Shreyas Kulkarni

“Technology first? You are a fool, it is always ideas first”: Piyush Pandey

A short chat with veteran adman on tech overtaking creativity, advertising amid economic worries, among other things.

English writer Neil Gaiman once said, “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds, and other minds and dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

A 20-minute chat with Piyush Pandey, veteran adman and Ogilvy's chairman of global creativity, feels the same. You start in one world and you emerge out of the conversation into another one.

For instance, when discussing campaigns that used technology creatively, Pandey says, “Technology first? You are a fool, it is always ideas first.”

The unlikeliest of remarks came when he was talking about clients, or businesses, who ask for technology to take the driver’s seat, instead of creativity. “If technology helps you enhance the idea, embrace it. If media helps you propagate it, embrace it.”

Please note that Pandey wasn’t speaking from an industry point of view. Last year, Ogilvy India, under his stewardship, released a campaign that used artificial intelligence and machine learning to mimic actor Shah Rukh Khan’s voice for different scripts.

Khan took names of thousands of shops, urging people to do their Diwali shopping from these local stores. The campaign was a hit. Proof? Millions of online likes and a couple of One Show pencils.

“When I think of AR and VR, the word I focus on is ‘Reality’, not Augmented or Virtual. It keeps ideas in focus and allows the outcome to be more real,” said Pandey in his new book ‘Open House’ that he co-wrote with the late Anant Rangaswami.

Pandey, with his 36-plus years of experience at Ogilvy, has seen both highs and lows - in his agency, the advertising and marketing world, India and the world. Today, the world is in the midst of a war (between Russia and Ukraine), there is inflation, and the fear of an impending recession is on everyone’s mind. During such times, it’s often marketing and media budgets that become the first casualty.

“There will be ups and downs, it’s a market thing. Learn to survive and survive well so that you can thrive in better times. Learn something so that you can face the tough times,” mentions Pandey.

Speaking about the marketing and advertising budgets in particular, he says that some people will cut budgets, others won’t. Some will maintain their presence, while others will disappear. His preference? “The one who is likely to be present, will benefit.”

Being present is one thing. But how do you communicate, and communicate well, when you’ve got only 10 seconds. We were talking about the Tata Indian Premier League (IPL) ad slots, where brands, after doling out lakhs of rupees for media spends, only had a mere 10 seconds to dish out their offerings.

Says Pandey, “I think if you don't have a great idea, 10 seconds is a waste. If you don't have a great idea, one minute is also a waste.” He believes one can get away with 10 seconds on Instagram, but it’s much shorter, as far as television goes, “unless you have a very short thought to convey and you have a damn good idea.”

Most brands doling out these pint-sized ads are startups - Unacademy, Winzo, Zomato, Swiggy, to name a few. Pandey has worked with companies that were once small, but are now considered ‘legacy brands’ (Pidilite). He’s also worked with today’s generation of young companies. When asked about the difference between the founders' thoughts, he says that when you've been funded, sit back and don’t try and get a market cap in a hurry.

An interesting aspect of these young startups, is their attempts to reach a pan-Indian audience in regional languages. We’ve seen startups release print ads in various regions, but often, the tagline or the message is translated from Hindi into regional languages. So, the messaging is sometimes lost.

Pandey is vehemently against translation. “Getting people to translate is like behaving like God. You’re not God. You will never know how to write a Tamil ad better than a guy from Tamil Nadu.”

A distinct advantage of so many (regional) languages is the plethora of options available for writers and creative folks. OTTs and startups are attracting a lot of such talent, who feel they will get to express themselves better. So, advertising is losing talent.

Pandey isn’t convinced. He says India is a country of over a billion people, with lots of hidden talents. One only needs to find them.

With so many mediums and modes of communication, we wondered how Pandey stayed abreast of new insights and moods in India. “If you have a width of people, then there is an exchange of information. No man can do anything alone,” he remarks.

And, it also helps that Ogilvy's Global Creative Council is a “meeting of the minds… you are working with creative people from every country in the world… you are thinking about ideas and appreciating ideas.”

Makes sense. Pandey, after all, is a man of ideas.

(This interview with Pandey took place at The Taj Mahal Palace, where his new book ‘Open House’ co-written with the late Anant Rangaswami was officially launched.)

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