If we are divided as an industry, we will sink: Prasoon Joshi

07 Aug,2012


Forty-one-year-old Prasoon Joshi’s has been a remarkable story. A young lad from the mountainous region of Tehri Garhwal (Uttaranchal), who once struggled to get a book of poems published, is not only heading a top ad agency today, he is much sought after in Bollywood for his superlative song writing skill.


The Chairman and Creative Chief of McCann opens up on his multi-faceted existence, the challenges the ad world faces today, his approach to creativity and the things about the industry that disappoint him. Joshi also admits that ‘Bose DK’ made him frown. Despite his close friendship with Aamir Khan.


By Anil Thakraney


Excited about Milkha Singh?

Yes, I have written the story, screenplay, songs and dialogue. It’s been two years since I started working on this project.


Must have been a time-consuming project.

Only in phases. One had to spend time with Milkha Singh, since this is a biopic. You have to know the person and his life very well. But there was enough time, and I only do projects which give me that kind of time. Because my first job is to run the ad agency.


Don’t your big daddies at McCann get hassled with your moonlighting?

No. In fact, I would say any intelligent boss would understand how it helps them in return. I do these things in my free time. Now, if this takes a toll on your free time, then that’s a choice you have to make. Today is a Sunday and I am sitting with you. After meeting you, I am meeting a musician who wants to collaborate. My wife understands this, my family understands this. This keeps me happy, and when you are a happy, satisfied person, everyone likes you. Your organization likes you, your wife likes you. I whistle at home and at work. People from my organization will tell you, no matter how difficult the problem is, I have a very positive attitude about life. And positivity happens when you are not frustrated. My organizational leadership has understood that this man has many needs. He is a musician, he is a poet.


Which means you say no to many film producers.

Yes. 90 per cent of them.


You are the global creative director?

Till now, I am the chairman of the global creative council. Soon this mantle will shift from me to our creative director of New York and London office.


How exactly does the creative council work?

You are like the global creative director for that period. You go through the work, advise people, send them feedback. There is a chosen set of seven or eight of us who meet quarterly and review the work. This was the idea of our new CEO, Nick Brien. It was his vision to start a council where the best minds of the company can collaborate.


Don’t you want to play a global role now?

I have been doing it. Working out of India, I am the global creative director. I am the Asia Pacific creative director as well. I heard this couplet when I was in college: ‘Phool wahi sar chadha jo chaman se nikal gaya, izzat usi ko mili jo watan se nikal gaya.’ And I thought this was wrong. Why do Indians respect only those people who leave the country? I decided I will be here, and I will do global work. In fact, I have been instrumental in getting the Commonwealth hub to Mumbai. This is an unprecedented collaboration between two rival groups, IPG and Omnicom. There will be four Commonwealth hubs around the world. Detroit, Milan, Sao Paolo and Mumbai. This means the global work for General Motors’ brands will be generated out of Mumbai. And I will head that.


Why was the need felt for Commonwealth?

What happened is that in the US, General Motors was being handled by Goodby Silverstein & Partners. And some other agencies around the world, including McCann, were handling this account. A collaboration of minds happened between Jeff Goodby, myself and a few others. And it’s interesting because Goodby is owned by Omnicom and McCann by IPG. The client felt that these minds are rare to get together, so why not start another set-up, which will be dedicated to GM around the world. So my ambition is to get India onto the global map, and not just Indians.


What about growth plans for McCann in India?

McCann has grown in leaps and bounds in the last three years. Last year we grew by 50 per cent, this year’s projected growth figure is 45 per cent. We are No 2 in Delhi. It’s amongst the top four agencies in India. And let’s not forget that McCann doesn’t have a history, unlike JWT, Ogilvy or Lintas. We are the youngest multinational agency in this country. We are fifteen years old, unlike the hundred year legacy of the others. Also, we are expanding beyond advertising. Into things like branded content and events. For example, we have launched ‘Chevrolet Jam’. What happens is that a veteran artist comes and introduces a young musical band, and then they jam together. And this not restricted to the club culture, it extends to the rural culture. There will be a series of such musical events, and this will finally lead to making of albums.


You come from the Northern heartland, and this has played an important part in your success. Do you prefer to hire people from the North?

We do hire people from the heartland a lot. We have a great combination of IIM grads and people who come from extremely different background, from smaller towns. This is because we have a large base of local clients. Dabur, Marico, TVS, Videocon, Britannia, etc.


“We need IPR (Intellectual Property Rights). Our ideas need to be valued much more”

Do you feel pressure has increased in the ad world? You said this to me when we met last.

There is pressure of growth and it percolates down from the top. If the pressure is on the CEO, he expects more from his marketing head. Who then expects more from his team. And advertising being a very important part of the marketing mix, the pressure percolates down to the ad agency. There are aggressive growth targets. Also, people come and go very fast. The new guy comes in with new aggression, and he starts evaluating everything, even the ad agency. Which is why we need IPR (Intellectual Property Rights). In the older days, clients and agencies had a long term relationship. Today it’s different, you might be there for just one year, and the client continues to use what you created for him, and you hardly got returns for that. Our ideas need to be valued much more.



“I think there is too much animosity in the ad world. This is the reason I desist from going for certain ad functions”

Prasoon, here’s the problem: You ad guys talk a lot about these things but no one takes the lead in trying to change things. Shouldn’t you people get together and find solutions?

That’s a good observation. I think there is too much animosity amongst each other. This is the reason I desist from going for certain ad functions. I think it’s high time we understand that together we will succeed. And if we are divided as an industry, we will sink. And I take part of the blame for this. As the youngest of the big agency leaders, I expected the older people to take the lead.



Another observation is that you old world chaps have a TV fixation. And no one’s even trying to understand the digital space.

I am a geek, I was the first to launch a virtual office in Asia. But let me speak for everyone. Age has nothing to do with it, and it’s not a TV fixation. Also, I must tell you Indians are very adaptable people, history will tell you we are the least resistant race. We have been invaded, we have dealt with many cultures, and we have emerged victorious. So there’s no resistance to digital. The needs are very complex. There are certain products which do not have any need for digital. In some categories, it’s really needed. The market needs out here are very different from those in the West. If we are doing a lot of television, it’s because of the market. You know, my driver bought his first TV set only last year! But I must tell you, at McCann, we have moved away from the copy/art model. Now it’s copy/art/digital. So there are three people working together.



“The younger talent is in too much of a hurry. Today the patience is not there, they don’t dive deep into problems”

The biggest challenge facing the ad world today.

Client relationships are becoming very short term. There used to be a time when you understood the brand, there used to be consistency of people. Too many changes are happening at the client’s side. As a result, new expectations keep coming up. So we are re-inventing the wheel far too often. Also, on the advertising side, the younger talent is in too much of a hurry. And I keep telling them to nurture a brand for some years, to understand it. Else you’ll have one-offs in your portfolio but not great campaigns. Today the patience is not there, they don’t dive deep into problems.


We didn’t do well at Cannes this year. What happened?

Well, our agency did win a Gold. We have to understand that a number of new media have emerged, such as interactive, digital, etc. We don’t have that much of work in these categories to begin with, so our number of entries in these categories is very less. What worries me however is that we should be doing much better work on television. We need to introspect on what went wrong.


Never thought of moving full-time into Bollywood? Surely they pay you very big bucks now.

I have a lot of respect for Bollywood, and they have given me a lot of respect. The masses have accepted my work and I have won awards. But I don’t want to do too much of work in Bollywood, not every film excites me. Tell me which film you have seen, for which you wished Prasoon had written the lyrics? You’ll probably come up with one or two names. Also, I love advertising, I like the adrenalin, it keeps me on my toes. I come to know about the global perspective, the changes, it’s a business which keeps you alive and kicking.


Given your sensibility, a song like ‘Bose DK’ must have appalled you. Did you speak to your friend Aamir Khan about this?

I honestly expressed my point of view to him. I told him I would never do this. Because there is something called sanctity of a language. I feel it’s easy to abuse it and difficult to maintain it. I am of the view that you have to entertain people, but tehzeeb ke daerey mein rahe ke. But Aamir’s an individual, he believed there’s nothing wrong with it, and that he was having fun.


An honest review of Satyamev Jayate.

I believe in people who do something, I am against arm-chair criticism. Aamir went ahead and did something he believed in. And hats off to him.


You really think the programme will make a difference on the ground?

Will things change overnight? No. A taxi driver in Delhi asked me to thank Aamir on his behalf. He said, on the issue of child sex abuse, he (Aamir) told his children things which he was not able to do himself. So at the grassroots’ level, it does make an impact on the psyche of people. How far will this get manifested, is very difficult to measure.


What is the ad sensibility you bring to Bollywood?

Simplicity and single-mindedness. Every song of mine communicates something, and it’s crafted in a way that the message doesn’t get garbled.


One Indian creative director you admire.

Piyush Pandey. He leads by example, he is such a hard working man. He sweats it out. And that’s exactly what I am today.


Why did you leave him in that case?

After a point, you have to find your own world. My upbringing was of a certain kind. Piyush had the language of the street in him. I wanted to bring in literature and music. I wanted to bring in my surrealism, my minimalism. Which is why I chose McCann, they offered me an open platform, a canvas to paint on.


One thing that disappoints you about the Indian ad world.

There’s unhealthy competition. The talk is less constructive and more destructive. One-up-manship is the name of the game. We forget that this is only advertising, and we aren’t at war. When I asked a few of my clients to come to Goa Fest, they said, “You people are too much into mud-slinging and we don’t want to be a part of that.”


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