Thursday, March 28, 2013

This is not in defence of Bobby Pawar. But then again, it may be.

Years ago, maybe in 1998 or 1999, there was a building near K. C. College in Churchgate called Apeejay House.

On its sixth floor, there was an ad agency called Ogilvy & Mather.

Inside that agency, some of the country’s coolest minds sat together and did some of the coolest ads of that time. Ads that had slowly started putting India on the international awards’ map.

During that period, some of my cool colleagues in the creative department had done an ad for Ponds Blackhead Removal Strips. The ad simply had a picture of Mickey Mouse without his nose, and a quiet product shot at the bottom right corner.

When this ad was created, I remember (I was a nervous, young pencil-chewing copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather at that time) the entire agency - both the creative guys and their servicing counterparts – were excited about the idea.

The idea was executed wonderfully and presented to HUL, and then released in newspapers.

Then came “The Disney Angle”.

I remember the servicing head then bringing up this problem to Piyush Pandey, Creative Head.

“The Disney people are making some noise,” the Servicing guy told Piyush, “over the fact that we cannot use Mickey Mouse.”

“It is not Mickey Mouse,” Piyush replied with his characteristic laugh. “Tell them, this is Tricky Mouse. He is not identical, he is a little different.”

The ad went on win several awards for the team that created it, but am sure, that was not the team’s biggest reward. Their biggest reward was the fact that their Agency Head had stood by them. And more importantly, their idea.

In that same period, I saw many ads that used celebrities to make their point, and these were NOT celebrity endorsements. It was the usage of someone famous, to make a funny point. That was commonplace.

It was the norm, or at least seemed to be, across the region. Many agencies in Singapore and other South East Asian countries used George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Marilyn Monroe and the like. One particular ad for Panadol showed George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior, with the line – One is enough. This ad was done by the great Mr. Neil French, no less.

During that phase, I personally wrote ads with Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Andre Agassi Cacofonix from Asterix Comics and Bob Dylan. Some of them won, some of them didn’t, but that’s not the point.

What is important is the fact that the kind of energy an agency encouraged. Creative people were allowed to think freely. They were allowed to have a point of view. And using a famous person in a comic style illustration was nothing serious because people back then had a sense of humour. At least ad agencies did.

It was in such an environment that I first met Bobby Pawar – one of the finest advertising writers this country has ever had. Among other things, many young writers (including yours truly) learnt how to hold a pen by just watching him write his fantastic campaigns for Tata Sumo, Tata Safari and Britannia Hide & Seek Biscuits.

Bobby, like the rest of us, was nurtured in such an environment, an environment that encouraged creative people to think freely.

Over the years, I worked at several agencies in India and Singapore, agencies like Batey, Contract and McCann, and I saw this very environment get steadily polluted by “anti-scam” lobbyists, basically people who weren’t gifted enough to win awards.


Here you might raise an eyebrow and wonder if I am supporting something as deplorable as scam ads.

Yes, I am, and I am doing that for reasons I believe in.

Scam, in my opinion, is just a craft enhancement exercise for writers, art directors and designers. It is something that lets you experiment with the tools of your trade – tools like photography, typography and writing style.

Now invariably, when you are designated to work on a brand that comes heavily burdened with “international brand guidelines”, there is little room for a creative guy to experiment with the very brush he chose to wield for a living.

After ten months of romancing Frutiger, a font he hates, he gets a month to play with other typefaces. Hence he or she chooses the quiet month of December to display his or her own skills, to do things differently, to explore one’s own craft.

That’s that. Nothing more.

At best, awards should be considered as an avenue for a creative business to display its best creative talent. And it should be left at that. That is how pure it should be. And it was that very purity that gave us great artists like Neil French, Indra Sinha, Lionel Hunt, Susie Henry, Piyush Pandey and Nancy Rice.

But somewhere, that purity was lost and SCAM became a four-letter-word, like AIDS. Those who dealt in it started getting treated like lepers and drug dealers.

I’ve always wondered why. Who goes to bed hungry because someone did a scam ad? How is that harmful to the world? How is it even harmful to an industry that feeds off and thrives on the talent of creative people in the first place? Why can’t we leave it at that?

But no. We will not leave it at that.

We will celebrate awards but we will shun scam. We will continue to chase awards as an industry, we will want to be known as the coolest (read most-awarded) agency in the country.

We will hire cool creative minds like Bobby Pawar to head our agency because we want to be known as the most awarded agency at Cannes next year. We will put unreasonable pressure on that guy to go out and win at all costs. We will expect him to do it despite “international brand guidelines”. After all, it’s that quality that brings out the champion in you, isn’t it?

In that process, a cheeky Ford Figo campaign comes out of JWT. It is an entry at Goafest, which means it clearly comes with the blessings of the client, at Ford. Nothing can be entered at Goafest without a client approval letter, and we all know that.

After it comes out, it goes viral. And pisses off Berlusconi’s supporters (if he had any). And it pisses off the Kardashians.  And it pisses off too many idiots on social media.

Ford reacts to the international flak.

JWT needs to retain the business, it needs to look like a responsible and responsive agency.

So what does it do? It sacks Bobby Pawar.

It sacks the guy for trying to create an atmosphere in the agency where creative minds can flourish.

It sacks him for trying to create an environment he grew up in.

An environment that started dying when Ogilvy & Mather moved out of a building near K C College. A building called Apeejay House.