Please tell us about yourself

This week, I am truly privileged to feature Rekha Nigam in the series, Meet the Creative Gurus. Rekha has been a dear friend for nearly 20 years now and my respect for her has grown by leaps and bounds over these years. She joined Everest Advertising in 1979, aged 19. I first knew her when she was the head of Indian Language Creative at Trikya. Having created several landmark campaigns – from Pan Parag’s ‘Dhoom Machade Rang Jamade‘ (1980) to Bajaj Allianz’s Jiyo Befikar (2009), Rekha has been there, done that. After spending 21 years in advertising she joined Sony Entertainment Television as VP-Programming. Rekha has gone on to make her mark in Hindi films too, having written dialogues for Parineeta and Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, for which she also wrote the screenplay.

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Rekha Nigam is a bundle of enthusiasm and positivity. She has a child-like enthusiasm for everything in life and never ceases to amaze me with her positive energy. Behind that bubbling energy is a razor-sharp mind. Despite her achievements and accolades she is rooted to the ground and always ‘real’. Personally speaking, she is a great source of inspiration… there is so much to learn from her. So, herewith an interview, presented in two parts.

1. Firstly, thanks for taking time out. Rekha, you are credited with putting Indian language advertising in the spot light. You have seen advertising when language advertising was the sole realm of the ‘translation department’; complete with pigeon holes for each language. What would you say about Indian language advertising today? What led to the change?

Thanks, but I think that I was just the most vocal advocate. There were fabulous writers like Balwant Tandon, and later Jaikrit Rawat amongst others who were writing great copy in Hindi. But no one had forced the powers that be to see the terrible apartheid that existed in the industry in the late ’70s when I joined. Not just the pigeon holes, but payment by the number of words, that too always came late. The writer was just supposed to enter, take his copy out of the pigeon hole, scribble his version, and leave. No brief, no explanations, no connection to the creative process. Most agencies did not even have a place for the writer to sit. Very few offered tea to ‘the vernacs.’ Fresh from college and bursting with pride in my mother-tongue and all Indian languages, my blood boiled at this state of affairs. Also, I was a first class graduate in English literature, so I could fight on their turf. I started out at the annual day function of my agency, and stunned the management into a whole lot of changes. The next year, I spoke at the Ad Club, and then there was no looking back. I am proud that I spearheaded the shift from payment by number of words to the nature of work and forced every agency I worked with to brief the writer comprehensively. I wasn’t alone. The changes could not have happened without a whole lot of impassioned people.

Today, the scenario has reversed. I smile when English writers tell me they no longer have a future in advertising. Piyush Pandey, Prasoon Joshi, Subhash Kamath, Kiran Khalap, Anuja Chauhan, Balki, Ramki…all sons of the soil and A-listers of the advertising world. Gulzar and Javed Akhtar are routinely called upon to write for commercials. The best TVCs are the ones based on insights from the real India. Real characters, interesting faces, music from the sounds of Indian instruments…It’s truly more than I dreamt of. The reasons? I was lucky to be talking at the right time. In the eighties, India began to come into it’s own like never before. We became more comfortable with who we were. With Sachin Tendulkar, Vishwanathan Anand and other such successes in the international arena, the colonial mentality began to fade, and we started to take pride in all things Indian. Young directors like Sooraj Badjatya with “Hum aapke hain Kaun’ and Aditya Chopra with ‘Dilwaale…’ gave us a new generation pride in our own brand of entertainment. All of this, coupled with the aspirations of small-town India, bursting with energy and ideas, created the scenario today.

2. How did you get into an offbeat and unconventional career such as advertising? What advice would you give to someone looking to break into advertising today?

I got into advertising purely by chance. I had just given my B.A exams and was going through the newspaper when I saw an ad for ‘A language copy chief, age between 35-45.’ I had never entered an agency before. Those days no one knew what an advertising agency was. I sent them a ‘creative résumé. I was zapped when I was called for an interview. And absolutely stunned when I was selected. I totally learned on the job. It was a total initiation by fire. But I longed to go to work every morning. It was truly ‘the best fun I had with my clothes on.’ I don’t know about advice, but I would ask aspirants to join advertising only if they were truly interested in people. Because that is what it’s all about. I see too many people who are too self-centered, too wrapped up in their own world in advertising today. It’s not about a great felicity with words or magic with visuals at all. It’s about being interested in what the peon who brings your tea dreams about. Ask yourself, do you really care about the fantasies of a housewife who does not have a life so the others in her family can? Do you know what a rainbow tastes like to a little street child? Do you really understand what a cell-phone means to an illiterate woman in Balia whose husband works as a vegetable vendor in Mumbai? If you don’t give a damn, please stay away from advertising. Write a book, paint a masterpiece, make a movie that wins at every international festival, but DO NOT join advertising.

3. Could you please tell our readers about the Salaam Bombay campaign that you created, right after the Mumbai blasts in the early ’90s?

The Mumbai bomb blasts were our first brush with terrorism. Everybody was stunned. But Mr. Narottam Sekhsaria of Gujarat Ambuja saw amazing sights on his way home from the airport. He saw people helping strangers into their cars and ferrying them to the hospital, he saw teenagers directing traffic. He saw housewives giving tea and coffee to impromptu rescue squads. He was amazed. He called Ravi Gupta and asked if Trikaya could work on a campaign that called attention to this aspect of the blasts. Ravi Gupta was charged, and he called and briefed us. We had to work instantly, and the communication needed to be as simple as possible. I came up with ‘Salaam Bombay’. Mr. Gupta approved it immediately, and Vikas Gaitonde, the legendary art director, began scribbling logos. Vivek Kamath, a young live-wire writer began to write hoarding lines. Natasha, the films chief called a camera team and set out to shoot the city ‘verbatim.’ As the raw footage came in, I wrote a song to it, ‘aansoo ponch kar muskuraya ye sheher hamara.’ In a way, the campaign wrote itself. I don’t remember being so charged ever. The very next day, the hoardings were all over. I wrote a series of radio spots using interviews with survivors. The spots were on air in just a couple of days. I guess today you would call it a ‘360 degree campaign.’ There were T-shirts, bumper stickers, hoardings, a film, radio, the works. The impact was electrifying. It was as if the city was waiting for just this. People were reading the hoardings and cheering. Car owners were chasing us to get stickers. The hoarding owners were offering us free hoarding sites. Everyone wanted to wear the t-shirts. The media covered the campaign extensively. Recently, after the 26-11 attack, people called me and remembered ‘Aansoo ponch kar muskuraya ye sheher hamara…’ And the audience gave me a standing ovation when I went up to collect the ‘Campaign of the Year’ award. But I have to say that the impact of the campaign was a huge award, louder than the loudest applause.

4. This must be a difficult one – which project(s) has given you the most satisfaction in terms of creativity & effectiveness? And why?

It’s truly a difficult one. And there are many, most of them away from the spotlight of awards. You have to remember that in the 80’s I worked on several rural campaigns, most of them unknown even to the rest of the agency. A little known pesticide brand called Zolone for which I had to give rural audiences their first lesson in environment-friendly practices, which I did through a puppet show. A long film for Forhans toothpowder in which the hero called ‘Manjan Singh’ did amazing stunts. Ruf and Tuf that became India’s largest denim brand with the line “Ruf and Tuf ho, to Ruf and Tuf pehno.’ The Lakme films created by Chris, but ‘Indianised’ by a ghazalthat I wrote as the Hindi version of the Billy Joel track, ‘Na samjoo na janoo, paheli si who ban jaaye.’ The Bank of America ‘Shubh Laabh’ campaign. A little-known campaign for Sakura watches. Of course the Salaam Bombay campaign. A cassette of Gujarati folk music that I created as a corporate gift for Gujarat Ambuja, which went on to win the Ad Club award next year. Too many to enumerate, really. I just put in so much of myself in all the work, it’s difficult to single out anything.

5. You are still actively involved in advertising. What changes do you see in the advertising business today as compared to say, 2 decades ago? What’s good? And what can be improved?

Yes I still do some campaigns like the “Jiyo Befikar’ campaign for Bajaj Allianz, or the Adani ‘main ik chirag hoon’ campaign. I am sorry to say this, but I find a great paucity of talent and passion. Also like I have mentioned elsewhere, the people who are truly interested in other people are rare in advertising. Maybe the best creative talent has gone to feature films or Radio. I don’t know. I believe that the Advertising industry should get together and organize a talent hunt in small towns. Further, I don’t see true creative directors, the kind who’d nurture fledgling talent. Or teach the craft to younger writers.

6. How do you personally keep with new trends in technology – social networking etc., that have an impact on brand communication today?

Maybe I am repeating myself, but if you are interested in people, you will automatically gravitate towards anything that people are interested in. I make friends easily, and love to listen to people. From a ‘kaamwaali bai’, to a delinquent teenager I want to know everything that makes them tick, that gets their blood singing. Like everyone in their 40’s onwards, I am a little wary of new things, I came to Facebook after tens of friends urged me and swamped me with friend requests, but now I can’t live without it. It’s just another ‘adda’ after all! Another area that interests me immensely is the listeners who phone in on radio stations. It’s an amazing experience that can teach anyone in communication a lot about the business.

7. Any contemporary work that you liked/wished you had done?

Oh a lot of work. But mostly in feature films and lyrics.

8. For our readers who are in Account Management, any advice or pearls of wisdom in how to be a great at work?

The message is the same for all, creative or planning, servicing or media. Please get off your Blackberries and handsfree, throw away your Filofaxes, and look at the hundreds of riveting stories, dreams, fantasies, yearnings and longings scattered all around you. Listen to the interesting sales pitch of the hawker and the song of the beggars clacking stones in their hands as musical accompaniment to astonishing voices, tune your hearts to those frequencies and original work will burst forth from your pens.

9. Lastly, tell us about your forthcoming projects in Hindi Cinema?

I am writing a very interesting film about the transformation of a young man for Warner Brothers. For Monsoon Films, I have written a modern telling of Manto’s famous ‘Toba Tek Singh.’ I have written a romantic comedy as a spec script, and am in advanced talks with a young producer. Hopefully all these projects will go on the floors soon. I also have a couple of women-centric movie concepts that are difficult to sell in today’s Bollywood environment. Maybe it’s time to launch another revolution!

Hope you enjoyed reading this little chat with Rekha. Her views on nurturing of talent and seeking inspiration from life around us ring so very true. Do write in with your comments.