KV Sridhar aka Pops talks to afaqs! about Balki-the-adman.
I'll start this piece with what people say about partnerships - Never marry somebody who's younger to you, because you can never match the enthusiasm. I got so much energy from Balki at a time when I needed it most. Middle age is the most dangerous age to lose one's enthusiasm. We've been friends for decades but I don't know what kind of relationship we have, exactly - Guru-Sishya? Friends? Brothers? Junior-Senior? Partners? I don't know. All I know is - it is a wonderful relationship.
Balki came to advertising because of BR Films! - those guys used to make television serials. He thought he will get to make films. He also joined because of Mudra Videotec - he thought he would make films, haha! Finally he went and joined Mudra and then realised that this is advertising not feature films! Such was this passion for movies. He always wanted to make films. He never had any ambiguity about the kind of films he wanted to make. He always wanted to make the kind of films he grew up with - Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, NT Rama Rao, MGR kind of films. He's a Tamilian, who's a complete Bangalorean, who had the influence of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada cinema, very vividly. And that, somewhere, moulded his thinking, which showed much later when he came to advertising and started to find his voice.
He always believed every ad is like a blockbuster movie - it must have a powerful idea, it must connect with people, it must hit the box office. That became his philosophy - the client's cash register must ring. The box office is very important to him. Whether it's a feature film or an ad, it must work for the client.
I've known Balki from 1986-87 onwards, when I was a CD in JWT Bangalore, partnering Chax. Balki was with Mudra Bangalore. That is when he became famous. One of his first commercials was the 'I don't want to shave - I want to shave' Wilman commercial; Rajiv Kapoor was the client. His approach was always - powerful ideas. His critics might say his ideas are a little crude, but he never gave much thought to craft; he always believed in the power of the idea. His ideas were so powerful that the craft part was forgiven. An idea without craft still flies but craft without an idea is nothing.
He had the knack of finding little insights and earthy, middle class corner-of-eye observations of humanity. It's not the big events, but the small things, here and there, that gave him ides. A lot of the work we did together stemmed out of little incidents of life - not like the planners who would sit and come up with that 'one big insight' and then, you know... do a lot of 'drama' about it.
One of the first commercials Balki and I did together was for Pepsodent. It started with - how do we communicate stronger teeth? He was joking just before that because I had lost one of my teeth. He tapped his teeth - thak, thak, thak - to show me how strong they were. I responded by patting my paunch - thap, thap, thap. And we got into a musical jugalbandhi, which later led to the campaign idea.
I remember the tough circumstances around the time the Genelia D'souza ad for Fair & Lovely was made; the client was Vivek Rampal. This was the time many women's groups and NGOs were up against the brand. At the time, ads around fairness products used to be about women getting rejected by men. Because of all this, the context had become a little difficult.
We worked on the Parker account together. Balki and I had the same secretary, Mildred. Whenever we wanted a pen to write with, we'd call Mildred, who would give us a dozen Reynolds pens. We'd then take them and check which one worked and chose one. Suddenly, we said - "We make so much money through our writing... we are building a career out of writing... and we don't even invest in a decent pen. Look at these servicing suits - they use Montblanc. And all they do is sign!" That's what led to our Parker campaign. Balki always married life insights into product insights to generate transactions for the client.
He distilled ideas down to one or two words. He always used a yellow writing pad to write on. When a client disagreed with me on a script, saying, "No, this is not what Balki said..." I'd pull out a blank yellow pad and pretend to read a non-existent script so that the client would think it had come from Balki, haha!
One of the greatest joys of working with him was when Lintas almost lost the entire LG business. 50-60 people would have lost their jobs... We both had to go, camp in a hotel in Delhi and go to the client everyday with one campaign... that's how we saved one brand after the other and earned the business back over 10 days. We partnered with LG's Ganesh Mahalingam. Ganesh started out as a very stiff client, trying to test the intent of Lintas and Balki-and-Pops. Then, he became our best friend; he'd approved scripts over SMS. We did some 56 films for LG in 2002. We made a durables company like LG behave like a Unilever, like an FMCG company. Over 18 months we changed LG from a Rs. 300 crore company to a Rs. 1,800 crore company. We made commercials like a factory.
Balki comes through as an energetic, aggressive, no-nonsense guy who speaks his mind and who doesn't care about anyone, but he's a very caring person. His sensitivity is not seen by those who're far away from him. You see it only when you work closely with him. The only time Balki and I fought was when people from Lintas wanted to join Leo Burnett! We had a big fight over Nitesh Tiwari... later we felt stupid because he was not coming to Burnett for me; he was coming for Ashwiny Iyer.
I like movies but Balki is crazy about movies. Balki's idea of a party at home is to call everyone over, put his projector on and show you a Chinese or Iranian movie!
For many years he hated Bombay. When he came here around 1999, I think, he was responsible for my move to Lintas. I was supposed to go to Leo Burnett Singapore. But he vehemently said, "How can you go there and help all those guys? You come here and help me. Come partner me." I told Arvind Sharma and Chax, "I'll come back. Just think I've gone to Singapore for three years. Except, I am not taking a Singapore flight... I'm taking a Nariman Point flight!"
I said to Balki, "Okay... three years. We'll put Lintas back on the map, enjoy ourselves and do some kickass work."
That's his term - kickass.
(As told to Ashwini Gangal. KV Sridhar, fondly known as Pops, is chief creative officer, SapientNitro, an interactive marketing, creative design and technology services agency.)
Read our 2003 interview with Balki, when Pops quit Lowe to rejoin Burnett, here.