Awards have no relevance to advtertising: Balki

26 Mar,2012


By Anil Thakraney


It’s always fun meeting the big boss of Lowe Lintas. Since we have worked together before and since Balki is always forthright and politically incorrect, one is assured of an exciting but meaningful exchange. Here is he, speaking his mind on various issues. Movies, advertising, the challenges facing the industry, the kind of people he’d like to hire, and yes, about his continuing allergy to advertising awards.


You have to respect the man for the wonderful work he’s been doing on both, the small and the large screen. And more so for being that rare individual in the ad world who has the balls to stand up for something he believes in.


Still around in advertising? Shouldn’t you be busy making big films with Big B?

I am making a movie a day, it’s the same thing. An idea is an idea whether it’s three hours or thirty seconds. The day I stop tripping on getting the high when one gets an idea, that’s the day I will stop. In fact, I haven’t done a film in the last two years, I have been caught up with Lowe Lintas. I do have an idea for a film which I will work on towards the end of this year.


And it will back to Bachchan, I suppose.

Not back to, WITH Bachchan. I haven’t gone away from him.


What’s with the Bachchan fetish?

When you work with the ultimate guy it becomes difficult to work with somebody else. He’s phenomenal. Such hunger and greed for performing at the age of 70… it’s truly inspirational. I can keep on making films with him for the rest of my life.


Are you a fan of Abhishek Bachchan too? His career isn’t going anywhere.

Actually I found his performance in ‘Paa’ the best. It was the most difficult role. I think his problem is more the choice of films rather than the quality of his acting. He’s got his niche, he’s very good at certain things. He’s also a good friend.


So that’s why you keep using him in the IDEA commercials, often when he’s not even needed.

He’s a better friend of IDEA than he’s of mine. I didn’t choose him, IDEA chose Abhishek.


What are the learnings from movies you’ve taken to advertising?

The biggest thing that happens when you come back from cinema to advertising is that you are even more impatient. Because cinema takes so much time to execute, you want to make the ads even faster. That’s the reason I like making ads. You make them fast and you move on. There’s an idea a day, and that’s an addiction which is difficult to escape.


Your wife’s directing ‘English Vinglish’. Are you the producer? And what’s it about?

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala has co-produced it with me, along with another investor. It’s about the insecurities of a middle class woman who doesn’t know English in today’s context. It’s about how she overcomes the fear of English. It’s a very relevant issue to a lot of people in this country. In India, it’s money, fame and (knowledge of) English which determine the class and quality of a person.


Let’s cut to Lowe. Are you still as hands-on as ever?

I am. There’s so much of work, yaar. Today, Arun (Iyer) and Amer (Jaleel) have taken on a hell of a lot, they handle 50 percent of the business. My travel has come down but my ideation hasn’t. So yes, I am still involved in major things, I know what’s happening. This is not a profession where internal structures and motivations of the agency can dictate solutions for a client. The client comes to an agency for a solution and we have to get it, by hook or by crook. Gone are the days when creative directors would sit on a revolving chair and give motivational advice to people on how to crack things.


Piyush Pandey said to me the reason he isn’t making movies is because he’s not bored of advertising.

It’s about the number of things you can do, it has nothing to do with being bored of advertising. So maybe some people are capable of doing a lot more and some people are not.


Significant changes you’ve observed in the ad world in recent times.

It’s the same, in so far as it’s still a problem/solution business. What I find is that the clients today are hungrier for more interesting solutions. I find that clients don’t want to waste an idea. And because of the complexities of the marketing issues, the problem articulation is no longer simple. You can no longer say this is small, this is big or that is cheap. It’s about understanding the complexities and simplifying them. And I find that fewer and fewer people are able to do this. Therefore far more is expected of a creative person today than it ever was. The creative person is now seen as the solutions provider. Planning is now playing a big role in the articulation of the problem. Planners are now working more for the clients than for the agency. This shift is something I don’t quite agree with, but it’s happening. This situation requires more discipline, rigour and understanding from a creative person than ever before.


And I guess this impacts your hiring policies.

It impacts that hugely. The three Cannes Gold winners don’t make sense any more. Today a lot of senior creative people have to grow within the current system. So you hire junior people who are clever and intelligent and then groom them into the system of understanding problems. It’s very dangerous hiring very senior people from the outside. We went through a phase in advertising where we said we are losing our respect as an industry. That’s changed. Today the clients respect the advertising agency for providing solutions.


Both, Prasoon Joshi and Piyush Pandey told me that the industry is losing talent. There seems to be too much pressure from clients, they no longer pamper creative people. And opportunities have opened up for agency personnel in other industries.

I don’t agree with this. I actually think there’s never been a better time to be in advertising. You are no longer respected for your whacky ideas, being a maverick won’t get you any special respect. The problem isn’t that the industry is losing talent, the problem is it’s not attracting talent. It’s damn difficult to find talent to address today’s problems. In fact, today there are a lot of people in marketing who want to join advertising. Where we are not attracting the right talent is at the junior level. We as an industry haven’t been able to articulate what is the kind of people we want.


As an old-world creative director, do you find yourself struggling with the new media?

No. Clients want you do virals in the new media, but it’s still film. The video will never die, though the medium for broadcasting it may have changed. The production methodologies may also have changed. But the idea is the key to it all.


You are not even on Twitter and Facebook. How will you ever understand the digital world?

The reason I am not on it is that I don’t want the world to know what the fuck I am doing. That’s a personal choice, it has nothing to do with the new media. In fact, today if I am on Facebook, I am a fuddy duddy cock.


The problem, Balki, is that all you uncles are obsessed with the TV commercial.

I approach a problem very simply. There is a solution, and there is an idea. And if the solution demands a certain kind of medium, you use that. Nobody knew how to make films before or how to make a digital programme. So it’s all about expression. And you go into that particular medium and do it. I didn’t know how to shoot a film earlier, so I went to the experts to do it for me. I don’t watch television at all, but that doesn’t mean I am fuddy duddy on television.


Small shops are springing up. People like Aggie are doing very well. Does that worry you?

It’s always been happening. What do you think Mohammed Khan and Ravi Gupta did? If Ogilvy and JWT don’t worry me, then why should they? They are all competition. In fact, the more the merrier, it means more people are doing better ads, and that’s fantastic for the ad industry.


Why are so many creative directors branching out on their own?

In some cases they believe their talent is far superior to what a large agency can harness. The other reason is there are only so many people who can grow to a point in an agency. So it could be the frustration of not being able to grow beyond a point. They have to start their own thing to be what they want to be. The third thing of course is money. Some people want to be richer than what they are.


Words of wisdom for young creative people.

I think if you like sport, you should come to advertising. There is a hurdle to be crossed every day, there is a goal to be scored, there is a wicket to be taken, there are problems that come your way. It is like a game. The moment you start taking it too seriously, it’s very difficult to function in this business. A lot of things don’t make sense out here.


Shashi Sinha tells me he’s cleaned up the GoaFest judging process. All the scams have been dealt with. But you still won’t take part.

I believe the advertising industry needs credible awards. But how do you judge advertising? You say, ‘Haha, this is so funny! Oh, what a technique in this one!’ And based on that you award some ads. And two months later the agency loses the business. So obviously it doesn’t work. What the fuck are we doing in advertising? We are supposed to solve a problem interestingly. You are supposed to state the problem and the judges are supposed to ask if that ad could have solved that problem. I judged at Cannes once, and I refused to judge after that. I’ll give you an example of what happens: Those Coke print ads, where someone is sleeping under the shadow of Coca Cola bottles, has been hailed as the greatest piece of creativity. And then you have those great TVCs of Coke with Aamir Khan, which the nation loved, but which they (the Cannes jury) didn’t understand! This kind of judging has no relevance to what the purpose of advertising is. Basically the award show is a game and you play it. So it’s not about cleaning it up, I don’t value what you award.


And you also have a problem with your peers doing the judging.

Some of them I respect and some I don’t.


So what sort of jury will satisfy you?

Having some respected marketers on the jury would help. And some very good advertising people. Right now they ask anybody who’s free to come and judge, and that’s not the way to do it. You can’t choose people just because you want representation from various agencies. Thing is, before I give you a piece of work to be evaluated, before I give you the right to say if I am good or bad, I need to be assured you are a person who’s capable of telling me that. We need to first judge the judges.


What disappoints you about the ad world?

What pains me is the amount we try to market the barometers which decide who’s good and who’s bad in the Indian industry. The Gunn report, the Asian awards, etc, they tom-tom the barometers rather than the advertising itself. And all this has absolutely no relevance to what we do here. It’s time we found a barometer or an evaluation process that tells India which is a good agency. A method through which clients can credibly choose agencies beyond just the surveys and the awards. And this lack of a proper barometer has led to personality driven agencies. This propels a lot of false media management. PR for advertising people happens because of this.


Why don’t YOU work on that barometer?

Piyush Pandey and I have had many whiskies discussing this, but we only walk away promising that we should drink some more, and that’s about it. (Laughs.)


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2 responses to “Awards have no relevance to advtertising: Balki”

  1. Jagdeep Parsram says:

    The truth is that today, the fundamentals of advertising, i.e. consumer understanding, strategy, etc., are missing and what clients get is a TVCM. It does not help the brand and that’s why we see so much churn in advertising with Clients changing agencies every couple of years, if not calling for annual reviews. So on what basis is advertising being judged, and by who, for awards?

  2. Veena Bakshi says:

    are all these the reasons balki only works with one production house? because he doesn’t want to be judged but likes being judgmental?