No place for Sonal Dabral and Prasoon Joshi at O&M

26 Sep,2011


By Anil Thakraney


It has been a fantastic advertising career, to put it mildly, for the 56-year-young Piyush Pandey. Enough has been said about Ogilvy & Mather’s top dog and the Indian ad industry’s most celebrated player. So let’s just sneak in some yorkers and see if the bat still packs in the punch. It’s always a joy to meet the man because of his joie-de-vivre and the on-the-tap humour. Tonight it’s even more fun as we lounge by his sea-facing apartment off Shivaji Park, with Piyush downing vodka shots.


Q: Don’t see you much in the media these days. Finally got fed up of the over-exposure?

I have never approached any journalist ever in my life. And I have never said no to any journalist either. Actually, I have been travelling quite a bit these days. But I have never felt I am missing out on anything. And sometimes journalists call to ask about things one doesn’t know. Anything that happens, I get a call! (Laughs.) Also, in the earlier days, I used to attend parties but now I seldom go. I even avoid judging (ad competitions) these days because it takes away five days of my time.


Q: You’ve spent a lifetime in the ad world. Still get the same buzz? Aren’t you bored?

The day I stop getting excited about this business I will go. You don’t know what a kick I get out of this profession. Gratification comes to people from various things. Some get it by playing golf. Others by spending a day at the club. I get my kicks out of meeting people in my office, and out of the ideas. I have never thought of my job as a burden, I am having a ball.


Q: Oh ok. After you built yourself that palace in Goa, I thought Piyush would disappear to the beaches.

It’s a three-bedroom house, not a palace! And when I am in Goa, I look at my watch and say, “Oh! It’s only nine o’clock!”


Q: O&M’s big boss, Shelley Lazarus, famously said you are the brightest mind in the network. And we all thought Piyush would take global charge of the agency.  

It doesn’t make sense to the company and it doesn’t make sense to me. I do sit on the worldwide board, I have a view on the worldwide policies. But I will never re-locate myself. Also, I don’t believe in controlling the world, I enjoy being in India. I think we are still on a graph which is unfolding. And I love having Indians around me. So I can give all that I have learnt to the world, wherever relevant, but I don’t think that burden is mine. (Laughs.)


Q: I suspect the key reason for your huge success is understanding the Indian culture and ethos. By extension, that means you will struggle in other nations.

Markets don’t scare me, I do help if there’s a need somewhere. I go there and discuss the idea and then leave it to the locals to express it. What I once hated happening in the good old days, how can I do that to the others now that I am a worldwide board member? I will never do all those things which I disliked. Even when I discuss ideas with Pakistan, I tell them I don’t think I am capable of understanding their local nuances.


Q: Ah, I get it. You don’t want to do what Neil French did to you. Which is to try and interfere in your work. I remember you told him this: “Neil, come help me, don’t f*** with me.”

I did tell him that. Because he tried to (interfere). But he couldn’t do it. My first conversation with him was, “I will show you some work we have done for Cadbury’s and I don’t want your comment on it”. (Laughs.) I must share another incident with you. Many years later at a creative meet near Jodhpur, Neil saw the Hutch boy-and-dog film and tried to make fun of the song. And in the evening my boys went and got the Rajasthani musicians to sing the same song for him! (Laughs loudly.)


Q: Your rival agency heads are pursuing other passions and enjoying a lot of success in those. Making movies, writing songs. You don’t feel the need to experiment?

Those things come to you when you are bored of what you are doing. And I don’t think three hours is a greater achievement than one minute. I did it once, I wrote the script for the film ‘Dus’ for Mukul Anand but it never got completed because he passed away. But it (movies) never excited me. The kind of people who wanted me and Prasoon (Pandey) to write… from Yash Chopra to Subhash Ghai to Dev Anand… and I told all of them this is stuff I would do on a weekend or at night. That my first job is advertising. I can only handle one thing at a time.


Q: New media is upon you in a big way. Ready for it? Honestly.

One, we are investing heavily in the new media. There is no technology that we haven’t provided to our youngsters. And two, in my working life, things aren’t going to change. I see maximum activity in the mass media at least for the next five years. So the idea is to invest for the future. Which we are doing.


Q: And you aren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

I am not even on the internet. I don’t even know how to start a computer.


Q: You are joking.

I am not joking. I did not study all these years to become a typist. Every computer user is a fantastic typist. (Guffaws.)


Q: So if a client wants to know how he can promote his brand on the digital media, you are in trouble.

I will sit with him (the client) to assess the solution. And tell him that I have people on my side who will help him. To give you an analogy, I know what a good ball is, but I can’t bowl it. So I will get Kapil Dev to bowl it.


Q: I think you are a test match player who now has to deal with the T20 format. And you don’t understand that game.

I am saying to the client, I will put together a team that can satisfy his needs. I will not play the T20 match. But I will come and watch every match. I will hire the best T20 players. And I will cheerlead them.


Q: There’s a flip side too. Does it worry you the excess use of tech may make the youngsters get disconnected from the real world? Which is where big ideas come from.

I didn’t write the MP Tourism ad, the kids wrote it. Also the Asian Paints work featuring the two brothers. They wrote it. So I think the next generation is very savvy. They know that even in the digital space it is the idea that will win. The idea is to know the medium, but express the same kind of engagement that we have done all these years. But yes, about being buried in technology, there is a worry, and for the world at large, not just for Ogilvy. I say to the youngsters: go to Facebook, but don’t become faceless. That, interface is the greatest way to connect with people.


Q: The one big challenge facing the ad world?

We need better remuneration from clients to be able to hire interesting people in the industry. I don’t have the answer to this challenge right now. But before I leave this company, I will make every attempt to make sure this is solved. If we don’t pay people well, how will we get the best people into the industry? Every agency is under so much pressure, we are not negotiating properly with clients. Maybe clients are better negotiators than us. If other industries are taking our people away, then we have a problem.


Q: Does it hurt when you nurture young guys, train them, and then they go and head rival agencies?

Sometimes, yes. But not with guys who are leaving to do the same job that I am doing. That is a natural progression of life. I regret losing those people who had misconceptions about themselves and their abilities, and left to do it on their own. And then disappeared. And all that talent Ogilvy alone hasn’t lost, the industry has lost it. Because in the next job, if the guy is a failure, he simply disappears.


Q: If Sonal Dabral and Prasoon Joshi wanted to return to O&M, and you had place only for one, who would you pick?

None of them. Because our people have grown. And in the last five years, they’ve done work that’s the best in the industry. So why would I put anyone on top of them? Sometimes when you vacate a position, others grow into that position so fast, it becomes difficult for them to be brought back. If you missed three matches, and Vinod Kambli came and scored three double hundreds, how do you get Kambli out of there? It’s important for all of us to be at the right place at the right time. Suppose I decide, before my retirement, that I want to be in Goa and am going to write my book. Then somebody will obviously occupy my position here. Now if I want this position back two years later, and if that guy has done so well in the meanwhile, they’ll say ‘Sorry!’.


Q: Are you planning to write a book?

I will write one. But it will not be a prescriptive book. I will write something that people read between the lines. It will apply to life and not just advertising.


Q: Any red hot-tips for youngsters?

One, celebrate life. Don’t crib. Because if you crib four hours a day, you don’t approach anything with a positive mind. Two, if you are passionate about something, go ahead and do it. Don’t worry about society. You might actually become the role model for that. And three, in the world of communications, respect your environment. If you don’t think of the receiver, you will never make a good giver. For example, on your way to Jaisalmer, did you notice, in that 48 degrees heat, those guys who are tarring the roads, they are singing songs to distract themselves from the adversity? That is what will give you insights.


Q: Your retirement is due in exactly two years. Will you actually leave?

Maine aaj tak life plan nahin ki. Did you, in your younger years, ever hear from me that one day I want to be the Chairman of this company? You didn’t. I don’t make long-term plans, I only make plans for tomorrow. That I will wake up at five in the morning and go for my walk. And even that may not happen! (Laughs.)

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4 responses to “No place for Sonal Dabral and Prasoon Joshi at O&M”

  1. Shwetakarumbaiah says:

    Love the guy and his spirit! You can see he loves his job that’s what makes him him! 🙂

  2. Tanmay Dasgupta says:

    candid talk by the patriarch of the Industry.

  3. Mulchand Dedhia says:

    Amazing read!

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