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Spoonfeedin WOrld

Mktg – Q&A Piyush Pandey

Sreekant Khandekar & Devina Joshi

This is not an interview centred around the creative genius of Piyush Pandey. Instead, it is a conversation with the executive chairman and creative director, Ogilvy South Asia. Allow us to explain the difference.

For years now, Ogilvy has maintained its reputation as arguably the country’s most creative agency. And it’s not just about awards or big impactful campaigns, many of the top creative directors across agencies have at some time or the other worked at Ogilvy India – and under (or with) Piyush: Josy Paul (BBDO India), Prasoon Joshi (McCann Erickson), Pushpinder Singh (Saints & Warriors), Ramanuj Shastry (Saatchi & Saatchi), Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar (Rediffusion-Y&R), Sonal Dabral (Bates 141), V Sunil (Wieden & Kennedy) are some of the obvious names. Ogilvy is the informal school of Indian advertising which continues to produce not just big campaigns but create big names as well.

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Marrying creative with discipline to make a viable business is a tough act. How does Piyush maintain the balance? What drives executives in the non-‘creative’ departments at Ogilvy India to stay on? And is there a particular approach that Piyush takes in dealing with creative people? Why is Ogilvy an agency in which people end up spending much of their working lives?

In answering these questions, Piyush was straightforward. His answers seem simple, and sometimes obvious, but remember that he has walked the talk. He successfully oversees a company with 1,200 employees (including 300 in the creative department) that is the envy of many. And in any case, the commonsensical way of running a company is probably the best way of going about it. Excerpts:

afaqs!: Describe O&M the way it was when you joined.

PP: I joined in 1982. Suresh Mullick was the creative spark at Ogilvy back then. But the focus on creative – to make creative your lead weapon – didn’t exist. Agencies like Rediff and Lintas were seen as creative at that time. The turning point came when Ranjan (Kapur) joined us (in 1994 as MD).

afaqs!: Since we are trying to understand work culture, just out of curiosity: what did your Bombay office look like?

PP: It was difficult to hire people because of the way our office looked! We had old wooden furniture, files piled up, and in between the files you could see some faces (laughs). It was a huge hall with only three windows on one side, so it was dimly lit at the centre. Ah, it was quite shoddy, even though it was in a nice location.

‘Flair’ wasn’t an important word at Ogilvy. Our priorities were different. We were an agency with solid middle-class values. It was only when Ranjan came in that we redid the office for the first time.

Let’s not be too critical, though. There were so many constraints imposed by the landlord that we weren’t allowed to even repair the leakages. There’s a story of a big leakage in Suresh’s room during a downpour. When our admin person spoke to the Apeejay guy to do something, he, frowning upon the low rents we paid, replied, “Isse pani nahi toh kya doodh tapkega?” (“What, do you expect it to leak milk rather than water?”)

afaqs!: What were your first impressions of Ogilvy?

PP: I was 27 and fascinated by the thought of writing ads but because I had no portfolio, I had to do the job of an account executive. Despite the limitations, O&M in India was a solid agency. This brought about a friendly, honest working environment. And it was non-hierarchical. An account trainee could find Mani (Iyer, the then agency head) walk up to him and say, “Boy, what are you doing for lunch? Come, I’ll take you out.” No one needed an appointment to meet Ranjan. Suresh would take you home and feed you.

Flair can be superficial. Ogilvy had depth – depth of relationships, and sincerity towards clients at the risk of looking mediocre.

afaqs!: Was the issue one of Ogilvy being middle class, or did the times themselves not encourage anyone to stand out?

PP: If you see the public perception in the ’80s, Ogilvy was seen as solid but boring. Now who was it seen boring by? Potential employees, which means it wasn’t just the times: some agencies had flair – even if it was hollow flair – but they had it.

In hindsight I can say that it was by design and not by chance that Mani kept Ogilvy the way it was. Mani was very clear on how he wanted the company to be. He, in his style, was a complete contrast to Alyque Padamsee. Mani had little faith in showbiz, he wanted to be simple, sincere and solid.

In later years, Ranjan brought about this philosophy that we will do both great work as well as maintain our middle class values. He said that we have to make our creative product at the centre of things. We were very proud of who we were. Ranjan called us the Boy Scouts agency, as we never wore ties. We used to walk into Hindustan Lever in shirt and trousers (we were their newest agency) while others were in ties and suits. A lot of things have changed at Ogilvy, but the pride, belief and sincerity have stayed on.

afaqs!: Was it disconcerting when Ranjan took over from Mani and suggested a new way of looking at the business?

PP: It was old meets new and a decent handover of the baton. If there were differences, they were expressed behind closed doors. Ranjan had spent many years in Singapore, so culturally there was a disconnect when they worked together. But they – quite maturely – kept it away from us. Sure there must have been conflict, but they didn’t let us, the future of the agency, know of it.

afaqs!: Is it necessary for bosses to seem to be in agreement all the time?

PP: No, not necessarily. Disagreement is a very positive thing: if it’s an argument, then people obviously have their points of view, which is healthy. But if it is a conflict, then it is best kept behind closed doors.

afaqs!: So, what did Ranjan say?

PP: He said: we will be the biggest agency by the strength of our creative product. That was the first time it was underlined. It had never been stated before because, perhaps, we were fearful of being seen as superficial which is how we perceived some agencies. We were afraid of saying ‘I’m beautiful’. In the later years, we became The Bold and the Beautiful! (Grins)

Ranjan took some bold decisions, including making me the Mumbai CD. We lost one or two people because of that but he told me, “I don’t mind biting the bullet.”

afaqs!: When Ranjan said that O&M would lead with the creative product, was he addressing the creative department alone?

PP: No, he was talking to everyone. People didn’t understand these changes immediately but one thing was clear: this wasn’t an assembly line system we were dealing with. Sometimes, intuition would step into the picture. People started understanding the change when we began coming up with the creative idea first and gave it the backbone of a strategy later. The culture began changing.

A few years down the line when I, a creative guy, was made the head of Mumbai, it was a huge signal to people that Ranjan meant what he said. A creative guy heading operations was very rare in those days.

afaqs!: Many people in Ogilvy have been around for years. Does it have to do with your being here?

PP: Ogilvy isn’t just about me. Mani began his career from this agency and retired from here. Ranjan joined in his 20s and retired from here. Suresh, too, spent his entire 35-year career here. It was a place where people stayed. It is like a family to us, and accessibility to the top level is a big plus.

afaqs!: Would you say you are good with people?

PP: All I can say is that I don’t like shouting at people – an arm around a shoulder is ten times more effective than giving hell to someone, be it the liftman. More often than not, it’s about what people are capable of doing, and not what I do.

afaqs!: Speaking of capability, you recently identified two bright individuals – ECDs Abhijit Avasthi and Rajiv Rao – to head creative at Ogilvy India as NCDs. Tough identifying them, considering that you had four equally talented ECDs to choose from?

PP: Talent never has to be spotted. If you have it, it shows. And sometimes, it is so obvious, you cannot miss it. All the four individuals in question – Abhijit Avasthi, Rajiv Rao, Anup Chitnis and Sumanto Chattopadhyay – are equally talented. But an NCD post is not just about talent, it is also about an ability to lead.

Just because Sachin Tendulkar plays under MS Dhoni doesn’t make him any less a player, but it’s about who enjoys leading, and who can lead, that makes the difference.

afaqs!: If creative is at the heart of the agency, how do you keep and inspire the rest?

PP: Morale is maintained because we truly believe that creativity doesn’t have to come from the creative department alone. It can come from servicing. The Vodafone Zoozoos ’30 days, 30 commercials’ idea, for instance, came entirely from Hephzibah Pathak who heads the Mumbai office.

At award shows and gatherings, you’ll see Ogilvy’s entire team dressed in black. It isn’t just the creative guys present to cheer. We have our servicing team, our tea boys, our media guys, everyone mingling as one family. Our first Gold Lion at Cannes, by the way, was a Media Lion!

afaqs!: So, how would you describe your leadership style?

PP: I had decided that I wanted to be like Clive Lloyd (the West Indies cricket captain, 1974-85) – how he managed champions, champions with a mind of their own! “Let them flourish” was his motto, while making them feel that they are flourishing together. I’d rather be Clive than a Brian Lara who is all about great individual performances but not about winning matches.

afaqs!: How do you balance freedom and discipline, especially for the creative team?

PP: There is no special hand with which I deal with the creative department. It’s just that they can be a little more sensitive and slightly more obstinate. But then I have to be like Ajantha Mendis (the Sri Lankan bowler) who changes his bowling style according to the batsman he is up against.

For example, people were scared of Roda Mehta because she used to fly at them. But you know, I had the most wonderful relationship with her. When you know someone is a certain kind of person, you have to adjust yourself accordingly.

In my early days, the office rules said that if you were late to office three times you don’t get your lunch money. I could never subscribe to such thinking. There are ways of dealing with such people. You have to ask if the output is suffering.

I once called a guy who was coming in late and said to him that the perception about him is greater than his reality – for one month, come in at 9:30 AM, I told him. Perceptions will change and then you can get back to the earlier life. And he did that. Coming late is not a problem to me, but keeping someone waiting is.

afaqs!: There are so many gifted young people. How do you identify talent?

PP: I didn’t discover or ‘find’ anyone in the agency. They found themselves – with their work, and their relationships. Our people are good enough to be NCDs anywhere. So many of our guys are heading agencies or are NCDs at places, or have even settled abroad to fill some big posts.

afaqs!: How does Ogilvy produce so much talent? Is it the way the agency is structured?

PP: We don’t have a different structure, just a different way of working. I don’t believe in the assembly line, I believe in the huddle. Gone are the days when the servicing guy brought in the brief and the creative fellow blamed him for something going wrong on account of poor briefing. Briefs are bounced off each other and evolved, not handed over. At Ogilvy, all key players, including the creative lot, go for client briefings. The ownership then becomes equal.

Despite being creatively charged, we haven’t lost any servicing guys on account of creativity being at the centre of what we do. What do you think a servicing guy goes home and tells his wife: ‘Hey, I wrote a great brief today!’? No, he leaps from the couch with equal enthusiasm and says, ‘Hey, that Zoozoo’s mine!’ every time he sees it on TV. The Zoozoos are not owned by Rajiv Rao.

afaqs!: So is servicing a blurred area?

PP: No, what I’m saying is that the role of servicing has evolved from seller to contributor. Servicing guys are also becoming creative thinkers. It’s like saying a good bowler can also be a good fielder, no? It doesn’t make him a bad bowler if he is an excellent fielder as well.

afaqs!: Has it reached a point where good creative people automatically come to you?

PP: People line up to work at Ogilvy. It started happening after 1990. Sonal Dabral saw my work on Luna, Fevicol and Cadbury’s and that influenced his joining us. I’ll say on a general plane, our radical work on Cadbury (Kuchh Khaas Hai) in 1994 changed perceptions about our agency…the youngsters started coming in after that.

afaqs!: Other agencies talk of Ogilvy as a one-man show…

PP: That talk really helped me because it kept them occupied with something that wasn’t true! (Laughs)

Ogilvy isn’t a one-man show. Mani gave me some advice which was useful: “Surround yourself with people who have talents which you don’t have.” That has helped me. So Sonal (Dabral) had a finishing in art, a background I couldn’t match. I came from a writing background. So I never tried my hand at art, and let him do all of that.

afaqs!: How do you ensure team work?

PP: There is a general way of working at the agency and while there is no O&M type of person, there are different types of persons who know how to be team players. I don’t want clones of myself in the agency. Besides, each has enough of a portfolio today to not try and be me or feel insecure!

It hasn’t always been smooth, of course. If an ECD doesn’t get along with people, it comes through. If some chemistry isn’t working, we switch teams, circulate people, give each other a try. Dealing with groupism is simple: don’t over-tackle things. If there are issues, we try and resolve matters internally first. If the person in question still has a big problem with things, he’ll move on.

afaqs!: To the crux: what drives creative folk?

PP: Seeing their ad on TV screens is No 1, undoubtedly. If someone meets a creative fellow and says ‘Hi, I saw your ad last night and I loved it’, his week is made. Fame comes in much later. When I was young I used to live in Andheri East. I didn’t have a TV so I used to hop over to my neighbour’s to see the ad breaks. The sheer thrill of seeing the first release of your ad – the joy of creation is the starting point and the ending point.

afaqs!: In hindsight, what would you say have been the best learnings for you personally?

PP: There’s something to learn from everyone. I have learnt a lot from people: even my old Jeeves, Goshto, who passed away a few years ago. The man didn’t know a word of English but he used to watch cookery shows in English. Often, when he didn’t understand something, he used to take a risk and put in something of his own in the recipe. He taught me to be inquisitive, to be passionate, to fool around with things, to be brave to attempt something that hadn’t been tried before.

afaqs!: Your shadow looms large over Ogilvy. Don’t you worry about the agency after you?

PP: I have four or five more years at Ogilvy. Worry? Not really. The only thing I wouldn’t want once I leave is of the agency falling into the trap of doing it Piyush style. It should always continue to be about the spirit of finding creative solutions to client needs

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September 23, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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