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Mktg – Personality;Man behind Vodafone’s Zoozoo & Pug – Rajiv Rao

Prasad Sangameshwaran

MUMBAI: Advertising agency Ogilvy was raising donation money in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack last November.But much like many clients with stingy ad budgets,it was difficult to convince agency executives to contribute liberally. Someone in the agency hit upon a novel idea. The highest donor could choose between a date, dinner, or an ad created for them by the agency’s resident creative ‘dude’ Rajiv Rao.

That sealed the deal as Rao’s popularity was rivalled only by that of Ogilvy’s top gun Piyush Pandey. (And, we have no idea how many men vied for the cup.) “These strong silent archetypes can be deadly lady killers,” Kapil Arora, a vice president at Ogilvy who’s worked with Rao for half-a-decade, says about his self-effacing colleague. That’s an opinion shared by Ogilvy’s executive chairman Piyush Pandey who sums up Rao as a “silent killer”.

For clients such as Vodafone – for whom Rao played a key role in creating the Zoozoos and the “pug ads” — he’s their “Michelangelo”.

For others like this writer, Rajiv Rao is advertising’s very own absent-minded-professor, who’ll promptly return your call, but forget your name. “I can believe that,” accepts his wife Runjhun Jain, and recalls an incident when they were courting each other. Jain was at Rao’s bachelor’s pad when the landlord came home. She was promptly asked to lock herself in the bathroom. After a long and tiring wait, with no message from Rao, Jain finally gathered courage to emerge from the bath only to find that she had been long forgotten. Rao and his roommate were busy with breakfast and television.

Rao, who looks like a member from the teenage rock band in college, would rather play down these observations. His popularity among women is casually brushed aside as “someone playing a prank”, and the Pug commercials are called one “happy accident”. As for memory, he remembers his wife’s birthday.

In an ad world dominated by executives to whom self-promotion comes naturally, Rao, who’s recently been made the national creative director at Ogilvy, is a rarity. Perhaps why everyone who’s worked with Rao has something to say about him, whether they were in Bihar like Vodafone’s associate vice-president, marketing communications, Kavita Nair, or battling terrible Internet connectivity in Kabul like ad man Cyrus Oshidar.

Even Pandey — whose presence in client interactions can swing a pitch in his agency’s favour with embarrassing moments when clients have asked for autographs — is only too willing to acknowledge the importance of the 30-something Rao. Once Pandey asked his assistant to scout for Rajiv, and Rao was absconding. “Sack him,” said Pandey jokingly and muttered in the same breath, “and the Vodafone business will go with him”.

It’s rare to find your boss say good things about you, particularly in advertising. Not in Rao’s case. Elsie Nanji, the co-founder of Ambience, the agency that gave Rao his first big break, says his non-confrontational attitude is just so perfect. “If there were more Rajiv Raos, advertising would be a noble profession,” she says.
But she admits to telling herself in the early days that “this mild and gentle boy will never get by in a profession like this”.

Luckily for him, Rao had a friend, brother, copywriting partner and spokesperson in Mahesh V. It was like a meeting of Michelangelo and Shakespeare, one that happened by sheer coincidence when an ad agency called Heartbeat was scouting for an art director-copywriter combination. Rao had been let down by a friend who had promised to apply with him for the copywriter’s post, while Mahesh had been let down by an artist. From the reception of Heartbeat, to the interiors of Ambience to finally the heart and soul of the Max Touch, Orange and Hutch campaigns with ad agency Ogilvy, the duo worked like they were made to create advertising history.

“I remember marvelling at how India, not known as a nation of dog lovers, had taken the world’s ugliest dog to its heart. Of course, the men responsible for the pug invasion were Rajiv and Mahesh,” says Oshidar.

Then came a sad twist in the tale, one that saw Mahesh leave the world in 2006, due to a heart attack when he was attending a Hutch (now Vodafone) workshop. Rao was devastated to see the 12-year-old partnership come to such an unpredictable end.

But the perfectionist in Rao ensured that work would not suffer, with the Zoozoos ad being the most prominent example.

“For him a car sticker is as important as a film,” says Vodafone’s Nair. And his obsession with perfection was something that everyone raves about. Photographer Suresh Natarajan who’s worked with Rao on several campaigns talks in particular of the a value-added services “toys” campaign, which Rao shot thrice because he was not happy with the toys available in the market. So Rao sat down to make those toys himself, armed with nothing but Plasticine, a brand of play dough.

The result was the first ever colour campaign for Orange, a brand that seldom went against the global mandate of using black and white imagery in their ads, except for the logo. Unfortunately, Michelangelo did not have enough play dough and had to destroy one toy after shooting it, to create the next one with the same dough. “The campaign literally has his fingerprints on them,” says Natarajan. Now, with a national role, Rao faces the next challenge of emerging as a creative leader who can get the best out of his teams across a cross-section of brands. Rao says his stint in Bangalore, where he and Mahesh headed the operations for three years, gave him the experience of working on multiple brands.

“Other brands too deserve him,” says Nair who’s confident that Rao will deliver the goods as an NCD. Are colleagues at Ogilvy willing to put their money on that too?


October 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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