Life in an Agency, Then and Now

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | April 13, 2011
20 years ago, ad agencies were quite something else, and perhaps the only thing that remains constant even after all these years is the chaos. afaqs! takes a look at agency culture years ago versus now.

Flashback. Monday, July 1, 1991. An ad agency: Walk in during the afternoon - the day starts late for agencies - and the staircase landing is littered with chain-smoking art directors, 'waiting for that line' from the copywriter. Inside, the branch head can be seen tearing his hair over the abuse of his couch over the weekend.

The Anglophile creative director, after his ego is sufficiently stroked, edits the body copy down to 855 words from 857. The studio guys take a break from the carrom board to stash away liquor left over from Saturday night's office party. The coffee-vending machine - a friendly office peon - brushes past as he lunges across the street to fetch yet another 'anda-bread'. A hassled servicing executive begs and cajoles others to do their jobs. The serious looking 'media' types are seen walking around the main agency, as the breakup of the full-service agency model is yet to arrive.

Cut to the present day. A lot has changed and how! afaqs! goes back 20 years, to compare how different life in an agency was back then compared to the tizzy times today.


The early '90s were the days when the client-servicing person was the brand custodian in the agency. Scurrying to and fro between the client and the creative department, he delivered written briefs and translated it for the creative team who, in turn, passed on their creatives to him for presentation to the client.

As some senior level agency executives recall, the 'poor' servicing guy did everything. He had to request people to just do their own jobs, who would then 'oblige' him as though doing a favour. Often, an account executive or AE doubled up as a strategic planner (this wasn't recognised as a separate function till the late '90s) and even had to look after media planning too. He was often responsible for dealer conferences or drafting speeches for chief marketing officers at events. But with the breaking down of the full service agency model, brand ownership got divided amongst other departments in the agency.

Today, the various skill sets that were 'assumed' to be there in one person have been disaggregated into specialist skill sets and divisions. There has also been a fundamental shift from 'account' to 'brand'. Earlier, brand building was almost an afterthought - running the account was what mattered. Now, the role of the brand is at the fore. This reflects in the way designations have evolved, from 'AE' to 'brand partner' or 'brand leader'.

Back then, it was hard work earning a designation. According to Satbir Singh, chief creative officer, Euro RSCG India, someone who was a copywriter then would be a creative director in the present set up considering the rate at which designations are dished out. VPs and AVPs are dime a dozen. "There are ridiculous ones such as vice-creative group head," laughs Bobby Pawar chief creative officer, Mudra Group. "It was a flatter structure earlier. At Ogilvy, a bunch of us reported to our creative head, Sonal Dabral, who reported to the national creative director Piyush Pandey." Pandey is now executive chairman and creative director, Ogilvy, South Asia.

Gone with the wind

The last two decades have seen many functions become extinct. There were people who specialised in recruitment advertising or proofreading - any typo error and the agency had to bear the cost of it. With the emergence of film, the importance of print ads nosedived.

Studio jobs like dark room experts, woodcut illustration experts, spray illustrators, exhibition specialists, physical product shot guys and cut-paste artists are all history - just nostalgia value. Earlier, images were manipulated manually. Today, computers do the job. The films department, which exists in some agencies now, was a necessity then. Today, production houses have started taking care of the execution. Several ancillary industries vanished as technology advanced. Set designers, prop makers and model makers disappeared as computer graphics came in. Back then, a ballroom setting required an actual ballroom. An aerial shot would require a camera to be placed 80 feet above and one had to take care of every detail in costumes, number of models used, the flooring, the arches. Today, digital technology - be it distorts on Photoshop, or 3DS MAX - does that.

According to creative experts, in the old days it was 'craft' that was at the centre of things. Today, the big idea is at the centre. While brainstorming for ideas is the norm today and 'teamwork' is a given, it is interesting to note that advertising departments often worked in isolation years ago. The copy and art guys sat separately.

KV Sridhar (Pops) national creative director, Leo Burnett India, shares an interesting anecdote: "Art directors would feel that some copy is too long and - not fully understanding the language well - remove conjunctions and punctuations, in a bid to make it shorter!" Typography was used as a brand's 'tone of voice', and there were some 20 fonts to choose from. Today, there are hundreds. The 'Sans Serif versus Serif' argument that erupted between the copy and art person is a distant memory. Today, long copy has given way to a 'visual' language. "It could be a lack of confidence among art people, or that they couldn't put the argument together, that prevented them from being able to sell their work themselves," feels Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar, national creative director, Bates 141 India.


  • Twenty years ago, it was the servicing guy who headed the business. He used to say things like 'This guy isn't delivering; I want him off my business'. Today, a team of people heads the business including servicing, planning and creative and the more capable hand takes charge.

  • Back then there were a handful of clients who believed in taking risks. Today, many more are willing to take risks and understand that localisation is the key.

  • In the early '90s, there was actually a 'computer room', which was like a shrine. It had an air conditioner and people took their shoes off before entering for fear of dust ruining the few systems that were housed there.

  • Visiting cards then had telex numbers (which were obsolete anyway but for some reason, they were there on all cards), and fax numbers and no email ids.

  • 'Hey' is the new 'Dear' in official agency correspondence.

Earlier, a lot of physical artwork was done out of the agency. A layout typically took a week to complete and the artwork had to be prepared manually. As Pops puts it, "Assembling the artwork used to be a big task. Things started with a scribble, not some fancy computer application. Today, you can put an ad together on your way to meet a client!" Rohit Ohri, senior vice-president and managing partner, JWT, points out the humourous aspect in this. "Those were the days when the type-set often fell off the artwork while the copywriter checked the proof."

Pitches involved tonnes and tonnes of print ads. There were no online photo stock libraries - or Google - for image references. It was either the photographers who did the job or the art guys who doubled up as photographers. There were Black Books (stock of real photos). Fashion and other specialised magazines or photographers' portfolios were reference points. Going for a pitch meant going through hundreds of pictures all night trying to figure out the best options. "The plus point of snail paced artwork was that the client couldn't suggest too many changes as another week would pass by," chuckles a senior art director.

Mr Straightjacket, Mr Ponytail

An ad agency was infamous for its 'strange' looking inhabitants. The 'suits' or servicing lot actually wore suits and ties to work. That seems to be the forte of agency heads today. Barring agencies such as Ogilvy - which believed in the shirt-and-trouser culture - 'proper' was the norm for an AE type. "I often ran into Alyque Padamsee of Lintas at a client's. He, with the rest of the Levers' gang at Lintas, always wore ties and jackets. Alyque had a folding comb and I have seen him do his hair in the lift each time," grins Pandey.

The creative department was full of 'characters'. Advertising attracted misfits, or those who had failed at 20 other things. Creative folk could throw tantrums half an hour before the deadline and say, 'I don't have an idea'. "It was a valid excuse because 'creative' was deeply mystified. There was an aura around them as though they come from another planet and brought with them a skill called copywriting," muses Ashish Khazanchi vice-chairperson and NCD, Publicis Ambience.

Back then if a guy with a decent ponytail listened to Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones, he was seen as God's gift to mankind. 'I'm creative if I listen to English music' was the belief. Excellent English was more important than excellent ideas if he or she were to set foot into the 'copy' arena.

Madhukar Kamath, CEO and managing director, Mudra Group feels that the arrogance among top-level creative folk (who were considered idols) has changed from justifiable arrogance to fashionable arrogance. "Some of the people who were arrogant then were extremely talented. Today, arrogant seems to be a word added as a title before your name, when you walk in for an interview," he opines. But idol worship is prevalent even now.

One school of thought believes that in the '90s, idols were made and worshipped without question. The benchmarks weren't very high. Nobody looked at a Cannes or a Crispin Porter. It was the agency down the corner and Delhi or Bombay Ad Club awards. The awards culture was not dominant. "I got my first One Show nomination in 2000, and it was a huge deal then. Today, you may win a Gold Pencil, and the fellow two cubicles away may not even know of it, and if he does, 'Oh okay. So? What did you get it for?' is the casual comment," shrugs Khazanchi.

'Cultural' values

Once upon a time, ad agencies were a 'South Bombay' phenomenon, figuratively speaking. This translated into a snootiness that was palpable. The glamour, the fashion, the models, the photographers, the shoots, all spelt upper class advertising. It was cool to go home at 5 AM and waltz into office at 1 PM - with far less urgency and pressure to get things done.

Office parties were a huge deal and makeshift bars came up at the drop of a hat. Drinking was big, particularly down South, reveals Ramesh Srivats, founder of the digital outfit, Ten Ten Ten, who spent a major part of his career down South. To kill time, there was cricket, carrom, movies during work hours, drinking and smoking in the office in the evenings and, of course, talking in English. "But work always got done," says Pawar.

Today, carrom has given way to the pool table, iPods, computer games, movies and downloads of songs and sitcoms. Movies during work hours, continue to be a favourite. An active online social life (Facebook and Twitter) is as much a job as anything else. But while earlier, people had fun and advertising happened 'by the way', there's a sense of urgency now with crazier deadlines and huge pressure on youngsters. But they seem capable and confident of handling it.

Old admen mourn the loss of fun though. "Teams were small and everyone knew everyone else," Pandey of Ogilvy says. "We had more time to work and had a ball too." There were the small things such as walking over to someone's desk and chatting. "Now, it hits me that I haven't visited a floor or department for days," he reflects.

Advertising became a middle class phenomenon as small town people showed more hunger. Some agencies identified that quicker and it helped them get closer to the consumer. Suddenly, it was cool to be Hindi or Indian. Lintas' Hamara Bajaj, Ogilvy's 'Fevicol' and 'Chal Meri Luna' happened around that time. Agencies understood that work that reaches people made them famous.

Today, there are more engineers and graffiti artists in the creative department than professional linguists or fine art fundamentalists. "There are fewer MBAs in account management and planning and more chartered accountants and wannabe creative people hiding in suits," observes Senthil Kumar, executive creative director, JWT South.


Sanjay Behl CEO, Reliance DTH and IPTV at Reliance Communications, delivers the client perspective on the visible changes in agency-client interactions two decades ago and now. To begin with, it has moved from a client brief done to the account head to briefing the creative head directly. The scope of the creative brief is also transitioning from TV campaigns to an integrated communications package delivery.

With agencies becoming less hierarchical, the client gets to work directly with a relatively younger creative think-tank. Multiple creative teams work on a common brief under the helm of creative stalwarts. But clients, Behl feels, are falling prey to the temptation of going in for slicker creative executions at the cost of a good idea. "What is damaging is that many teams feed clients with what they want to hear than challengeg the brief now and then," he muses. But with more money at stake, there is a frenzy, on the agency's part, to retain businesses and an urgency, on marketers' part, to achieve profit targets. This may lead to a compromise on what a brand really needs.