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The mad ad world

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The mad ad world

Indian advertising is coming back into its own, after a period of being laid low by the twin impact of economic recession and the pressure on costs and margins.

Into the dull and dry world of commerce, advertising seems to blow like a fresh wind, bringing with it glamour, fun and a fresh youthful vigour. Twice in my career I was in it neck-deep at the rough, business end, where you'd often wonder how on earth you had the rush of blood that made you leave the sanity of the client's hemisphere.

It was a rash leap of a fevered imagination that is rarely seen these days at senior levels. Rather like Niels Bohr's definition of light being waves and straight lines on alternate days, advertising could on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays appear to be the best of all possible careers... creative, challenging, satisfying and all the nice words that blurbs are made of. And on the other days it could be such purgatory that you panted for the Saturday night gathering of the fraternity and the ritual drowning of one's sorrows.

I discovered, only very late in my career, that this seeming contradiction in how life in advertising felt like is inherent in the business and that it is up to each one of us to work out our own equations of the different elements, to suit one's life. It is not an accident that even in our fast-forward world of shortened life-cycles, advertising remains a career — a profession of sorts at any rate. One is called an adman (even if a mad one at times) in much the same way, as one would be, a journalist, writer, actor or priest. Some relish living the ad-life and seem to thrive on its frenetic deadline-driven day's schedule; and on others it grows rather like ivy on old buildings. Such people, often found also in media selling and PR, accept the fact that they will never move out of the profession or even the company.

"We are unfit for anything else in life, you see, and some Thompsonites will leave JWT only one way — they'd have to be carried out, feet first," as the legendary Subhas Ghosal would say with a compassionate chuckle. This wry humour not only marked the really seasoned professional's capacity for self-mockery but reflected a peculiar pride — that of belonging to an over-worked and often unjustly-criticised breed, which counted amongst its elite ranks some of the finest minds, artistes and human beings in business.

At one time Lintas (now metamorphosed once more into something called Lowe) had, as some wag put it, the best of both worlds because its two top managers Gerson Da Cunha and Alyque Padamsee played the voice of God and Satan respectively, in a superb Bombay theatre production that was staged inside a cathedral! As we all know the latter famously portrayed Jinnah in Attenborough's film Gandhi.

Amateur theatre came naturally to the ad world (or vice versa), in my view, because the similarities were far from superficial. In fact, both essentially needed the same traits: a sense of showmanship, a feel for the audience, a respect for the craft and pride in a job well done for its own sake and, of course, an apparently masochistic streak to put oneself willingly, even joyously, through a punishing schedule.

It was not unusual even in Madras for one to work at creating brands and their advertising, media plans and so on, all day for close to nine hours and then rush off to the theatre for 3 to 4 hour rehearsals, wearing another set of costumes to play very different roles. The account representative could turn into the director and the head of marketing might happily do a walk-on part under his (or as likely, her) guidance, sitting patiently for hours in the wings for his cue.

In many ways, the profession has enough elements that attract the best as well as the mediocre. You still need little formal training to actually qualify for entry. For one thing, there are few places to offer any formal training. The craft, especially of creating advertising as distinct from shooting, editing a film, writing a script, etc, is learnt on the job, under a guru, by osmosis as it were — or like some ancient traditional art form. Indeed the sense of judging creatives is still a rarity and the good ones zealously guard its secret and will not reveal except to the initiates who have proven their eligibility — or won their spurs by creating good advertising themselves.

It is truly a complex of art and science — and business schools don't even begin to treat the subject in a useful way except when the visiting faculty are themselves from the field. Yet not everyone is able to grow in the profession so easily, and the mediocre remain the plodders — the foot soldiers — while their own contemporaries go right to the top.

A life in advertising cannot be compared in any sense to the adjacent fields of the movie industry and modelling with which it has some points of contact. Talent and training, hard work, absorbing frameworks as well as discipline, have a great deal more to do with creating successful advertising time after time — rather than relying on flashes of genius, native gifts or pure whim.

I have often thought that the best professionals who would rise to the top of a great agency are those who could command respect anywhere. And because of the sheer intelligence, awareness of the world, and an unusually wide mental bandwidth, they would make the ideal advisers to top management, such as the likes of Subroto Sen Gupta and R.K. Swamy were in an earlier era. The range of products, industry situations and marketing problems that they would face qualify them uniquely to cross-pollinate ideas between diverse businesses. The often-caricatured, average glib adman is far removed from these. Alas, they are typically as fond of rapid-fire jargon and facile generalisations as they are of good food and drink. Their self-regard is second only to the successful journalist who seems to believe distinction and greatness are acquired, like some tropical ailment, by casual contact and moving in the right circles. Yet one cannot deny that for the same reason they make good party guests and raconteurs.

Around 2000, something happened to the adman's world. Long hair, long lunches and tall stories were no longer cutting it as the accountants were sharpening their knives to prune expensive habits from their roots, such as travel or expensive speculative work. "The bean counters have taken over, the MBA types, the `suits' are ruining creativity," was the general cry within the creative cloisters in ad agencies.

The best and the brightest no longer wanted to dream of a career in the world of media and advertising, and good people, always in short supply, became harder to find. Loyalty to the agency wasted away, but it was never a strong suit with most admen and women who viewed job shifts seemingly like a game of musical chairs. Recent views in the world of marketing and business journalism suggest that Indian advertising is coming back into its own, after a period of being laid low by the twin impact of economic recession and the pressure on costs and margins. For all its faults, it is still a very exciting profession if you have the stomach for it — and one that a free market economy can only see growing in the long run, even if there are temporary blips.


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