Chandrima Pal
Interviews

Creating something is a very humbling experience

Joshi, a bright star in Indian advertising, is best known for his work on Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola campaigns. He tells Chandrima Pal of agencyfaqs! about where Indian advertising needs to go, about the few people he respects in the industry, and the expectations from Cannes this year. Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

Ram Madhvani, who directed the Wakaw and the latest Aish-Cash commercial for Coke, has remarked that Prasoon Joshi is responsible for where Coca-Cola is today. What do you have to say to that?

No way. Brands are bigger than people, no individual can make or break it. All you can do is to give it a little push. Coke’s brand image is the same across the world. It has created cultures; it belongs to the people. Its beauty lies in the fact that wherever it goes, the brand becomes one with the country. We did not have to make the brand, we only had to make it more relevant in the Indian context.

While your work for Coke has earned applause, the latest Nescafe commercial, on the other hand, seems to have received a sound drubbing by the industry. Your comments please.

I have begun to doubt the judging capabilities of most people in the industry. Spaces like the Second Opinion on agencyfaqs! have become a forum for frustrated people to take potshots at each other.

With Nescafe, the idea was to expand the market, and make the brand more relevant to the masses. We realised that the earlier high-brow advertising would not work here. Coffee suffers from a colonial hangover. It has a certain amount of snob value in the country, excepting for the Southern region. I have talked to people in the heartland, and they simply love the ad.

You don’t seem to be open to criticism...

I welcome criticism from people whose minds I truly respect. There are a few people whom you can learn from. But they are a rarity these days.

Going by that logic, awards, which are conferred by your peers in the industry, shouldn’t mean much to you. Right?

Awards are important and significant till the point they do not become the only thing that a creative professional is focusing on. It is a reality check for the craft. It is not a reality check for how a particular advert is doing in the market.

In earlier days, poets would sit together and discuss their work. Someone would have said, “Janaab, instead of this word, you could have used something else.” When you sit with similar kinds of minds, you sometimes realise that you could have communicated some idea better.

I consider advertising to be an art form. We attract creative talent because there is creative satisfaction in the industry.

To be able to sell is a professional requirement; it is a survival strategy. But why does any creative person create? To get appreciation from the people whose minds he respects.

That is a personal need of creative people. It is not about a professional need, something we cannot ignore.

A creative person is one who wants to survive by what he loves doing, that’s where the significance of awards comes in. Of course, there are many controversies about how awards are being conducted these days, but I am talking about an ideal state.

Last year at Cannes, there was some talk about why we always aspire to be like someone else. Like Thailand is proud of its identity, why can’t we Indians too be proud of ourselves and reflect that feeling in our work?

I travel around the world and I think there is an amazing amount of pride in ourselves. Look at the sheer number of people doing creative work in the country. Compare it with any Asian country, and you‘ll get the answer.

The pride is gradually reflecting in our work as well. You see, India has to battle with a lot of insecurities, economic and social. The battle of survival is all-consuming. But once we are able to overcome that phase, we can achieve anything.

The basic question for survival is now going away and original work is coming up. I see a lot more original and innovative work coming up. The momentum should increase in the coming years.

India is not about simplicity or minimalism but about chaos and the art of chaos.

Do Indian brands too need to overcome that sense of insecurity? Isn't it time for them to stop aping others?

Being someone else is not always wrong and being yourself is not always right. I don’t see anything wrong in learning from other countries. If you refuse to learn from other people, you are a fool.

In advertising, we have learnt from other people. Because the industry here is pretty young compared to many countries, we need to juxtapose our learning to our understanding of the Indian culture and society.

If you are not clear about your own identity, you can never imbibe the best of the others. You will be confused. There is a difference between learning and collecting. You can collect information, but you need to learn.

Why don’t we have another Coke from McCann?

We have done many campaigns that we are very proud of. We like all the Perfetti work for brands – Alpenliebe, Chlor-Mint and Happydent. We also like Mastercard and Siemens. But in all these brands, the budgets are so small that they are not seen as much as Coke is seen. These brands simply cannot match Coke’s advertising spend.

We are also proud of our work for NDTV and Sweetex. I am very proud of our Nescafe and Dabur work, which was actually a relaunch. The commercial with Amitabh Bachchan reciting a verse became a prayer for a school in a village school. Can you imagine the reach of the communication? But that advert only appeared on Doordarshan.

Coming back to your question, there is a lot of work which deserve a mention. However, not everything gets Coke’s visibility.

It has been a year since you took over as creative head for south and south east Asia. What have you learnt from the experience and what is your contribution to McCann’s regional work?

I was very clear that my first love is India. I don’t think I have done enough for India. There is a lot of new things that I want to do. I want to explore and learn more. As for this international responsibility, advertising professionals here should take pride in the fact that an Indian is holding this post.

When you represent a certain country, what you take with you is your sensibility and your judgement. For me, the title of CD is very important, as I'm able to judge the work of other people, give them direction which comes through experience and exposure.

I have been learning a lot. And one big lesson that I have learnt is this: Fundamental human emotions are the same all over the world. Emotions are the same, expressions are different.

Did this insight help you while adapting the Thanda Matlab campaign for an Indonesian audience?

It did. Kabaya, in Indonesia, is like our country lad, rooted to the soil, and good in martial arts. The Kabaya comes to the city and asks for a real refreshment, which in the language is Manta. And when he is given something else, he refuses it.

Herein lies the difference between the story-telling in India vis-a-vis Indonesia. In India, generations have been brought up on an oral tradition. And, as an ad industry professional, I have exploited the power of words and dialogues.

But in that part of the world, the power of words and vocabulary are very limited. So the challenge was to convey the same emotion through another form of expression, and we decided to use martial arts for the communication. So, I really worked hard with the people there to find out the most suitable way of expression. That's what you learn from other cultures.

Are there other campaigns in the pipeline that could similarly be adapted?

Definitely. Without taking names, I will say that some of our recent works, which agencyfaqs! has written about, are on their way to be adapted for audiences abroad. But I cannot give you the names before everything is finalised. One of them will probably be re-shot for the US and the UK markets.

What does it take for a campaign to be able to talk to a global audience?

Essentially, you need to differentiate between an expression and an idea. An idea can be adapted to suit any purpose. For instance, if you think that Coke is about dialogues, you will never be able to adapt the idea to anywhere else. But if you think that Coke is about not compromising, all of us can identify with that. The idea can work anywhere then. We need to have expression and idea join hands to have a truly winning communication.

Could you give us some more examples?

Take for example the Happydent flashing teeth commercial. It is an universal idea that does not require a dialogue or words. It is simply about teeth so white that it dazzles. It is just that one benefit that the commercial rides on. You have examples of great campaigns that exaggerate that one benefit of the brand. This could well be one of them. And the teeth need not only be a camera flash. When adapted, it could be a torch and a lamp post. Tomorrow, I can make posters in which a man is standing under a lamp post, which is actually a tall man, looking down and grinning.

Why do you think India should participate in international awards shows such as the Cannes?

I think so because Cannes is one of the most respected advertising bodies. And, we have to prove that we are capable of good work. It is a place where we could go to, where people would guide us and inspire us to do better work. Winning and making a habit of winning is very important. Earlier, it was only important to be there. Now, it is important for us to win as well. To show the world that we can also build brands. That is what we have been doing with Dabur, Perfetti, and NDTV.

Within the agency, what is your equation with your colleagues? And how has it defined the work culture at the agency? What is the agency doing to attract talent?

The reason for me to join McCann was Santosh Desai. I could see how serious he was about the profession. I came from a different school with a creative focus. He compliments me in terms of sound logic which you need at times. Both of us being together breeds a different kind of philosophy for the company. And I think all the people who have joined us recently – Raghu (Bhat) and Manish (Bhatt), Uday Parker among others, and old hands such as Ramanuj Shashtri and Akshay (Kapnadak) understand the balance we try to strike between the craft and the relevance of the same in the selling of the product. We don’t believe in short term gains, we believe in creating a permanent space in the consumer’s mind for the brand. Our goal is very difficult to achieve and that's what is attracting talent to the agency.

The industry today has a few people like you, who stand out because of their versatility, or that elusive quality called star power. Do we really need stars in the industry?

I think the industry needs senior people to guide it. We have always had the guru-shishya parampara. You need people with experience and some amount of star quality to guide and inspire youngsters and to teach them.

I think the advertising industry has been very cruel to people who are 'has-been's. We should learn from Bollywood. There if Naushad sahab comes into a room, people immediately stand up as a mark of respect. But here, we tend to make derogatory remarks about the old timers in the industry. Writing matures with experience. I am talking about real advertising and not just one clever line here and there.

Creative people should remember that s/he is only a medium for creative energy to flow through. S/he is not The Creator. The moment someone takes himself too seriously, he is finished. Those of us, who have emerged as leaders in the industry, can never afford to forget that we are just a live wire through which electricity chooses to flow. To be able to create something is a very humbling experience.

What would be the expectations from Cannes this year?

This is my first time there as a jury and I would like them to be more open to the nuances of our country. I would like to pick up any ad and tell them to look at it again. Appreciate our civilization and thinking.

As far as our expectations are concerned, it is a hit and try thing. You keep working at it, anything that is genuine, creative and has high standards should win. Apart from the work that works in the market, there is a space for the purely creative ones. We have to keep giving them purely original work that is Indian in spirit. Keep at it until some window opens somewhere.

Do you think Indian advertising has great ideas but is poor on execution? Is there too much focus on hair-splitting strategy and planning?

To a large extent, it is true. There are some fantastic creative people in the industry, but production values have not been as good. I think our industry should take a leaf from Bollywood. There are not many original or path-breaking ideas. The same stories are being told for decades in different ways. It is the execution, the narrative and the production value that makes all the difference. In our country, an idea is an overrated concept and craft is underrated. I am a great fan of planners but not of planning. Marketing jargon should be thrown out of the window.