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Elsie Nanji – an unlikely heroine of Indian Advertising.

November 10, 2006

agency-faqs-elsie.jpgHer self depreciating manner belies a thinking which has brought her to where she is today.
There are those who clamour for the limelight. There are those who nudge and elbow for little bits of glory. And there are those upon whom fame descends unsolicited. Elsie Nanji, partner and creative director, Ambience Advertising, falls into this last category. There is a subdued elegance to her, a quiet confidence that she exudes. Yet, there is also a self-effacing reluctance in her acknowledgement of the respect she commands. It’s almost as if she’d rather not have any of this. ‘I think I am very low-profile,’ says Elsie. ‘One-to-one I am a good friend and a very good listener. I have a few good friends, and with them I am relaxed. But not with everybody.’ Even after all these years in advertising? But she has always been like that she says. ‘My work has given me confidence as I feel I have achieved something, and I don’t feel as nervous about meeting people.’ Nervous about meeting people? So very unlike ad folk.

I wanted to communicate my art to people directly…
Well, she may be different but she has what it takes. When it comes to art, the lady knows her mind. ‘I was convinced that I wanted to do art. And soon, I was clear that I wanted to do commercial art as opposed to fine art, because I wanted to communicate my art to people directly, rather than do something that was inward. I would say that advertising is much more outwards, not so self-reflecting as art. In art, you can put a bit of yourself into it and leave it to others whether they like it or not. Whereas in advertising, it’s never really yourself; it’s to do with putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else.’

At first they made me do the lettering…
Elsie may have been prepared to slip into somebody else’s shoes, but her first job was a big letdown. ‘At Lintas, they made me to the lettering,’ she exclaims. ‘Although I was hired as a visualiser, no one gave me the chance. It depended on how fine your ‘finishing’ was. It had nothing to do with what you were thinking.’ A real dampener for any eager, starry-eyed beginner. ‘But soon, I joined O&M, and there, I straightaway started working with copywriters, started ideating, rather than doing finishing work. I was using my mind. We launched Flying Machine jeans, and for me it was a very big thing.’

If someone noticed me, it always came as a surprise…
It was a big thing. For apparently, it was her work for Flying Machine that got her noticed by Mohammed Khan, who made her an offer. ‘He had said that whoever has done the Flying Machine work, I want in my agency.’ I didn’t even know him. Ofcourse, ‘getting noticed’ isn’t something that Elsie has ever worked towards, at least not consciously. ‘I have always been quite content doing good creative work. If someone noticed me, it always came as a surprise. From day one, I remember I could never speak about what I could do. I can sell my work because I believe in my work. If it’s a piece of work I am absolutely passionate about, I can think of a hundred logical reasons – apart from creative reasons – as to why it will sell. But I just can’t sell my abilities. That is there for you to see.’

I never wanted to build a big empire…
But then, when one comes up trumps on account of a whole lot of good work, one does get noticed. Which is what happened when Elsie won the Art Director of the Year award while at Enterprise. Ashok Kurien noticed her. ‘Ashok approached me and said – why don’t you be a partner with me in my agency? I had no vision…I only thought one day at a time. Then I thought: he has two clients, Thums Up and Garden, and for these two clients I could do good creative. And once we did the work for these two clients, and it became successful, more clients started coming…’ However, she quickly adds, ‘Though I am ambitious in the sense that whatever I do has to be perfect – and I am terribly concerned about that – it was never as if I wanted to build a big empire.’

People told Ashok it was a mistake, asking me to be a partner…
Elsie insists that she was made a partner when she was a ‘nobody’. ‘Ashok told me that the people in Rediffusion where he was working laughed at him saying – are you crazy taking this girl as a partner in your agency? Why don’t you just employ her? Maybe at double the salary of what Mohammed is paying. She is only a designer. She will always be just that, and it’s you who has the clients – but he was very clear that he wanted a creative person to grow with the agency and to lead the creative. He had vision to build the agency with the right balance. Today, even senior people in the agency have to value what I say because I am the owner.’ What does she think she has that made the difference? Why was she chosen over others? ‘Ashok approached me because the clients he had were more visual-oriented,’ she explains. And her modesty prevails. ‘Then to our luck, advertising itself took on more visually-led creative,’ she says. The fact is, copywriters were starting to loosen their hold on the creative…it was the beginning of a trend.

We wanted to keep it qualitative…
Ashok Kurien’s vision and Elsie’s creative talent. A potent combination, going by Ambience’s growth. Yet, the agency kept relatively few clients. By choice. ‘We had a policy of two clients a year as we had a lot of people approaching us. I knew that if I had ten things to do, I would not be able to do them well. At that point of time, I was not into supervising people. Two accounts, I could manage…maybe four, which grew to six, and then I had people working for me for the first time. Even then, it was very much controllable…one or two people working for me. We wanted to keep it as qualitative as possible, rather than quantitative. Plus, we were very profitable. We were small, had small overheads – at that time – and had big clients.’ The clients kept coming without their asking. Lakme, Vadilal…

A fertile mind can create ideas all the time …
Concentrated attention. Few clients. That was the thrust. Anything else that helped the agency come out with such good creative? Where were the ideas coming from? ‘A fertile mind can create ideas all the time, anywhere,’ says Elsie. ‘One gets ideas if one just thinks about it differently, approaches a problem differently. There could one logical solution, but there could be ten others too. If you want to sell a talcum powder or soap, there is one standard way of selling it – which a lot of people are doing. Or you could take it out of the context of soap and build a story around it as you would for a soft drink. That is the way to avoid traditional advertising…by taking the idea out of it’s mould.’

Creative people need to think strategy…
‘Ashok asks me – do you think this strategy (from the client’s brief) is extendable to a creative strategy? We discuss it, and once he has my okay, it’s up to me and my team to deliver. Any idea to be workable has to be rationalised. It has to be seen from the consumer’s point of view, from the client’s point of view.’ Doesn’t the onus of rationalising the creative fall on the servicing department? Elsie thinks not. ‘This is hundred per cent the creative person’s job. Today more so than ever before. It’s the creative person who knows why he thought of it. He has taken off from the client’s brief and got the idea. Thus, he has to link it to the whole, to the client’s strategy, and put it in the context of today’s life-styles, today’s viewing habits. Creative ideas often being abstract, the link has to be clearly explained – as to how the consumer will react.’
Besides, not all account guys can understand and/or explain a creative idea. ‘They are a few who think like that, but mostly these are those who are owners of agencies, they’ve grown like that. The rest are just account managers. They don’t necessarily get involved in the creative. They leave creativity to the creative people. When the creative people tell them this is so, they go with it, they trust the creative person. They are not the ones who have translated the brief into the creative and the creative into a consumer strategy. Only when the account guys can think of the creative by themselves, can they do this. You have to also know beforehand whether a brief can be translated into a great creative idea. You have to be able to see that far. It’s not only about understanding the client’s marketing requirements, it’s actually about understanding advertising.’

Ideas are not enough…
‘Getting an idea is only the beginning,’ says Elsie. ‘Lots of people have creative ideas, specially young people, but to channelise them effectively is something one has to learn. Ideas are not enough. You need to take a young person’s idea and put it into logic.’ The result? Advertising that works.

Awards are not the objective…
It’s very very exhilarating to win awards, no questions about it. But at times it becomes the be-all-and-end-all of every creative person. And that is unfortunate.’ And then her modesty surfaces. ‘I honestly feel that whatever work I won awards for, I did for the clients. If it won awards, that was luck.’

The secret of her success?
But it was her creative talent that made her so successful wasn’t it? Elsie, true to style, wouldn’t quite agree. ‘I am honestly telling you that there are many people far more talented than I am. I’m sure the industry is all wondering – how did she make it so big when there are other talented people around?’ Okay, so it wasn’t talent alone. She has something else too. ‘I genuinely believe that perseverance has a lot to do with it. The number of times one is told that one is wrong…you know it’s difficult…creative people can’t take it. But eventually one has to remember that it’s the client’s money that you are spending and you can’t be bull-headed all the time. We are not here to gratify our egos or fine tune our aesthetic skills. We have to accept that.’ The fact that she isn’t into ego-gratification is what sets her apart from the crowd. But the fact is that for all her apartness, Elsie has found a pedestal for herself – without asking for one.

(This was published in the Advertising and Marketing (A&M) Magazine. The photograph is sourced from agency faqs)

Note:
Elsie Nanji and Ashok Kurien set up Ambience in 1987 and today Ambience is part of the Publicis Worldwide network: Ambience Publicis and Publicis India. Ashok Kurien is Chairman and Managing Director and Elsie Nanji is the vice-chairperson and chief creative officer. Elsie has also been inducted on the world-wide creative board of Publicis.
Today she is a regularly invited to international award juries. She was a jury member at both the D&AD (poster category) and Clio (television category) 2006 awards. And this is not the first time either. She has been a jury member for Clio and D&AD before, in 2002 and 2004 respectively.
Elsie has won awards at Clio, D&AD, the One Show and has also won the Art Director of the year award in India several times.

If you want to read more advertising related articles, including interviews with Indian advertising greats, click here: tag/advertising or tag/successful-people

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