Thursday, August 21, 2008

Main aur meri director, kya team hai!

Successful ad men and their teams: Adding value to the creative product

Great bowlers, they say, hunt in pairs. Lillee and Thomson, Trueman and Statham, Bedi and Prasanna, McGrath and Warne have swept all before them and won matches and series, if not hearts. England, which has been at the receiving end of a lot of these bowlers, has always had the capability to laugh at its own travails and this famous rhyme probably says it all: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if Lillee doesn’t get you then Thommo must”. Much as I would like to go on about the glorious game of cricket, I realise that it is perhaps insensitive to talk about it right now as India has just lost another overseas series at Colombo where probably another new potent pair is emerging in the form of Murali and Mendis. So let me move on to advertising, as having been married for long, I know when I should change to a topic that is less likely to cause heartburn and the sensible and prudent male stays with neutral topics such as these in the interest of his own safety and the inherent desire for self-preservation.

Art and copy, the old marriage

I came to advertising because I was fascinated by the power of the printed word and its ability to thrill and sell. Ads such as those of Volkswagen and Avis are classics even today simply because they were crafted by wordsmiths who took persuasion to a new level. They were followed by a breed of outstanding art directors who gave us the Marlboro man and the Absolut Vodka campaign, to name just two.

Let us look here at our own country. There was a time in India when art directors and copywriters used to sit in different parts and different departments of the same agency and the copywriter would hammer her lines on her trusted typewriter and hand it over to the art director, at times, without even entering the room, and he would scribble on his notebook before giving it to the studio where the waiting artists would physically finish the rough layout.

Thankfully, realisation struck and smart creative types teamed up. Art directors and copywriters came together to produce campaigns that won awards and sold volumes. The key to this whole success was the fact that they worked so closely together that no one knew whose idea it was and therein lay the success of the advertising. The copywriter often gave the rough scribble which the art director then embellished to give us a finished product that both of them and the agency could be justifiably proud of. Art directors too were known to think up lines when allowed to. This was all fine in the Eighties when Indian advertising only thought print. This was before the days of the Asiad in 1982, the entry of colour televisions in a big way and the emergence of cable and satellite homes as the only homes fit to live in.
Today all that has changed at the advertising agency and we have a new breed of creative directors that live, eat, sleep, think and dream television scripts (which probably explains some of the nightmarish scripts that one gets to see on television). But on a more serious note, there is no denying the fact that some of our work on television is truly outstanding, and in no small measure, the credit for this should go to the producer who gives life and meaning to the script that a young and often inexperienced copywriter comes up with. I remember some of the ‘Only Vimal’ films that were made in the late Eighties which were done by Kailash Surendranath, who understood the brand’s personality and gave it a creative edge. I am sure that famous creative directors of leading agencies in India such as Balki, Piyush Pandey and Prasoon Joshi (in pictures above) all have their own set of directors who they work closely with and who add enormous value to the creative product because they are able to understand the expectations, give life and meaning to a script and work as team players. Today more than ever, the agency needs a director who understands the brand and can work consistently over multiple executions at different points in time, without diluting the brand’s values that have been so carefully and assiduously built over film for years on end.

Internationally, one remembers and recalls the celebrated commercial director Joe Pytka, whose consistently successful work for brands such as Pepsi – remember the “Uh- huh’ and the Cindy Crawford commercials - have not only won recognition but awards and accolades for the brand.

The professional producer

I was speaking to my friend who is a creative director at a large multinational agency network (is there any other type of agency?) and he was commenting on the increasing professionalisation of the new breed of producers, who are so ready to discuss the script idea at a formative stage, and their capability to add cinematic value to the same. Nor does it stop there. The pre-production documentation and detailing are all valuable aids to the agency which has its fair share of disorganised and yet creative minds. The same level of comfort and ease which the art director had with the copywriter of old has now become the comfortable acceptance and co-existence of the creative director and the producer.

It could well be the most important partnership for the all important medium of television on which most brands are won or lost. Significantly at the Lowe awards, which they called the “true awards”, they thought it fit to reward these unsung heroes and placed the credit for a lot of the agency’s outstanding creative work with the director, music composer and the editor.

The ‘three quotation’ phenomenon

While one can talk at length about the partnership and synergy that a producer can bring to the table, the system often does not reward something like this. I am sure one can find enough criticism for working with the same people, even within the agency. And some clients, particularly the public sector variety, thanks to the history of unsavoury practices, insist on three quotations, whether it is to buy paper clips or to produce a television commercial! While enterprising client servicing people usually find a way out of this, it certainly comes in the way of consistency and creativity.

I remember someone asking Neil Armstrong if he was nervous while landing on the moon and he is supposed to have confirmed asking who wouldn’t be, as he was sitting on 99,999 parts made by the cheapest supplier! Business should be run on trust and creative directors can and must trust the producer who delivers the creative product that they want. They should be in a position to work with them on an ongoing basis on projects. I am glad it is happening in India and quite regularly too.

Advertising reflects the times we live in

Let me end this piece with something that has been happening for some time but yet struck me with renewed clarity. Advertising has always influenced the world around it and got it to use its creativity. A line like Kalakkarey Chandru had become a way of speech in Tamil Nadu and I need to clarify here that this line was the translation of the “Sunil babu” line in the Asian paints commercial when it was translated into Tamil. This probably had as much potency as the lines of Rajinikanth that Tamil Nadu seems to reverberate with. Earlier the lines like “Yeh dil mange more” of Pepsi have cheerfully been used by newspaper editors as they seem to be so readily available to them. Today, thanks to the power of an advertising line, Kerala is almost invariably referred to as “God’s own country” in articles about it.

Last week I saw one newspaper carrying the line “What an idea”’ to the feature that had a huge write-up on some public service stuff that was happening in Bangalore and a feature in the metro section of another newspaper on young people had the caption “youngistan”. Often creative people place an almost unreasonable importance on awards and recognition. But my friend, if your line assuming universal appeal is not recognition, I wonder what is. Let us create more ideas and captions like these that India can take to and that more than anything else will demonstrate the importance of our profession to the lives of people around us.

(The author is CEO, brand-comm and the author of `One Land, One Billion Minds'.)