In the early days in Bombay, I played cricket for Ogilvy. There was no team and I had to put it together. It was picking up guys who had played some cricket here and there. The inter-agency cricket tournament was what we played for. All the matches were on Saturdays. The hitch was Shunu Sen, marketing head at HLL, had his meetings on that day. I decided to take my chances. Shunu was a lovely man who did not scare anyone yet everyone was afraid of him. I went to his secretary and asked for time to meet him. In all fearlessness (yet again), I said, “Mr Sen, I have a problem and I need your help.” He listened to the bit on the cricket match. I offered to come to his office at 7 AM. “I can meet you on Sunday also but please excuse me on Saturday,” was my enthusiastic line. He very slowly responded, “Go play your match boy. You are not so important that I will call you on a Saturday.” Obviously, I was thrilled.
My relationship with him lasted even after he quit HLL to start Quadra Advisory. He would call and ask for a showreel of what I thought was the best advertising for his presentation. It was a great relationship that lasted till his last breath.
The shift from client servicing to creative was completely by chance. At that point, my colleagues in servicing were working with creative partners who were English writers. A client, Bajaj Tempo, wanted work in Hindi though. Often, I would be asked by the guys in office to do some work in Hindi. I happily did it without realising it would soon change my life.
It all began when Sunlight brand had just gone national and my boss, Chintamani Rao, knew what lay ahead. He just said, "Tu likh le". That night I wrote three campaigns and presented it to the client. HLL loved it and asked me to congratulate the creative team. There was no way I could say it was my work and I just nodded my head. Once the campaign took off, I told my client head, “You bastard, I wrote it.” He was stunned. That was enough for Suresh Mullick, O&M’s national creative director to ask me to join his team.
Suresh and Iyer created a cell that I was to head. That meeting was all about telling me there was an opportunity. I was unsure since I certainly did not want to be stamped as a translator. Suresh said he wanted me to be copy chief for Indian languages. I asked for a day.
Nothing is ever achieved in life without a bit of audacity. The following morning I met Suresh, I was account supervisor after four years. “Does this move mean I will never be NCD?” was all I asked. Suresh said, “No” and I ended up saying “yes”. My logic was I did not want to be stamped as a Rajasthan administrative service officer compared with an IAS officer. It was a gutsy question to ask then.
The situation was also slightly tricky since they had to give me accounts that somebody else was handling. The plan was to give me very Indian accounts. They asked the team what they wanted to give up. Instantly, Luna, Pidilite and Asian Paints landed on my desk as the team felt these clients, in particular, did not appreciate their good work.
What they did not realise (neither did I!) was that my career was being made.
My first break was for Luna moped. The Chal meri Luna line came only from common sense. In those times, a guy from a middle-class background had a cycle or travelled by bus. The next step was the moped and it was logical for anyone to speak in that language. Luna was popular, high on mileage and an easy-to-ride two-wheeler.
The line was an extension of a horse or the relationship between a sawar and a sawari. The Bata outlets would have a rocking wooden horse and the kids would sit on it. The line was Chal mere ghode and that was the relationship between the kid and that inanimate object.
Arun Firodia was the client and I went to him with three ads. As the presentation was being made, he did not say a word. He was emotionless all through and had a toothpick in his mouth. My feeling was we had made a mess of it. After a while, he removed his toothpick and said, “Teeno bana do.” The guys at work were having a problem selling one ad to an useless client and he said okay to three!
A big moment came in 1987 and it had an impact of a very different kind. I had worked with Suresh Mullick, Ogilvy’s creative boss on Mile sur mera tumhara campaign. I wrote the lyrics for that. There was really no ideation process for that. The brief from Suresh was simple. Was there a way to find a link between water evaporating and making a connection to life? The other way to look at it was to watch the formation of clouds which leads to rainfall and narrate the story of life and togetherness. The essence was how one cannot work without the other.
I liked what I had written but the real magic took place when Pandit Bhimsen Joshi played the first composition. That was something else! Like every other work of mine, simplicity was what worked. Some time later, I picked up Panditji from the airport. By this time, Mile sur had really taken off. He was very nice when he said, “Mein apne circles mein kaafi popular tha. Aapne toh mujhe har ghar mein pahuncha diya.” I smiled and slowly said, “Panditji, mera manna hai ki aapne humein popular bana diya.”
The idea came completely from Suresh starting from the concept to deciding who should be in it. I was merely a lyricist. Convincing him was not easy and it took seventeen rejected drafts before I was done. When I presented the eighteenth to him, we were having a drink at the Ritz bar in Churchgate, a stone’s throw from our office. He heard me out and said, “OK, we are rolling!”
The client was Lok Sanchar Seva, whose advisory committee had Shunu in it. The next act was Vel. His first idea was the freedom struggle, which had the sportsmen running with the torch. That was a big hit and Mile sur was a bigger success. That spontaneity in the first two was not there in desh. It was more of an effort.
Around the same time, work on Asian Paints' Mera wala pink and blue, along with Fevicol’s Dum laga ke haisha was taking off. I enjoyed working with Bharat Puri at Asian Paints and used to ring him up early mornings. Though he constantly complained about me calling him as early as 6 AM, he is easy going and a very rooted guy. Bharat understands India at the grass-roots level. I think that helped us connect easily and produce some great outcomes.
We were working on the mera wala blue idea. Again, it was an early morning call. My conversation was brief. “I have an idea. There is a 20 crore set and we have to shoot in the next five days.” My sister was then in the Tourism Department and the Pushkar fair was on. This was too big an opportunity and a bigger set would have been impossible. I wrote the story and Bharat just asked me to go ahead. There was no procedure or process. We just shot it and it went on air.
The two of us work very well together and that was obvious again during the 1996 cricket World Cup. It was being hosted in the sub-continent. Since India wore blue, we ran with a Hamara blue campaign with wishes from Asian Paints. As luck would have it, we lost to Sri Lanka in the semis. But an ad was nevertheless required and I suggested that to Bharat. I changed the same shirt to a dark blue, which is what the Lankans wore. Hamara wala blue was changed to Tumhara wala blue (it was of course darker) with the line saying, “Congrats Sri Lanka. You were a shade better.” I told Bharat the line over the phone and got the green signal. The first time he saw it was in the newspaper the following morning.
The one Asian Paints campaign that made us very emotional was in 1992. The theme was about a young man going back home for Pongal. He was to surprise his parents. We initially presented a 30-second script to Bharat and came back with a 60-second one. Between Rajeev Menon and Sonal Dabral, who was then my partner, we shot and put together a fantastic 60-second commercial. AR Rahman composed the music. He was still known as Dilip then. We showed it to Bharat at a studio in Tardeo and he broke down at the end of it. We promptly got drunk after that! Needless to say, the client was impressed.
Around this time, Pidilite was going berserk. The magic of Madhukar Parekh was visible and he had immense faith in me. There is no doubt I worked ten times harder on Pidilite than anybody else. This was really because the brief was such. The client said, “You make the next ad when you think we need to. That is, when you have an idea.” That meant, I had nine scripts in my head and had to deal with my brother, Prasoon, who would reject half of them. After all, he was going to shoot it and would say things like “Is this good enough for Pidilite!” It was back to the drawing board then!
The thing is two fantastic partnerships emerged. One was between O&M, Pidilite and Prasoon and the other was O&M, Asian Paints and Prasoon. Now I realise how a lot of mutual respect leads to good work. There have been several occasions when the client said, “Piyush, this is fantastic. What does Prasoon have to say?” When the three fall in place, it is incredible and that happened many times.