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Meet one of India's topmost admen

Last updated on: December 2, 2010 09:51 IST

Meet one of India's topmost admen

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Shyamal Majumdar in Mumbai

Over masala tea and sandwich, the 40-year old McCann India chairman Prasoon Joshi says advertising is now less about a make-believe wonder world.

The ad, which went on to win the Silver Lion at Cannes, almost never got made. The brief sent by Italian firm Perfetti van Melle, which was launching its Happydent white chewing gum in India in 2005, was clear - make only some minor adjustments to the campaign that was already a success abroad.

But Prasoon Joshi didn't like what he saw - a girl chewing Happydent just before her first date and the boy getting mightily impressed with her milky-white smile. Sensing that it would be difficult to convince the client that the campaign wouldn't work in India, Joshi proactively shot an ad that showed a photographer using his assistant's sparkling white teeth as a flash bulb.

Perfetti loved what it saw and even re-shot the same ad with European models to make it a part of Happydent's worldwide campaign.

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Image: McCann India chairman Prasoon Joshi.

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"The underlying theme was fun, something that would bring a smile on your face. That always works - whether in Rampur or Rome. Imagination has no limits," says Joshi.

We are at the Coffee Shop at Taj Land's End in Bandra as Joshi had time only for tea in between an early morning shoot that extended till the afternoon and a wedding invitation that he has no option but to accept; after all, networking is vital for the chairman of McCann India, India's fourth largest ad agency.

Joshi orders vegetable sandwich and strong masala tea and we chat about how his ads for Alpenliebe (remember a crocodile chasing film actor Kajol till he gets his share of the toffee?) were also used all over Europe without any change.

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Instances like these are perhaps the reason the winner of over 400 awards has just been appointed chairman of McCann's global creative leadership council, a think tank for the agency's creative work all around the world.

And this is in addition to his rather long designation of Executive Chairman & CEO of McCann-Erickson India, and Executive Creative Director for the Asia-Pacific region.

But the 40-year-old ad man belongs to many other worlds, too: that of poems (he wrote his first book at the age of 17); film lyrics (Tare Zameen Par, Rang De Basanti and so on), and story writer (he has just finished writing the story, dialogue and lyrics for a mega-budget Bhaag Milkha, Bhaag based on the life of India's flying Sardar).

But Joshi says he spends 95 per cent of his time on advertising and just 5 per cent on everything else.

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That has meant texting the lyrics for the recently released Break Ke Baad from Heathrow's visitors' lounge.

That isn't too much a problem for Joshi who says he "would have easily been a story-teller" if he had been born in the days of the maharajas.

The creative spirit is in his genes. His mother was a classical singer ("I used to wake up listening to my mother's riyaz") and his father was an education officer, which gave him access to books 24x7 ["I used to eat, sleep and drink Hindi, English and Bengali (translated into English) literature"].

Joshi says he considers Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, whose novel Devdas has been captured on celluloid by generations of filmmakers, one of the greatest copywriter of all times.

"Sarat-babu's ability for keen observation and understanding human emotion is what great advertising is all about," Joshi says, ordering a second round of tea and the conversation switches back to the world of advertising.

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He sees three broad changes in the world of communications. First, the consumer is no longer king - he is emperor.

He is playing a deciding role more than ever before: in TV programmes, scripts are being changed on the basis of public sentiment. SMS polls are the norm, and an important revenue model.

A brand or an ad is dissected from a personal point of view on a public platform - the blog. It is not that the consumer did not have a point of view earlier. But now he has a platform for voicing it.

Second, the reality quotient is on the rise and it is less about a make-believe wonder world. With improving income levels and aspirations, consumers are seeing the possibility of change for the better in their own lifetime.

"As an advertiser, earlier, I sold a dream; now I sell hope," he says.

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And third, while the buoyant mood is new, deep down, the value systems of Indians have stayed more or less the same. The marketing and advertising industry has to tread that fine balance.

The second round of tea seems to trigger some happy reminiscences. Joshi talks fondly about the "moment of his life" on a mid-summer afternoon at the Hapur railway station.

Just as the train was leaving the station, Joshi saw a porter sound asleep in the middle of the platform, covered by the shadow of a mountain of gunny bags.

A few days later, Coca-Cola went on air with its commercial that showed a man sleeping peacefully on a busy pavement, with a pile of Coke bottle crates protecting him from the blazing sun.

The caption said: "Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola." The ad went on to win the Golden Lion at Cannes. Joshi now says, "Such things happen only once in a lifetime."

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Despite its mega success, Coke withdrew the "Thanda" campaign after some time.

I ask him whether multinationals, perhaps less attuned to Indian sensibilities, change campaigns abruptly, however successful they might have been. Joshi says every brand deals with different challenges and strategies at different points in time and communication needs to change accordingly.

Even post-Thanda McCann and Coke have together done some memorable campaigns such as "Piyo sar uthake" and even the latest Open Happiness series with Imran (rated as No. 1 ad in the IPL 2 season) and the recent one with "Come home with Coke" as the theme.

In any case, he says, it's incorrect to single out multinationals; even some Indian companies often lose out on continuity by changing campaign platforms.

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Apart from market-driven requirements that may necessitate a change in strategy, a change in the senior management and marketing structure unfortunately often results in an existing and great performing platform being abandoned because the new team wants to make a mark.

That's not warranted, the actual brand needs should be paramount and not changed for the sake of it, he says.

He, however, adds that continuity in brand communication is very important and gives the example of Cadbury, which has stuck to its core brand theme - kuchch mitha ho jaye - for many years and developed sub-themes under it, the latest one being shubh arambh (make a good beginning).

The ad has been done by rival agency O&M, but that doesn't stop Joshi from praising it effusively.

Joshi also says he doesn't agree with the common perception that advertising was taught to Indians by the West.

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"Long back, there used to be this poet called Nasir Akbarabadi whose daily job was to write impromptu couplets for various kinds of hawkers who would sing them aloud to sell their wares. That's nothing but copywriting and India had many Akbarabadis much before Western advertising concepts came here," he says.

As we walk out of the hotel, Joshi says his small-town background in places such as Almora in Uttarakhand has perhaps helped him speak the language that most Indian consumers understand.

"But things can be tough with so much noise in the marketplace. I sometimes wish I had a magic wand to actually enter a consumer's dreams.

That would be uninterrupted advertising getting 100 per cent mind space," Joshi chuckles. For sure, his imagination has no limits.



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