Guest Article: Raj Nair: Mentoring - damned if you do, damned if you don't

By Raj Nair , BMB India, Mumbai | In Advertising | April 03, 2014
An adman on the art of mentoring agency folk.

According to a presentation I saw online, a mentor is supposed to be many things - teacher, guide, counsellor, motivator, coach, advisor, role model, referral agent and even door opener (one who helps you get a job). That truly is a lot of things and you could even argue that some of the roles overlap. But the thing is, I didn't see wrist slapper anywhere in that list.

Raj Nair

Obviously no one, absolutely no one, least of all me, likes being at the receiving end of some good old-fashioned posterior pummelling. But, having received more than my fair share of it no matter where I was on the lengthy food chain of any typical creative department, it's safe to say that I've often come out the stronger for it.

Learning 1:

I used to work at an agency called Speer Communications working on brands like Borosil, Monginis, Tata Press Yellow Pages and the like. The owner and creative director was a gentleman by the name of Sajid Peerbhoy (hence the egotistical name, Speer). Sajid would make us writers write no less than, say, 250 brand names, in order to get five approved (and that happened if you were fortunate). He also made us write hundreds of headline options for a print ad, almost none of which would get approved. But we would keep on keeping on. Day in, day out.

Sajid also used to point out that Speer needed to create work like the kind Trikaya (the precursor of Grey) and Enterprise were engaged in creating. Funnily enough, he would write a lot of the campaigns that Speer released. Perhaps it was a pointer to himself, which he used to direct through us. I definitely wouldn't call Sajid a willing mentor, but he did teach us, at least those of us who wanted to learn, the value of persistence and the importance of being able to take one on the chin and every other part of the body and yet carry on. His inputs were, at many times, really scathing and if you were made of weak stuff, you would end up in a pile of tears/ignominy/self doubt (some even quit advertising) at the bottom of your desk. Needless to add, there was hardly ever any praise.

Learning 2:

So I ran at the first available opportunity, which materialised after a year and a half. I moved to JWT where a cheerful soul called Anil Warner was my creative head. In no time, I started receiving inputs from Warner - think tangentially. But he was also the first to tell me that the kind of ideas I was coming up with would never get approved within the system (in other words, by the suits) and that this sort of thinking would perhaps be better appreciated at Enterprise or Trikaya. Whether intentionally or otherwise, what I felt he told me was to look for a different kind of agency. Fortunately Mohammed Khan, the owner of Enterprise, hired me when he saw my book.

Learning 3:

Mohammed had this absolutely wonderful way of dealing with his people. The very first time I bounced off an idea and lines off him on a pet client of his, namely Lakme, I was told summarily to shove the lines up my nether regions as he felt they deserved to be parked where the sun didn't shine much (ironic, as I happened to be sharing ideas on the brand's sunscreen product.) Fortunately for me, this sharing of inputs was done long distance over the phone as he was in Delhi. Else, the possibility of him parking the lines on my person, in person, could have been an all too unsavoury reality.

Suitably chastised and visibly shaken, I went back to work, having been told to sweat bullets over ideation and even more importantly, execution.

Then on another occasion, I was sharing a film idea on a bank brand we were working for at the time. I presented the script and he just stared at me for what seemed like a moment that stretched forever. Then he suddenly got up and told me to follow him. Feeling like a sacrificial lamb being led to its proverbial slaughter, I followed him. He came to a stop in the middle of the creative area and started shouting: "You (unprintables), listen to this script. This is how it's meant to be done." Except I think I was so overcome by the praise that I ran away from there and didn't share the idea with the rest of the guys. Truth be told, I may have also initially felt that he was actually screaming at me for doing something that was utter crap. The film eventually didn't get made but even the client appreciated the script. And may I add, Mohammed used to balance the brickbats with bouquets.

Learning 4:

I have always followed a pretty simple approach to evaluating work, which has not evolved too much over the years.

The idea is king, emperor and absolute master of the universe - whether it is for a shelf sticker or a full-blown integrated marketing campaign that uses 25 different elements.

Every time one puts pen to paper or one's mind to a task, try to ensure that whatever is the outcome, it does not go by like a ship in the night. Because that is possibly the worst kind of idea - the one that goes unnoticed.

Craig Davis, the erstwhile worldwide creative head of JWT, devised a Creativity Scale of 1 to 10 to help judge one's own idea, where 1 is Wasteful and 10 is World Beating. It's as easy getting the Wasteful, Boring, Predictable ideas as it is nigh impossible to get the World Class or World Beating Ideas.

Learning 5:

Not everyone in this world can appreciate honesty, when imparted with impunity, especially. It has, usually one has seen, all the elegant subtlety of a sledgehammer, especially when one is at the receiving end of candid but correct feedback.

What is even more difficult is the ability to be honest to oneself.

This I feel, nine times out of ten, is what creates rumbles of discontent in any senior-junior relationship. Both parties HAVE TO have it in them to be able to admit and recognise that the other party is probably right, WHEN AND IF THEY ARE.

Whether senior or junior, you can't possibly be right all the time. Not even the best minds in the world are capable of that. But the question is, are we capable of accepting that?

Learning 6:

I have always prided myself on being friendly and approachable (picked that up from Ravi Deshpande, who was always both.) Keeping an open mind and an open door for anyone to walk in, as they please.

I walk about and engage in conversation and try to find out interests and leanings. It always gives you windows into people.

I always try to listen and offer a carefully considered point of view.

Learning 7:

Of course, I'll also admit that I am hugely impatient to a fault, but I still try very hard to listen. Because as they say, if you want to be heard, you better be prepared to listen. Some people have called me rude, short-tempered. These are labels that I probably cannot shrug off at all times. I agree I am impatient - it's an honest failing that I still continue to work on.

Learning 8:

If you want your inputs to be clear, you will always use sound logic to explain what you like (or dislike) in an idea. It could be the insight. It could be the brilliant analogy. It could be a refreshing use of technology. It could be fantastic art or writing or both. It could mirror the consumer's life, attitude or preferences. It could reference the competition in an utterly refreshing way. After all, every good piece of creative, irrespective of medium, is backed by sound logic. If you're setting about to explain what you dislike in the idea, it could be the lack of any of the above. And more. But what it shouldn't be is "What the @#!!%^ is this dog crap?" leaving you to decipher why what you thought smelled of roses resembles poop to your CD. Or worse, "No, it just doesn't work" without the why. Or even worse, if asked why, retorting with a silent withering glare or an equally ineffective "My way or the highway."

I must add here, I admit that I have learnt much more from all my younger colleagues than what I have contributed.

(The author is chief creative officer, BMB India.)

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