The passion for the English language and writing catchy lines led Prathap Suthan(better known as Pat), managing partner and chief creative officer of Bang In The Middle and chief creative officer, iYogi Inc, to a career in advertising. What were the defining moments in his 25-year career?
Please tell us about yourself
I was born in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. Advertising calls it ‘God’s own country’, but I’d rather call it as the land that lives under a zillion coconut palms, drunk on toddy, and green with backwaters.
I went to Loyola School and Mar Ivanios College where i did my commerce, and gorged on debates, word-games, rum, cricket and everything else from Abba, Beatles, Bach, Orff, Ayn Rand, Wodehouse, Leon Uris, Shakespeare, Kurosawa, Coppola, to Asterix and Legionnaire Beau Peep.
I lived in Philadelphia between 1985 – 86, to help out my cousins with our family business. But all I did was travel around, went looking for John Denver’s country roads, stood through Live Aid, climbed the Rockies, and kept aching for my bed back home.
When I got back, all I wanted to do was write. I joined a small agency in Trivandrum, and by the time I sorted my fonts out, Mudra Communications – Ahmedabad, hired me. I spent 9 years there, 11 years in Grey, and now I am into my 3rd year at Cheil.
Essentially, I am still a copywriter. I cannot give up my soul. It’s been fed and raised on Fred Woodward’s typography, Ammirati’s BMW print ads, Television Registers and Shots, National Geographic, Japanese art and art direction, foreign films with and without subtitles, world music, Economist, and at least one new random website every day.
I will always be a student of our industry. And I don’t think I will be happier doing anything else. I am as good or bad as my last campaign, and you could call me Pat.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
The news about astronaut Neil Armstrong making his journey to the moon was my first defining moment. I was six when my father pointed at the moon and told me that, right at this moment, a man was heading to the moon. I was awestruck! In my head, that piece of information was a quantum leap. It made me realise the limitless possibilities and a transformation from fantasy to reality.
The next incident that made an impact on me was in Class 8. We used to have weekly English comprehension tests. I was an average student but an avid reader of comics, Westerns and National Geographic magazine. One week, we were given a paper where on one side there was a picture of a beach and on the other, a bunch of random words. We had to write a story choosing either one side.
The picture grabbed my attention and I wrote a story called Operational Jalaraj – inspired by Commando comics and a real-life naval incident that I had read somewhere. At the end of it, I was beaming. I believed it was a beautiful story and was confident that I would get the maximum marks. True to my assumption, I won the first place. It was a realisation of sorts; I could write engaging stories and critically judge my work. But a few minutes later, my paper was reviewed and for some mysterious reason, I became the second in class. Till date, I don’t know why it was done. Although it broke me, the incident acted as a fuel to help me do better the next time. And, I always came first in the comprehension tests.
The next defining moment was in college, where I learnt the art of crafting a language style to suit a person’s need, which is what advertising is about. I was known for my ability to write love letters for my friends who, in turn, would sponsor a mutton biryani. Each love letter was customised and written in a way that sounded as if the person himself/herself had written it. I became the de-facto love letter-writer in college. It also enabled me to understand the repertoire of writing skills. Each campaign and ideas is tailor-made to suit the requirements of the client and will not work for another brand.
What do you like about your job?
Because it’s the most interesting job in the world.
At least that’s what I think. It’s the only profession that guarantees that I get a brand new day of fun every day, and that I get the opportunity to even superficially understand and peek into the innards of almost every business that drives the world.
Not to mention the people whom I get to work with, and the places that I get to go to. I have never had a boring day.
More than that, Mother Earth and all her riches form the palette that I have in front of me to choose and draw from.
I can borrow from her, I can imagine whatever I want, and I am not held back by the limitations of any science or any rule. Everything goes in advertising.
I can travel to the moon, I can be a whooshing breeze, I can be on the wiggly tentacle of an octopus, I can be at the screeching nose of a rocket, I can be panting beside a burrowing worm, I can be a waterfall in the middle of a teardrop, I can be a rock star, a President, a general, a prehistoric man, and whatever my idea requires.
I can be anything, anyone, and anywhere.
Which other profession allows you the freedom to bring fantasies, and dreams, and imagination alive? I am sure many of us have dug into our lives and brought stories and incidents into the context of brands.
I am paid for my hobby. And the last time I went to work was the first day at Mudra. After that, it’s been one lovely endless ride.
Besides, I am not sure if I can do anything else. I really can’t. I probably might make a good lawyer, purely on the basis of arguing a point or finding a lateral perspective.
I love the power of a brilliant argument. But then, I am a bad liar. And I can’t keep a straight face while lying. I am pretty sure that I probably will be sacked even before I am hired.
Did you attend school for fine art or design or Communications?
Nope. I didn’t. I was never good at drawing or painting or sketching or doodling. I could look and draw basic stuff, but I have never gone beyond stick figures.
My craft is writing. And ever since I was a kid, that’s all I have wanted to do. Of course today, the scale, scope and spectrum of my words have changed.
I wanted to do my Master’s in Literature, but after 6 months into Chaucer, Milton and Tennyson, I gave up. Not that I wasn’t interested in classical English, its purity and progress. I wanted out because I was sure that I didn’t want to read any more. I wanted to write, and I wanted to write my mind.
I believe that power of expression or being creative is a talent that all us have. Being creative is something all of us born with.
How do you think software engineers, bankers, investment advisors, detectives, and thieves live successful lives? They see life through their kaleidoscope, and they juggle things around to find their solutions. Creativity is the art of being brilliant within parameters.
Don’t tell me that you haven’t used some colourful lies, exaggerated issues or even twisted a fact or two as a kid, as a teenager, as a professional, and as a human being.
It’s natural for us to look and think out of the ordinary. All of us are creative. Much like all of us. We are all human, but we are all different minds who think and do very different and unexpected things.
With your busy schedule as an NCD, do you have enough time left to indulge in Creative?
I am very much an ideator, and very much a copywriter. Besides, I like to get my hands dirty. I am first a worker bee, and I have to work; think, write, create.
I can’t stop an idea from waking up in my head, and then I can’t turn on the air conditioner and let the idea go back to sleep.
If you have an idea, then the idea has to be expressed, and created for others to see. You have to dig it out of your head. With words, pictures, film, music, whatever.
And the more one does it, the better the person becomes.
You can’t be the best batsman and not practice. You can’t be the fastest sprinter and not practice. You can’t be on top of your game if you don’t play every day. Period.
If you are a razor, you better sharpen it daily.
I am always writing some thing or the other. Articles, stories, poetry, debates, scripts, copy. Even this interview. I could write a couple of regular lines, or get my secretary to write this interview out, and move this out of the way.
But that isn’t what this ought to be. That’s not why I am spending time over this. This has a purpose. And I want to make sure that I tell my story the way I want it told. If I can share something that’s useful to even one person, then this will have served its purpose.
I am busy, and I am busy doing things. I am not someone who complains that I don’t have enough time. I make time to work for me.
Being an NCD is one of the toughest jobs possible. It’s about being a people person, an ideas person, a craft person, a management person, a client person, and an industry person. And at any time, you cannot ditch one for the other.
It’s a balancing act. It’s an authority act. It’s a leadership act. And I have always believed that power is never given. You have to take it.
More than anything else, being an NCD is also bigger than just standing up and being the creative spine of the agency.
It is the knack of being able to spot and identify big ideas. Plus guiding, supporting, driving and empowering people to develop themselves, their ideas and their strengths. Along with managing egos.
If I do all the work, then I am a selfish conniving narcissist who doesn’t let his juniors bloom and flower. On the other hand, if I let everyone else get busy, then I am a lazy ass whiling my time without earning my salary.
The ideal is a balance.
Were there any particular role models for you when you grew up in advertising?
Advertising was a different industry then. We didn’t have the Internet, and we didn’t have the kind of media focus that advertising gets today.
So most people lived in their little bubbles, and looked into a collective black hole. All we had were, Communication Arts, One Shows and the occasional Television Register that got us the best from across the world. And most big names were unknown.
All we had were key numbers to follow. No wonder we made some great ads around key numbers those days. I especially remember that very famous Rediffusion ad.
Sure we knew about the agencies that were famous across the world and India. But there were almost no interviews, no interaction, no meetings, and certainly no FaceBook etc. that would have got us closer to anyone who could have been a role model.
We never knew legends. And I really can’t say I had role models. But I never wanted to be like anyone. I just wanted to be me.
However, I think one of the brightest moments and personalities that took me close to finding a role model, was a brief interaction with Helmut Krone. He was the famous art director on Volkswagen, and the craftsman behind ads like ‘Think Small’.
I was under the impression, and most industry still is, that once you get older in this business, you probably run out of ideas and become defunct. Or get burned out.
Running into Helmut Krone changed that. And that got further reinforced when I met 50-year-old Creative Directors from Madison Ave and elsewhere. My first Cannes was in 1992. And probably among the first Indians who went there.
Who was the most influential personality on your career in Advertising?
The people who actually pushed me into advertising were Sangeeth Sivan and Santosh Sivan.
But the person who influenced me in advertising is without doubt, Mr. A G Krishnamurthy. Founder Chairman of Mudra. He may have not have deliberately taught me many things. But I was fortunately close enough to observe and absorb from his views, his aggression, his passion, and his determination.
He was a machine gun with his thoughts, and a marksman in his precision. He is the only person in this industry whom I call ‘Sir’.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Life is the biggest inspiration. Life is the big university. There’s nothing like life to learn and imbibe from.
Life and Nature are the biggest teachers. Keep your eyes and ears and heart open for moments, stories, emotions, values, virtues, relationships, contrasts, and ideas.
I watch a lot of National Geographic and Discovery. In fact I started reading NG when I was in the 4th standard. Way back in the 70’s. That’s one knowledge base I dig into time and time again for inspiration.
Most of my advertising has been based on a conviction that I am right, and my work has always sprung from that belief. Without being truthful to myself, I will never be able to fool my words, my thoughts, and myself.
Put me in front of a problem, and I am immediately thinking of a solution. I am wired to respond to issues and challenges. And the more complicated and complex the problem is, the better off and the more interested I am.
Because, usually there’s just one right solution to the problem. And once you have the solution, you know you are on the right side of things.
I hate looking for chocolate in a candy store. There’re just far too many options. And everyone will find one. Metaphorically speaking that is.
Tell us something about the work environment at Cheil…
We certainly are the in-house agency of Samsung, and I will not pretend to be an ostrich and bury my head in sand.
On the contrary, I believe this as the greatest strength of the agency. The fact that we have one the world’s most outstanding brands to work for is a genuine stimulant. And our work will have the budgets to back it.
People will see our campaigns, and our work will not be missed because they flipped the channel.
While we may be focused on Samsung, that has helped us glean and create a great deal of proprietary knowledge in many areas. Including telecom, IT, fashion, life style, entertainment, sports, cuisine, home décor, architecture and real estate etc. besides better understanding consumer behavior, youth markets, home dynamics, urban and rural marketing, in shop branding, retail marketing, and so on.
We are now open for new businesses, new clients, with more people than ever. We are larger than what most people think, and we do have some extremely talented people working with us.
My personal endeavour has been to turn the whole agency around into a crack unit. And in the last three years I have been at Cheil, we probably have had more fun and spunk than many agencies.
Including working on the advertising that turned around Samsung Mobiles from a 2% market share to what it is today, and bringing in 12 short lists at Cannes and an equal number of finalists at One Show.
Of course there are difficult moments with our clients. But then, show me one client who is perfect. Advertising alone isn’t a barometer to measure warts.
Every client has thorns, and every client has roses. Just that here, we definitely have more roses. I am part of an agency that is full of freedom, camaraderie, happiness and zero politics.
We have a common joke in the agency that we go to Korea every morning. And we drive back to India in the evening. But the truth is, barring the couple of Koreans who work with us, we are every bit a rocking Indian agency.
Do you have any kind of a program to nurture and train young talent?
No we don’t.
But we do offer internships to deserving kids. At the moment we have a few working with us. Personally, I keep an open door policy, and I do meet up with most people who call me.
I do think however, that most agencies don’t invest enough in their own people. There’s an overall loss of quality in our business and unless there’s more money coming our way, this abyss is only going to deepen.
What advice do you have for aspiring creative professionals?
Having a ponytail doesn’t work. Hanging around in bars and acting obnoxious doesn’t cut it. Getting drunk and being a jerk doesn’t and will not give you more creative cells.
You won’t find the best people in our businesses wasting their time in bars and lounges, and pretending to be what they are not. They have work to do, and things to achieve.
Be humble. Be true. Be yourself. Learn from everyone and everything. Everything is a lesson. The more lessons, you learn, more you will be able to do. Simple.
Try and understand the business and the science of advertising. Once you learn how to build foundations, then you can build the most awesome structures. Otherwise, the wind and the rain will blow you away.
Awards are not the reason why advertising was invented, or why you will be paid a salary. Advertising was made to sell products and services. And if you cannot do that, then you have no role, and the business will have no use for you.
Learn from the lives and words of our industry’s great masters. All of them speak the same language.
Learn to make mistakes. Accept mistakes. No one is perfect. And depend less on tools. You will never get great ideas every day. In your entire lifetime, you might just get a few.
Don’t forget that you need a thought first. And the more original and more yours the thought is, the more freedom you will. Have fun. Be a child. Be experimental. Try everything once.
A creative person is a reservoir of experiences. Add more to the cauldron. Add more to your collection. And having an attitude without grey matter doesn’t help one lousy bit.
The fact is if you aren’t the richest person on earth, there’s someone else out there richer than you. And if you aren’t the most creative person out there, there’s someone else more creative than you.
Remember advertising people are not important to the society. Your plumber and your sweeper are far more important. Ease up on your ego. If you have one, you’ll meet someone who has a bigger one. Our profession will never get us the Bharat Ratna. Accept it.
And once you do, your life will never be the graveyard of ambition.
You will never be good at all kinds of advertising. Just one. Maybe two. Find that strength. Build on that. Be the best creative person for that kind of work. Be a specialist.
Red Adair was the best fire fighter known to mankind. And he specialized in oil fires. Look around. It is a world of specialists. Whom do you pay more? Your GP or your Nephrologist?
Listen to everyone. Listen to everything. But create something that will be remembered after your day is done. Something big. If you aren’t anywhere close to it, try everything to get closer to. Be very proud of what you do. And what you have done.
People say that I am only known for India Shining. Maybe. But that is mine. Not yours.
A hundred years or more from now, people will still remember that campaign. Because it made us proud as a nation; because it’s linked to the change of a Government, and therefore history. Posterity will quote me. Not anyone else.
Tell us something about the Delhi Alt.
I have spoken and written much about The Delhi Alternative, and I’d rather people join the page on FB – The Delhi Alternative (temp), and follow our developments.
This is essentially built on the premise that I touched earlier – about the growing lack of depth in our industry and the lack of corporate attention to that deficiency.
One thing I can assure you is that all of us who are behind it are completely committed to the cause, and will make sure that our first initiative takes off on ground as soon as possible.
What is your dream project?
I am currently working on something that has a global dimension to it. I am hopeful that my client has the vision and the tenacity to invest in the idea.
As an idea, this is probably the biggest I have worked on. But as I indicated, there’s also another side to all the ideas that one can come up with.
If your client doesn’t have the same depth of vision, clarity of view, and the relevant budgets, things may not fall in place.
The thing about big ideas is that they are powerful. When I say big ideas, I am not talking about doing a one-off giggly chewing gun ad.
(Unfortunately, that’s the kind of stuff many people in our own industry rate as top of the line creative work).
I am talking about the size of ideas that can impact the way a brand will be seen globally, result in large-scale perception shifts, and deliver definitive stimuli to brand and market shares.
Big ideas are scary. Because they challenge everything. They redefine everything.
They change people, they change colleagues. A big idea can even change you. Because suddenly, you are no longer the small guy who came to work that morning. You are different.
You have crossed a benchmark, you have graduated to a new level, you have destroyed a record, you have overcome a limit; you have evolved.
Big ideas change life. Even your relationships with people.
They actually influence the balance of life. Suddenly you are no longer someone with just a quirky mindset. You are someone with a lot more power and lot more dynamite than most people.
Which is why big ideas are resisted by people. More than the brand needing it, and the market wanting, big ideas change multiple equations. And at times, a lot of people cannot handle that. Including your boss who at times has no idea of advertising.