How I Knew 23 Years Back That Piyush Pandey Would Become Global CCO: Ajay Gahlaut

Ajay Gahlaut, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy North and Deputy CCO, Ogilvy India walks down memory lane describing some of the best moments spent with the legendary ad man Piyush Pandey

e4m by Ajay Gahlaut
Updated: Dec 7, 2018 8:28 AM
Piyush Pandey

The world needs heroes. And we all need idols. That’s what takes the human race forward. People we can look up to and marvel at. People who blaze a trail we can follow. People whose shoulders we stand upon to see farther than we ever imagined. Larger than life men and women who seem to bend the world to their bidding through sheer force of will. Who we watch open mouthed as they weave their mysterious, powerful magic, and say to ourselves ‘I could never do that.’

It was 1996 and I was working in Sista Saatchi & Saatchi, Bombay when I first saw Piyush Pandey. It was at a media party thrown by Prime Sports and ESPN to celebrate their merger. The venue was a 5 star hotel in South Bombay and the theme for the party was, you guessed it, sports. They had created little booths with all kinds of games around a large banquet hall. You got three chances to throw a basketball through a hoop, or you could race remote controlled cars around a slalom course. There was a bowling machine you could bat against and several other games scattered around the room. You could enter a tournament where points were tallied across all games and the one who scored the highest won a prize. Piyush and Sonal Dabral were working their way around the room playing game after game. Like a star struck Mary’s lamb I followed at a discreet distance. Piyush was, as usual, cracking jokes and exploding into his trademark laughter from time to time. But when it would come to the game he would put his whisky glass away and focus totally on the task at hand. A furrow of concentration would appear on his forehead and he would transform into the elite sportsman he once was. At the slightest sound or disturbance from the band of followers around him he would whip around with a fierce scowl, cowing us into, pin drop silence.

‘My god,’ I thought to myself, ‘it’s just a party game and he actually wants to win this.’ And. then it dawned on me that the great become great through a winning mind-set. Whether it’s a multi crore pitch or a game of marbles it is the attitude that takes you on to victory.

Half a decade later I had the good fortune to join Ogilvy Delhi. One day Vibha Desai, our head of office, came to me and my partner Sudip and said that Piyush would like to brief us personally on the Pulse Polio campaign. I was only an Associate CD then and usually it was the Creative heads who would interact with Piyush. It turned out that I was the only senior enough chap who could write in Hindi at that time. I thanked God for my Kendriya Vidyalaya education and couldn’t wait to get cracking on the brief. We met Piyush at the Bristol Hotel in Gurgaon. It was our first interaction with him on work and we were nervous as hell. He put us at our ease and offered us breakfast. We spoke about everything but the Polio campaign and then, just before leaving he turned to us and said, ‘Ek idea hai. Mr Bachchan ko Phir se angry young man banate hain. Filmein likho jin mein woh un logon se naraaz ho rahe hain jo apne bacchon ko Polio ki drops nahin dete. Dil se likho Aur Kal tak mujhe Mail Karo ‘. Saying which he got up and left for some meeting.

I reached office at 7.30 am the next morning and started work on the scripts. I wrote them and re wrote them and polished them and pruned them and honed them. Finally they were as good as I could make them and, with a shaking finger, I pressed the ‘send’ button on mail and sent them off to Piyush. The next couple of hours were the longest of my life. I must have checked the mail 50–60 times in that duration. Finally a mail from Piyush appeared in my mailbox. Nervously I opened it. There was a three word reply. ‘Very nice scripts.’ Now I have had the good fortune to win many awards and accolades since that day and even been on stage at Cannes to receive a Gold Lion. But no feeling has come close to the euphoria I felt when I read that three word email from Piyush. I printed it out and kept it in my wallet for years, referring to it whenever I felt a twinge of self doubt, until it became a tattered rag and disintegrated with time.

I have worked with great bosses earlier as well but Piyush goes beyond that. He is a great leader. The difference is, while you’re willing to take on any amount of work for a great boss, for a great leader you’re willing to take a bullet.

I remember 2008 as the worst year in my life. I lost both my parents that year. There was some film shoot I was supposed to go for. I couldn’t go because my dad had just passed away and there was the 13th day ceremony to perform. The client, who shall remain nameless of course, was informed. Under pressures of his own I suppose, he was upset when he heard that I wasn’t attending the shoot. He found it unprofessional. The fact that I had lost my dad did not seem to be enough of a reason for him.

When Piyush came to know of this he was livid. He picked up the phone and called his boss. ‘I will fill in for Ajay and come for the shoot’ he told him. ‘But tell your man not to be in my line of sight. Dikhega toh saale ko maar doonga’. Of such impulses and spontaneous gestures are great leaders made. I have no shame in saying that if Piyush asks me to jump the only question I will ask is ‘how high.’

Piyush appears to have a double PhD in People and Common Sense. He can meet a person for 5 minutes, exchange two sentences with him and know what kind of person he is. It’s uncanny. I’ve never known him to be wrong. I have found it in my interest to blindly follow his advice about people. And even more striking is his ability to find solutions by instantly simplifying a complex situation. Now, modesty apart, I have a healthy respect for my own abilities in this regard, but Piyush leaves me open mouthed time and again. It is more than a talent he has. It is a genius.

Perhaps the two phrases that typify him most are ‘woh mera dost hai’ and ‘baaki main sambhaal loonga’. I have been all over the world with him and he has a ‘dost’ everywhere. From Chairmen of rival agency groups to Vietnamese restaurateurs in Cannes, media group owners in Mumbai to Indian Ambassadors in Tokyo. He knows them all. They beam with genuine pleasure when they see him, hug him and invite him home for meals.

One cannot even imagine the pressure under which Piyush functions. Every client wants a piece of him. Even the smallest local clients say ‘Hume Piyush Ji se milna hai.’ He has meetings and seminars and media interviews to attend all the time. And yet he is sensitive to his colleague’s work load. If he sees me struggling with multiple mandates he will say ‘toh gaana likh baaki main sambhaal loonga’. What wouldn’t you do for a leader like that?

No discussion about Piyush is complete without an allusion to cricket. In 1998 Mark Taylor, the Australian test captain was playing against Pakistan in Peshawar. He was on 334, equalling the highest individual score by an Australian set by none other than the legendary Don Bradman. Taylor declared his innings closed at 334 saying that now ‘my name will always be connected to the Don’s.’

Many didn’t get it, but I understand perfectly. Even if I walk away from advertising today I will have no regrets whatsoever. I was part of the Pulse Polio campaign with Piyush Pandey. My name will always be connected to The Don’s.

(The author is the Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy North and Deputy CCO, Ogilvy India)

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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