like trapeze artists and I am the net. If they fall, I am there.

ranji debutWhile I was not good at school, I was in love with cricket. My cricket coach in school was Nariman Marshall. A chain-smoking Parsi gentleman, Marshall was in the Indian team that went on that famous tour to England in 1932. A big area of interest for him was technique. He detested the sweep shot, which he thought was cross-batted. If you played the shot, you had to come to the nets an hour early at 2:30 PM with a jhaadu. The punishment was to sweep the ground for an hour. “No sweeping in my net” was his firm warning. If he had watched the reverse sweep today, he would have died.

My dad, though, did see a little bit of my academic success. I scored 53% in HSC and wanted to study at St Stephen’s in Delhi, where the cut-off was 75%. My parents let me go to Delhi, knowing fully well that there was no way I would get in. I am sure they did not want me to complain later saying, ‘I wasn’t given a chance.’ My admission to the BA course was on the basis of my stint in cricket and my parents were surprised, to say the least.

Piyush pandey paying no attention to paaji's glanceAt St Stephen’s, my passion for cricket just consumed me. My father was worried about my obsession and always asked what I would do to feed myself. “Eat a bat?” was his sarcastic question. Yet, when I was selected to play for Ranji Trophy, he bought me a transistor. I remember a match that I was playing at Ajmer and had hit the bowler for three successive boundaries. I tried it again and promptly got out. After I reached home, his reprimand was quick, Woh shot khelne ki kya zaroorat thi? 

Though I didn’t break any cricketing records, in the first year, I did top the university. It was a record of sorts since it was for the first time in 17 years that there was a First Division in the college and a topper as well. I was in Jodhpur with my father’s older brother, who was more like my granddad, when the results were announced. My friend, Om Prakash Pahadia saw the results and told my parents that I had topped the chart. They were in disbelief and asked him if he had seen it properly! Pahadia lived in central Delhi and the poor guy went back by motorcycle in the hot summer to check the result again! 

My days at St Stephen’s were fabulous and also resulted in some lasting bonds. My longest association has been with Bhoot,whose real name is Anil Kumar. We were together from Class II all the way to our postgraduation and worked for the same company in Calcutta too. Imagine the guy’s plight when the principal at St Stephen’s also called him Bhoot! At St Stephen’s, Bhoot and I were a handful. We were really good at it! There was a fashion show that Bombay Dyeing had sponsored. We stole the collection and the models walked the ramp in their own clothes. The excuse given was that there was a mishap. The clothes were found on the Principal’s roof but we did eventually confess. Once we took a Baraat to our principal’s house as he had a pretty daughter! Mr Kapadia was a great sport. He called us in and served us tea. We used to wear scary masks and spook students. Every time, something happened in college, the talk was that it had to be Bhoot and Pandey.

a tea breakFrom college, my close friends have been Arun Lal, the ex-cricketer, with whom I speak twice a day and Amrit Mathur, who is the manager of the Indian cricket team. While I have made friends at different points in time, they were all long-lasting. They have always been there for me. If I had good news to share, like a promotion, they got happy and would say, “This is not the end of it but just the beginning.” They always egged me on to achieve more. They were great motivators but were unsuccessful in getting me to stop smoking!

Arun Lal, who was my senior, always said we should work together and that was the only way to be in touch. He got a job in Calcutta and passed on my CV to his employers, Tea Manufacturing & Marketing Company, a part of the Goodricke Group. They liked it and I was on board.

In Calcutta, I became a tea taster and that was fun. Though I was a smoker, it never came in the way of my job as a tea taster. It’s just a myth. The palate has to be clear 15 minutes before tea tasting. As an apprentice one had to just follow and observe what the taster did. The process was simple. The taster used to taste a tea leaf and then spit it out. One had to take note and taste the leaf after him. Over time, you get the hang of it. There is no course for this and you learn it on the job. We were young kids in Calcutta just having fun and just hoped that we were right. Apart from Arun and Amrit, Vece Paes, Leander’s father was also with us.

Mr. IyerOne evening in Calcutta, I met a friend from college, Debnath Guha Roy, who was then working for Hindustan Thompson. Arun and his wife Veena had been to Roy’s house and seen his work. During a casual conversation, Arun said, “Buddy, I saw these ads at Debnath’s house. You come up with ten lines that are better than this every day in normal conversation. I think you should give advertising a shot.”

Soon, Debnath took me to meet Mr Ghosal (HTA’s big boss then) and that’s when I got to know what is advertising. The only smart thing I ever did was to say one thing to myself — since I have started three years later, I will not work in Calcutta. I will go to Bombay where advertising is practised the best. That brought me to the maximum city and I started looking for a job for three - four months. 

I joined O&M as a trainee account executive and, in hindsight, I learnt it was most important to do what you feel like and not what makes you comfortable. In Calcutta, I had a well-furnished chummery and ate multi-course meals. In Bombay, my salary was one-third of my former salary but I was enjoying myself. In that sense, life is about what you feel like doing. In Calcutta, I had a small Herald car. There was no chance of that here and I sold it before moving. Once I moved, I stayed with my sister, Ila Arun at Santacruz. My starting salary at O&M was 2,000 and 200 was deducted as PF.

But the break came with its fair share of drama. I was introduced to Ranjan Kapur, the-then deputy MD, through a family friend. He was honest when he said there were no vacancies at O&M but he was willing to refer me to other agencies. The meeting progressed and Ranjan kept flipping through my CV. He then asked me to wait for a minute and said Mani Iyer, the-then MD, would meet me the next day. My CV, in all honesty, was damn impressive. Someone advised me to always have a job in hand. Therefore, once I came here, I joined a construction company where I would spend two hours each day. I did nothing much except having lunch there!

the sunlight years piyush pandeyThe issue was I had three years of work experience. I did not know anything about advertising and maybe O&M did not know where to fit me. I met Iyer for a while and he asked me all kinds of questions. The last one was quite pointed. “You have been a cricketer, tea taster and also worked in a construction company. What is the guarantee that a year later you will be with us?” In all fearlessness, I said, “What is the guarantee that you will keep me for a year? But chances are I will.” I don’t know where it came from. Iyer gave me the job and 35 years on, I am still here.

Being a people’s person, I had fun in client servicing. I joined Ogilvy in 1982 and worked on the Sunlight detergent powder account. The brand was launched in December that year. My client, Hindustan Lever’s office was right behind mine. There were a lot of meetings and I soon got friendly with the people there and that helped.

When you enter the building at Levers, you had to register yourself. The moment I was spotted, they would recognise me and say, Pandeysaab, dekha nahin aapko do din se and I would be in. Once they stopped the Brooke Bond marketing team from Bangalore but there was no such protocol for me.

There used to be a young girl working in O&M then who would travel on the same bus with Jeroo Ghaswalla, who dispersed cheques at Hindustan Lever. Each time my collections were due (payments were made 30 days after bills were submitted), Ms Ghaswalla would send word through that girl (Lynn de Souza) asking me to come over. I would take the trouble of saying hello to Ms Ghaswalla and ask her about her family. These little things make a big difference. 

Client servicing gave me that karna hai attitude. If a guy was in trouble, one had to help him. Even then, the O&M team would want to be different. Iyer and Ranjan would speak of executives from HTA and Lintas being in ties and jackets for a client meeting. They would say O&M was not like that. “We are a Boy Scout agency that rolls up our sleeves and work,” was their line. I liked it and still maintain that one should be formal when it comes to thinking and not by way of dressing.

My brand manager and client was one Rajkumar Mitta. I was in his office for a meeting one day and it seemed like he was having a hard day. He walked into his room and closed the door really hard. In the process, I was hurt. In the contact report, that the agency executives filed at the end of a meeting, a copy of which went to his boss, I wrote, “Client hit agency on the head” and the action point was —agency to revert.

Micky - a laugh riotWe were a young bunch of people at the agency and Hindustan Lever. We grew up together and these friendships have lasted a lifetime. Be it Micky Pant, Ravi Dhariwal, Vindi Banga or Harish Manwani, they are all very dear to me and are family. I still think of all those product launches, working with them late into the night. It was just the client and the agency.

There were great moments with them. If Micky and I were ever on a bus or train, we would have been thrown out. I have lost count of the number of times on a flight when we were laughing too loudly followed by passengers complaining. Micky is a gold mine of jokes and we continue to share them. Even today, we laugh like maniacs.

desi tadka for Le Sancy

Initially, Harish and I worked on a campaign for Le Sancy soap. There was a template from HLL, which was really boring and none of us felt like doing it. Between Harish and me, we changed the rules of the game and did some fantastic advertising. We first told the international guys that this was an Indianised version of your ad. We came up with a line called Rahul, paani chala jaayega. The international ad had the father and mother coming into the bathroom with the kids playing in the tub. The voiceover says — paani mein daalne se saabun nikal jaata hai. Le Sancy - shower mein bhi chalein, basin mein bhi chalein aur tub mein bhi chalein, khoob chalein, chalta jaye. We retained just the khoob chalein, chalta jaye line. We had a story and Harish helped me beat the system.

Vindi is a very dear friend and we launched Sunlight together in Delhi. We were in the midst of distributing ladoos to dealers when the news broke that Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. Being a turbaned Sardar, he removed his turban right after the riots broke out and was lucky to get out alive.

When my father died in Jaipur, I was on an HLL market visit in Delhi. When the news came, they immediately organised a car with a driver and instructed that I be provided food on the way. I reached home and there was an HLL guy with a packet of money. Though I did not take it, it is a gesture I will never forget.

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

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