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Monday, August 22, 2011

Oops and Downs of a MAd World

Indu Balachandran is hot, happening and full of breeze! Author of a barely three month old book on the quirks and adversities of a mad life that is already a bestseller running into reprint, her quick prose dazzles with gentle humor and 29 year old wisdom from having worked her way up in one of India’s top ad agencies, as she elbows us with her crafty blueprint of “making it” in that luminous land of advertising. Smarter than a Dummy’s guide, and lighter than newsreel, Indu’s wild experiences at JWT (formerly HTA) inspire her debut book chronicling the best job in the world, not just because of the money but also because “work is synonymous with fun and people are never found in the (ad) agency way past 10:45 am because they were busy catching up with work, because they were too busy all day having fun, or rather it’s synonym work… so they took time off for some work…sorry fun, and that is why they were so late arriving for fun, in other words work.”

Peppered in frolic Indu cracks down on the yuppy hierarchy in ad agencies, effortlessly seizing every living ad caricature she has met, baring for us the poor vulnerable souls of Creative (bedraggled copywriters and art directors of both pre-Mac and post I-pad eras), the traumatized Client servicers and account executives, Planners and tiara flashing Media men and women (from Planet Hollywood) among several others. She breaks open and closes every straitjacket in the business of advertising, proving to us there are no superheroes, only super-teams on super-steroids. The Copywriter, however, does remain the consistent butt of all jokes and affection, who, through all his/her hard work, laziness, and good times and bad, chants feverishly “Give us this day our daily, multi-grain, nutria soft, ezee digest, super crust, vitamin enriched bread.“ The ensuing empathy and reality, “For every high flying Creative Director traipsing off to Brazil to judge entries for an award show, there are about 7328 humble copywriters trying to write a sales conference AV script for a rubber lined gasket or a fuel injection pump. Or… administering vitamin pills to the client’s depressed sales force.”

This book is a fond reminiscence, but mostly a hail funny look at the goggle eyed workforce of eccentrics, jokers, nerds, sleazepots, and above all dreamers. “Advertising is the only non-criminal human activity that allows you to make a living off your character defects, which usually include pride, anger, gluttony, lust, sloth, greed and envy”! Alight these pages guilt-free, vacuous, and help yourself to anecdotes and delectable potshots at the people we love to hate. Indu has given us, what every aspiring, current or former young ad professional wants to know: What does it take to succeed (or survive?) in the Attention Deficit world of Advertising. This slim digest of 100% Tao is both intimate and objective at once, with energy so textually manicured and yes, meticulous! Read on, to identify your stereotype better than any Facebook quiz on what’s your ad personality. Be it acronyms, acrimony, or jargon, the death is in the detail, as CANNES (CERTIFIED AWARD NABBERS, a category of defensive, award obsessed Creative Directors) assume tall tones like “Conceptually the copy is turgid, but consciously so, because the undulating greens in the visual need a holistic counterpoint.”

A verbal cartoonist with crackling insights on every aspect of the industry, Indu leaves you rolling on the floor laughing your pants off while still inside your head, dizzy even with the unbearable lightness of being an agency outsider, or worse, insider, a has been or a will be, as you scour these pages of her MAd ex love.

This week we sneaked up on former advertising professional and eco travel writer Indu Balachandran, who hands us a boisterous script of the ad world in her first book Don’t Go Away We’ll be Right back: The Oops and Downs of Advertising.

Dial a book: What a Title!!!

Indu Balachandran: The words “Don’t Go Away, We’ll Be Right Back,” uttered every single day, just before a commercial break all over the world, is actually a cunning way to remind people about this Book! Which means glamorous talk show hosts like Oprah and Simi, funny men like Jay Leno, even respected news presenters like Pronnoy Roy, all say this phrase for me— completely free of cost. How’s that for some clever, un-paid-for advertising…

DAB: From copy trainee to executive creative director… all in 29 years. Are all these years encapsulated in your book? Is this the bible to surviving faux pas in the advertising world?

IB: There are some characters and observations in the Book that I remember from my first year as a trainee in HTA Delhi (now JWT). So yes, it is a happy recall of many years of being in a charged, idea-rich environment, where a remarkable set of talents come together. Besides, I am also a compulsive scribbler of ‘wit as it happens’ aka the ridiculous (oxymoronic) things people say at meetings. For example: The client who says, “I’d like to see some fresh, innovative ideas that have been tried and tested many times…” Or this angry reaction when a great campaign is rejected: “The client changed his mind again!” “Yeah, but the new one doesn’t work any better…” Priceless stuff!

When I first started writing about some of the loony ways we advertising guys work and talk, I found lots of readers from other agencies say, this is EXACTly what happens in my agency too. And even though it wasn’t really the intention, some said it made them stop and think about their work quite a bit: the inordinate amounts of time we waste on pointless stuff at meetings, the play-safe clich├ęs we keep on using for ads, and all the eccentric nutcases we have to put up with, just because they are ‘creative people’… So if there’s any such thing as “Laugh Your Way to The Top” then my Book has a dubious, higher purpose as an advertising manual!
It’s purpose is also to make those in advertising ‘see themselves’ and make those who left the profession recall an enjoyable time of their lives, and for the newbies—give a realistic picture of the madness, mayhem and excitement, without scaring them away.

DAB: Was advertising a conscious choice for you as a youngster when people had more conventional career options?

IB: I think I’ve always wanted do writing… thanks to a Dad who was pretty amazing with wordplay. He got us Mad Magazine from abroad years before anyone in India had even heard of them. He got us “The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nash-ery” filled with brilliant nonsense rhymes. Even though we never knew there was such a thing as an Ad Agency, I did dream about writing the world’s shortest short stories: birthday cards which start with an intriguing line on the cover… and end with a twist on the inside. I used to write these all the time for friends through school and college. All sound practice for writing pithy stories for 30 second ads, I guess!

DAB: Tell us any personal favorite dreaded or bizarre “Oops” and “Downs” of the ad world?

IB: In Oops, a Client –ex-JWT Delhi people will know who I’m talking about—who said at the end of his annual briefing in our conference room: “That’s it. Now my balls are in your court…”
Another was a hoarding design “The restaurant has a bra attached…” Yet, another at a college’s annual day brochure, where the faculty was not amused reading: “4.00pm. Address by Faulty Members.”

But here’s JWT Chennai’s favorite story: Our senior accountant, a conventional south Indian gent, was perhaps influenced by the hep lingo used by young people. He once said: “The Manager is quite upset…today she took out my pant”. Only later we figured he was using a highly common phrase in ad agencies: “We had our pants taken by the client today”!!
And some horrific downs … We used to do ‘8-projector audio visuals’ in the 80’s, with a million tiny slides filling several Kodak carousels. Once in the middle of a crucial presentation, slides suddenly started popping out and flying away out of the over-heated projector, and we were jumping about bizarrely catching them, like we were in cricket practice!

DAB: What has been one life-defining commercial for you, as in an ad that changed the way you saw art, advertising or even the great Indian middle class?

IB: One amazing campaign that makes me proud of what advertising can do—and it truly affected the great Indian middle class—is the Tata Tea ‘Jago Re’ body of work. It told us to ‘wake up’ to corruption, to the way we use small time bribes to get past traffic offences, get admission to schools, get tickets etc. right down to yanking us out of our apathy towards voting. That was really big! At the same time, it was firmly locked into the basic brand promise: the tea that woke you up. It worked both ways; it affected our thinking, and it affected their sales. Fantastic!

A more light-hearted example is the sparkling brand work on Pepsi. Remember ‘Nothing Official About It?’ What a brilliant way to appear more cool, un-boring and youthful, while hijacking attention from the competition who had won costly ‘official’ sponsoring rights to a major sports event! I also think Pepsi’s “Mera number kab ayega?” was so bang on: reflecting a terrific insight into a typical Indian anguish, as we endlessly wait, wait, wait for something to happen. Pepsi’s advertising catch lines invariably went right into our everyday conversations, even newspaper headlines.

DAB: Tell us about creative hierarchy in an organization as flat as an ad agency.

IB: Hierarchy in ad agencies is something that happens through the professional respect you earn –no matter how old or young you are. Do some truly outstanding work: and you are the one on top; on top of everyone’s mind. That’s what really matters! Ad agencies are not only great at generating brand names for products, they are also proficient in generating fancy ‘nearly-there’ titles to denote hierarchy. So these are handed out sometimes to retain talent within the agency; to individuals who produce good work, yet have no leadership skills to actually become a ‘head’ of any sort.

DAB: You’ve won several awards in advertising. What drove you?

IB: Honestly speaking, there’s an unbeatable high that comes from hearing “Sales are suddenly up since our campaign broke…here’s a superb letter from the Client…” This feeling far outlasts the other kind of high from doing something that upped the bar and drew a ‘wow!’ from the ad community. And while I have no Cannes Gold to boast of, I became the envy of millions when I won another kind of gold: the 22 carat one—a whole kilo of real gold for writing in 15 words or less why I liked shopping at Vivek’s Department Store. The cheesy, winning rhyme I wrote was entirely due to my training as a copywriter!

DAB: How cathartic was writing this book?

IB: I think most humorists doing spoofs are invariably writing the real truth, even if in an absurd or comic style… and so too with this Book: it’s written on behalf of all those who have to suffer weird colleagues, boring clients, eccentric divas, moronic bosses, needless time wasters… So yes, it was cathartic! The thing is it could have easily got very cynical—that’s one thing I’m not, and hopefully it’s more of a laugh-along than a ouch-that-hurts!

DAB: What made you quit advertising?

IB: Well, one trigger was this: my leave record was in shambles, and the second biggest passion of my life, travelling—was being compromised. An unbelievable opportunity came along: would I like to review eco-friendly hotels all over India, which means free travel, free stay, free food and unlimited adventures? YES! So I did the unbelievable: quit JWT—for 29 years my home, my life… But the last month was the toughest: I was at a 3-day Pepsi shoot with Shah Rukh Khan (incidentally the first-biggest passion of my life, if you wondered about it a few seconds ago!), and I thought, am I mad to give up this amazing advertising life?? Plus there was also this half-written Book on advertising that my two sisters were after me to finish…

DAB: Real Time Working professionals, and not just those in the news, are braving it, every second, everyday. How are you coping with the present?

IB: I keep in constant touch with what’s going on and also do the occasional creative workshop, teach at management institutes. But there’s NOTHING to beat the joys of a travel writer! So far I have been to over 60 hotels: magnificent palaces, humble beach shacks, cozy Himalayan hideouts… met many inspiring eco-conscious owners. I have enough notes on the funny side of travel for another upcoming Book!

DAB: Did you ever read any soul stirring books about advertising?

IB: As a trainee in HTA Delhi, I read From those wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbour by a famous copywriter named Jerry Della Femina. The most soul stirring books on Advertising have been The Copy Book filled with essays of advertising greats that makes you think the copywriter has the BEST job in an agency, and A Smile In the Mind where every single page of this wittily written and illustrated manual can make you a better creative person. “Cutting Edge Advertising” by Jim Aithchison is also fabulous. But my favourite one that actually led to writing this Book… is The Joy of Work, by Scott Adams. I keep on re-reading it and laughing. It set me thinking: what if Dilbert was in an ad agency? That’s why I roped in (Don’t go Away… cartoonist) Paul Fernandes—we simply had to have those quirky illustrations! I dream of the day when I give Scott Adams a copy of my Book. Till then, I’m wondering how to reach one to SRK…:).

Indu B: Ex Vice president and Creative Director at JWT, Indu today reviews eco-friendly hotels all over India for with her humor columns appearing in leading publications like The Sunday Hindu, Sunday Express, TOI, Deccan Herald, India Se (Singapore) and Her writings are featured in four anthologies of short stories. She recently won a prestigious travelogue contest by the Lonely Planet magazine and is often invited as guest speaker at Humor Societies, Book Clubs, Business Schools, and International Seminars at Muscat and Dubai.

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