More smalltown India folks are joining advtng: Prasoon Joshi

07 Jun,2013


This interview with Prasoon Joshi was done around a fortnight back, and the orginal transcript went into twice the length of what you read here. There are many industry leaders whom you can cut short in a conversation, but with the McCann Worldgroup President – South Asia, you are transported to another world and you can’t get him to stop.


Perhaps it’s the other hat that he wears that does it to you. The poet in him takes over. As he goes about discussing every facet of the business of creative advertising. What was intended to be an interview on the problems plaguing creative awards in India ended up being a freewheeling interview…


The industry sure has changed much in the recent past…

The whole scenario is changing. It is very tough to survive in the advertising industry. No compensation model, there is no IP in this industry. For example, any other industry which is ideas industry has IP. I do music and I have IP; films have IP, technology has IP. Advertising industry has no IP of ideas. So, in the earlier days, the relationships with clients and agencies were longer, and the IP, in a sense, was taken care of because the client lived very long with an agency. One idea was used for a longer time. For example, an ad used to run for 4-5 years, sometimes 10 years. Today it is so perishable, so here and now that you might have cracked a big idea, but quickly you are changing the product and having versions and versions of it. And even relationships aren’t that long; a client may stay with an agency for a year and then move on. The hard work you put into the business, you reap the benefits of it through compensation over the years.


Which is not too bad…

The commission model is not there. There is a fee model, now, mostly. So, before you can actually get compensated, the client has moved on. And there are practices that client moves on with the creative idea and continues with it without you being any part of it. You probably got paid for eight months, six months or one year. These protections need to be there for the industry.


But it’s an international malaise.

I’m talking about internationally only. I’m saying that IP has become a big problem for the advertising industry. This model has not being able to take care of the changing landscape and as a result, it’s tough. Every client whether big or small wants similar attention, dedicated resources. Sometimes what they pay you can’t even take care of two people’s salaries, and they want six people on the team. How do you do it? So right now agencies are pitching every day, and you can’t take a stand that you only want to do a certain scale of business, that you want to be compensated in a certain way.


The economic scenario isn’t much to talk off. The long-term compensation may be there over the years, but the amount of work required today on one brand is huge. The fatigue factor of the consumer is very high as the consumer is bombarded with so many creative things, so many channels, so much of entertainment. Earlier you had one channel, you made one good ad like jab mein chota bachcha tha badi shararat karta tha and everyone knew it. Done. Now, even on hit programmes, how much of assured appointment viewing do you get? It has declined.


So business has gotten tougher.

The challenges have increased. Yes, more complex media habits of consumers, more distractions, more challenges.


And this is when one digital is not big enough in India.

Digital is still at its nascent stage in this country. But in the western world, is has become very definitive. Given the co-existence of various kinds of consumers, media habits and the exposures people have and economically it is so diverse that affordability, reach, and penetration are a problem. I don’t think that internet penetration is such a big problem in the west.  There are problems of literacy and infrastructure. Mediums will co-exist and television will stay on. My driver bought his first TV two years ago. You can’t even imagine that somebody bought his first TV two years ago in America – it’s not possible!


Do these complexities impact creativity?

Creativity thrives from challenges. Eventually, it has only helped creativity. It is only going to challenge you and you are going to come up with better ideas. But right now it really makes it complex, especially for the brands. Certain brands are clearly very niche brands wherein you know your TG. But when you have to use the mix of media in this country then the problem is complex. You have to be little bit everywhere. You have to have an idea, which can travel across – you can’t be messaging differently on TV and online. And when something is at inception, a lot of jargons are at work. The fear of the alien, unknown is there, which is there in clients when clients talk about digital. There is a fear – ‘we will not be able to understand digital’. There is nothing like you can’t understand digital… it is also communication.


How to do deal with getting the right talent? One of the problems agencies face for account planning and client servicing is that business models do not allow hiring of top talent. Is that impacting the creative side also?

Advertising is still a destination for many creative people in India. That might not be the truth everywhere else in the world. But in India, it still attracts a fair amount of talent. In fact, it attracts more talent than it used to in my time. Then, someone like me who came from a small town did not have any knowledge about advertising. So we found it very difficult to tell our parents what we do. It was difficult for me to explain to my father who was a civil servant – he understood IAS, medical, engineering, he also started understanding management and MBA, but advertising wasn’t easy to explain. There is a science attached to advertising that is very difficult for a common person to understand.


Would it be right to say that when you began the composition of an ad agency was mostly 90 percent people from urban areas? Has that changed dramatically? What is it at McCann?

It has changed a lot. I think we have a lot of people from smaller towns now. There are still people who are brought up in metros. They know about the profession or have families in the profession unlike our families who didn’t know anything about it. There are people who are second-generation advertising people, whose fathers were probably in client servicing in some small agency and they feel like working at an MNC now. There are people like that. But lot of people, talent have heard about Piyush or me and know that we were from small towns. You require people to know about people before they can get attracted to a profession, especially a creative profession. See, the creative profession is not that music happens. It’s like Zubin Mehta does this kind of music or Mick Jagger does this or Kishore Kumar sings like this or Gulzaar sa’ab writes like this. There is always people’s association in creative field. Creative profession also has desire to get accolades because you want to be acknowledged. If you tell a journalist you will not have a byline, he might not feel good about it. Because he wants to own his thinking, there is some kind of proprietary thing that you feel for your ideas. That happens with the creative field.


So what is the percentage of urban v/s smalltown India in agencies?

It is a good question. I should have done this exercise. But I can tell you from my perception, from my understanding that there are many people now who come from smaller towns. I see people from Nagpur, Pune, parts of North India like Lucknow, Bareilly, Trichy, not where advertising agencies used to be.


If you had two people to be selected – one say from Mumbai and other person from a smaller town, say Barielly. Assuming all else is equal, who would you prefer to take?

I would go for talent. I have another observation to make. I would prefer to take someone who comes from the grassroots, who has seen more life than just metros. That’s where the market is going to expand. Though I won’t have a bias, anybody can have understanding, anyone could have travelled the world and understood things. I do not have that strong a bias. But I would want people to come from various parts to make my offering more robust and widespread.


But sometimes my experience is very strange, I meet people whom I hire for their background at times, but I don’t know they want to shun that, they want to be someone else. What I expect them to do is to borrow from their lives and they are psychologically blocking that part. And say I want to be part of this big town, they start dressing up differently, they suddenly start pretending like they have not heard certain words in the language. So I may be talking to them in Hindi, and they reply in English, almost feeling that he is being thought of as a person from a small town. Some people want to shun that and rather than that becoming a strength, it becomes a liability because you are neither here or there.  They don’t want to be known to have an understanding of middle-class India. Hence, they are not borrowing from it. And it’s not they are doing it consciously, they do it unconsciously as they want to be part of this upwardly mobile life. So, that becomes almost like a deterrent.


Do you think there’s a domination of the North Indian mindset in advertising… there’s Piyush and you. Of course there’s Balki and others…

There are many South Indians. We have Balki, Pops, Chax who are from South India. Then you have Aggie who is also from South, he is from Kerala. Many more people. So it is a misconception.


Moving on… we have had recession and a mixed year in the creative world. How do you think India will do at Cannes this year?

For me Cannes is a by-product of what you did throughout the year. I wrote the script of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. While I was looking at Milkha Singh’s life, his target was metal – Olympic, Commonwealth, Asian Games. I work with a target. For us, it can’t be. It is just an icing, it is some activity which happens in parallel, where you get acknowledged – that is how it should be seen.


Today, awards are becoming targets. Of course, you should enter and win. And there are some rules which you need to follow. There are various other ways of measuring what you are doing is right or not. The biggest measure is your connect with the consumer. Not only here but even the other field I operate in – the films. There are few songs of mine which are very popular, which have done a great job but never been awarded. I consider the song Arziyan, Maula, Maula, which I wrote for Delhi 6 as very good pieces but I didn’t win for that. It doesn’t matter to me. Here also, a lot of campaigns like Thanda matlab Coca Cola, these films didn’t win at Cannes but outdoor won, print won. ‘Yaaran da Tashan’ did not win a Cannes Gold. I won later on for Happydent. I don’t think that the work was not correct. It didn’t meet the jury sensibility and when it comes to Cannes. I feel that we have entered our work and if I don’t win, we don’t get disappointed. For us the bigger worries are if the brands we work for are not doing well in the market or the consumer connect is not there or the sales are not in place. Cannes is something which I would love to win and feel happy if we do but if I don’t, we don’t re-strategize to perform better in Cannes.


Is there pressure from the clients to win at Cannes?

I would say an absolute no.


Won’t marketing managers want that…?

No. marketing managers never want it. In fact there are a few cases that someone might say, change your work. And it is there that they get derailed. And they are not doing their job.


May be they are not telling this to someone like Prasoon Joshi. May be they are telling your juniors.

None of the sensible clients would ever tell you to get an award but will want good work which will spark great conversations. Brands need to occupy a mindspace in this cluttered space. No one leaves the house saying I will buy ketchup or soap like a lifestyle product. But if I have been able to make someone even think for one second about buying a certain toothpaste, then I have done my job. Clients may ask you to create work which will create conversations. There is nothing wrong in this.


How many entries have you sent to Cannes this year?

I don’t remember. Maybe 25-30.


No conversation will be complete without talking about what happened at Goafest. Now that it is past us, how do we make sure that things are not repeated next year?

About proactive or one-off works that people create, I have said earlier as well that creative people keep looking for experimentation. And it starts off like you needed one room for experiment and they asked for client permission and they gave you permission. But what started as a one-off can become an epidemic. I believe that creative people should experiment but not at the cost of brands. Because brands are not made overnight. Credibility can be shaken in a second but it takes years and years to build brand equity. So it’s not correct to play with a brand equity which has not been created by you alone but a lot of people. I feel that we have to give a window for creative people to experiment. It can’t be at the brand’s expense, at all.


So what do we do? We don’t allow or indulge in such work. I won’t approve of it. But being a creative animal, creative people have an urge – why can’t I do this or that? You can say why don’t you do it at home and why get out with it? But we need to get out with it because we need opinions from people like you. You want to know what people think of it – is it good or not? I have suggested that at award shows, we should have a showcase award or window where people are allowed to exhibit their work so that they can sharpen their tools. But you can dismiss this argument by saying, why don’t they do it on regular work? Because sometimes they don’t get an opportunity. We should be a little kind and generous for people to showcase their talent. However, it’s unfair to think that clients will face the damage at the expense of something you created.


We need to keep in check the desire and importance we attach to awards. Because if you start attaching undue importance to it then we will derail from what we are there for – to help build brand equity and not win metals. It’s an art to sell products and that’s why brands come to us, because they think we have the art of selling. So you need to create forums where art can be practised. The role of award shows should be sharpening and sharing.


And plagiarism? 

About plagiarism, it is a very subjective thing. Before this year we had not heard of it. I think somewhere it went overboard. Similarities can always be found. I think I have judged at Cannes and other respectable shows, I have never ever received a request to judge anything again. What went wrong I think is that after the jury process is over it should be over. You can criticize it because then otherwise throughout the year we will be doing it. Highlight it but not get paranoid with it.


But the Ad Club accepted the complaints and decided to act on it?

That is the reason why the super jury happened. We collectively took a decision that there has to be a line drawn. We cannot keep it open. Every year, someone will say I’m not happy. And some might say that I don’t think our industry is into plagiarism, but in the last one year plagiarists have entered our industry while aliens have attacked. What are people talking about?!


It’s not that we are not creating brands, selling brands or the advertising industry is collapsing. We know that lately, award shows have become a little unhealthy as there is too much importance given to them, people take them too seriously.


Are clients okay with being exposed?

Most clients don’t track of so many awards shows. It is for the advertising industry, they say.


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