Prasoon Joshi Curated
CEO at McCann World Group India
CURATED BY :
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The Pandey brothers were felicitated at Cannes this year (2018), what is your favourite piece of work of theirs?
We have all worked together and I have a great relationship with them. I prefer their work where they draw ideals from their families. There are many such as Cadbury, Fevicol, or campaigns for insurance companies.
Do you agree with the statement made by Sir John Hegarty that only 10% of the present day ads are creative?
I will not say it is 10%, but I do agree that a lot of great opportunities are wasted and that there should be more good work. There are many reasons for this in every country. There can be reasons, but there shouldn’t be excuses. The biggest excuse that I hear is that clients don’t allow great work. I consider that to be absolutely incorrect. In my experience, all the great work that I have been able to produce is because of great clients who have really partnered with us. Yes, you do need more clients who believe in you and who are willing to partner with you, but saying that clients don’t allow us to do great work is just an excuse, it is not the reality. Coming to reasons, they can be varied. Sometimes there are cultural reasons. If you don’t understand the cultural context or significance, you may dismiss those ideas. I remember there was a campaign we did about the eunuch community in India. Most of them go to sing, dance and celebrate in a home when a baby boy is born. The idea was to make them understand that the girl child is also important and so they should also dance and celebrate the birth of a girl. We wrote a few songs for them which gave examples of great women in the world and how beautiful it is to have a girl child. It didn’t reach where it should have reached globally, because understanding this culture of the eunuch community in India and their role in the celebration of child birth is an alien idea to outsiders. Indians praised the campaign, but I don’t think it had gotten its due in terms of recognition. Ideas do their job as they should. They make people more sensitised towards the problems and they allow other organisations to come forward and take up the cause. That is the purpose of a festival like Cannes. Otherwise it is just about a few people feeling good about their egos and going back. Coming back to Sir John Hegarty’s point of view, I do agree that we have less great work. There are reasons and there are excuses. We may not fully appreciate an idea that is truly trying to make a difference. We may not understand the nuances of the appeal and therefore it doesn’t get recognition on a global platform. Then, some work is purely done because people are lazy. They are just happy with formulas that are working for them, so they don’t want to change them. There are some people who love their job, while others are very mechanical about it.
Any other campaign from India, not necessarily by McCann, that you particularly liked this year (2018)?
I like the Blink to Speak (TBWA) campaign which won. I think Sindoor Khela (FCB) is also good.
Any other McCann campaign that was shortlisted at Cannes but did not win?
I think Harpic should have won. People who live in India understand the importance and impactful nature of Harpic and the movement behind its campaign. However, I trust the jury and have myself chaired the jury at Cannes several times, so I know how it works.
Despite a drop in the tally of metals this year (2018), you are one of the leading agencies this year with four metals. What is it about McCann that gets you more accolades at Cannes than others?
We are doing well, and I think the work culture is very important for that. We push people to excel in the ideas of the craft. In India, over the years, I’ve tried to work hard to build a culture of excellence. Manthan- the way we churn ideas- happens around three times a year. So regardless of the brand you work on, every day, you’re given problems to solve, and you proactively work for our plans. It’s a simple yet complex process which we have developed over the years. It is our proprietary way of doing excellent work and it has worked for us. All the work you are seeing here has been part of and have come out of Manthan. Last year’s ‘Immunity Charm’ campaign was part of it. This year’s work, for example 'Sweet Change', was also a part of this. Manthan is where we innovatively and holistically look at our clients and not get bogged down by everyday briefs but look at larger planning and problem solving. Coming back to the question should India perform better? Yes. Is India performing better than earlier? Yes, that is also true. Asking if our performance is enough is a good sign. We should be hungrier. Last year, we had an exceptional performance. This year also we have done well, although not as well as last year.
Last year you walked away with 16 metals, including a Grand Prix. This year, the tally has closed on four for you while India’s performance too saw a dip. What was different about last year? (2018)
Yes, it has not been as big as last year. Should India perform better here? Yes, considering the size of our country, we should be performing better. We keep trying and we have come a long way. If you see, earlier, we had very little to show in our performance. The year I won 2 gold Lions here, we suddenly said India is winning. Then, we kept on winning. Cut to last year and we saw McCann winning 16 Lions. We have come a long way from no performance to a performance of this sort.
The general elections are around the corner (2019). What are you and your agency doing for the polls this year, given that you were involved with advertising for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014?
We have not been approached by anyone so far. So, I have no update to offer on that front. At a broader level though, election advertising is a great time to study the consumer's mind, and to understand where the nation is headed, and what people expect of it and its leaders. It is a celebration of democracy and I would love to interact with people. It will be a huge learning experience for me.
Where do you stand in the effectiveness versus creativity debate in advertising? In the past few years, most agencies have been entering work in the Effies, skipping the Abbies. What is your take on this?
I don't get into this debate at all. However, there was a time when the Abbies could strike a balance between popular culture and creative work. It stood for the best in advertising. Today, the Effie Awards are doing that. I don't see a problem with it. The clients are loving it, and so are the agencies. Every era will have awards that will strike a balance between popular culture and good work. We simply have to accept it and move on.
How do you manage time for writing?
Here in our advertising profession you have to express your brand. But sometimes a creative person feels like expressing himself or herself. When I come home and I feel I want to express myself, I find platforms where I can express myself. It is poetry, music, film writing and articles through which I express and it is an individual choice. The only unique thing is that what I do on the other side ends up becoming a profession. It is not that I have planned it. I’ll continue writing even if I do not find a publisher or a film.
If McCann is well placed in terms of digital space, then why are so many digital agencies mushrooming around?
Digital agencies are a misnomer and you do not require them. You require communication partners. Did you require film agency when films came? Did you require print agencies when print came? This is a very narrow thinking. You require a communication partner that can get you experts in different areas. Nobody is expert in everything hence we bring a film director to shoot the film. Similarly, there are digital functions like writing algorithms and programmes which could be done by experts as and when required. So, we are investing in a big way in data and technology and other streams and that is a continuous process. We have doctors in our healthcare streams. We are about providing solutions to a particular problem and whatever it takes, I’ll do that.
How well placed is McCann in terms of technology?
We are very well placed. Nobody is perfect and I think we are far from perfect. In the beginning, we used to have a digital team but for last many years, we have removed the distinction between digital and creative people and everybody in McCann needs to be digital savvy. We are highly media agnostic when it comes to ideas and that is how our new generation of McCann people are. You don’t need separate digital skill sets as long as you are not talking about hardcore backend technology experts.
Are you in sync with the conversation around artificial intelligence?
Artificial intelligence is a work in progress and has a great future. Sometimes it may scare you how machine intelligence and algorithm can almost create something which could go out of our control. Technology will redefine what we do today. At one hand, it gives me a green picture of the world where technology will become so powerful that it will be able to decide for itself, on the other hand, being a believer of human being, life, relationships and emotions, I feel that technology is good as long as it is under human control. If technology takes precedence over us and starts controlling us, this is something I would be worried about. In my view, ideal situation would be that human should never be a slave of technology.
You are one of those very few people who do not crib about clients?
It is because we are in the same boat. We are not here to counter purposes. My relationship with clients is such that they call me anytime and suggest that the creative could be done in some other way as well. I do the same thing if I feel the need to tell them why they are not doing something which should have been done. The more the sharing and communication between the client and agency, the better the brand’s health would be. Whenever we work in closed rooms, nothing comes out but working together, we have cracked great ideas. I hugely value the relationship with clients and McCann is built on this relationship which is responsible for all of our works. Too much of defining your relationship with clients does not work. I have no problem if a client comes with a line or a copy saying can we do something like this. I would not throw it out saying that I know poetry and writing. Creative people should never think that they are the last word. We have to listen to more people.
Are agencies investing in the skill sets in the area of programmatic, artificial intelligence, affiliate marketing, etc., because this is what clients need now?
When television advertising suddenly became important, people thought advertising agencies will start producing ad films and will have studios. But agencies don’t have studios and they have still given best advertising solutions to their clients. Without investing in camera, editing and any other production-related areas; they have been delivering best solutions. If the mobile phone becomes the biggest tool, it does not mean we should manufacture it. Because of the paradigm shift in consumer behaviour, not only agencies but media houses are also getting redefined. People get up in the morning and say they know the news and they go through the newspaper for more than the headline. Newspapers are now meant for analysis. Every industry is going through this change. People now go to a doctor after acquiring a lot of information on the diagnosis and medicines. When a profession gets redefined, it is important to understand what value can be added to the consumers’ life. Most of good clients with long relationships do not doubt what the agency does for them. They tell us their need and expect us to suggest on the same. If you are not proactive, not partnering with your client and merely remain a supplier, then you are in problem. If content creation or expert involvement is a challenge for the client, we present it to them. If understanding of the complex digital landscape is a problem, we offer them the solution. The ultimate aim is to be able to provide a solution to the client without losing sight.
Why do clients feel that agencies are not adapting to the change fast enough?
We have constantly redefined the way we work. We are partners to the clients in reaching out to the consumer and also the medium between the client and the consumer. If the clients could spend two to three hours with every consumer, they would not need us. The fact is that the client cannot advocate its products and services to millions of consumers on its own. They need to convince a large number of consumers and hence, they convince us to come on board. Clients are not facing challenges only with agencies but with distribution, pricing, taxation and other issues too. Anybody saying that agencies cannot provide a solution is absolutely a misnomer. These could be people who do not have a great relationship with their clients/ agencies. I can tell you on behalf of McCann that we have fabulous relationships with our clients and it is because we are in it together. We see the challenges and find the solution, together. We do not blame each other.
How can an agency maintain or increase profit growth in such a cluttered environment?
Different agencies manage their costs differently to maintain profit. Some invest more into creative, some in client servicing, while some structure their deals differently. It is true that advertising agencies are facing challenges in terms of profitability but it is not something unusual because every time we go through a big change, we face a lot of challenges. We are in a constantly evolving society, which will continue impacting us. Even in science, the theory you read 10 years back becomes obsolete with new inventions. In medical science, the medicines considered the last word in a particular disease used by a whole generation is called harmful and obsolete after some time.
Is changing behaviour of consumers responsible for reducing profits for the Advertising agencies?
It will be unfair to speak only about profitability unless we dive deep into what is happening to the profession. The business of communication gets impacted by the way our consumer’s life evolves. The core of our profession is consumer understanding and we should never lose sight of the fact that consumers still want brands, information, transparency and someone to simplify their lives. Brands come with thousands of options in front of them but they gravitate towards one. Because consumption is not just a physical need but also an emotional, aspirational and psychological need. There are various layers to the consumers’ need and hence advertising and brand building play various roles there. While you tell the consumer about your product and pricing, they are also interested to know about the feel. The challenges and need for the brand building will always be there and profitability will fall in place if you understand your consumers’ needs well. While the need of brand building remains important, the ways have changed. We are in the business of what the consumers want and how (way) they want it. If consumers want the product to fulfil a certain requirement which is more than what they were seeking earlier, that too is a part of our challenge. As a result, agencies are designing products according to the consumers’ need which are suggested to their clients. In such a complex time, our business is not simple. We are providing solutions to our clients’ problems. If our clients’ problems are getting redefined, we are also redefining and restructuring ourselves accordingly.
You have been roped in to play an important role as the Chairman of CBFC. The post has become a punching bag for filmmakers. How do you intend to deal with the criticism?
It's an honorary position and I am hoping to make a positive difference. The role is to guide the fully functional staff at CBFC, which is headed by a CEO. Taking on challenges in our evolving society and during the times when content from different streams is converging, I think it's going to be a great learning and will help me grow as a creative mind. Whatever criticism comes my way, I'll deal it with open mindedness, humility and inputs from the minds ones respect. However, professionally my commitment to lead McCann stays very much intact.
How did India’s advertising capital cope with 26/11 terrorist attacks?
You touch a nerve here. India has been attacked through the centuries, the Aryans, Arabs, Mughals, and the Dutch, Portuguese, the British … all have had their way with the land. India has survived by embracing the invaders and their culture and creating its own unique identity. Genetically, India is programmed to handle crisis and it – most especially Mumbai – has enjoyed the label of surviving all and picking up and moving on. But what we witnessed for ourselves on November 26th and the next few days has shaken us to the core. We lost friends, clients, brilliant officers, family breadwinners. And all this unfolded live in our rooms through TV. There is a sense of awakening, of questioning, and looking inwards into the weakness of our systems of policy, of society, of a government that left us vulnerable to such attacks. Especially amongst the youth. Anger is being harnessed into decisive action. In fact I couldn’t help but express my emotions through a piece of poetry that I wrote in Hindi which widely resonated with people across the country. Websites and TV channels translated it into other languages, and also English. It talked about letting the rage and anger not die down, to not insensitively bounce back and return to normalcy but to let the hurt simmer and channel it into positive change. In English it goes like this: “This time when that little girl comes to me with her bruises, I will not blow gently at her wound, nor distract her, I will let her pain grow. Not this time. This time when I see pain on faces I will not sing the song that eases pain I will let the suffering seep in, deep. Not this time. This time I won't smear any balm Nor will I ask you to shut your eyes And turn your head While I gingerly apply medicine I will let everyone see the open, naked wounds Not this time. This time when I see difficulty, uneasiness I will not run to superficially solve the problems I will let them become intricate, thorny, real Not this time. This time I won't succumb to the pull of my profession and Pick up my tools as a matter of duty and start yet again Nor would I don the mantle of one dedicated to my job I will not let life easily return to normalcy I will let it descend into muck, on the twisting paths I will not let the blood on the walls dry out Nor will I let its color fade away This time I won't let it become so helpless That you can't tell the difference between the blotch of blood and paan-spit Not this time. This time the wounds need to be watched Carefully For a long time Determination and then some decisions We have to begin somewhere This time this is what I have resolved.”
Where is digital advertising headed in India?
See, India is a very complex market, because there are, as you know, many Indians. There’s not one India. The one India is completely digital in a sense. It’s very well-connected. You see worldclass IT professionals coming from there. So one India is completely in sync with the digital world and probably leading that. At the same time, there is another India where you don’t even have electricity and where people haven’t even seen television, or they’re discovering it for the first time. And then there is another India which is in transition, which is taking advantage of the economic movement in there. So there are many Indias coexisting at the same time. So digital in India could be very advanced at the same time … very, very backwards at the same time. It could be very nascent in a few places, and it could be completely advanced in another part of the country. So it’s a complex market. Nobody can completely depend on digital in India today and say, “I’m going to use just the digital medium and reach out to the consumer.” You’ll have to use everything. You’ll have to use conventional advertising. You’ll have to use television. Television still is a very, very important medium for our country. You’ll have to use radio. You’ll have to use outdoor. And along with that you’ll have to use digital. So right now, for many years to come, I think we’ll have a mix of everything. But, gradually, digital … especially among youth and in bigger towns, digital advertising is going to play a big role in the coming future. But the time is not very close because the people who have got access to digital, or people who have computers or who have a 24-hour electricity power supply, are very few.
What is the difference for you between virals and commercials?
I believe that we unnecessarily worry too much about the internet and digital media. We sort of get scared of it, you know. I have seen a lot of creative people getting frightened. I personally feel that everything boils down to content. Yes, it’s a revolutionary medium. Yes, it has given us a platform which was never there before. But what are you going to show on that platform? The content is still as important as ever. Or, in fact, it’s more important. In the case of this commercial, the chewing gum commercial, the Happydent commercial, I proudly can tell you that, after the commercial was released on television, people – I mean the consumers – themselves made virals of it. They put it on YouTube. I found it on YouTube one day. They sent it to each other through emails. We didn’t make a viral of it. It was not a viral creative. It was a commercial created for television. People in India loved it so much that they started sending it to each other. They started posting it on all the Indian websites. I myself received it from an anonymous email that read “Hey, being an Indian, I feel you must watch this commercial. This is a great Indian commercial.” So I laughed and I also felt happy that, you know, if you create something in any medium, it doesn’t matter, even if you’ve created a great print ad, people would take pictures of it and put it on websites. I believe in the power of an idea. If your idea is great, it will convert itself into various forms and shapes, and various avatars, and will reach out to people on its own. I would say that we should give more emphasis to craft, idea, thought, content rather than getting worried too much about the medium and saying that, well, digital is revolutionary. Everybody knows that it’s revolutionary. But what you are going to do with it is the question that remains. And the answer is very simple: do a great idea. That’s it.
Could you tell us about one of the screenplays you wrote?
The BAFTA-nominated film, for which I wrote dialogs and the songs, is called “Paint It Yellow,” and in Hindi it’s called “Rang De Basanti.” It’s one of the biggest historical hits in India, a blockbuster. It’s a film about a bunch of youngsters who represent today’s youth in India, who actually are bored and are feeling completely demotivated, and they don’t feel any sense of attachment to the country. They feel the country is rotten. Until, that is, a filmmaker from London, who is an English girl, comes down to India to make a film on India’s freedom struggle. She arrives in India and she is casting for her film. And she meets these boys and she casts them in her film. And while they are working with her, they come to know about the history of their own country, which someone else tells them, an outsider. And while they’re acting for the film, rehearsing for the film, they see a sort of transformation in them. And they start getting bothered about the political scenario of the country. And, finally, the film has a very, very controversial ending. A lot of people criticized the ending because, in the end, they kill the defense minister of the country because they feel that he was involved in the arms deal as a result of which a friend of theirs, who was a pilot, lost his life. He dies in a crash. And they discover that that happened because of underhand dealings, and the faulty planes had been bought, and a few people had made money and, as a result, a few lives are gone. So they go completely mad and they take the step of going and killing the defense minister. And, after that, they capture a radio station, and from there they talk to the public at large of India. And they tell them, “We are not proud of what we have done. We shouldn’t have killed him. But the fact is that we have to now wake up. We can’t be just fence-sitters.” India has a problem of young people not even voting today – you know, the majority of youths in India do not even vote. So the film was meant as a wake-up call to the young people of the country. And you would be pleased to know that, after this film came out, there were two very significant movements which happened in India. One of them was a murder case which was closed shut. The youths came down, singing my song on the streets of Delhi, and requested the government to reopen the case. And they felt that justice was not done. People gave credit to this film and they said that, because of this film, the youths sort of took that step and sort of told the government very clearly that we’re not happy with the decision, we want this case to be reopened. The case was reopened and the real culprits were punished. So that’s the effect of cinema. That’s why this film is one of the most memorable films in the history of Indian cinema.
You and your friends from the Indian Art Directors Club have now established Goa Adfest. How has the idea been received and how is it coming along?
Goafest is only a couple of years old. Like other award shows, it will grow and attain more clarity and get established. Right now, the idea is to create a forum to get different points of view together and to find future direction collectively. The award show is just a part of it. It’s more of a meeting of minds.
You’ve won countless advertising awards. What motivates your creativity now that you’ve been there and reached everything?
I live in the moment. I think life is an ensemble of moments, and each moment carries its own beauty and challenge. I just try to do justice to the moment. I am too close to the moments to actually distance myself and see where I have happened to reach or how much there is more to go. Ramanujam, an Indian philosopher, once said, “You never step into the same river twice” – it’s constantly flowing and changing, I instinctively live that.
You are obviously a very multifaceted man: You write screenplays, you’re a songwriter and a big advertising, communication person in your country. How can you juggle all these things?
I have been asked this question a number of times. I am told by people, “Oh, when we see you winning Filmfare …” (which is the Oscars of India – I have won Filmfare twice in a row for the last two years) “… we see you winning Filmfare and at the same time we see you winning at Cannes. I mean, how do you manage both? And on the one hand you write poetry, on the other hand it’s advertising, which is absolutely commercial.” I never see it like that. When I was born, nobody congratulated my mom and said: “Hey, congratulations: a copywriter is born!” I was not born a copywriter, or born a poet or anything. You learn and you hone your talent. There are different mediums, ways of expressing yourself And what matters are ideas. So I personally do not differentiate between whether I’m writing poetry or writing songs or writing advertising. I feel it has to connect. It should be able to take my message forward to people. It should be able to communicate my thoughts, and that’s what I enjoy. Whether it happens through a song, whether it happens through a screenplay, or it happens through an ad or a commercial or a print ad. It doesn’t matter to me. At the end of the day, your thoughts, your ideas have to reach out to people.
You used Sufi music in your advertisements. The Sufis are quite radical in their approach to the spiritual. What are your views on this?
Yeah. The choice of Sufi music was very clear in my head right from the beginning. You know, I was thinking of a world which is like a dervish, like people dancing, enjoying themselves, and a world where everything is possible, anything is possible. The film has been shot like a fable, like a fairytale. And, in that world, I couldn’t imagine a very normal sort of jingle happening. I just was uncomfortable with it. And so I stumbled upon this thought: “Why not use Sufi music?” And in India there have been a lot of Sufi singers. My favorite is the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His music was used for “Dead Man Walking,” if you remember the film. It was his singing which was used there also. If he’d still been alive, I would’ve used his voice. I would have gone to him, requested him to give music for this. But he was dead by then, so I used one of my friends and we sort of jammed together and did this piece of music which, really, you know, did wonders for this commercial.
Can you understand the surprising effect that your commercials have on people? for instance, When they first saw your commercial for Happydent White with the “human lightbulbs,” they were stunned.
Yeah. That was a commercial for a chewing gum which brightens your teeth. The company’s name is Perfetti. It’s an Italian company. They came to India and they wanted to sell this chewing gum in India. And they said that this is an alternative to a toothbrush. Probably for people who are out on a date. I felt, no, that’s pretty boring, I mean, who in India, where people are fighting basic battles, would seriously want to take a chewing gum which brightens your teeth? Let me think of something which sort of makes the brand very close to people. Also, I feel that if you want to sell a brand, first of all you should not take yourself too seriously. If you take yourself too seriously, then people are going to laugh at you, especially when you are selling a chewing gum, for God’s sake. You are giving a fun product to people, giving them something which they’ll enjoy. So first of all, they should enjoy your ad. So I started thinking of how to create something which will stay in people’s minds. And this way, chewing gum, which is such a minuscule product in people’s life, would gain importance for them. Or they would at least remember the product. So then I thought of this city which is completely lit by “human bulbs.” The teeth of its inhabitants are so bright that the king of that city uses them as bulbs – you know, hangs them on walls, uses them as table lamps. And this is the story of a man who is employed in the king’s kingdom as a chandelier bulb. And he’s late for his job, and on his way to work he passes through the city, and we see how many of his friends are bulbs. He waves at them: “Hey man, I’m late today.” And he finally arrives before suppertime for the king and slips himself down into the chandelier. He’s a chief bulb, for God’s sake – if he’s not there, the chandelier doesn’t come alive. And he gets there just in time: the king is about to sit down to supper and the whole city – “ding!” – comes alive with these bulbs. And the spot has a nice sort of music, which is Sufi music, a tradition of India, which is spiritual music. I wanted to give it a very ethereal sort of feel because the whole thing is, of course, very fantastical. I wanted to make it come alive and give it a more mystical feel than it had. So this music also adds up to the charm of the commercial, and when it came out, people said, “Oh, it’s radical!” and “Oh, it’s different!” and they loved it all around the world. And wherever it went, it won. It won at Cannes. It won everywhere in the world. And all the people I respect wrote to me and said that, well, they were won over by the commercial. But, personally, when I was doing it, the only thing I had in my head is that I wanted to make this product happen with the consumer. And the rest followed, the stuff people found different or radical just followed.
Would you say that some of the ads you have created in your career could be called “radical”?
I think when you actually are radical, you don’t know you’re radical. The people who are radical are the people who think they are completely normal. It is the other people who tell you you’re radical. For you, it’s a completely natural thing to do. I myself never know that I am radical, and I think people who are radical would never know they are radical. It’s what comes naturally to them. So, most of the times, how I know that I’m radical is that other people tell me “Oh, that was bizarre!” or “Oh, that was out of the world!” or “How do you think of that?” and “Oh, that was mind-blowing!” These things never occur to me when I am doing my work, whether it’s writing a commercial or writing a song for a film. I probably just follow my instinct. And perhaps there is some wiring which is different from other people’s. And that makes me radical in their eyes.
Looking back, you have created many, many great campaigns. Which one do you think was the most influential?
Most often recalled are Coca-Cola and Happydent, both of which have their impact at various levels: on the level of brand sales, of brand-consumer relationship, of advertising awards and on the level of raising the bar personally on yourself. There are several social campaigns for the eradication of polio that were extremely effective. There is also a campaign for NDTV, a media brand that is close to me. It is extremely indigenous and India-centric but I believe it had the X factor. Building on the founder’s credibility, we took the platform of “truth” and made it synonymous with the brand. There was no shoot done for the commercials; we used authentic journalistic footage to explain how we are interested in a new India that is ready to face the truth, to look the weaknesses in the eye, and have the will to change and better it.
Where does this certain richness and madness in Indian advertising come from?
This coming of age of Indian advertising, or at least the emerging distinctive version that the world now sees, is wonderful to witness. You see, until very recently, advertising in India followed and borrowed from the west. The hangover of things and attitudes western continued for a very long time in our advertising. There is much to learn from different sensibilities and worlds but a huge aspect – that of our own culture – was being left untapped. India, unlike the west, is not a linear country or culture. It’s a country made of varied worlds. Every 100 kilometers, the customs, food, habits, the language, change. There is so much Prasoon Joshi, Executive Chairman and Regional Creative Director, South and SouthEast Asia of McCann Erickson. Interview 209.qxd 13.03.2009 13:28 Uhr Seite 1 Interview 2 history so much variety and, yes, a certain chaos: multiple things happening at the same time. People cross roads assuming that the oncoming car, truck or van will most probably slow down. It’s a mixture of risk and faith in the other. At the same time, cattle may decide to park themselves in the middle of the roads and the traffic will nonchalantly weave its way around it. People plan their exit from a Bombay local train compartment two stations prior due to overcrowding and then get pushed out at a wrong station only to then coolly climb back onto the next train. It’s not just the physical chaos – it’s also the mental and cerebral one. There is so much to be done at the same time amidst a lack of well-oiled systems or procedures. But it gets done. Then there is a coexistence of contradictions – a bullock cart and a BMW on the same road, shanties next to a posh building, the world’s most tech-savvy work force and yet high illiteracy rates. The structure, the order in its physical form, is nowhere to be found. India in a certain sense goes with the flow, embracing new ideas and cultures, and yet retaining its own distinct identity. For the writer in me, there could be nothing as fascinating. I am confused by choice. I feel finality kills creativity, and for the advertising professional in me nothing is as disturbing as not getting deep into the psyche of our country’s consumers. I’ve always strongly felt that we need to not just communicate but connect with our people. This has to be done following our inherent cultural codes, in a manner that is neither alienating nor patronizing. To give you an example: oral tradition is a huge aspect of our culture, and you will find it in many aspects, be it films or music or just our everyday life. Our biggest religious texts were recited through the ages. One of our centuries-old poets and philosophers, Kabir, was an unread man. Yet his teachings and couplets have been passed down through generations – all on the power of the oral tradition. In advertising, this was surprisingly not leveraged. Again, this might have to do with the western style that we used to follow. Be it brands like Chlor-mint or Perfetti or Coke or Nescafe – I tried to introduce oral tradition into the ads I created and it worked beautifully. You see, there has to be a specific art to writing the oral tradition. There have to be several memory hooks created – not one catchline but several such dialogues that stick and lend themselves to being remembered. With many brands, I managed to create a distinct lingo, and it was great to see the lines and dialogues of the ads being used in everyday talk in real life by consumers.
How do you promote an idea?
By believing in it. Collective belief. When the creator finds not takers but co-creators, an idea lives, breathes and grows. Speaking more pragmatically: if the consumer believes in it and gives it sanction, and becomes a part of creating a brand, that becomes potent. Of course sometimes the time and the place may not be right for an idea; ideas get promoted when surrounded by a congenial atmosphere. When there are attuned minds.
How do you define an idea?
I’ve never been able to. All I can say is that it has edges. It haunts and stays with you. It’s strange and yet carries a sense of déjà-vu. You see, I believe that you don’t come up with an idea. Ideas choose you. And they do that only if you have a fertile mind. You have to keep learning, thinking, experiencing. And let the ideas get in tune with you. A wire cannot say, “I am electricity.” It’s just a medium. So is a human mind. We need to strive to be a worthy medium for ideas.
How would you describe India’s influence on Asian advertising and on world advertising?
I think there is no one country-specific style of advertising, and I don’t think there should be. There are varying points of view and approaches, and that’s what makes it interesting. As far as my point of view is concerned, I feel that communication has to be at different levels. India, to my mind, is in a unique position, that of a strong indigenous cultural wealth of nuances to dig into, and also the exposure to – and ease with – western sensibilities. This is something that makes our offering distinctive. I am optimistic that what the world will increasingly see from India is not “exotica” but what is really in our DNA: thought leadership, a cerebral edge, and the power to make the world sit up and say, “Hey, why didn’t I think of that?”
How has Asian advertising, and how has world advertising, changed since you started?
As for Asian advertising, it has changed hugely and in leaps and bounds. Advertising is, after all, a reflection of two potent forces, the economic and the social. Looking at China and India as two large Asian countries or economies, they have witnessed sweeping changes in both these areas in the last decade and a half. Liberalization of the economy meant the easy inflow of multinational brands; a more robust economy has resulted in growing optimism and a more competitive market. The customer today is spoilt for choice and we are seeing consumerism making its foray, albeit in a different avatar. The media vehicles have changed – from largely print and a couple of government-funded and state-owned channels. Today, there are multiple private media players and hundreds of channels. Advertising has become a very high-decibel ballgame. I think one of the biggest changes we saw was the massification in advertising – an increased number of products meant more consumers to be tapped and, as a means of reaching out to more, the audiovisual media were quicker and faster. The target audience for goods and services is no longer niche – the huge middle class and the migrating bottom half of the pyramid is where the action is. I think another change in relation to the world has been the opening up of perspectives. I think whilst Asia did attempt to know more about the western world and the culture that it reflected in its advertising, this was not the other way around. The western world was pretty insular at the time. It may have had a tourist kind of perspective but not an indepth one. Today, I think there is a lot more receptivity to the cultural nuances of Asia and its advertising.
How did you get into advertising?
I have been writing ever since I remember – most of my childhood was spent in the mountains, in the Himalayas, and the tranquility and solitude there nourishes the writer in you. My first book of poetry and prose was published when I was 17. And I guess that’s when my parents woke up to the fact that, if they didn’t step in, things would go haywire! Coming from a family of educationists – both my parents were officials in the state education department – they felt that their son was wasting his time. In India, writing and poetry were not seen as a “career” or a means of livelihood. The traditional choices of becoming a doctor or engineer, or a taking government job, is what the majority of Indian parents desire for their children. So I went on to do my masters in physics and then for a management degree, but continued writing. It so happened that my summer training was fixed at an advertising agency. That’s when I discovered that my writing, my crazy ideation, has value and it can be a career choice. The fact that I could write for a living was the biggest thing, and I consider myself fortunate to be in this industry. It keeps alive and caters to the child in me, which craves instantness – the desire to see your creation taking life fast – and also to the adult in me, who gets the satisfacti n of holding the finger of a brand in nascent stages and watching it grow andbecome bigger and better.
The higher a creative person climbs within a network, the more managerial and less creative his/her role becomes. Is that why you have found so many other ways to quench your creative thirst outside of the agency system?
I have always found parallel expression for myself in other mediums, much before I came into advertising. Scaling up is important. As a writer or creative director you do a certain amount of work. However, as you become senior, you have to multiply your skills and see how you benefit more with the same set of skills. When I took over as India CEO of McCann, I thought about it for almost a year. "Do I want to stay a creative director or do I want to take the role of running the company?" Today, my role is to influence many people. It also depends on one's temperament. There are many creative people who are introvert-ish and don't want to share things or talk to people. For them, the role of supervising and guiding others will not suit. But I love it. I enjoy large responsibilities. In fact, even as a copywriter or creative director, I have always been very interested in what my client's spend is and how he is going to get value for his money.
How do you manage your time between agency work, films, literature--- so many things! Is it fair to say that time management is your biggest skill?
A lot of people do lot of things. Everyone does something to keep their soul alive. If people go back from office and play the guitar at home, we can't hear it, so we don't know about it. My good fortune is I have done things that have been successful. So people know and talk about them. That's when people start asking, "How does he do it?" When you are in love, how do you find time for your lover? Time comes from love.
Your new role requires you to review ads from markets like China, Japan, and Australia. You will now need to study these markets more closely, though, What is your take on this?
Yes, I do have to study and understand them better. When you want to advise somebody on a campaign in a particular market, you really have to understand that culture. One needs to invest in this. I also think my experience will come in handy. For the last 10 years I have been judging various festivals across New York, London and APAC. I have also judged award shows specific to certain markets. For example, I have chaired award juries in Indonesia and Philippines. When one sits and goes through work from various markets and different languages, how does one judge it? You ask for an explanation to understand the brand and cultural context but then you use your experience and instinct. Unfortunately, you wouldn't ask me all these questions if I were born in the US. "How will you look at global work?" "How will you do it?" You'd just assume it will be done. That's the bias we have. And that's a function of our economy.
What was your immediate reaction when you became Chairman of McCann Worldgroup, Asia Pacific?
I thought, "Okay, here's another big responsibility for me." I am not someone who will jump with joy. That's not how I am made. You've seen me receiving awards. I don't jump and kiss someone and start dancing. I am not someone who plans his career saying, "This is my next position." I never think about the designation and position. Nomenclature and designations mean nothing to me. What matters is whether there are any new experiences for me. Now that I have written films, many people ask me when I am going to produce a film of my own. I find this question absurd. I mean, don't you like a writer who is just a writer? What is this obsession with hierarchy? What is this obsession with the amount of power you will have? I'm not apprehensive about anything. Worries will come and I'll deal with them. I was born in a small sleepy town in Uttarakhand, where people don't even lock their houses. That culture, as a child, impacts you hugely. It teaches you trust. So the fundamental instinct of mine is to look at the positives.
How much of a fight was it for you to stay back in Mumbai after becoming Chairman of McCann Worldgroup, Asia Pacific?
Not much of a fight. That's because my company's senior management understands me. My company - McCann and the parent company IPG - lets me be. Sometimes people decide to move out of the country. It's a personal call and they have their reasons. But I prefer to be in India. Yes, it is the first thing to cross somebody's mind - "You're doing an Asia role; now you will move out of India..." But I'm telling you that thinking has changed. For me to say, "I am a hero; I fought a war against my company and said, 'I have to be in India'" would be unfair. It was a collective decision.
Do you think India is changing in terms of Global leadership?
Yes, it is a changing reality. And companies are also realising that. Leaders also want the people they believe in to be in these markets, where the future is. I chose to stay here because the action is here. There's a throbbing sense of life you get in India. Are we Singapore? No, we are not - in terms of infrastructure, law and order, security. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai are ahead of India in so many ways. But well, I chose to be part of a narrative here. That's the reason I am very much the CEO of our Indian operations. That is my biggest responsibility - to be in this market, to grow McCann in this market, and to ensure that all our clients get me on priority. That's been made very clear at the time of my promotion. My worldwide CEO Harris Diamond said: "Prasoon's priority is to cater to India's needs. And then to the rest of Asia."
Is India the new hub for global leadership?
Well, you don't ask this question ("Will you move or not?") to someone living in the US or London. Probably, we are biased to begin with. We still think India is not a developed country. We still think it is a disadvantage to be in India. Is it? No. But is there an iota of truth in this? Yes, there is some truth in it. But that is changing. Today, India has accessibility. You can reach India from anywhere in the world and get to anywhere in the world from India. I don't think we are lagging behind in technology.
What experiences or memories of your childhood have shaped you into the person that you are today?
Are you afraid of failures?
In which language do you prefer to write your Advertisements, Hindi or English?
How different is General election 2019 of India likely to be from the last one from an advertising point of view?
Very different. Last time, there was an incumbent and a challenger. This year, the roles have been reversed. The challenger is the incumbent and the ones ruling then are now the challengers. So, the realities have changed and so have the electorate's expectations. People today are far more active on the social media than they were five years ago, and, therefore, are far more informed. Fake news has also grown, so the challenges are greater for communicators in this environment. However, I do see a healthy use of all media during the general election this year. I don't think the power of print or television will diminish despite the growing use of social media.
How has Social Media changed Advertising?
Are you worried about the future of Creative Agencies?
Is Data taking over Creativity?
What was your thought process behind MasterCard campaign?
In large agencies, creative folk crave 'that boutique like' feel. How do you keep the creative spark alive?
We never had that problem of "Oh we've become a factory." That's our culture. That's the reason I have stuck around because I have built that culture. A young person can anytime just walk into my room and say, "I saw this ad and I didn't like it." So we have enough room for individual expression. We are a large agency but we value small canvases. We've never felt that we need to make exceptional attempts to keep the boutique culture alive. We're not boutique. We don't have to behave like a boutique. We are a throbbing agency and we build megabrands. We are not an assignment-project based agency. Will we do assignments and projects? Yes we will. But what we love doing is building mega brands that impact popular culture.
How long will it be before we see people from other countries migrating to India to take on leadership roles?
It is a very good question. It will happen gradually - maybe in eight or 10 years. Europeans are keen to come to India. In fact, many people of Chinese origin and people from the Middle East are already working here. It's only a question of time before you see people from Japan, Korea and Thailand working in India. Even the US has a few 'explorers' who are curious about India and want to move here. I have had in-depth conversations with people who have decided not to shift to India. The basic reasons are related to our governance, infrastructure, law and order, education and all those issues. They feel the way they live their life will get compromised. But nobody denies the potential of - and talent in - this market. Latin America is pretty close in terms of the way they approach advertising. They are also emotional and have strong family values like us. Sometimes, I see strange similarities between Italy and India in terms of family values. And even the Middle East in terms of family structure and culture. China is similar to India in terms of its past and spirituality, but at the same time, China's way of approaching things is very different from India's. I would like to learn more about Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan, like India, is a nuanced and culturally layered market.
Is this bias felt while dealing with clients? Do they behave differently with Indian leaders with global roles than they do with non-Indian leaders with global roles?
The bias is more in Indian people than in people from the rest of the world. True globalists do not see nationality. They see ideas, minds and experience. I heard this sher early in life and I disagree with it completely. It goes, 'Phool wohi sar chadha jo chaman se nikal gaya. Izzat usi ko mili jo watan se nikal gaya.' That used to be the truth in India previously. Not today. Sure, we will always keep learning from other developed markets. We can learn brand building from the US and craft from Europe, especially London. But we don't need to learn the basics of advertising from anywhere.
Your new role requires you to review ads from markets like China, Japan, and Australia. How do you deal with the cultural nuances of countries that you don't know as well as your own?
For an Indian, diversity is something that comes naturally. As a country, we are multi-lingual and multi-cultural. And Indians operate a lot on instinct. That helps us go beyond what someone is saying and respond to 'energies'. This gives us a unique-ness when we deal with the world. And it's not the first time that I will be working on Asia Pacific markets. I have worked in various markets in the past, including Indonesia and the Philippines. I have written a commercial for China. I have chaired our global creative council. That involves reviewing, critiquing and debating work from various markets. That has given me a lot of exposure in dealing with work from different parts of the world.
What is one thing that makes a creative person a creative leader?
Anything that gets stuck gets rotten. Especially, advertising moves with life which is ever-changing. Never think that there is only one answer to a problem. I don't confuse myself as a creator, one is the wire not the electricity. We can only see it differently from different views or angles. Creative people have a vantage point to see and present things differently. I would reiterate that nothing is the last word and there is another way or possibility out there. Every creative person is unique so listen to their point of view.
Which is your all-time favourite ad film?
My favourite ad film is Argentina Airline’s Shadow ad and I’m fortunate that I worked with the person who wrote that. It is one of the best stories advertising people have told. It’s the most beautifully done story that gives goose bumps. It makes you emotional, makes you attached to the brand and develops respect for the brand.
Aren’t creative agencies pushing the envelope of creativity too hard?
Purposes of ads differ from time to time. Sometimes it may intend to just inform about the brand. If your product or brand already has a certain level of excitement, all you have to do is just to share the information. I am not there for creativity’s sake. It is not necessary that the ad has to be written in a flowery language just because a creative person is involved. It actually takes a lifetime to understand the value of restrain. Sometimes you don’t have to write so much because a simple piece of information can do the trick. The purpose is to drive consumers to the shop and ensure sales and if a simple piece of information is doing it, why would you want to complicate it.
Many advertisers say that even if emotional ads offer good a consumer connect, they do not sell. Hence, they have started focusing on functional ads. What is your say on this?
I don’t agree with that and I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule. I think relevance is very important. Whether the campaign has to be emotional or functional, it entirely depends on what your brand needs are. On the other hand, I would definitely listen to the people, who understand their brand and consumer very well, telling us the need to connect with their consumers emotionally at some stage.
Some people claim that creative agencies have a fixed pattern such as bringing an emotional campaign in a year and then a humorous campaign in another year and again a quirky one next year. How do you respond to that?
We don’t think like that. We are there for our brands and we do not devise our strategy to make us feel good. If the need of the brand is to connect emotionally, we go for it. It is not so simple to decide what game we will play. It is brand building and we are driven by the needs of brands and consumers. Even if it is boring or tiring for us, we will do it. My message is very clear to those who want to join us that we do not decide what we want to do for the brand. Our job is not to play games at our whims and fancy. That will be detrimental to a brand if it starts depending on the moods of the people who are creating ideas for them.
People call it a tough time for advertising agencies. How big is the challenge?
The challenge agencies are facing is no different than what any other industries are going through. For the advertising profession, the challenges are defined by the changing behaviour of consumers. Media habits of consumers have become complex. Earlier, it was very easy to think of an ad interrupting a consumer between his/ her favourite television series or a film. Those were very simple days where the consumer had a simple lifestyle and you knew that the messages were delivered when you interrupted. Now, look at the complex world we live in today. Every individual is a journalist or a content creator who can broadcast any piece of information on social media and manages to find a following. Hence, it becomes very difficult to compete in that kind of a space. Today, people are consuming content in a very complex manner and we have the challenge to deliver our messages in this cluttered scenario. The agencies are finding it challenging and experimenting with various things like developing content and trying different innovative ways to deliver the message. This change will definitely give birth to new revenue streams and it will also make certain ways of making money obsolete. Now, it is happening more often because we are going through a huge revolution of the connected world which no other generation has ever seen before us.
What piece of advice would you give to younger people in your field?
Doing the work is the best teacher, and always be humble. It is great to be confident, but there is a difference between confidence and arrogance. Always take the opportunity to learn. Don’t hurry, have patience and faith, if you have great work, your time will come. I have been very fortunate that my horizons have been very broad. I essentially came from a world of literature and poetry. I am fortunate that I have read and have been exposed to the work of masters such as Mirza Ghalib, Premchand and Shakespeare and various other types of literature. Also, I was first exposed to masters then to the popular culture, so much so that until a very late age, we were not allowed to listen to film music at our home because my parents were classical musicians. But throughout, I’ve had various kinds of influence and I am fortunate that I can look for inspiration from all these, be it film, cinema, music or literature. But the biggest inspiration is life and its experiences, and that is incomparable.
You create ads and manage one of the leading creative agencies, you write films and songs, you head CBFC and also follow a lot of your passions. How do you manage your time?
I follow my passion. For me, life is a learning journey. I always try to face new challenges and take on new responsibilities. I may not able to do everything, but the learning in it is immense. For example, unless you work in areas of e-commerce or FMCG, you wouldn’t understand it. People may try to explain it to you, but you must work in the domain to understand it. This goes for social issues as well. One of the things that drive us in this profession is the everyday challenges.
How difficult or easy is it to work with political brands? Are you able to treat political parties like other clients?
You must, or else they don’t need you. You must define and understand your task and do your homework. You must be honest about their strengths, weaknesses and the brand personality. You must carve out a place in the consumer’s mind for your brand so that they want to associate with the brand. Brands that are more social in nature, including social movements, become more complex because everything impacts them. Political and media brands are also difficult because they are advertising themselves every moment. I’ve worked with many brands and they have all been a learning experience for me. Your experience with the last brand you have worked with helps you. The better we target our understanding of the consumer, the better professionals we become. This cannot be done simply by reading an article or data. Reading will only give a first-level understanding of the consumer. To understand the consumer behaviour and psyche, you must go out and talk to them and constantly be in touch with them.
What was it about the ‘Sweet Change’ campaign that clicked with audiences?
It is very contextual. We at McCann take pride in understanding the problem culturally and trying to find the larger behavioural solution to it. Even our ‘Immunity Charm’ campaign had cultural significance. I think our Indian talent is fantastic, we are truly global in our understanding of different cultures. Because we live in such a diverse country, when we are faced with a cultural problem, we don’t find it strange; we use it to our advantage. In relation to the ‘Sweet Change’ campaign, we are trying to encourage people to use digital payment methods. But how do you change behaviour? Behavioural change is not easy and it cannot happen overnight. We are suggesting ideas to encourage people to use digital payments. We believe that our solution should make an impact and allow brands to make in-roads into people’s behaviour. So ‘Sweet Change’ came from the intent to change behaviour and to demonstrate how it is done while keeping the language close to the mother campaign of ‘Paytm Karo’. The team did a wonderful job and the client is in absolute sync with us. Moreover, we won in a category that has been created fresh. E-commerce is a new category and it is futuristic. I am very happy we won in this category because it tells us that we are keeping up with the times.
How do you find time for yourself and your family?
What are your views on Social Advertisement?
How do you know that an Advertisement has worked?
What is your approach towards Brand Advertisement?
How did you come up with Saffola Ad?
How did your transition from Advertising to films happened?
How do you balance your work between McCann and film industry?
How do you manage to meet your deadline and yet come up with creative inputs?
How did you get into Advertising?
How did idea of Happydent Ad occurred to you?
From where do you get your creative ideas?