Quizzes are fun and they also make good business, says Gargi Gupta, whatever Derek O’Brien may say to the contrary
Derek O’Brien is angry. A recent incident involving 16-year-old Shinjini Sengupta who had to be taken to hospital after a public chiding on the sets of a dance reality show, has got the quizmaster of Cadbury Bournvita Quiz Contest, “Indian television’s longest running quiz show”, up in arms against reality contests on TV.
Sprawled across the sofa in a neighbour’s house — his own has been taken over by his wife and her friends for a party in the evening — O’Brien’s voice rises in agitation as he holds forth:
“Unlike quizzes, reality shows are totally subjective. Your dance was not good today, your expression was not good, the judges will say and give long explanations and make harsh comments because that makes good television. And when you break down, the camera will come charging in for a close-up. We’ve written to 4,400 schools across India requesting their principals not to allow their students to take part in reality shows.”
Some of the anger is personal — “I have a daughter who’s 12” — but a lot of it is also righteous, a kind of moral repugnance at parents pressurising their kids to vicariously experience two-minutes of fame on the idiot box. And it’s not all words.
O’Brien feels deeply enough to have refused to do the Amazing Kids Talent awards, a programme that he has been producing for Pogo for three years now.
Quixotic, you think? A wee bit, yes. But then, TV accounts for only 20 per cent of the annual revenues of Derek O’Brien & Associates, the company he started in 1992 .
The older son of Neil O’Brien, “the father of Indian quizzing”, started his career as a journalist, a “trainee with Sports World on a salary of 800 bucks”. A year later, however, he turned to advertising, for — as he told Subhash Ghoshal who interviewed him for JWT— “M-O-N-E-Y”.
After six unhappy months in JWT, O’Brien switched to Ogilvy where he worked “eight fun years”, rising to become creative director for Delhi and Kolkata. “We created the Wills Book of Excellence and the Asian Paints Sharad Samman puja awards during my time.”
Along the way, quizzing happened. It started as a weekend thing with O’Brien conducting the North Star Quiz and later, the Nestle Maggi one. It was Ajay Banga, global consumer head of Citibank, “then Fatlu, branch manager of Nestle in Kolkata”, who proposed O’Brien do it fulltime. And so O’Brien quit his job and set up Derek O’Brien and Associates, working out of his one-bedroom apartment in Ballygunje. “This was six months before I got married,” he remembers.
It was tough going. “It was difficult even to hire an office boy because he’d say ok, you’re going to pay me Rs 1,000, but what is it that you do? Even my prospective in-laws were zapped when I told them I did quizzes for a living.”
And so O’Brien decided that to begin with, he’d do “something really good with no strings attached” — a book on Mother Teresa. “I had Rs 1 lakh, my provident fund from Ogilvy, with which I bought the pictures of Sunil K Dutt, who’d been tracking Mother for years. I cockily went to Mother and told her that many people had done books on her but hadn’t paid her a dime but I was going to pay her Rs 5 lakh for my book.”
It was easier said than done, but O’Brien managed to get a sponsor, Citibank, and the book, with captions from the mother, was released to much fanfare.
“I think I got a gift from Mother, because after that it’s unreal what’s happened. If you’d told me in 1992 that this is where I’d be in 2008, I’d have said give me 10 per cent and I’ll settle for it.”
Indeed, up from that one office boy of 1992, O’Brien’s firm today employs 47 full time researchers, “guys who when they get a marriage proposal, say with pride that they work for Derek O’Brien & Associates”. Surprisingly, for someone who’s often called “Asia’s best-known quizmaster”, O’Brien says “quizzing is not good business”.
So Derek O’Brien & Associates doesn’t do quizzes — it “makes knowledge interesting to help people and brands grow”. Which means “knowledge game shows”, or quizzes, for the stage and television (most famously, the big-ticket Sawaal Dus Crore Ka); yearbooks; direct marketing — customised quizzes for clients; and supplying content — quizzes and the like — to the print, digital and electronic media .
But even here, O’Brien has some quixotic (“silly” he calls them) rules — “if the brand you’re working with is not number one or two in its category don’t work with it”; “never do an event for a school”, “never hawk a sanitary napkin”, and most important, “never ask a principal for an admission”.
So how good is his GK? “I know enough about most things,” he says dismissively. “Upto 1996-97, I even wrote every question I asked.”
A few years ago, the same quixotic bent led O’Brien into politics. “Rather than talk about it among friends in a club, I decided I’d make a small contribution with ideas.” O’Brien’s joining the Trinamool Congress created quite a splash — not least a party of lumpens. But O’Brien has no regrets.
He’s all admiration for Mamata Banerjee, who he feels is extremely sharp and deserves an award for the “most misunderstood person”. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to make speeches and the only personal sacrifice he’s had to make is downgrade his car. That’s not asking for a lot.