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Defining Moments: Prasoon Joshi: Happy accidents

Prasoon Joshi, chairman and CCO, McCann Worldgroup India and president, South Asia has spent around 20 years in the biggest 'accident' of his life: advertising. He traces his journey from a small town in Uttarakhand to taking on the world and enchanting it with his words.

Since childhood, I have not been fixated about what I wanted to do in life. My ambitions changed almost every day - doctor, scientist or engineer.

Prasoon Joshi

Coming from small-town Almora in Uttarakhand, talking careers was not as aggressive a discussion as it is in families today. The only thing that I recall was that I saw a lot of music in my family since both my parents are musicians - vocalists in Hindustani classical.

I gradually developed a liking for music and writing. I would circulate handwritten magazines in school, write short stories, jokes, satire and poems. My childhood was full of inspirations and a sense of freedom. This freedom was the key to my growth and I never allowed myself to be imprisoned by a certain mindset or an image of myself.

Early days

As I grew up, the pressure to go for science and mathematics increased. I completed B Sc in Physics from Meerut College and went for an MBA from the Institute of Management Technology. But I meandered. I had no clarity on what to do with my life.

I used to write a lot of poetry, primarily in Hindi and Urdu. My first book was published when I was 17. But my father told me to do something that would earn me a living. That was the time that I discovered advertising. I found advertising very interesting and started going from door to door to find jobs at agencies.

While studying for MBA, I joined Trikaya Grey (in 1990) as summer trainee in the servicing team. Despite that, I visited the creative team very often. By the time I finished, I had decided that advertising was where I wanted to be, and that I wanted to be in creative.

What thrilled me about advertising was that I got paid for writing. I got into Ogilvy Delhi as a junior copywriter. Logically, I should have gone into client servicing or marketing, but my heart told me to be in creative.

The mentor

I met Suresh Mallik at Ogilvy India. He had created Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, the famous musical ode to India's unity in diversity. He was a great teacher, eccentric and a maverick. He took an immense liking for me and we connected because of music. He used to say: "Write a script like a writer and not a film director. Write the way your grandmother would tell you a story."

I learnt the nuances of storytelling from him. He also encouraged me to compose and sing my own jingles. He helped me direct my talent in the right direction.

Mumbai calling

In late 1997, Piyush Pandey offered me a transfer to Mumbai since Sonal Dabral was moving to Malaysia. After coming here, I was approached by film directors to write songs and suddenly a new stream opened up for me.

Mumbai also offered me an opportunity to work on brands such as Cadbury, Asian Paints, Parle, Hutch and Tata Safari.

McCann Erickson

Another turning point in my life came when I joined McCann Erickson in 2002. At that point in time, McCann did not have a creative reputation. I was told that Coke did not go beyond Bollywood song and dance themes.

Within a few years, we changed McCann's reputation and it started getting known as a creative powerhouse. We also changed Coke from a song-and-dance driven communicator to a storyteller with 'Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola'. In the second year of my joining, we won two golds at Cannes.

Managing

In 2006, I became the CEO when Santosh Desai left. I knew taking this up would take away my freedom as a creative individual. But if I had to build a creative culture, I had to take this chance. My management background helped me.

I have always believed in integrity, honesty and consistency. I am not scared of exposing myself. As a writer, you have to be honest. My writing comes from real life experiences.

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