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Thank God, I am out of it: Mohammed Khan

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Thank God, I am out of it: Mohammed Khan

Advertising veteran Mohammed Khan was inducted into the exchange4media Indian Creativity Hall of Fame on January 24, 2014 at a ceremony held at Kingdom of Dreams, Gurgaon. The citation, presented to him by Annurag Batra, Chairman & Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media Group and Philippe Paget, CEO, Epica read as follows:

“exchange4media takes immense pleasure in presenting ‘The Indian Creativity Hall of Fame’ title to Mohammed Khan

For creating iconic brands that changed the face of advertising in India.

For combining the craft of copywriting with art direction to perfection, thus setting new standards of excellence in advertising creativity.

For his exceptional creativity and expertise that put India on the global advertising map.

For his leadership and entrepreneurial zeal that gave the country some of the finest advertising agencies.

For he is a legend who inspired an entire generation of creative talent in the advertising industry in India through his exemplary work.

For practicing the highest ethical standards that contributed tremendously to growth of the industry in India.”

An Epic at Epica
While speaking at the event, Khan narrated his journey in advertising and said, I was having a conversation about advertising the other day and I suddenly caught myself saying, “Thank God, I am out of it”. I was shocked to say the least by my own reaction. Was this the same Mohammed Khan who loved this business with a passion? Was this the same man who looked forward to every Monday morning for the last 40-odd years so that he could have some more fun? Was it the same man to whom advertising had given everything he had? And was this the same man who had given everything he had to advertising?

What had happened?
It seems a lot has happened since I hung up my boots about five years ago. You see, you don’t have to be in advertising to know what’s going on in the industry. Advertising is something out there, in the public domain, and anyone with half a brain can figure out what is going on even without scrutiny. Because it’s right there in your face. And what you see, or rather, what I see, is not very pretty.

All my life, I have believed that advertising is only about one thing: the creation of great advertising. Not OK advertising. Not even good advertising. But great advertising. And the reason that I am standing here before you tonight is mostly I hope, if not entirely, because I tried to live that belief to the best of my ability.

But, I am saddened by what I see today. Print has gone back to the dark ages, and relegated to the status of a street pamphlet, advertising design is conspicuous by its absence, and TV commercials are a rude and irritating intrusion into mindless and inane television content, with a few notable exceptions. Thank you, Piyush Pandey and Aggie Dias.

So, what’s happened? What’s changed? What’s missing?

The first important lesson I learnt about advertising is that behind every great advertising campaign, there is a great relationship between a Client and his Agency. Ever wondered why the same agency produces great advertising consistently on some brands over years and totally forgettable stuff on many others? And I can assure you it’s not the money. Remember, there was a time when every client paid 15 per cent? Those were the days!!

My own experience is that an agency gives its best when there is a sense of real participation in the marketing process and where there is a sense of ownership of the brand. More importantly, where there is a commitment to the other’s well-being, the Client and the Agency both protecting each other’s interests.

The Charms brand happened because VST treated me as a senior member of the team; because I was involved in the Company’s marketing plan since its inception (The Charms brand evolved out of a free-wheeling, kite-flying discussion.) And not the least because, when I decided to start my own agency, Enterprise, VST wrote out a cheque for Rs 10 lakh (a small fortune at that time) to keep me afloat in the early critical months...and paid their bills in advance.

VIP, on the other hand, another new win for the fledgling agency with whom I had no previous relationship whatsoever, also offered to pay their bills in advance. I asked the marketing manager why was he doing it and he said, “Mohammed, it’s in my interest to see that my agency doesn’t go down the tube!”

This scenario has totally changed now. The Client wants to extract the last drop of blood from the Agency and the Agency will cut every corner it can to make the relationship profitable. Every Agency Head is queuing up, knife sharpened, ready to stab the Agency Head he was drinking single malt with the previous evening.  “They’re paying you 3½ per cent, I’ll do it for 3!”

The writing was on the wall even before I quit the business. We lost the GM account after a mandatory three-year review, despite being singled out for “the best Optra launch in the world” by their head office in the US of A. And after the Chairman of the company had approved the new advertising proposals saying, “This is exactly what this brand needs.” So why did we lose the business? Because, the bean counters at GM wanted us to take a cut in our fee structure! (How refreshing and liberating it is to be able to name names!)

Another example of penny-wise upmanship was when we were asked to pitch for a very high-profile suiting brand (after we parted company with Raymonds).

The Client (who was an advertising veteran and was head of a top-10 agency for years) thought our proposals were “bang on”, but was not willing to pay us Rs 50,000 a month, a measly Rs 6 lakh per annum, because one of our respected competitors had quoted that much less. If an advertising man cannot see the value that advertising can bring to a brand, what hope is there for any of us?

“Thank God, I am out of it.”

The second big change I noticed from watching current advertising is that the dominance of a creature called Account Planner over Creative is now complete. Who needs an overpaid copywriter when you have a totally unimaginative Account Planner who will spout wisdom hitherto undiscovered by Mankind and unravel the mysteries of human behaviour faster than you can say the ‘F’ word? And he will come with a totally incomprehensible or inane tagline that will require a visit either to a psychoanalyst or the nearest toilet.

There are two things, I believe, that makes a good advertising person – exposure and imagination. And most Account Planners I have met are singularly lacking in both.

The creative function, quite simply, has been hijacked by people who are simply not equipped to create advertising. Think about it. Who created the greatest advertising campaign the world has ever seen?

“We’re Number 2.  We try harder.”


…to name just two.

This is not just great advertising. Have you ever seen a better strategy? And it wasn’t Account Planners who came up with it.

We are behaving as if ‘strategy’ is a new discovery. There was always strong strategy behind great creative. But, it seems there is no great creative coming despite the strong emphasis on strategy today. The boot, quite simply, is on the wrong foot.

Consequently, the language of advertising has changed. Advertising no longer talks to people. It talks at them.

Strategy has to be dressed up in the language of advertising to be effective. Naked strategy is just like Lady Godiva riding naked through the town … and no one watched! That’s exactly what is happening with 90 per cent of the TVCs – no one is watching them.

So congratulations! The bottom line is you don’t need any Mohammed Khans any more. And what’s my response? “Thank God, I am out of it!”

Lastly, another phenomenon that has come into its own.

We’re in the ideas business, right? Can’t think of a brilliant idea? Never mind. Here’s a comprehensive list of ideas you can use for your next campaign. And it doesn’t matter whether you are selling cars or soap or insurance or condoms. It works just as well.

Idea No. 1: Amitabh Bachchan,
Idea No. 2: Sachin Tendulkar,
Idea No. 3 Salman Khan,
Idea No. 4: Sachin Tendulkar,
Idea No. 5: Amitabh Bachchan,
Idea No. 6: Amitabh Bachchan,
Idea No. 7: Sachin Tendulkar,

Oh, here’s a brilliant new idea:

Idea No. 8: Mahendra Singh Dhoni!

This disease started while I was still working and I must add that I always tried to unsell the idea of using a celebrity to my clients. I can only think of one instance where we used a celebrity: when the client went and signed up Kapil Dev without consulting us. But I made sure he didn’t have a speaking role in the film!

Frank Lowe told me this lovely story once: They were working on a big pitch for a sports brand and he went to the creative department to check the progress. The Creative Director in charge was very excited. They were going to use one of the most famous soccer players in England for their new campaign. “That’s great,” said Frank. “But what’s the idea?”

It seems the industry is bereft of ideas. And who cares. After all, at a measly Rs 5 crore or Rs 6 crore a throw, it saves so much trouble for everyone. And think of all the money you will save on these silly, over-paid copywriters. And the client also gets to have a cup of coffee with Amitabh Bachchan and have their picture together on his office table. It’s a win-win for all.

For good, old-fashioned me, I was in this business because I got a kick out of creating ideas. And do it the hard way. No shortcuts.

“Thank God, I am out of it.”

So, why am I doing this? Am I doing this to make you feel bad? The answer is, Yes. I want you to be very unhappy with the state of the advertising business. This is not just your job. This is your life. This is your future. This is a business of passion. And this, above all is about creating great ideas.

I want you all to go out there and change things. I want you to fight the rot. And I want you to say, this is not good enough for me because I love this business.  And I want you say, “Thank God, I am in advertising.”

The event, held in conjunction with the Epica International Advertising Awards ceremony was attended by a large number of advertising professionals from India and abroad. The presenting sponsor of Epica 2013 awards was the Patrika Group and the associate sponsor was Colors. 


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