Shreyas Kulkarni

Santosh Padhi coaxed Virender Sehwag to shave his chest for Pepsi's 2011 ICC World Cup campaign, and other stories

A fun and light-hearted Q&A series with India’s biggest creative folks; here is W+K India’s CCO.

Santosh Padhi wants to turn Wieden+Kennedy India into a cultural force; he has his task cut out, but with over 25 years of experience in the advertising industry, he knows a thing or two about getting things done.

Adding to this, he has accumulated some fun experiences along the way; here are some of them.

A Cannes Lions or a less than 10-minute commute to your office from home?

Quite a simple pick for a creative person like me, Cannes Lions or any reputed creative award is the appreciation of brave and creative brand work, whereas staying close to the office is sheer convenience.

History says brands are built with brave and creative work and not with the ease of convenience; even after being in the industry for close to three decades with close to three dozen Cannes Lions wins, I would still love to pick option one as that has not only built big brands but also great creative agencies and individuals.

Santosh Padhi coaxed Virender Sehwag to shave his chest for Pepsi's 2011 ICC World Cup campaign, and other stories

Once you build a creative reputation, money will follow; once that happens, you can buy a home wherever you want.

Political advertising. Yay or nay?

Yay, completely; first, you get to talk to one of the largest audiences in the world, and secondly, the new age politicians have understood the power of communication versus the power of money.

Also, as an industry, we know how to strategise and simplify things, pick the right thread, and connect with the right cord.

Here is another interesting observation: politicians and political parties, to talk about the USP in their campaigns, have realised they need to do interesting work for the people.

So, I think this gathbandhan between our industry and political parties will get stronger in the coming years.

What is your guilty pleasure on Instagram?

I get sucked into Instagram every single day; the reason I do is great learning, a variety of rich and wonderful content of your interest keeps you engaged, and it reflects the mindset and personality of the largest democratic nation i.e. Bharat, right from serious information to mindless stupid reels to some amazing and surprising fresh content and so on.

While you fight for time to balance your calendar at times, this is a nice stress buster that leads to more stress by eating up your time, and the cycle continues.

Which client story would you love to regale your guests at a dinner party a decade from now?

Being in this energetic storytelling industry, how can we not have stories?

The Taproot Pepsi 2011 Cricket World Cup campaign story pops up for many reasons; I have always said that the Pepsi Change the Game campaign changed the game of our perception in the market and of the small-agency-big-client relationship not only for us but for many others, it changed the narrative of the power of ideas and not the size of the agency and many other things.

Pepsi was the official and the biggest sponsor for the ICC 2011 Cricket World Cup in India and struggled to find a great campaign from its existing network and agencies.

It finally loved what we presented at Taproot, but Pepsi realised we were just 17 employees, including the office boy; their requirement was huge, and they were worried if we could pull off the massive multimedia campaign with films, activations supervision, digital, thousands of artworks, etc.

Santosh Padhi coaxed Virender Sehwag to shave his chest for Pepsi's 2011 ICC World Cup campaign, and other stories

Now, this is the hilarious part: After the campaign was approved, at one point, we realised Pepsi was now more worried and had doubts if we had an advertising agency or were just freelancers; we had 17 people, a physical office, writers, art director etc, but just three or four of us always fronted the entire campaign and presentations.

Hence, a client raid happened at short notice; Pepsi flew down from Delhi to our Mahim office in Mumbai with a hoax agenda, but the sole purpose was to confirm what we were saying about ourselves, people, structure, talent, etc, was the truth or if even that was just a script.

They were relieved and happy when they met the team members in the lovely seafront office; I, while they were leaving the office, remember telling them that the office is not a freshly built set and the Taproot employees are not actors.

The most scandalous story you have heard at your present or former workplace.

It is not good to reveal such unwanted stories from your current or past organisation, but since this was such a strategic cheating, it is worth sharing.

One of the accountants from one of my past organisations was responsible for the estimate and billing department; this incident is from the pre-GST era.

Here is how his master mind spotted the sweet spot: in most cases, the final bill around a campaign/project would usually never go beyond the estimate, which is slightly on the higher side with a buffer.

Here was the catch: say if the estimate raised was 100 units, which was a combination of many third parties right from the production house to the photographer to processing to the printer in those days, and say, if all their bills came to 90 units, this genius would spot the difference of 10.

Without being greedy, he would generate three units of invoices, totalling the invoicing to 93 units; to do this, he had two or three companies in the name of his family members, and he would justify the bill smartly by putting them in the bunch of many other genuine invoices and forward them for the final signing.

Typically, the big ones used to get checked against the estimate v/s the invoice and then get signed off, and within 90 days, the payment would be in the family account; this continued for two odd years before he was caught and thrown out.

What is your presentation hack at pitch meetings?

It is, to be frank, one of the difficult ones to crack these days, not only for me but most of the industry will agree that clients, at times, are just so cold and non-reactive with zero emotions towards the presentation; it is absolutely ridiculous.

Sometimes, I feel they must be practising that straight and cold face look while we practice our presentation; It is very demotivating, especially to the youngsters.

Firstly, you want agencies to pitch for free, and second, the clarity, at times, on the brief is a big question mark; when the agencies invest two to three weeks putting down a brand plan/idea and presenting something, please, for god’s sake do not hold back your good or bad emotions and be candid and vocal about it, and have a fair and open discussion, it is the least we expect.

What is the tea on working with celebs?

Virendra Sehwag's story during the Pepsi Change the Game 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup campaign shoot.

For the static images, we had to have them bare-chested with relevant body painting art on their chests; it was the global campaign Pepsi had launched that year for the FIFA World Cup, and we had to take it forward.

We shot Kevin Pietersen, Harbhajan Singh, MS Dhoni, and Lasith Malinga, but none had hair on their torso.

When we saw Sehwag topless, we were shocked to see the amount of hair on his chest; it looked impossible to do a body painting; we had two choices: shoot him with his chest shaved or use a body double.

We wanted to avoid a body double; when we took him through the idea and told him these were the two options and asked him if we could go for his real body shot, which meant he had to shave off his chest hair, he was such a humble and creative friendly person that he agreed instantly and it was a smooth shoot.

Santosh Padhi coaxed Virender Sehwag to shave his chest for Pepsi's 2011 ICC World Cup campaign, and other stories

Later on, I realised whenever I removed my hair from those strategic areas, it used to be very discomforting during their regrowth and itchy for the next few days.

I sounded this off to Viru paaji so that he could take some necessary measures, as in the next few days, they had a series against Australia right before the World Cup.

He thanked me for the advice and scored a ton in the first test match; I congratulated him over text, saying losing the hair helped, to which he funnily replied, "My hair is growing back, but Australian bowlers might take a while to get back their rhythm, momentum, and sleep!”

Drinking on the job. Cheers or not at all?

I am a strong believer in a free, fluid, and cool creative culture /practices, not only drinking but anything that helps push the creative product and culture of the agency done within the limit with the right intent.

Santosh Padhi coaxed Virender Sehwag to shave his chest for Pepsi's 2011 ICC World Cup campaign, and other stories

I have a bar in my cabin with a variety of spirits depending on the mood, occasion, and time; I let it take over us.

When we got the news that we won the Jio True 5G account, we celebrated the next moment in the office; we had to celebrate such a big occasion then and there as the feeling, at that point, was something else.

What is your career in an alternative universe?

I would have certainly gotten into some form of defence, always fascinated with the army in particular, maybe due to my Two+One leadership year of NCC training at school and my dad being in the army.

OTTs, audio streamers, magazines, websites, to whom do you willingly subscribe?

The world around us is so exciting and rich in content; being an industry person, I always try to learn a few things from all platforms regarding their capabilities, possibilities and innovations.

Some of them are so exciting, engaging, and entertaining it is a lesson for us how such platforms are pushing the boundaries while our ads in and around them are not.

Your most expensive purchase on an advertising person's salary?

The Luxor Highlighter campaign got several creative awards at every award show in 2008; Arvind Sharma, then chairman of Leo Burnett India, decided to throw a party.

KV Sridhar (Pops) insisted it should be his party, not an official party, to which Sharma willingly agreed; he was genuinely happy because that was the best year ever for Leo Burnett India.

Sharma, because of his banter with Pops, reserved a table at Shamiana, the most expensive restaurant at The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, for lunch for the four of us: me, Russell Barrett (the writer on Luxor), Pops and Arvind himself.

(L-R) Padhi and Pops
(L-R) Padhi and Pops

The restaurant told us, once we reached, of a fine because open feet were not allowed; the other three guys were wearing shoes except me with some cool flip-flops.

I was okay to skip that and go to a regular restaurant, but Pops wanted to overload the bill, so he insisted that since Sharma booked the restaurant and did not bring this to our notice, he should also take the bill for the shoes.

Arvind was game for it, so Pops took me to the most expensive Hush Puppies showroom inside the Taj Mahal Palace, and he insisted I pick the most expensive pair. 

It was not the best design, but since Pops was my boss, I obeyed his decision. I still do not know if the food on the table was more expensive or the shoes under it, but since the story was so unique and wonderful, I wore that pair for over a decade.

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