Piyush Pandey – the gentle rebel
No need to establish his credentials. He is an advertising great. And his ads sparkle. Piyush Pandey’s ‘mile sur humara tumhara’ for the National Literacy Mission got etched in our collective Indian ad memory years ago. And the campaign for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk added to it. All the way from that dance on the cricket field to the youth movement in a running train to recover the ‘real taste of life.’ And then there were others. Fevikwik for example. All brought the gentle rebel out, pushing him under the centre stage spot beam, and as the applause rose it could only reach a crescendo. A global one.
How did it all start?
The skill is not the issue here. Pandey is the small-town ideas man who adapted to proper big city life without letting go of his gulli-danda exuberance. But this is about the choice of application. A question of the mind’s expanse. ‘God,’ he begins, ‘gave me a good time and a lot of opportunity and fulfillment, but that was yesterday, and today is another day. There is so much more to do. There is a fire burning within me.’ Passion. A quality that’s not so obvious in those heavy lidded eyes of his. Nor in his almost detached demeanor. But underneath this almost arrogant exterior, does lurk the flame. ‘There is this desire, an ambition, a passion, that I will do things which would make people say, ‘I loved your ad. And I loved your work.’
But don’t get him wrong. Pandey doesn’t make great ads just to please others. Sure, he thrives on awards. But beneath it all, lies a no-nonsense head which has brought him where he is. And from a place where few great creative minds come. Client Servicing.
‘Advertising interested me, but the funny thing is that I didn’t even know what I would do in an agency. So when I applied, I wrote ads and sent it to them. The job I got was that of an assistant account executive!’ Pandey was already 27, having spent time as a tea taster for three years.
He fell in love with the agency atmosphere. ‘I just loved the job. This was an agency where people had no major concern about their designations. Ranjan Kapur was deputy MD and yet we assistant AE’s moved around with him and with such ease – it allowed us a lot of camaraderie. And client servicing was not a boring job at all. I loved the creative side of it.’
The joy of good creative
Pandey had a simple method of evaluating creative: would it give joy to the viewer? ‘To derive the pure joy of good creative, one has to distance oneself from it. I think we take ourselves too seriously. We should not think of ourselves as ad people or as client – but as viewers. That’s how we connect with the real viewer today.’
The ‘Indian’ connection
Connecting with the regular Indian viewer. That’s what built Pandey. ‘I could think like an Indian, which was a rare thing in ad agencies in India. I had travelled. I could write in Hindi. Suresh Mullick, O&M’s Creative Director at that time, started picking my brain on things. And when I realised that I could do it myself, I started picking holes in the work done for my clients. And if I didn’t think it was good enough, I started writing it myself.’ He was 33.
He slipped into creative naturally, and his passion was put to work straight away. ‘I had already written an interesting campaign for Sunlight. In the first few months, I wrote three campaigns, and one of them was Chal Meri Luna. It ran for 7-8 years, won all kinds of awards and did a chal meri luna to my life. Shortly after that, in 1988, I did Haisha, dum laga ke haisha, for Fevicol. And it ran for over a decade…and at the end of ’88 I wrote the song Mile Sure Humara Tumhara. It gave me recognition.’
But nothing comes easy. ‘Breaks don’t come to you, you have to grab them. For example one of my colleague came to me with an ad for Fevicol and wanted me to translate it into Hindi. I took it home, tore it up and threw it away. And I wrote dum lagake haisha – and it was completely different from the old ad, which talked about the three generations of carpenters who use Fevicol. Nobody in the agency believed that the client would buy it. I went across. And the client loved it.’
Where did the talent come from? Nurture all the way. ‘It was the atmosphere I was brought up in,’ he says. ‘There were a lot of intellectual discussions at home on what good art and good films were all about. To me, an ad film is like a small little film, a story.’ This helped. And the desire to challenge the status quo. ‘I did not agree with the standard way of saying things.’ Is that all? ‘I was a rebel because I believed that you cannot reach out to people by saying things the same way you have been saying them. You have to say them differently.’
Creativity in a nutshell
‘Creativity is to say something in a fashion that sticks in the mind, rather than saying it in a normal fashion. If ten people meet you in the morning and if all of them are saying – Good Morning – the guy who says it differently will be remembered. He is creative. But if he does a head stand, it won’t work. So one has to do things which have not been done in the past, but which are relevant.’ Relevance to context. In advertising terms – to the consumer and her need for the product. ‘If you like it, as a viewer, there’s a good chance that people will also like it.’ And he doesn’t think of this charm as anything mysterious. ‘Relating to the people of India is what we are paid for. I’ve not created any magic. A hundred years ago, when the guy on the road sang – chana gore garam – he was not trying to be a singer. He wanted people to buy from him, and not from the other guy.
Advertising has to reach out to people
‘Today, I am proud that all the awards that I win are for the advertising that is loved by the people. Advertising should not be so inward that you do ads for 25 people and exchange awards. Winning awards is a great feeling, but it’s much more meaningful when students in Jaipur ask you for autographs. Autographs? Do ad folks get asked for autographs?
‘Why am I asked for autographs? Because I wrote the Fevikwik commercial. Because I wrote Mile Sur. That’s real fame- it’s amongst the people you are talking to.’ Pandey is confident that he knows what works.
How does he handle the other point of view?
‘There are contradictions in life,’ he acknowledges. ‘There may be times when others are right, but there aren’t too many of them.’ He laughs. What matters to him is not letting go of things he believes in. ‘If you believe in something, persuade the client. If it means going and getting drunk with him, go get drunk. If it means knocking his nose off, knock his nose off. It’s one short lifetime and don’t let go if you think you have a winner in you.’
What about errors in judgment? Has he made some? ‘Everyone makes mistakes, and I am no different. But I don’t know whether I am right or wrong. I just know that within me, there is this streak – to enjoy things, without being logical about it.’
He adds: ‘Absorb what you want to absorb, and then don’t give a damn – there is just one short life.’
‘‘We should not get so jingoistic that we ignore the world. Yes, our first ask is to talk to the Indian consumer. But the work overseas is ahead of ours and we have to recognise that. If the world says, ‘You are not number 1, you are not.’ Reality. In a business of dreams, it’s a nose-to-the-project realism that wins.
‘Maybe we can blame it on the environment, anything, but what we have to do is think how to get there. For example, before the 1995 World Cup, Sri Lanka had beaten some good teams, but it was only in 1995, that the world sat up and took notice. In Advertising, we need to win the World Cup.’ And now is the time. All eyes are on India – the country that had it’s own ideas about blending this and that and doing things independently. So, is there anything in which India is world class? In advertising, yes, it can be.
Which is why Pandey is opposed to turning inwards. ‘Localizing ads so that they don’t make sense to anybody else is not the way to go. You have to take universal ideas and project them so they will be recognized anywhere in the world. It’s possible to make things which India loves and the world loves. Why should we limit ourselves? A human being is a human being and can’t I find those magical things which appeal to everyone?’
Some of his favorite ads
‘Take the Volkswagen ad. People are watching a tennis match, and their heads move from left to right in standard fashion. Then, suddenly, they get stuck in one direction. They’ve all spotted the new Volkswagen. What is the universal truth here? Meri ankhe tiki tiki reh gayi.’ How he would have loved to work on that account!
Another one of his international favorites is the Hamlet Cigars’ campaign.
What about the Coke ads? ‘I saw a wonderful International Coke ad the other day. A stage performance of an opera going on, and a person doing soliloquy – crying, during a performance. A little child, sitting with a Coke in the front row, sees him crying and gives him her Coke.’ This too is a universal idea, he points out, which can be adapted to an Indian locale. ‘That’s how all kids think.’
Riding on Hindi films, without any twist to the campaign he feels is a lousy idea.. ‘I would not do a Karishma Kapoor singing and selling Coke. Not in this life…not in this life.’ Pandey shakes his head at that. Then again, ‘Well, if you ask if everything I do is guided by my own beliefs, no, it is not. There are six balls in an over, and you cant hit everyone one for a six. So, don’t throw your wicket away. As long as you score more sixers than others, you’re alright.’ That’s the cricketer in him speaking. One who knows what should slammed over the boundary and what blocked dead.
He feels age is not the thing. ‘As long as you’re still challenging principles, you have nothing to worry about. Age has nothing to do with it.’
And what about writer’s block? ‘I haven’t thought of that happening. But the day it starts happening, I’ll do something else. I only look at the future with a sense of optimism. And I’m sure some fresh buck will come along and change the status quo.
For now, he’s rather it’s him. Rocking the world slowly, Indian style. With more charm than raw aggression. That’s Pandey for you.
(Published in the A&M (Advertising & Marketing) Magazine. Photo has been sourced from Andys Awards.)
Note: In September 2006, Piyush Pandey, the Chairman and Creative Director of Ogilgy & Mather India was nominated to the Ogilvy Worldwide Board.
He has picked up over 500 Indian advertising awards and has also been named the most influential man in Indian advertising for four years consecutively by The Economic Times. And in 2004, he became the first Asian to be the president of the Cannes jury.
He has also picked up two Cannes Golds for The Anti-Smoking campaignfor the Cancer Patients Association.
He has been invited to be a judge at the Asia Pacific Advertising Festival Awards, 2007.
Read more about advertising greats and about ad-film-making . Also about famous ad campaigns like the Kargil campaign and the one on the legendary Raymond’s Complete Man
How high are advertising standards in India? and How Indian television advertising affects children.
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Branding articles: What makes brands bomb? or Brand extensions or Sub-branding.