Shreyas Kulkarni

Piyush Pandey on the unquenchable potency of ideas

The ad man may have moved into an advisory role at Ogilvy, but he continues to champion ideas and storytelling over everything else.

The future is uncertain, but Piyush Pandey is certain about the power of ideas – it will endure, regardless of any technology which makes its way into the communications business.

Over a call, the adman reaffirmed what he told us (afaqs!) in 2022 about ideas always being first and not technology.

Pandey, in September 2023, moved into an advisory role at Ogilvy from his posts of chairman global creative and executive chairman. He has not retired and will work with the agency’s senior leadership and major clients.

The conversation about technology, particularly generative artificial intelligence (AI), taking front and centre in advertising over ideas and storytelling, has gained a lot of steam in the past year. 

And why should it not? Agencies are dabbling in it and getting better every second day. Its promise prompted Sociowash, an integrated advertising agency, to launch an AI studio in 2023.

Pandey, however, is not too bothered because he believes AI cannot create. “It can only copy ideas it has heard. That is why it is called artificial intelligence,” he says with a smile.

It is important to note that he is not against the use of it; one of Ogilvy India’s most popular and awarded ad campaigns Not Just A Cadbury Ad used AI to create thousands of hyper-personalised ads starring actor Shah Rukh Khan for India’s countless small businesses and stores. It won a Titanium Lion at the 2022 Cannes Lions and several other awards.

Then there is the Madhya Pradesh tourism ad from 2023 with the typical Pandey touch of song and music. And a healthy use of technology as well.

“Gond art will not show the tiger’s muscles moving in the ad. An animator did it using technology, but you will not see it. That is the true use of technology when you never comment on it,” he remarks.

When asked about people becoming too reliant on generative AI than their mental faculties, Pandey was clear. “If you are stupid, you will become reliant.”

Partners turned service providers

A brand today has many agencies to choose from for its work. There are legacy advertising agencies, network agencies, independent agencies, digital agencies, and meme-only agencies… one gets the drift.

Unfortunately, too many choices not only confuse a customer – brands, in this case – but change the agency-client relationship from a partnership into one where the agency is nothing but a service provider.

“Never come back to me from a meeting, and tell me ‘I’ve sold the campaign’. Come back and say they loved the campaign.”
Piyush Pandey

“I easily saw that in the ads during the World Cup,” states Pandey. He was deeply unimpressed with what he saw, especially the ads filled with celebrities, and said the old ads were far better.

“The moment there is no idea, you know it is a service provider.”

Is it a tough client or the question of money that turns agencies into yes-men? Says Pandey, “It is a combination of both.”

He harks to the Vimal ads where former cricket players started appearing after the actors. “There is no semblance of a story here.”

2024 is an event-filled year: the Indian Premier League, the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup, the Paris Olympics, the Euro 2024.

One wonders if viewers will see enjoyable ads during these events or a rerun of random content forced into those 10 seconds' worth of air or stream time.

Pandey is confident the makers can “force-fit anywhere anything.”

He is especially interested in start-ups because, in his mind, they will “spend all the money by next evening whether they have an idea or not.”

Start-ups for many years were the leading advertisers in the Indian Premier League before a funding crunch forced them to curtail their ad spending.

Pandey remembers telling someone advice he gave about start-ups. “You are looking at the market cap. Look at the market share instead. You will create a brand.”

He asks if these young companies want to learn from those conducting business for the last 50 to 60 years or if these younglings want to disappear in two years.

From service providers to partners

Agencies and folks cannot remain subservient personalities and expect the status of a partner. To get the support of a client, one, as per Pandey, has to speak to them like one and not like a salesperson.

He tells his people, “Never come back to me from a meeting, and tell me ‘I’ve sold the campaign’. Come back and say they loved the campaign.”

It is all about having the passion and putting in that extra effort to make the client feel the agency is treating the client like their own brand.

“Give a good idea before the client asks, enquire whether the client’s share has gone up, then you are a partner. A creative agency works to make its clients’ business better. If it is not interested in the better, then it is a supplier,” he explains.

The adman, however, cautions against changing things just because one has the opportunity. “You make a change when a change is necessary.”

He mentions how he and former Cadbury India MD Rajeev Bakshi consciously decided to stop casting kids in the Dairy Milk ads because they wanted adults to consume it too.

“We did a campaign (Kuch Khaas Hai) where the idea was there's a child within all of us. We did not lose the children and got all the adults to return to Dairy Milk.”

And while people came back to Dairy Milk, these days, people are coming back to watch the same ad many times because of an extreme rise in frequency.

Pandey states you save money with good advertising because you do not need to run it many times. “There is the Opportunities to See or OTS (a measure that tells you how many times a viewer is most likely to watch an ad), I call it opportunities to make an impact.”

“When people start loving your brand, your brand values will go up.”

These thoughts come from Pandey’s wisdom accumulated for nearly four decades.

One cannot help but ask considering his new role, if the urge to step in and take the reigns is strong or if he takes a backseat. “My team for years has known when they need me and when they desperately need me. My clients know when they need me, and the teams know what those clients are.”

“But, like a senior player in the team who is not the captain anymore, am I going to run away with those 40 years of experience, or am I going to share it? Share it without acting authoritatively because you have handed over the authority,” states Pandey. 

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