Defining Moments: Gerson da Cunha - The copy chief

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | October 13, 2010
Journalism, advertising and marketing, film and theatre...Gerson da Cunha has been there, done that. A look at his hallmark professional moments

Gerson da Cunha has been a journalist, advertising and marketing man, film and theatre person. Over cups of tea at his home in Churchgate, Mumbai, he picks out moments that transformed his professional life:

It was 1954 and I was a journalist in PTI-Reuters, my first job, where I had worked for five years. Waiting for a friend in the JWT lobby -- Mehlli Gobhai whom I have known since 1947 -- things changed for me forever. Mark Robinson, then copy chief at JWT, rushed past me, stopped, turned and said, "Hey, you're a writer, aren't you?" I had worked with him in AIR. I said "No, I'm a journalist." He asked if I'd like to sit for a copy test. I said "Yes" -- and so said goodbye to journalism.

Mark taught me many rules of writing body copy. For instance, the first word of your copy should be in caps. There should be no more than 10-12 words at a stretch without some punctuation, or italics, to relax the eye. It was dogmatic, but it imposed a discipline on me, a discipline that was among my life's lessons. He recommended a book that I recommend to all, The Art of Plain Talk by Rudolph Flesch.

I took a six-month break and did a fellowship at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. My theme was, 'The Role of Communications in Attitudinal and Behavioural Change,' with a focus on nutrition and eventually on maternal child health. At 2 AM one night, in a bar in Sao Paulo, I ran into a doctor who thought I was Brazilian because of my name. He reported that at the hospital he worked in; he was part of a team promoting breastfeeding, a vital part in child health.

Could this be at the centre of my work at the University? In Brazil - in 1979 - particularly in the lower SECs, breast-feeding was in sharp decline and being replaced by breast milk substitutes.
Government programmes at that point made women feel guilty for not breastfeeding. I produced a straightforward marketing programme. I simply applied advertising and marketing methods, using celebrity testimonials advocating the 'right' way. The Brazilian Ministry of Health and UNICEF were impressed and offered me a job.

Film and TV stars willingly breast-fed their babies on camera. The tagline (translated from the Portuguese) was 'Six months that are worth a lifetime'. The programme, spearheaded by use of TV, was immensely successful. Breastfeeding practice and durations greatly increased. The learning in a bar in Sao Paulo was this: Standard marketing and advertising methods can make a huge difference far beyond the marketplace.

A campaign I hold dear was for Dalda (a HUL brand). The director of our client company, Morris Zinkin said "For Dalda, I cannot have advertising conceived in heads that think only English."

I was copy chief at Lintas (1956) which handled Dalda. We were told we needed the ads in 10 Indian languages, not translations. The rough and tumble that followed threw up two remarkable writers: Balwant Tandon in Hindi and Urdu and Sivaramakrishna, in Tamil, who supervised work in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. I believe we created Indian Language Advertising and good writers in them.

People bought Dalda because they couldn't afford ghee. We met this resistance with something positive: 'Dalda is good for you'. Balwant transformed that into something much superior in Hindi, 'Mamta ki kasauti par khara'. The campaign was a milestone - and a marketing success.

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