Life After Advertising

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | November 09, 2011
Just as advertising draws people from other professions, other professions too draw people from advertising. afaqs! meets some of the latter.

What could be common to a high-end travel tour organiser, an adventure cyclist, a jungle safari conductor, a stand-up comedian, a ceramic maker, a farmer, an author and a production house owner?

In this case, all of them have had something to do with advertising.

Advertising is a very accommodating industry. Accountants, engineers, doctors, dentists and even tea-tasters have made it big here. There are some who have moved away to pursue other career interests, which more often than not, have nothing to do with advertising. What makes them do it?

The perfect platform?

Advertising as a profession is different from others. It provides independence and the constant opportunity to unlearn things. It exposes one to lots of other interesting things all the time. A banker might be an expert in banking and finance, but an advertising person could be a Jack-of-all-trades. Is that what prepares one for an offbeat career?

Former senior vice-president and managing partner of JWT South (Chennai and Hyderabad), Anita Gupta, quit advertising a few years ago to craft high-end adventure travel experiences for special interest groups such as corporate professionals, NRIs, artists and museum teams. Gupta, whose company is called Travelling Lens, also manages a travel-cum-photography brand by the same name. She agrees that being in advertising has helped. "To be able to do justice to your job, you have to have a passion that feeds into your job." Travelling Lens takes, on an average, 40 select clients out every year.

Or take Amitabh Bhattacharya. He quit his job as creative director, McCann Erickson, to co-found his own film production house with Junaid Memon, a friend. But the partner and executive producer of Nomad Films is also an inveterate adventure cyclist. "Compared to other fields, advertising provides a wider exposure. Besides, advertising is a great teacher."

So, why did he quit as creative director of McCann Bangalore in 2003 after 10 years in the business? "My hard work was being ignored and it was my lack of being politically correct all the time that became my nemesis at my senior level agency post," he says.

Running his own production house the way he wanted to is the kick that keeps Bhattacharya going. "This brings me to cycling. It is a 'calling' of sorts. Either you ride, or you don't. There's no scope to feel shortchanged. It is an overwhelming and satisfying form of self-expression that helps me perform better on the job too," says Bhattacharya explaining his love for cycling.

He started cycling in 2008, and participated in the Geneva-Cannes Fireflies Tour this year. The Fireflies Tour (an eight-day, 1,000-km ride through the French Alps) is a cycling event that raises funds for research on Leukamia. Bhattacharya cycles close to 10,000 km a year.

"This is just something that advertising does to you," exclaims Sanjay Krishnan an ex-JWT man, who launched Wilderness Safari in 2008. "At an ad agency, people are exposed to so much creative thinking. They're more likely to act on their passion," he says.

Krishnan organises tours to Dudhwa National Park. He was an account director. He joined advertising straight out of college but lasted just five years in the business. Even so, he insists that being in advertising helped. "Servicing clients in an agency and dealing with people at a camp are not too different. Both involve handling people." Is it smooth sailing then after switching careers?

Not always a breeze

Any start-up comes with its attendant problem. Says Krishnan, "The biggest problem was dealing with this mindset of people when they ask, 'Why are you leaving a promising career like advertising'. Another problem was that Dudhwa was also not well known. So, getting people to learn about the place and getting them to come there was a challenge." Krishnan's camps - like any jungle safari in India - run for six months every year, between November and May.

Gupta, too, had her share of problems. "The biggest hiccup was getting used to the absence of the kind of advanced technology and infrastructure that agencies offer," she says. Another was the issue of sourcing talent. Away from agency-life, not having the best talent available is a challenge. "But I have learnt how to attract the right talent and staff for my current line of work."

There are others who have moved, tried out something and come right back too. Advertising allows this latitude. Many industry observers believe that in advertising, daily experimentation is part of the job, which is why it increases the risk-taking abilities of people. So much so that though people from this profession take the risk of quitting midway and chasing other horizons, they can count on peer support.

Ogilvy Mumbai's vice-president, planning, Prem Narayan, had decided to quit advertising a few years ago to turn farmer. Narayan and his uncle got into large-scale farming at Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, in August 2007. Together, the two set up close to 200 acres of farmland. They opted for long-term crops such as gooseberry (amla), lemon, eucalyptus, corn and sunflower. Within a year, however, Narayan ran into some trouble and moved back to Ogilvy Mumbai. Today, his cousin, along with a manager, looks after it.

Narayan says, "Had I been in any other profession, my colleagues would probably call me a 'cuckoo' if I told them that I want to renounce my job to go farming, but advertising guys are diverse and interesting people and are chilled out enough to lend emotional support when their colleagues do such things."

Creative itch

Popular stand-up comedian, Neeti Palta (a former copywriter at JWT), who spent around 11 years in advertising, jokes about her own story, "You could say that I found my trigger to pursue a career in comedy on-the-job. After all, you do develop a sense of humour in this industry. And as a copywriter, you're constantly coming up with witty and quirky stuff."

Palta, who performs in Delhi and Mumbai regularly, is considering an offer to go to Udaipur for a 'corporate gig' (an entertainment session that is part of an off-site team building workshop for members of a corporate organisation). She recently launched an initiative called Loony Goons that helps upcoming comedians to clinch gigs and perform more often. After a dozen years in the industry, Palta found out that a laugh or two goes down well with most people. Are advertising people more prone to act like this? Some call it madness.

As Gopi Kukde, co-founder of Advertising Avenues, says, "Unless you have a certain madness about you, you can't be in advertising!" Extend that and it makes sense why advertising folk go through such sudden urges. Inherently restless people harbour multiple interests and passions.

Kukde himself took a sabbatical from advertising in 1990. Keeping all creative instincts aside, he studied ceramics for five years, after which he started working for architects. He soon started selling his artefacts and launched his own ceramics business called Useless Ceramics. Kukde returned to advertising in 2000, though he continues with his passion. He says, "This madness, coupled with multiple interests, often inspires people to take sabbaticals or call it quits, in order to chase their hobbies, or at least, convert them into side careers.

Kudke's example was followed by Shalini Dam, former national creative director of Grey Delhi. The student of pottery quit last year to pursue ceramics full-time. She has even trained under a 'kumhar' for three weeks. "If you really want to pursue something, why wait?" asks Dam adding, "It takes time to become good at any craft, so the sooner you take to it seriously, the better."

Self-expression is what Dam calls it. But isn't creative advertising too about self-expression? Ask Anuja Chauhan, bestselling author, who has written two books laced with Hinglish, an approach generally frowned upon by purists of language. Both The Zoya Factor and Battle for Bittora became the rage when they were released.

Now a full-time author the ex-executive creative director of JWT, says, "Advertising is a great training camp. It teaches you a lot. But, you end up becoming a suit with a ponytail, the higher you climb. When you get pushed up the ladder, you spend too much time in meetings and creativity dies. When you rise, the pencil and the yellow pad fade away."

There are many who succumb to the pressure that comes along while climbing steadily up the corporate ladder. Many find the corporate culture an obstacle to letting their creative expression loose and they call it quits after a while. The more managerial the role gets, the less enjoyable it is for creative people. Not everyone agrees with that assessment though.

Veterans' verdict

It is not as if people are deserting advertising in droves. The people running the advertising show have their points of view. Priti Nair, co-founder, Curry-Nation insists that, unlike other fields where the higher one climbs the more comfortable one's job gets, in advertising the higher one climbs the more stressful things get, she says tolerantly of those who are looking for fresher pastures.

KV Sridhar, aka Pops, national creative director, Leo Burnett India, is scathing. He believes that those who switched fields from advertising to other passions midway in their careers, were probably not passionate enough about advertising in the first place. "The notion of 'creative burnout' is just a myth. It is just an escapist route to cover up one's own inefficiency. In this profession, burnout occurs when you stop being an eternal student of life," he points out.

What about those who find senior jobs too management-oriented for their liking? "This just shows their lack of creative leadership. I know many hardcore creative people who enjoy their work so much that they prefer staying craftsmen and copywriters all their lives." Sridhar feels that such people are not interested in client meetings and high posts. Those who accept promotions and raises, should also deliver accordingly and not shy away from the role that comes with it. "The posts of executive creative director or national creative director roles are 'thought leadership' roles. You can't accept the promotion and then crib about the managerial part of it," he thunders.

Ashish Khazanchi, national creative director and vice-chairperson, Publicis Ambience, is a more indulgent. "As you roll on in this profession, it becomes more about judgement and delegation than doing it yourself. That's when you start missing doing the creative work," he says. When one starts missing that creative outlet, to fulfill this craving, one tends to take to other interests seriously, especially if it is financially viable.

Not everyone looks to combine creative outflow with the profit motive. Jayant Ghosh's last agency job was as senior client servicing director at Lowe Lintas in 2009 working on brands such as Wills Lifestyle and Parker pens. Today, he is in Ranchi and runs Maati Agrotech, an agricultural and livelihood promotion institution that works with farmers. Maati, based in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, helps 300 farmers in 27 villages.

Ghosh devised a cultivation model - the Maati Vegetable Cultivation Model - that included irrigation methodology and knowledge about new ways of growing vegetables. He introduced poor, small-time farmers to technology.

In the initial days, help came when the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) approached him and asked him to do a pilot for them in six villages across Jharkhand. Then, the State Government took up this model as a state policy and started implementing it on a large scale. Currently, the Jharkhand State Rural Development Department is implementing Ghosh's model for around one lakh farmers.

Why did he move after 14 years in advertising? "In the late 1990s/early 2000s, I found lack of substance in the industry. Agency professionals would spend three-four hours in meetings discussing things like the colour of one dress! The client became the focus of everything and agency professionals gradually became what I call 'professional invertebrates'. The joy was sucked out of the job." Kaushik Mukherji is another who quit the advertising and communications industry two years ago to found Bhoomi Corp. It deals in agriculture retail and Mukherji finds it fulfilling.

There's reason

Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer, Mudra Group, agrees with Pop's assessment that the concept of creative burnout is a myth. He, however, understands why multi-talented advertising professionals tend to gravitate towards their other interests somewhere down the line. "It's not like you're wedded to your profession," he points out, adding that with the right level of discipline it is possible for a senior creative professional to decide how much of work he wants to delegate.

Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative officer, BBDO India, has an existential take on the issue. "It all depends on one's sense of how much work is left 'unfinished' in the industry," he sighs. He feels that it is this sense of 'unfinished business' and the need to re-invent that keeps people going. "I make no judgement on people who've moved out. Maybe they didn't feel the sense of 'unfinished work' in the industry," he clarifies.

At the end, it all boils down to the urge to explore. The advertising industry, especially the creative people in it, draws those who are explorers by nature. They want to explore many different things. And when their present job blocks out exploration options, they tend to move out to areas that can satisfy their curiosity. But it is not as if those who have moved on don't look back. As Gupta puts it, "I miss the energy in advertising."

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