I t isn’t easy to get Rajiv Rao, executive creative director, Ogilvy India, to talk about himself. His reasoning is: “Forget anyone else, even I wouldn’t want to read about myself!” The man who has been at the helm of one of the most iconic campaigns in India in recent times — Vodafone’s ZooZoos — tries to convince us that he will make for the most boring interview subject ever. Let our readers decide that, we tell him, and it is only after much cajoling that Rao relents.
We start off with the talk of the town: the ZooZoo ads. There is a sense of fun to these that is unusual to Indian campaigns and that’s perhaps because of what went on behind the scenes, we learn. Rao says he had a ball creating the campaign. “Each time the characters would start acting, the crew would be in splits,” he says. He came up with the name ZooZoo because,“We wanted something that sounded cute, lovable and a bit mad like the characters.” But there have been complaints that the campaign probably stretched on too far — anti-Facebook groups have been created, we point out. Rao feels the campaign ended at just the right time. “I guess, if you have ice-cream everyday for too long, it will get to you too.” On the other hand, he points out that people feel strongly only about things that they care about.
Turning to his early days, Rao says he had absolutely no clue about what he wanted in life as he was “pathetic” at studies. Maths, science and other subjects associated with academic excellence left him bored. But, he says, he was good at drawing. The next step was to join an art college just to get away from the demands of conventional study. “Joining an advertising agency was a natural progression”, he says.
Before joining the JJ College of Applied Art in Mumbai, Rao says that he attended some commerce classes — for precisely three days. “Those were the longest three days of my life,” he chuckles. The five years at art school thereafter were a breeze. “Art school was a revelation. I joined it as an escape but ended up discovering a new avenue,” he says.
Rao joined advertising sixteen years ago and embarked upon a new learning process. What fascinated him was the opportunity to work with interesting people, talk about unknown subjects, and get exposed to completely new and radical ideas and language. “To me, this has been more than a profession,” he adds.
It may have been. But before getting into advertising, Rao says he almost took up a job selling vacuum cleaners! (No prize for guessing the brand.) This was supposed to be part-time work after graduation. His first job in advertising, on the other hand, “wasn’t like Mr Jobs starting Apple”, he says. He started from a garage set-up in Andheri and it was anything but glamorous.
Speaking of glamour, one thing that irks Rao is the perception people have about advertising being a “cool, funky job”. “It’s funny how an ad agency is projected in the movies — the high-life, decadence, parties all the time.” The reality, however, is grittier. It involves long hours, little sleep, constant pressure, frequent rejections and, if things fall into place, sometimes a high. However, Rao says, the outside world sees only the big high, not the other things that have gone in before that. “So yes, the advertising business is high on adrenaline and rush but it goes hand-in-hand with the stress.”
Rao has been with Ogilvy for 10 years and it has been a roller-coaster ride. He has worked on various campaigns and struggled to get them right. But he says that he has been fortunate to be involved with some interesting work — “work that won awards at Cannes and work that was liked by people on the streets”.
So, which have been his most memorable campaigns? “Clearly, the Hutch pug network campaign,” he tells us. Everything that could go wrong went wrong on the first day of its shoot: The original dog couldn’t perform, it kept raining and the entire shooting had to be done under umbrellas, and the T-shirt the little boy wore in the ad was not the right colour. “But finally we got our hero, the famous pug.” The rest, as they say, is history. What about the most boring campaign? “Oh, there have been many, including my first print campaign for a furnishing brand.” He won’t name it.
He highlights working at Ogilvy as one of the high points of his life along with winning two golds at Cannes on his first visit there. Well, for someone who claims to be uninteresting, having been an integral part of two of the most iconic campaigns of recent times, is not bad at all. And certainly not boring.