A successful ad agency CEO, when asked about how important it was for Indian admen to be from small-town India, once jokingly told Brand Equity: “Very important! I'm from a small town. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Chandigarh.” Never mind that Chandigarh is classified as a mini-metro now, those 10 years were enough to pass himself off as a 'small-town boy', he chuckled, with most people ignoring the fact that the rest of his life had been spent in major urban centres.
It's not an isolated incident: the phenomenon of so-called small-town boys taking over the creative fraternity in advertising has become something of an epidemic in the last few years. Every creative worth his salt proudly flashes his antecedents - a small town in Rajasthan, the foothills of Uttar Pradesh, or three years of college in Meerut or Varanasi work as a cool access card to any of the agencies in downtown Mumbai. All of them have as many stories of their annual visit to say, Chamoli in Uttaranchal as of their annual visit to another small town - Cannes in the south of France.
The fact of the matter, however, is that most of them have come a long way from those small town roots. McCann Erickson's regional creative director Prasoon Joshi, one of the original poster boys for the small-town brigade, confesses that his policy of hiring talent from small towns did not work as well as expected largely because “many small-town boys were keen to give up their 'small-town leanings' and adopt the big city ways”. One 'South Bombay' (a condescending term used to describe big-city, English-speaking creatives) creative, who's been at the receiving end of the small-town propaganda, agrees: “If they are so small-town in their orientation, how come today they spend more time watching Kieslowski than Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki?”
Also, creatives with roots in mini-metros such as Pune or Ahmedabad have successfully appropriated the small-town banner - simply because these days it's convenient to be small town. “If looked at from the Mumbai perspective, even Bangalore is just a bigger small town,” shrugs D Ramakrishna (Ramki), Mumbai creative head of JWT. And anyway, the small-town boy is definitely not a recent phenomenon in advertising (see Box: New-found Stardom on Page 2); it's just that in the past, the small-town label was infra dig and got you nowhere. No wonder then, there's a growing sentiment that in a business that is more about sensibilities and ideas, too much is being made of the place of origin of creatives.
Elsie Nanji, vice-chairman, Ambience Publicis, believes that the entire small-town boy phenomenon is nothing more than a positioning exercise that some agencies engaged in to set themselves apart. She also wonders if 'small-town' seems to have a silent prefix - 'North Indian'. Says Nanji, “I happen to be from Kerala, and naturally I can't be small-town North Indian.” She points out that she grew up in a middle-class family - her father was in the Railways, and annual vacations were spent in a village in Kerala - but perhaps because she doesn't speak Hindi, she's branded as 'South Bombay'. “Not that I really care,” she smiles. “I believe that so long as I can be sensitive to my environment, I can create advertising that works. Language is not a barrier to great ideas. My clients may have complained about many things, but they have never cribbed about my Hindi or my address, which happens to be in south Mumbai.”
JWT's Ramki agrees that small-town moorings aren't a preserve of north India. “Bangalore and Chennai agencies have lots of talented creative people from nearby small towns like say Trichy or Salem or Mangalore or Kochi,” he says. “It's just that we look at the advertising that Mumbai does and decide these things.” What also riles many ad folk is the notion that small-town-led Indianisation of advertising implicitly means a north Indian setting for the commercial with liberal use of north Indian dialects. The contention is that the Indianisation just isn't representative of the whole of India - but only that part of India that the small-town boys are familiar with. “All that's happened in the name of Indianising is a shifting of goalposts to suit a style of play,” fumes one vice-president. “Where is Orissa or Karnataka or Kerala or even Maharashtra in Indian advertising? Tapori lingo is not Maharashtra, neither is a stereotypical Kanta bai.” R Balakrishnan aka Balki, national creative director, Lowe, says, “Just because I can't write Hindi poetry does not mean that I can't make advertising that works. It's strange but true that somewhere along the line, India seems to mean North India in advertising these days.”
Funnily enough, the small-town brigade today finds itself being charged with the same things that the South Bombay brigade was once charged with - perpetuating a signature style and creating templates and formats for advertising. For years advertising toed the line of carefully-crafted English and westernised imagery. Over the years, as markets opened up, it gave way to the earthy, we-are-like-this-only “Indian” style. Today, agency observers believe the wheel has turned full circle, and that advertising needs to be freed from the clutches of the small-town brigade. Explains KS Sridhar, NCD of Leo Burnett, “It's not about being from a small town or a city, or from the north or the south; it's only about an Indian mindset. All that matters is whether you understand and decode Indian insights and stories. It's not about expressing anything in a language; a Bhojpuri or a Punjabi accent is not Indianising.”
Origins No Bar
It's pretty natural for a hard-core Bombayite like Josy Paul, CEO of rmg david, to find the whole small-town thing overblown. Paul, who created the Alpenliebe Lollipop 'Lagey raho' commercial which was hailed as a 'small-town classic', says, “That commercial is as Bombay as it gets. I may not have the same grasp over Hindi as a native north Indian, but I think with a great partner, who can write the vernacular, it's not hard to do a great commercial.” Paul believes that the small-town boy phenomenon is more a case of logical structuring based on people who achieved a lot in recent years than any real trend.
Of course, there are real benefits to small town exposure. Abhijit Avasthi, creative director, O&M, says, “I do look for people outside of Mumbai when I am hiring because they have a better connect with real India,” he says. And Ramki agrees that the more interesting people and ideas he has come across are from the small towns, not just in advertising but even in other creative disciplines. “The heartland guy has taken the guesswork out of the creative approach. The city-slicker may be second-guessing what will work with the masses, but the heartland guy knows his audience. Particularly for brands that cater to the mass market, I'll seriously look at a guy with a small-town background. Also, small-town boys have more good Indian stories to tell.” He adds that it works best when the small town brushes with the urban environment and gets a city sensibility and refinement. A best-of-two-worlds scenario. “But, one is not to the exclusion of the other,” he warns. “Both small-town boys and city slickers can co-exist in advertising as there's room - and need - for all kinds.”
Avasthi also believes it is unfair on people's part to say that the small-town phenomenon is predominantly a north Indian one. He says that there are numerous people from small towns in Maharashtra and the South who have done really well for themselves. It's a point that no one contests, but as rmg's Paul points out: “I don't care about which town anyone is from. I look for two things; one is how open the person is, the other is what is how receptive are their antennae. If someone is deadly sensitive about the world they live in, they would do well in this business.” Adds Balki, “On the one hand, you could have lived your entire life in a small town and have no ideas; on the other, you could have grown up in Malabar Hill and still have the right sensibility.”
Joshi has another take on the subject. He points out that a few years back, many of the people who succeeded in the business happened to have been from small towns, and concurrently, their success was attributed to their place of origin, despite the many other factors that lead to big breakthrough ideas: “Suddenly, everyone was looking for the small-town badge when they were hiring creatives.” Another theory is that clients are part of the reason creatives (and agencies) flaunt their grassroots credentials. The client of earlier decades fostered the South Bombay style of advertising, simply because their brands and advertising targeted city-bred, quasi-westernised consumers. Today's clients are concerned about connecting with the masses. “I guess it does happen, and when it does, we do provide some 'small-town sounds',” says Paul. “But having said that, I must add that brave clients keep their minds open, and are more interested in ideas”.
The celebration of the small-town boy phenomenon, it would appear, has run its course. Today, it's either accepted as commonplace or discarded as just another advertising fad. Balki perhaps sums it up well: “Everybody likes a rags-to-riches story. So I guess it was nice to write the story of this boy who gets the glam and glitz at the end of it all.”
Looking back, the small-town sensibility has always been an integral part of Indian advertising. It's just that with the advent of a mass medium like television, it's been pushed into the limelight. “The small-town boy has always been cheered in other creative arts. It's only in advertising that he was conspicuously low-profile,” says KS Sridhar of Leo Burnett. During the formative years of Indian advertising, the industry was dominated by city-bred, English-speaking, foreign-educated copywriters and creative directors - a function of a market that catered to a more sophisticated, westward-looking consumer.
Now while this established the 'South Bombay' school of advertising, the fact remains that art talent in the industry still came from smaller towns - think Arun Kolatkar, Gangadharan Menon - many typically graduates from the JJ School of Art. “It's only with the arrival of television that writers with a pan-Indian view (Piyush Pandey, who did the Sunlight and Luna commercials, for instance) emerged, writers with both English and language capabilities,” says Sridhar. The turning point, he feels, was the success of Indian TV serials like Hum Log and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, and ad campaigns like 'Mile sur mera…' and Hamaara Bajaj. “The guy from Lucknow always existed in Indian advertising,” he adds. “Back then he was paid peanuts and did the thankless job of translation. Today he attends client briefings and earns as much as the chap from Malabar Hill. That's the only change.” Ramki agrees: “Now he's in the thick of things as his contribution to Indian advertising is being appreciated.”
What's interesting here is that the small-town boys of yore produced some of the most sophisticated art to complement the South Bombay style that they were supposedly never a part of. Just goes to show that no matter where it hails from, good talent instinctively knows what's in demand and what will work in the market.