Please tell us about yourself
My father served in the Indian Air Force and he was my biggest influence growing up.
Because of his job, we led nomadic lives. Life in the armed forces exposes you to people from all parts of the country, varied cultures and offers work-life balance like no other profession can.
We got the opportunity to see all parts of the country including places like Arunachal Pradesh that weren’t open to outsiders.
We celebrated all festivals with equal gusto but Christmas was special for me.
The Air Force band would gather us kids and we would go from house to house singing carols and getting sweets!
Our Santa Claus didn’t come in a sleigh; he arrived in a helicopter and our Christmas party was atop a Queen Mary (trailer) that would drive us up and down the air strip!
My mother called the life in the armed forces aish without cash! Because even though you were paid only government salary, you got the opportunity to live a full life.
I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and so in May 1987 I appeared for the National Defence Academy entrance test and cleared it. But before I took the Service Selection Board’s physical test, I had to get glasses. With that went my hopes of joining the IAF.
What did you study?
When I appeared for my IIT entrance test, my score couldn’t get me into the stream I wanted to major in.
I ran into a friend who had graduated from the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). The tales he told me of his time in BHU convinced me that BHU was the place for me.
I managed to get a seat in metallurgical engineering; it was an upcoming field.
And thus began four of the most magical years of my life.
I made some great friends, had a fantastic time having great food, attending concerts by the Ganga, taking a dip in the holy river, spending hours in the library that had a rich collection of books and magazines.
After I completed my graduation in 1993, I had the opportunity to pursue my master’s degree in environmental engineering in the US but my mother fell ill and I returned home.
In March the following year, my mother passed away; I quit and moved back to Delhi where my father had started a business of manufacturing dyes after taking early retirement from the IAF.
Tell us about your career path. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
For the next three years, I would travel 60-70 km every day going from one printing unit to another interacting with sales guys, dyeing masters… all kinds of people.
One of them told me I should start trading in saris since I was from Jaipur. So I started sourcing saris from Jaipur and selling them in Delhi.
Between 1994 and 1997 this is all I did. By the end of it, I was done and I wanted out.
What I was doing for a living wasn’t remotely related to what I had studied. And I was bored.
I didn’t see myself taking over my father’s business and so I left for Mumbai with the idea of working in the ad industry.
Now, I hadn’t written anything before in my life but I would occasionally find myself sitting in on brainstorming sessions with my uncles who were in advertising and suggest ideas that they liked.
I didn’t want to immediately come to O&M.
On their recommendation, Mohammed Khan and Rajeev Agarwal of (the ad agency) Enterprise Nexus agreed to meet me.
They wanted me to show them something I had written. I told them that I hadn’t written anything except letters to my mother, so they suggested I take a copy test.
After passing the test, I joined Enterprise Nexus on April 1, 1997 and worked there for two years.
During my time there, I worked on The Times of India‘s ‘A Day in the life of India’ campaign, which got me some deal of visibility.
I got reasonably decent exposure to different media and I was leaning towards film.
Enterprise Nexus wasn’t doing a lot of films but O&M was. And they had been interested in hiring me for a while.
So I moved on from Nexus and joined O&M on July 7, 1999.
How was the experience at O&M?
When I took up the O&M offer, I was initially very awkward.
I wasn’t sure what would be considered proper or not or how much I should fight for, let’s say, an idea I was convinced about.
Initially I also lacked confidence because I was never a typical writer.
I would get overwhelmed by people who had a great command over the language and had the typical traditional ‘creative’ skills.
I soon realised that this was the outsider’s view of what makes for good advertising and that these are just tools that help you to express your imagination.
This gave me the confidence to hone the art of storytelling, something I enjoyed.
I would go for photo shoots, sit with Prasoon on his edits and slowly things began falling into place.
Among the campaigns I worked on, Fevicol was probably the easiest because by the time I had joined O&M, a lot of solid groundwork had already been done.
All I had to do was to find a way to reinforce that message.
We knew the tone would be earthy, rooted and delivered with a sense of smile. That was how the bus campaign came about.
With Cadbury we were riding on the tradition of offering sweets during special occasions and giving it a contemporary twist — therefore ‘Kuch meetha ho jaaye!’
On the other hand, Five Star offered the chance for us to be totally dorky.
Unlike other chocolates Five Star requires an involved experience. You can’t just leave it on your tongue and expect it to melt.
It needs you to be involved and therefore get lost. That was the genesis of the idea and we went crazy after that.
The Bajaj Pulsar campaign is very dear to me. Twelve years ago there wasn’t even a category of sports bikes in India. The challenge was how to get people to spend big ticket money on bikes, so we positioned it as a performance bike with adrenalin rushing stunts.
Today everyone imitates it.
Promoting the first season of Satyamev Jayate posed a challenge because here was a show that spoke of social issues, on a Sunday morning, for 90 minutes. The odds were stacked against it.
There were debates about whether we should tell the audience what the show is about and have the possibility of losing their interest even before the first episode went live or not telling them what it was and therefore not making them interested enough.
So we came up with the idea of behind-the-scenes shoot in which Aamir is discussing what is on his mind with his team. We suggested that, yes, it was entertainment but, no, it wasn’t going to be all laughter and games.
The challenge for the Google advertisement was how to get a conversation going around an everyday brand.
What most people don’t know is that it is smart storytelling, which weaves in various Googleservices that they wanted us to showcase!
These experiences and several others have enriched me and given me the confidence to try out something new.
The one thing that separates Ogilvy from any other agency is that everyone — not just the people in the creative team but also account servicing, PR, even the rural divisions — thinks differently.
Over the years they have learnt to understand the importance of creativity.
O&M also taught me the importance of having courage, of being able to stand my ground with a client.
It has also taught me to be open to different ideas and to not lean on what I may have achieved in the past and instead do newer things.
Most importantly, it has taught me the power of relationships and that things fall into place if you share great relationships with people.
But the one thing that I will miss the most about O&M is the buzz of the place. The energy in the offices is amazing! I will miss that a lot as I step out of its offices for the last time after 15 years.
Do I consider myself successful?
Success to me is having the freedom to do something that makes me happy and along the way work with interesting people and make a decent living.
A big designation, glamorous corporate life or big money doesn’t fall into my parameters of success.
I get to travel in my job; I laugh a lot; I get to interact with people from different fields, which gives me mental and emotional satisfaction.
So, yes, I would think I am successful.