Circa 2000. My team walked into my room a little distraught. The idea they thought was a winner was shot down by the client. I consoled them and we brainstormed a bit about what direction to take. The incident vanished from my memory.
When I met the said client a few weeks later I casually asked to him why he rejected such a good idea. He was a little surprised that I had decided to raise this issue so many weeks later. And he had an interesting observation. He said “I too thought the idea was interesting, but my team was very uncomfortable. I knew your team would have gone and complained to you that I had rejected the idea. And I thought you will call me the same night to give me a piece of your mind about it. If you had called, I would have changed my mind and gone with your suggestion. But hey you did not call. If you were so convinced about the idea why did you not call? Aren’t you supposed to take a stand if you believe in something strongly?
I did not have an answer to that question.
I remembered this incident after a senior ad veteran asked me a question at a recent book talk I gave. He wanted to know if ad agencies are today as committed to selling the idea they believe in. He reminded me about a campaign that his agency was so convinced about that they told the client they will run it at their own cost if the client did not run it with his.
In my book I talk about the famous Surf Lalitaji campaign that was almost buried before it saw the light of the day. The story goes that the marketing team was convinced that the lady in question was too harsh and will do untold damage to the much loved brand Surf. The agency did not back off but pushed for a meeting with the Marketing Director. The wise man heard both sides of the story in his home and found a nice solution. The quip ‘Beta Ravi’ at the end of the ad was added after this momentous meeting.
I am being asked the same question in multiple forums: are agencies fighting as hard as they used to or are they too busy chasing quarterly numbers?
At times I wonder if my book should have been titled Nawabs Nudes Noodles and Nerves : How bold ideas were sold with conviction !
As I examined hundreds of ads, I realized that many of them were sold to clients with a fair bit of blood and guts on the floor. The famous Madison Avenue ad man George Louis once threatened to jump off the 30th floor of his client’s office, if the his campaign was not approved. Wonder if that spirit still exists in global advertising or have they become too subservient to client needs [and their CFOs dictats]?
The other interesting question that I have been asked is am I trying to build logic where none exists. Do copywriters and planners really sit and observe societal trends, map them through their creative ideas and then fight for them till death?
I will attempt to answer this question in a circuitous way. Recently I read a fascinating book, published by Harvard University Press on the blockbuster 1977 movie “Amar Akbar Anthony” [alliterative names rock, don’t they?] by three professors from leading US Universities. They have analyzed the movie almost scene by scene, dialogue by dialogue to build a connection to what the director Manmohan Desai was trying to do and the socio cultural political ethos of the country during that period of turmoil [Emergency period]. At places I was left wondering if the Director had planned the movie in such detail, or did it just happen. May be the Director was subconsciously doing things that looked deliberate when analyzed forty years later.
In a similar vein, I don’t think copywriters are observing society out of their homes every day, making notes and then factoring those into scripts [viz: I saw an affluent kid speaking with a samosa seller today: Aah, idea for a new film]. No, this does not happen. But a brand planner or a copywriter are all subject to the influences of a changing society and popular culture that is all around them. They see movies, television serials; listen to songs and watch plays; go on holidays and walk the market. They are often keen observers of all that is happening around them. And when they want an idea to sell a brand they delve into this huge melting pot to pull out strands to spin a story. It looks accidental. It looks happenstance. As a Managing Director observed at an event “These creative ideas have no societal underpinning, as you have opined”. But when we analyze the same ads in a group ten or twenty years later we will see patterns. Just as Professors William Ellison, Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman observed hidden codes in Amar Akbar Anthony, we can observe changing societal codes from ads.
The late media guru Marshall Macluhan, author of ‘Understanding Media’ has quite astutely observed, “ Historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections of any society ever made of its whole range of activities”.
Going forward the ad industry needs to have more steely-nerves and less number-phobia if they want to continue the great work that resonated so well with a changing Indian society. has seen in the past. Less numbers and more nerves please!
Ambi M G Parameswaran is a Brand Strategist, Founder of Brand-Building.com. His latest best-selling book ‘Nawabs Nudes Noodles’ looks at 50 Years of India through the advertising lens.