Chennai@375: The East and West Shall Meet in the South

25 Aug,2014

By Sridharan Narayan


I have had the singular pleasure of working my way from the west coast to the east coast of India in pursuit of the ultimate creative piece in advertising: from Bombay to Bangalore to Chennai.


Before I started my career, back then, there was only one reputable postgraduate school for advertising aspirants and, well, I went there – the Xavier Institute of Communications. That was also the time of giants in the advertising field. These were people who had proven themselves and were revered as demi-gods. One of them took me in and later, spat me out to write a book in the salubrious climes of a Portuguese settlement. This was Bombay, a city that never slept. Of people who never gave up until the deadline was met – come floods or heat waves. While there was some camaraderie, mostly there was professional rivalry that upped the ante from one campaign to the next. Madison Avenue was the sole inspiration; rural communication had not come to life. And if one was not in Bombay, one was not in advertising, or so one felt. The city supported this mean taskforce, with eateries that never shut, a robust transport system and an open mind to alien cultures. Even then, in the eighties, there was a nagging doubt that Bangalore would play catch-up.


And so, when our baby was born, we decided to move to Bangalore where we felt there would be space for the kid to play. Here, the pace for was less than frenetic. The work, as with the traffic, moved then, as now, at a leisurely pace. But the hops fermented well in the cool clime. And many an elbow was bent raising the tipple with classic rock for company. Oh, yes, Bangalore was different. One realised that there is something called a life outside of the advertising office and one embraced it. Work-life balance was better than Bombay, although good talent was scarce -most people wished to traverse the Western Ghats in search of the advertising or modelling or acting pot of gold.


Both the cities having ceased to exist (one gave way to Mumbai, the other to Bengaluru) I decided to move to Chennai, a city born out of a British Madras. This was different. Wider boulevards, traffic that moved through the heat haze, the waves crashing on the sands of the world’s second largest beach and a people with a culturally superior attitude – loved it. Of course, the city grows on you. At first embrace, it is a reluctant friend. It tests you, to ascertain that you are not an alien from the north of the Vindhyas and that you genuinely love the steaming hot idlis served with drumstick sambhar. Once the city accepts you, it adopts you. Every street hums with the strains of the violin or the beat of the mridangam. There is also a western subterranean groove that begs to be discovered.


But what of advertising? Well, the pace is faster than the centre of the latitude, and the profession has claimed several brilliant product launches to its credit and spawned a whole directory of film makers. And then, mysteriously, it started pushing its clients off to the North of the country. Just as the automotive industry moved in, the big dig for the metro lines started, the executives recruited at the day-one campus selections realized they just could not communicate with the local populace – but to their credit, their lingua franca is accepted in most countries east of the Bay of Bengal – Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, to name a few.


It is my opinion that this gracious city has a great future if it could get others to see it as a part of a larger whole, not a region-centric behemoth, obsessed with itself and its peoples. It is a large city with the feel of a small town. This is good if one wants to live here, not so good if one wishes to attract talent. I look forward to the day when Chennai will become the next migratory halt for advertising professionals.  Perhaps, a bit of the “Hum Hindi Jaanti” will help?


Sridharan Narayan has spent 27 years in advertising and has seen it all. From film executive to copywriter, creative director to branch manager, he has now embraced digital marketing.


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