Please tell us about yourself

In the ’80s, advertising was not top-of-mind when one viewed career options. However, that wasn’t the case with Swati Bhattacharya. With a mother who was a public relations officer, and a father who worked with the Indian Newspapers Society (INS), Bhattacharya was no stranger to the world of advertising.

She recalls how she got interested in advertising, “I often met people from agencies at home when I was a kid.  As a child, when I liked an ad, I asked my dad (who was employed with the Indian Newspaper Society) which agency had done it. We used to have conversations like that at home, so I had a fair idea about advertising. I was focused to join it, except that in my course I topped in media planning and not creative.

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What did you study?

After completing her graduation in English from Delhi University’s Miranda House in 1989, she went on to study Mass Communication from The Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC). “I topped my batch in 1992 in media planning. For a while I thought that I should take up media planning as my career,” reminisces Bhattacharya.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

However, destiny had something else planned. While on a holiday in Mumbai, she appeared for a copy test at Trikaya. She surprised herself by clearing it. “At the time, to pass a Trikaya copy test was like clearing the IIM entrance exams. So here I was, the only girl with a Mass Communication background to join the agency,” remarks Bhattacharya.

After three months at Trikaya, Bhattacharya returned to Delhi and joined JWT. “I met Denis Joseph (the former national creative director), who said that he didn’t ‘test’ people who were hired by Trikaya,” she adds.

Your career path?

For Bhattacharya, it was a dream start. “Just a month into the job, I was on a plane, and then, living at Prahlad Kakar’s house, where we worked on all the ‘It’s different’ commercials for Maggi ketchup with Pankaj Kapur and Jaaved Jaffrey.” Calling it a dramatic start for a trainee, she feels that JWT provided her with the opportunity to create partnerships with various creative heads such as Kakar, Nomita Roy Ghose, and Subir Chatterjee. Within four years, Bhattacharya became a lone ranger who would travel from one office to another, working on various projects.

And, then came the big change in her personal life. In 2000, she became a mother and she decided to take a break. Returning to work in 2001, she was given the sole responsibility to handle GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) health drink Horlicks. “On my return, I was apprehensive to manage people since before that I had mainly worked on projects,” she says. GSK, at that time, was on an expansion spree and Horlicks, from one bottle, went on to have a complete range, right from toddlers and children, to women and even instant noodles (Foodles). At the same time, she was given the charge of Thompson Social (JWT’s CSR arm). “It was during this time that I overcame the fear of managing people and became a team player,” Bhattacharya notes. In 2006, she was made executive creative director of the branch.

Tell us abut your work

So what kept Bhattacharya at a single agency for over two decades in an industry where loyalty is expected only of consumers and not of brand custodians? She says “You may think I’ve worked on maybe two to four brands. But in my first job, I’ve handled Maggi noodles and sauces, Hero cycles, Everyday dairy whitener, Sunrise, Pepsi, Horlicks, Slice, Nokia. It’s not possible to get this anywhere else.”

In her early years, Bhattacharya was a bit of a lone ranger moving across projects with Maggi as a core responsibility. She even did a couple of campaigns for Pepsi which stopped shortly after she got married to someone in Coca-Cola.

After a break she returned and was assigned Horlicks a brand that she was initially not too enthusiastic about. She says candidly, “For someone like me who had worked on Pepsi, 7Up and Maggi coming back to Horlicks was like coming back to some Bengali medium school.”

Glaxo SmithKline was known to be a remarkably process driven marketer with little elbow room for creative expression. Except at the time Bhattacharya began working on Horlicks, changes were afoot at GSK as well.

The key difference was having a woman Sucheta Govil at the client side allowing the brand to move from nourishment to pleasurable nourishment. Bhattacharya recalls, “I took a shoebox into the conference room crammed with things that were relevant to an 8 to 10 year old from WWE cars to tazos to phataphat chooran. When you take that to a boardroom an unmasking happens. Even if you are a nutritional giant with labs like NASA, the fact is you have to be close to the 8 year olds reality.”

What followed was a stint that Bhattacharya admits will be the part she will miss the most about leaving JWT. Variants were launched and communication tropes broken down. From a brand that was all about dull statistics, Horlicks took a stand on everything from the male gaze to an ad that featured women in romantic situations with men half their age ending with the tagline ‘Get Your Old Husband Back’ for the Horlicks Lite variant.

The brand connected Bhattacharya back to her Bengali roots and more importantly helped her forge deep connections with mothers. She says, “As a brand, it’s so trusted but it had never harnessed the knowability. I have been able to say many different things. On other brands, you work so hard to be clever or cool. But here I had to do a complete u-turn and create a certain kind of knowingness with the truth. Every time I did something for mothers it got reciprocated immediately.”

In between, she also worked on the Aamsutra campaign featuring Katrina Kaif for Slice. Bhattacharya says wryly, “In Horlicks there’s no glamour. So I’d do Slice just so I could feel ‘oh, I’m sitting next to a star.'”

What the new assignment lacks in potential for glamour it makes up for in other ways. Bhattacharya says, “Mama Labs works for only one segment. It’s the first of its kind. I want to bring this target group into the boardroom. That’s the way the world is moving. The user comes before the content. If you are closer to the user you don’t have to sell so hard. Men try to press insecurity buttons in selling us stuff. But you can sell the brand and make it sound like you are sharing it with her.”

How does Bhattacharya view her career graph?

“I had never looked at my career in terms of designations. It has always been about the kind of brands I have worked on,” she elaborates. The last four-five years have brought a different kind of change in her style of working. After working on many women-oriented brands, she started to enjoy the relationship she shared with women. “It was quietly reflected in my work,” she reveals.

Bhattacharya’s mandate at JWT includes Airtel, apart from Horlicks. Calling it ‘her little payback time’ at the agency, she wants young people to discover what she did during her journey at JWT. She is also excited about Bobby Pawar taking over as chief creative officer. In this mad world of advertising, it is important to get motivated from time to time, believes Bhattacharya. “The last time we had a creative head was Agnello Dias (Aggie), and now, after a long gap, we will have Pawar,” she concludes.

What did you learn from Advertising as a career?

Bhattacharya emphasises on learning to be brave. “Actually you don’t even have to learn from the industry, it is something you learn more from the clients. For me, brave clients are people I’ve have learnt a lot from,” she reveals. She believes that advertising teaches ‘compression and distillation, clarity and brevity’. And adds, “It sharpens you. You know that when you have to say something, you can’t beat around the bush. My different target audiences have taught me how they can be so forgiving if you have told them the truth.”