Book review

Piyush Pandey’s life is an open book of advertising

'Pandeymonium', the advertising guru’s much awaited new book, is less about creativity and more about his view of the world.

Just out of college, I had two job offers. One was from a magazine, the other from a boutique ad agency; the first paid little, the second paid even worse. For some reason, I chose the latter option and, over the years, it has turned out to have been a terrific ride.

I always seem to have found myself in the right place at the right time, I’ve had some great adventures, and seen some of the greatest advertising people of our times from up close. But the most fascinating has, perhaps, been Piyush Pandey – whom I happened to know long before he became Piyush Pandey.

The very first time I met Piyush, I remember, he offered me a job. It was sometime in the 1980s, and we were at a party at a mutual friend’s place, which grew increasingly more liquid as the evening progressed, at the end of which he came, put his arm around me and said, “Arre, aap Thompson mein kya kar rahe ho, aapko toh Ogilvy mein hona chahiye.” He was probably a junior account executive at the time.

When, a few years later, I did happen to join Ogilvy, he was one of the first people to come up to me, and he said, “Aapko yaad hai, maine kitni badi baat kahi thhi?”

Ogilvy, before

Actually, joining Ogilvy turned out to be a bit of a mistake for me personally at the time. Ogilvy had long had the reputation for being one of the best managed agencies in the industry, and I remember my boss, the CEO of JWT, at reviews, looking at Ogilvy’s figures, shaking his head in wonder and saying, “How the hell does that that guy Mani Ayer do it?”

Then one day I got a call from Suresh Mullick, Ogilvy’s Creative Director, asking me over for a drink, and after a couple of long conversations with him I decided to make the switch. It seemed a good decision at the time. But it didn’t take long for me to then realise that no matter how well you do your research, you can never really figure out your new company until after the fact.

The Ogilvy I joined was very professional in many ways, but in creative terms it turned out to be rather shambolic, and the creative work, team and culture were depressing. The clients were large and prestigious, the pressures were enormous, but the creative team and resources were worryingly inadequate. I have never been so terrified in my professional life; if it hadn’t been for the loss of face involved, I would have gone running back to my previous agency and begged for my old job back.

I only say this to stress how remarkable the later transformation of Ogilvy into a creative powerhouse would be, under the leadership of Ranjan Kapur – and, of course, of Piyush himself.

But at that time, in the mid-1980s, Piyush was, perhaps surprisingly, not even in the creative ballgame, he was an account exec; it was only towards the late 1980s that he made a low-profile debut as a copywriter.

So what was he like?

People sometimes ask me what Piyush was like in his early days as a copywriter. All I can say is he was exactly the kind of person the advertising industry had been waiting for, and the only surprise is that he took so long to make his presence felt.

There was a unique combination of reasons: First, obviously, because of his roots, growing up in a small-town, middle-class family in Rajasthan, and the grassroot insights and idioms that came with that. Second, because of his creative skills and and playfulness of mind (unmistakably telegraphed through the outrageous puns he was constantly making – one of the clearest signifiers of creative fluency, according to psychologists, by the way).

But there were other important qualities in the mix. Like his impatience to cut through the rational process to the emotive core of the issue (“intellectual masturbation” was something that always made him angry). Like his instinct, always, to push the idea way over the edge. Like his on-the-sleeve emotionality: he was either laughing his booming, devilish laugh, or he’d have his eyes welling up with tears. Like his unmistakeable hunger and ambition. Like the quality of relationships he could form with his clients and his ability to sell them his ideas. Like his enormous perseverance. Like his great, arm-around-your-shoulder leadership skills, honed on the cricket field. And, not the least, the marketing background that wrapped up all of this, thanks to his years of working on the Unilever business.

As Steve Jobs once observed, in the wider world, the difference between the average person and the best person is perhaps 2X, but among software engineers the difference is more like 20X. And so it is, too, with creative people like Piyush.

His was a unique combination of assets, and he happened at exactly the right time – when the TV medium was finally coming into its own, and TV commercials were breaking out of their beginnings as mere marketing briefs put on videotape. And when the era of the English language print ad copywriter was consequently drawing to a close.

Piyush’s impact on the industry has been awe-inspiring. He is the only guy I can think of who could make a company like Unilever actually change the positioning of one of its brands. For example, Unilever had launched a soap named Le Sancy, positioned around the world as a long-lasting, economical bath soap. And Piyush had made a delightful TV commercial for it, featuring a naughty little boy who is supposed to be having a bath but, behind the closed door, is merely dancing inside, while aiming the shower full blast at the bar of soap. The commercial turned out to be so popular with mothers and children that Unilever eventually ditched the global “long-lasting” position and re-presented it in India as a kiddie soap.

He is also, perhaps, in today’s day of tightly crunched TV commercial time-slots, the only person who could persuade a client to make a 4 minute 38 second TV commercial.

But it all began with the work Piyush did on Luna mopeds. And on a minor brand from the makers of Fevicol, called Fevitite Rapid.

The messiness of the creative process

Ogilvy had done some very pedestrian work on Fevicol in the past. But we had now finally cracked a simple but effective brand idea by creating a character played by Bob Christo – the Hindi movie villain and stunt man of the time – who tries to destroy various pieces of furniture, but is eventually defeated by them, because they’re made with Fevicol.

We made the first commercial, where Bob Christo wrestles with a chair, and created an entire brand campaign around this, with a series of commercials in the pipeline. Having done that successfully, we then turned to the client’s latest offering, a superglue called Fevitite Rapid, whose claim was that it created an industrial strength bond within seconds.

Fevitite Rapid was being launched on a tiny budget, so it had to be a 10-second commercial, and we had Bob Christo – by now emerging as the brand icon of the company – take a large metal ring, apply Fevitite Rapid to it, stick it on the ceiling, and a few seconds later, grab the ring and do a one-handed pull-up on it. That was it. The only audio was the brand’s theme line at the end. Piyush was the new copywriter on the brand and we were trying to craft that theme line.

Piyush came back the next day with a totally different idea: a tug-o’-war match, accompanied by a chant of “Dum lagake haisha, zor lagake haisha!” It was a lovely idea, but it just didn’t seem to fit the product brief – nor the 10-second time slot, which was probably the biggest given. We talked about it and Piyush said, “Why don't we at least show the idea to the client?” So we did. But, for obvious reasons, nothing happened with it.

Things then went into a bit of a spin on Fevitite Rapid, and the campaign was put on hold. Then, a few months later, the client called us and said that they’d been thinking about all the work we had done for them, and had decided to scrap the entire Fevicol campaign featuring Bob Christo – and wanted to replace it with a commercial with Piyush’s tug-o’-war idea and the chant of “Dum lagake haisha”.

That commercial was a typical example of Piyush pushing an idea over the edge. It went on to create a lot of waves at the time – and then proceeded, over the years, to evolve into the Fevicol campaign as the world knows it today.

It was a convoluted and messy creative process – which, in retrospect, actually began with a completely different product, and different brief. But that is the way the creative process very often happens. As Jobs pointed out, not only is the difference among some people in the order of 20X, but their way of thinking belongs to a whole different order of logic – which is what makes the management of creative organisations so messy and so difficult.

The book, at last

Pandeymonium is just the kind of title Piyush, with his penchant for the outrageous pun, would give to this book. I remember, for example, when I was once down with a kidney problem, he asked me how I was. I replied, “Yaar, gurdon ki takleef hai”, and he immediately grinned, leaned forward and said softly, “Khan saab, kapoore toh theek hain, na?”

It is a fascinating book about a fascinating life. It may not be what some people might expect, in the sense that, unlike John Hegarty’s Hegarty on Advertising, for example, it is not some kind of creative manifesto; instead, Piyush Pandey on Advertising presents the larger, and wider, observations of a captain of industry.

Which is, after all, what Piyush is today.

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