You are here: Home » Opinion » People
Business Standard

Lunch with BS: Piyush Pandey

The art of commerce

Shyamal Majumdar  |  Mumbai 

O&M’s chief can’t get over the gurus at Cannes not awarding Vodafone’s Zoozoo ads though they did wonders for the brand.

Piyush Pandey says “shut up” to his mobile every time it rings during our lunch, but makes an exception only once. The caller is a colleague at Ogilvy & Mather’s (O&M’s) Delhi office and Pandey advises him “to celebrate with a peg of Sprite and fill the rest of the glass with vodka”, writes Shyamal Majumdar.

The executive chairman of India’s largest advertising agency clearly wants to practise what he preaches, and tells the waiter (who came to enquire our preference for any particular bottled water brand) that he would prefer Sprite with a largish peg of vodka. I settle for a Tiger beer.

Pandey has enough reasons to celebrate: O&M got the Agency of the Year award at the Advertising Club Bombay’s Effies 2009 function a few days ago. The awards, for effectiveness in advertising, saw O&M take home 15 trophies (one of them was for the Sprite campaign), leaving other agencies behind by a large margin. Clearly, the 600-odd awards that he and his agency have already got from all corners of the globe haven’t been able to diminish Pandey’s appetite for more awards. “They keep you on a permanent high,” Pandey says.

He is particularly happy that was declared the Client of the Year. “That’s a big deal. After all, O&M’s art should help in its clients’ commerce,” he adds.

We are at Peshwari on the ground floor of ITC Grand Maratha, which is near to O&M’s office at Goregaon. The restaurant is small and noisy, so Pandey’s booming voice is a big help. There is another reason for his happiness: may actually use Zoozoos, the iconic characters created by his colleague Rajiv Rao, for its worldwide campaigns as well. Talks have progressed quite a lot in the past week and Pandey is keeping his fingers crossed.

He doesn’t take any credit for the “phenomenal” success of “The entire credit goes to Rajiv and of who directed the film, and their teams. I saw the campaigns in South Africa (the entire shooting, editing and sound recording were done in Cape Town) just two days before they were scheduled to go on air and I knew instantly that they would create a huge impact,” Pandey says. His only involvement was talking to the client who wanted to make a splash during the Indian Premier League matches and wanted to have a different theme for the campaigns every day to showcase Vodafone’s various value added services.

But even he is surprised by the impact — possibly the biggest the ad world has ever seen. So,why didn’t get any award at Cannes? “I can only say that those who didn’t give an award at Cannes are first-class idiots,” says the only Indian to have won a double Gold at Cannes.

Pandey thinks the biggest award the Zoozoos have got is from all over the world. Just this morning, he got a call from a 70-year-old man who told him that he watched Bigg Boss (the Colors show hosted by Amitabh Bachhan) only because of the Zoozoos commercials! “Such feedback is worth dying for. Nothing else matters,” Pandey says.

This ability to connect with — he hates SMSs and email (Blackberry is a strict no-no) because they are goddamn impersonal — is something he thinks has helped him move from the ranks of a trainee accounts executive to the corner office. “Keep observing That’s the only magic mantra of success. You never know when something that you have seen much earlier in life comes in handy,” Pandey says.

Take, for example, the famous Fevicol ad, which was conceptualised by Abhijit Awasthi, his nephew and now one of the two national creative directors of O&M. Back home in Jaipur, both of them used to see buses overloaded with poker-faced passengers on the dusty, potholed roads. Many years later, that imagery helped create a Fevicol ad which went on to win many national and international awards, and more importantly had a significant impact on Fevicol’s sales.

Or, the famous Chal meri Luna — his debut in the world of ad campaigns. He got the idea when he saw a child sitting on a wooden horse in a Bata showroom, shouting “chal mere ghode”. “If you keep your feet on the ground and are willing to empathise with the common man — his emotions, his life — your job is done,” Pandey says. The waiter wants us to order lunch, but Pandey says he doesn’t want to spoil his celebratory mood so fast.

The Luna and the Fevicol accounts were given to him only after the then creative team at O&M thought they were difficult clients and should be given up. “I don’t blame them. The anglicised environment that they came from made it difficult for them to connect with the masses in their own language — Hindi. But I could see the big change coming — how the reach of TV was going to change our lives forever. To cater to the aspirations of the masses, you don’t need silk ties; you just need to speak their language and offer something that touchs their hearts,” Pandey says.

The waiter reminds us that the kitchen will close soon and asks whether we would like to munch something as well. Pandey orders roti, bukhara dal, bara kebabs and another drink for both of us just to wash the food down. The food is served at lightning speed and the waiter tells us to enjoy “the traditional Indian meal”. Pandey shakes his hand and say that’s exactly what he has been doing for the past 54 years.

Apart from Fevicol, one of his all-time favourites is Cadbury’s Kuch khas hai campaign that showed a young girl rushing to the cricket field after her boyfriend hits the winning runs. The song, which was then on everybody’s lips, was written by Pandey on the back of a flight boarding pass.

Since the idea was to show spontaneity, Pandey refused to appoint a choreographer and asked Simone (the model in the ad) to do whatever she wanted to do. There were 14 retakes, but Pandey and his team chose the first one. “You have to let go and trust people. Most will create magic — just like Simone did,” he says. The real sweetener for O&M was that the ad helped cement Cadbury’s presence in the country.

Doesn’t he feel sad that Cadbury’s has dropped the ad? Pandey says though he is sure that Kuch khas hai would have done wonders even now, it’s futile to be too nostalgic as one has to keep pace with the changing times. In any case, the latest Pahlee tareekh campaign has also been immensely popular. One can almost touch and feel the sadness in his voice, but Pandey recovers fast and says he doesn’t want to make the mistake that some of his colleagues made while ignoring the change TV was going to make to people’s lives. For example, he doesn’t understand the new challenge — digital medium — but has surrounded himself with immensely talented people who understand the medium better than him and who can also teach him. These people are at the forefront of the 360-degree campaigns unleashed by O&M and, as a chairman, he is content to let go as long as it helps his clients and his agency.

Letting go is one of his favourite expressions these days. He sees his role of a chairman as a support system, friend, cheerleader and motivator for his “wonderful” team at O&M. “When Sehwag is scoring those sixes, would come down the pitch and advise him on how to bat well,” Pandey, a former Ranji Trophy player for Rajasthan, asks. But having said that, he also firmly believes a captain has to personally play well — otherwise he wouldn’t figure in the team in the first place. “A general has to fire himself if he has to earn his soldiers’ respect,” he says.

But his heart is still in creatives as he still can’t bring himself to think as a banker. “The bottom line is not our business; coming out with great creatives is,” the O&M chairman says. But since bottom line is equally important, he banks on his “partner” SN Rane who loves ads but keeps on bringing Pandey down to earth whenever the chairman gets over-enthusiastic about something.

As his BMW waits at the hotel portico to take him back to work, Pandey says he thanks God all the time for giving him such great friends-cum-colleagues at O&M who eat, breathe and sleep world-class creative work and have stayed with him for so long.

First Published: Tue, December 22 2009. 00:04 IST