Defining Moments: Sonal Dabral: Chance encounters

By Biprorshee Das , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | November 18, 2011
In an eventful advertising career spanning 27 years, Sonal Dabral is best remembered for his ground-breaking work on brands such as Cadbury and Binnies.

In an eventful advertising career spanning 27 years, Sonal Dabral is best remembered for his ground-breaking work on brands such as Cadbury and Binnies. An NID graduate, he started his career with Lintas India, (now, Lowe Lintas) in Delhi. He spent over five years with the agency, punctuated by a brief stint at Mudra's Delhi office. He later moved to Ogilvy. After a long association with the agency and its creative ace Piyush Pandey, he finally shifted to Bates 141, where he is currently the regional executive creative director, Asia-Pacific.

I truly believe in destiny, and in the idea that everything happens because it is meant to happen. The first turning point in my life came when I stumbled upon the application form for NID (National Institute of Design) in 1978, which someone had left in my house by mistake. I was in Class XI then. Later that week, I happened to pick up a book in my school library which had all the information about NID.

I was into art, especially painting and sketching, and had my mind set on architecture as a career. Advertising as a career was unheard of in a city like Agra.

My first brush with an ad agency was at Clarion where I interned for three weeks in 1984. Later, I did my diploma project with JWT in Delhi. After I graduated, I applied for a job at Lintas. When I went to NID to collect my graduation certificate, I saw a letter from Sam Mathews asking me to join the agency.

My stint with Lintas lasted five years. Madhukar Kamath managed to poach me to Mudra, Delhi, for about six months. In Mudra, there were a lot of IPO-related campaigns that we worked upon. The most important and memorable campaign was 'Humko Binnies Mangta'. We had staved off plenty of big competitors during the pitch, and the jingle became very popular.

The shift to Ogilvy Mumbai changed the course of my life. It came about in a very odd way. I was working on a film for Monte Carlo. I had to come to Mumbai for the ad, and was staying with Piyush Pandey. At that time, Pandey had an idea for the Luna ad. He asked me to do a layout for it. I was still working for Lintas then, but I did the layout anyway. He liked it and later invited me to join his agency.

Delhi was my comfort zone. But Pandey convinced me to come to Mumbai. Things started changing fast for Ogilvy then. We won several big accounts. In 1995-96 the hit Cadbury Dairy Milk campaign came, followed by the Perk 'hunger strike' ad. Around this time, Neil French, the then executive creative director, Ogilvy Singapore, said he liked my Perk campaign, and mentioned this to Pandey. He took me out for lunch at the Ritz hotel. He told me that "if you can do a campaign like Perk, then you can do anything".

Ogilvy Malaysia needed a head, and I decided to go there. I had assembled a very talented team there and within a few years, we won Malaysia's first Cannes silver, and later, even a gold. Five years later, I moved to Ogilvy Singapore. In 2007, we were the third-most awarded agency in the world. Then I moved to Bates 141 for a bigger role. With Bates, I have travelled and learned a lot. It is important to be curious every minute in advertising. That's what keeps me going.

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