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Exclusive Extract: When the reverse of the artwork resembled the Declaration of Independence

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Exclusive Extract:  When the reverse of the artwork resembled the Declaration of Independence

Veteran ad person Sunil Gupta’s much-awaited book, ‘Living on ‘Adge’ in Jhandewalan Thompson’, is set to be published by Roli Books later this week. Starting December 7, 2009 till the launch in New Delhi on Thursday, December 10, exchange4media brings you exclusive extracts from the book.


How did work itself get done? It became very quickly clear that there was absolutely no organized method, notwithstanding valiant attempts to hold weekly Monday morning ‘time’ meetings in which the servicing and Creative group heads met (or were supposed to, depending on whether they had trickled in at 9.30 a.m., the official office opening hour) and discussed itemized work schedules. It was soon apparent that this was no more than an amusing ritual, with no significance in the actual scheme of getting things done.
Getting actual work out for us underlings depended on one or more of the following: a) whose group you belonged (ref the Brahmins, etc. mentioned earlier): a mere mention of Amber was usually sufficient to strike the fear of the devil in all but the stoutest heart, and get things moving pronto, though HMM itself did occupy pride of place in all Creative schedules;
b) the manager’s personal intervention, which was either the result of a crisis occurring or a deadline not being met resulting in an upset client, or the fluttering excitement of a new business pitch;
c) who could shout the loudest;
d) which Creative person could be physically abducted into a cabin after normal office hours. This was the preferred modus operandi of many of us, because it usually got us undivided attention which was duly incentivized with the promise of samosas and soft drinks on the house, along with three-wheeler or taxi fare back home.

Work had however to be got done, and got done it did. Somehow, in this incessant swirl and eddy of people and egos, of looming deadlines and interminable logistics, brands were built, careers launched, victories achieved. For us foot-soldiers, these victories entailed overcoming three concurrent nightmares:
• getting the layouts and copy from the Creative team on time, which was sufficiently difficult as many of these ‘team’ members worked wildly different hours (see freelance above);
• then getting the artworks out from the art studio;
• getting the finished material (media ready or printed quantities of posters, brochures, etc.) done through the Production dept I truly believe that the rigour of doing the hard yards in these equivalents of the factory floors were extremely necessary and held me in good stead over the years. In many ways, agency processes were akin to relay races with batons being passed on, or assembly lines, except that these were more circular than linear and involved a lot of back and forth. Juggling became for us a fine art. As one wag said, ‘There are multiple balls up in the air right now, and two of them are my own!’ In these days of computer wizardry both for design, material, and printing, it might be difficult to understand why I continue to reiterate this aspect of life as it was then, and it is therefore important I try and explain what it really represented in terms of the right grounding, both technically and mentally.

Let’s begin with the travails of getting artworks out from the studio. It bears repeating that even the simplest artwork that contained just a picture and some text was a task of immense complexity. Everything, and I mean everything, was done by hand in those days, and most of it was outsourced. Not only did this mean it was time-consuming, but the chances of error were naturally very high. Everything had therefore to go through multiple checks, like multiple cordons of security. All stakeholders in the job had to sign off at the back of the artwork before production deigned to accept it for media material making/printing. Sometimes the reverse of the artwork resembled the Declaration of Independence.

‘Was an artwork like a work of art?’ I hear you ask. Yes and no. An artwork was not one person’s canvas. It involved multiple contributors at every stage, so try and imagine Van Gogh conceiving and maybe roughly sketching Sunflowers, then asking his brother to lay out the proportions, his sister to mix the paints, his uncle to use one type of brush, his aunt to use another, his dad to do the background … and you get the drift. Then do adaptations of it in ten different sizes for different galleries, and sign it in ten different languages just so that the audience would know who had painted it. Then finally get his patrons to approve it before display, only for one of them to say: ‘I think the yellow’s too dark’ and another to say ‘On second thoughts, why not roses instead of sunflowers? Everyone likes roses! And they’re much more romantic,’ and finally ‘I think the spelling of your name’s wrong’.

The art studio was (and is) a law unto itself. Though in theory it reported to the creative director, Quentin (and his successors) always saw this as an infra dig responsibility as it was largely a mechanical function. Ditto for most of the art directors, ditto the chief art director, and naturally the copywriters feigned complete technical ignorance. So it was that the studio manager became omnipotent, with the power to make or break a rookie. Currying favour with him was often a matter of life and death.

Come 5.30 p.m., and the studio had a whole new buzz, with snacks arriving to lubricate the system and us rookies jockeying for position. The studio manager now took on the manner of a minor plenipotentiary before whom even the mightiest manager genuflected. Not only could he control which artworks were onstream, he could decide how many artists he’d put on the job and of which quality, which artist was granted overtime, which ones he’d personally ‘look after’, and which freelancers to hire. It was not unusual for X’s art director to moonlight for Y, and Y’s studio artist to moonlight for X at exactly the same time. It is even more incredible that despite the porosity of their borders, not much competitive information actually exchanged hands.

Nevertheless, the studio artists were troopers of the first order. It was not easy for them to concentrate on their type of work which was totally manual, intricate, and required meticulous attention to detail, in the conditions that prevailed most of the time, i.e. a dark sauna, or in winter, a dark icebox. Nevertheless, they were usually very cooperative with us youngsters, and helped us out willingly in times of crisis, which were plentiful.

Many of them were characters in their own right, and one soon learnt the right buttons to press in order to get them to oblige. Ashok Aggarwal was one such, who was a bit of a dandy and more often than not wore a three-piece suit to work and carried a briefcase to boot. Striking up a conversation in English with him was the magic key. Ramesh Chaturvedi was another, hot-tempered and volatile, but all he needed was a bit of buttering up, and he’d work all night for you if need be. Needless to say, all of them were addressed as ‘ji’.

The studio was, however, not just the slightly sooty engine that drove the agency. It was a major profit centre in its own right, and also a sort of holy river in which many of the agency’s financial peccadilloes were dipped and cleansed. The art rate card (called the art-fart card in a moment of legendary perspicacity by the then finance director of HMM, D.P. Dhawan) was a mythological epic in its own right, which was designed to make little or no sense to anyone, least of all to the client. Indeed, one could say that the art card was a work of art in its own right. Convoluted technical terms jostled with intricate measurement descriptions that only the studio manager could decipher. He was the man on the spot when it came to studio income, and so some of the estimates he worked out were akin to works of fiction, if not actual fairy tales.

Tomorrow: The Wonder Years

Extracted with permission of the writer and the publisher
Living on the ‘Adge’ in Jhandewalan Thompson
By Sunil Gupta
Publisher: Roli Books
Pages: 480, Price (paperback): Rs 395


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