Profile: Change is the only constant for Ajai Jhala

By Neha Kalra , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising
Last updated : November 13, 2008
During his Lintas years, Jhala worked in various roles from account management to a senior role in planning. Now, after a break, he is back at BBDO as CEO


was just a few days in BBDO when afaqs! caught up with him. But Ajai Jhala knows that his work is cut out for him. "We have big shoes to fill. The challenge here is to meet the standard of work that the agency has done worldwide. It is essential to create differentiating work. We have to take care of the quality of work - the growth will take care of itself."

In the nearly two decades that he was at Lintas (Lowe), Jhala worked in various departments, from account management to planning. Now, after a year's break - during which, among other things, he participated in two marathons - he is back where he belongs: in advertising. Two and a half decades, including a short stint in O&M New York, in the ad business and there is very little, except for creative, that Jhala hasn't done.

At Lintas (Lowe), Jhala worked closely on one of the world's largest FMCG companies, Unilever. Despite being in one place, his career, says Jhala, has been defined by change.

"There's a joke. When someone says that he has experience of 20 years, an HR person turns to tell him that he actually has experience of one year, repeated 20 times. This can happen when you stay in the same place. I try to change location and also my job roles. It sort of renews you," says Jhala. For instance, between relinquishing his role as account director on Close-Up and taking over as general manager of the Mumbai office, Jhala volunteered to take up planning for Pepsodent.

Why planning? "There's a famous quote: You interrogate a brand till it confesses. Great communication comes from a truth the brand has; it's not something which shows itself. It is when you interrogate the brand from all sides and see how consumers interact and behave with it that the brand will confess. That's where planning plays an important role."

Jhala's first stint with Lowe ended after 15 years, in 2000. Around this time, he got a call from O&M New York, which had noticed his work on UPS. How tough was it to move out of his comfort zone? "Though I was moving, changing my role and location, it was relatively easy."

Ogilvy was an interesting experience. "While working on the IBM account, I discovered the 360 degree offering of the agency. Ogilvy is a solid and successful agency," he says. However, he came back to Lowe in 2002.

Jhala has had various experiences with Unilever, the account that sticks out prominently in his résumé. Detergent brand Omo (the global variant of Surf) was one such. While working on the brand, it went up for a global pitch in 2005 with the 'Dirt is Good' idea. Lowe won the business for Asia, Africa and Brazil, while BBH won it for the rest of the globe.

But the challenge that Omo faced was that its global idea wasn't being translated in a relevant manner for Asia. "There was resistance because housewives didn't want their children to get dirty. They would rather have them study. But the brand's sales revealed how we managed to make 'Dirt is Good' relevant to Asia by creating an emotional connect."

Jhala views the development of the Indian advertising scenario in cycles. Every decade or two, the industry has witnessed a new era of creativity. The first was cinema-led, mainly by Lintas, which created iconic brand characters like Chaplin (for Cherry Blossom) and the Liril girl. These were cinematic, aspirational and larger than life.

The second wave was on television and led by O&M. It was more intimate, homespun and earthy, as exemplified by the work on Fevicol and Asian Paints. "That's what television does. It is a member of the family, and O&M has been doing this for more than a decade now. McCann and Lowe have done well, too, and found a different expression."

According to him, "The third wave is about interactivity. Communication is no longer simply about magnifying the product's benefits. Consumers are no longer passive and want to interact. Therefore, the nature of ideas will change and I'm hoping that BBDO could be a part of this third wave."

Jhala, who has worked with Prasoon Pandey, Alyque Padamsee, Balki, Steve Hayden, Fernanda Vega Almos and Martin Puris during his career, feels that the best creative people are the best planners.

(Profile is a regular column, which peeps into the career path of senior advertising, media and marketing professionals, who are currently in the news.)

First Published : November 13, 2008
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