Interview

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Alyque Padamsee is an advertising guru and theatre personality who is now a communications consultant. He is in the last stages of completing his second book on big ideas. In conversation with Naazneen Karmali.

 

You first retired from advertising but now youíre back in a manner of speaking. Tell us what youíve been doing since you retired from Lintas?

I joined Indian Express as a consultant and was asked by Vivek Goenka to reposition the Express as a more dynamic paper. Though I appointed an advertising agency which turned out a very good campaign based on courage, I found that I missed advertising and all its multifaceted dimensions. One day you are dealing with family planning, the next day with tractors and thereafter with cosmetics. After a while, you just canít do without this variety. After three years with the Express I found it very dull. I said to myself, where are the tractors and where are the cosmetics?

So I gave up the Express consultancy. When I retired from Lintas I felt I do not want to continue with advertising because it wears you out too much; but then I missed it so I went back. Sorab Mistry, for whom I have undying affection and admiration, offered me a creative consultancy at McCann Erickson which is part of the Interpublic group. In addition, I have my own private clients for whom I do marketing of various products. To me advertising is all about human behaviour and human activity. That is really the essence of it. A lot of my colleagues will say that Iím talking from the top of my head, that advertising is all about selling goods. I donít believe that. I believe advertising is all about selling aspiration and hopes. Advertising holds out the promise that tomorrow things can be better. To me that is the philosophy of life.

 

What is the kind of work youíre doing with Chandrababu Naidu?

Chandrababu Naidu is like Tughlak, a man way ahead of his time. He is currently trying to motivate people to believe in their dreams. He has a simple slogan which sounds old fashioned but it is so true Ė dare to dream, strive to achieve. I did Man of La Mancha many years ago about Don Quixote and it had that wonderful song called ĎThe impossible dreamí. Naidu is a man who has tremendous vision of the future, of tomorrow. He gets McKinsey to help him prepare his vision 20:20, that is what Andhra can achieve by year 2020, and then he sets about achieving it. He has energy, he has ideas, and he has vision. His is leadership by motivation and cooperation. Iím working on a campaign right now for Andhra which is to try and get people to feel pride in Andhra. I hope I can provoke in people the ideas of change.

 

There seems to be a real drought of big ideas in Indian advertising today. Why is this so? Has creativity simply dried up before the pressures of the marketplace?

What has really happened is that the recession of the last two years in India, particularly in Indian advertising, has caused gloom. This happened in America in the 1970s after the oil crisis when suddenly everyone said, ĎOh my God, creativity is only a game!í When youíre rich you can play this game but when youíre not so rich then you must get down to the business of hardsell. Advertisers then want to focus on basics: let us state that this is the product, this is what it can do for you, and here are a lot of add-ons thrown in. So weíve got this culture of freebies for everything and everywhere.

But I believe, and this is a personal belief based on my forty years as a communications man, that central to advertising is the idea that if you want people to change youíve got to offer them some kind of incentive to change. When we were trying to move people away from washing their clothes with laundry soaps to Surf detergent powder, we had to educate them about what a bucket wash was. Surf wash was a big idea. With Lifebouy for example, we had to tell people, especially the rural folk, that this was the healthy, hygienic alternative to bathing with a grate or mud mix. Thatís how Lifebouy built its enormous franchise and is now found right through in every village in India. It isnít just a product made by Hindustan Lever, it is an idea of hygiene.

Similarly, a condom is not a product made by Kamasutra, it is an idea of protection. Behind every product there should be a distinct benefit for people, one that ensures them of a better future. Even a history book has value though it talks about the past. You have to look at the past in order to learn for the future.

 

Advertising seems to be very freebie-oriented today. How can one break out of this trap?

Well let me put it in a simplistic way. You have to go back to what the product really offers the consumer. Iíve been working on a very interesting product called Fast Relief. It was initially named Pain Relief but when I was appointed marketing consultant, I suggested that the name be changed. Itís obvious. Research shows that besides removing pain, which almost any pain balm would do, the consumer is concerned with how fast it works. When you are in pain the only thing you want is relief as quickly as possible. I suggested that they reconfigure the formula to ensure that the balm lived up to its name and truly did offer fast relief. The client, hats off to them, accepted my suggestion and went with it. They had the guts to go back to the laboratory and reformulate.

If you recall, Iíd worked on Fair and Lovely cream. The name said exactly what the product does. It makes you lovely and it makes you fairer. You may argue that this is a colonial hangup, but thatís a separate issue. Product descriptions do offer something concrete to consumers. You must offer a long term proposition, something substantial over a period of time. This is something that is forgotten in todayís advertising. Freebies donít offer a long term benefit.

Take Liril soap. It not only offers you freshness but offers you a sense of freedom. It is not just a ordinary bath. The girl in the waterfall symbolises that the bathing experience can be bindaas and free. For the average Indian woman who is surrounded by chaos, in-laws, husband, children, the ten minutes in the shower are her own, where she can day dream. Now that was so compelling that the Liril ad has remained unchanged for 25 years by Hindustan Lever. They tinkered with some ideas but then I noticed that they went back to the waterfall. These long term propositions, these human values are embedded in the brandís very soul. It overnight made Liril the top selling premium toilet soap in the country and it has retained that leadership till today.

 

Do you see any other such compelling examples today of advertising that articulate a brandís soul in a humane way?

I see it in Raymonds. I think Raymonds embodies the idea of the caring man, although they say Raymond the complete man. The word Ďcompleteí is a disguise. Saying caring would have conveyed the image of a sissy. By comparison, complete sounds nice and strong. Everything they show in the advertisement, however, conveys that he is a caring person who looks after his children and who takes a lot of trouble to find a long lost friend. So he is always a man who seems to be caring but they called it a complete man, which I think was very wise. For instance, I could have called Liril the bindaas soap but that would have been a mistake. You do not shout about your emotional proposition. You always offer the rational wrapped up in an emotional atmosphere. So Liril freshness is the rational element backed by lime, but wrapped up in the waterfall, which is the emotional emblem.

These are long term propositions which are quite different from the product demonstration kind of advertising. Thereís a wonderful commercial which shows a fridge door opening and a set of false teeth stored in a glass start chattering. I enjoyed this commercial thoroughly but other than telling me that the fridge is cold it does not offer anything else nor tap into my aspirations. Why, for example, would I want to own that particular fridge? Other refrigerators also give sufficient coolness and in fact, consumers donít have any complaints about coolness. On the contrary, they may not want it to be extra cold, so conveying the image of an ice box is a negative.

 

How do you go about the business of identifying the core emotional or aspirational issues?

I always got my inspiration from real life. For example, I did a public service film many years ago on old age. I tried to ask myself: what is that old people actually missed? I realised that it is not about loneliness, which is what most people think. It is that they feel they are not needed any more. When they retire, they feel they have lost their job and their family starts retiring them. They start saying, ĎDadima aap yahan baitihye.í And after some time, Dadima begins to feel useless. Frankly then Dadima dies not of old age but of non-neededness, if I may coin a phrase. And that I saw happening to my mother, incidentally.

In the film we made, a little child offers her Dadima a needle and thread. She wants Dadima to thread the needle, so Dadima looks suddenly very interested and gets animated. She threads the needle once and misses; she tries again but she misses again. The third time she gets it through and the little girl is so happy she gives her Dadima a big kiss.  There is only one line in the film that says, ĎAs long as you show them they are needed they feel loved.í Love is a matter of a thing being needed, itís not something abstract. The day your husband does not need you, that day you feel unloved. The day your company does not need you is the day your company doesnít love you. Thatís the way I come across insights from everyday life.

I can give you another example of Kamasutra condoms. For years and years condoms were sold on the basis of offering protection. The message was, ĎBe good and wear a condom.í But for a man in the throes of sexual ecstasy, the last thing he wants to be is good! So I thought, why donít we have a condom thatís a turn-on rather than a turn-off? We found that though Nirodh was known by 88% of the male population in India, it was used by only 2%. When we investigated further we discovered that men actually disliked it. It was considered as anti-sex and more like a medicine that men must take before sex. Even medicine requires some sweetener or else people do not drink it!

 

Now that so many multinationals have come in, their obsession with global campaigns throttles local creativity. Most campaigns are simply the same everywhere. So what scope and leeway do creative people have in such circumstances?

That is only in theory. When you watch TV or look at newspapers you find that a lot of foreign advertising has been adapted in some form in India to local mores. When it doesnít it fails, as in the case of lifestyle advertising. Coca-Cola brought their own American lifestyle advertising to India 5 or 6 years ago. When I was asked to speak at a Coca-Cola conference, I told them that they were going about it in a wrong way because India was not ready for an American lifestyle. The reason why Thums Up has 40 per cent of the cola market is because it appeals to the Indian lifestyle. It is built on cricket which is a national passion. They said Thums Up will now quietly die away and Coca-Cola will replace it. I said I donít think so, not the way you are going about it. So I think that any foreign campaign that does not adapt itself will not succeed. Take the case of Kelloggs. Breakfast in America is milk or a glass of orange juice. So for them cornflakes is a sit down meal, a big breakfast. To Indians, cornflakes is a starter. A big Indian breakfast consists of rotis, puris, aloos, the works.

The Americans canít understand this. They come to India with the most absurd ideas. What every American or European company needs is someone who understands the Indian market. As I said in my book, MNC does not stand for multinational corporation but for Misleading National Culture. They need to understand that India has a culture that is Indo-centric. For countries which are very westernised, Hollywood is the big thing. But in India, Hrithik Roshan is a bigger star than Tom Cruise. We have our own icons because we have a culture that is peculiarly Indian and not something thatís pseudo-American. Foreign companies operating in our market must realise that the new Indian is a mixture of western aspirations and ethnic traditions. For instance, we still believe in lavish weddings and are likely to do so for another 100 years. Unless this is understood multinationals will make mistake after mistake.

 

Indian owned ad agencies have been increasingly selling out to multinational networks. Is the Indian owned ad agency a dying breed?

Yes, youíre right. Indians who pioneered ad agencies are selling out to Americans. This results in a kind of Americanized Indian agency which is not the same as an Indian Indian agency. The lure of money is irresistible. Those who havenít sold are probably holding out for a better price. Frank Simoes and Bal Mundkur have already retired. Sylvester da Cunha would too if he got a good price. So multinational money power will dominate the business. But if these foreign networks want to realise the value of their Indian investments, they must ask themselves why they bought the Indian agency. As simply a branch office or a stand alone nationalised office? In the latter case, theyíd be better off to put an Indian in charge who understands the local market.

Then thereís our worship of status which we call izzat. Izzaat ka sawal is a great motivator in India. An Indian will do anything for izzaat, probably even kill someone. Again khunnas and revenge for family honour are peculiarly Indian.

 

What are the new challenges facing advertising and communication professionals?

Today, a lot of advertising people are setting up consultancy services. They have a good knowledge of the market and clients are looking for such marketing inputs. I think the agencies of today should be a combination of strategy, execution and marketing. And I will go one step further; they can provide help in product formulation. So if we take that approach, then the process begins with the formulation of the product, to positioning, to the strategy, to the creation of the advertising, to the placement of the advertising and more important, placement of the product in the market place. Kamasutra condoms is a case in point. We first thought of the positioning, then we thought of the name, and then we made the product.

Another example I can give you is of Jet Airways with which I was involved right from the start. The positioning was clear: the five star hotel in the sky. And it has stuck to that. This positioning has given Jet a different status. Similarly, if I bundle a toothbrush with Filmfare or with Verve, there is a whole difference in status. The one bundled with Verve would be regarded as a special toothbrush and it would get a better premium than the one bundled with Filmfare.

Everything in this world is sold. If a woman wants to attract a man, she wears lipstick. If a man wants to attract a woman he buys a flashy car. Everyone is out to sell something. Mr Naidu is out to sell the state of Andhra to foreign investors. Everything that is used to improve the future has to be sold.

 

How will the internet impact advertising in the future? What new challenges and opportunities does it pose?

As soon as the net becomes democratic and by that I mean the price of access comes down and computers become really cheap then it will spread like wild-fire across the country and across the world. Once that happens everyone will become net sensitive. Of course, the key is to make buying on the net cheaper than taking a bus to a retail shop. And once that happens the whole ballgame will change. Retail shops will have to become entertainment centres to attract customers. And advertising will definitely be more interactive. For example, if Heinz is on the net and calls itself the most flavoursome ketchup in the world, it will have to offer customers the option of free samples. Customers will be able to simply type in their requirements and have it delivered to their doorsteps. There will be a direct correlation between advertising and sales which will happen at the same time. It will be like one massive Sears-Roebuck catalogue.

 

What happens to creativity then?

The emotional proposition will always be there. Liril will be sold on the net but that doesnít mean the girl will not jump around the waterfall. She will in some way on the net. If she stops jumping then you donít need the product. But advertising will be linked into immediate retailing. You could call it advertailing if you like!

 

Talking of books and the past, what motivated you to write your autobiography? Isnít that all about the past and nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a wonderful time pass, not merely a past time, and itís easy to get addicted to it. But when I say learn from the past I donít mean look at it and stay there. You have to move ahead. Writing an autobiography forces you to reassess yourself. Suddenly, you realise, hey, I never looked at my life that way. I didnít write my book because some publisher was paying me to do so. I didnít do it because I want to be famous; Iíve had my share of that. I did it because I donít want to die having left nothing behind in writing. But what actually happened was that I took a fresh look at my life and realised that Iíd done so many stupid things. Looking at what Iíve done in retrospect suddenly gave me clues to my own nature.

So I would heartily recommend that everyone write an autobiography since it enables you to analyse and evaluate your own life. Not necessarily for publishing, but for yourself. Last year when I addressed the convocation at XLRI in Jamshedpur, I told the students that they should write a vision statement for themselves before they went into the big, bad world outside their institute. Forget about the company you join, what is your own vision statement, what do you want to do with your life? If you have no plans then you go with the circumstances, instead of going from one planned event to another. Thereís a big difference between the two. If you donít have a direction or a dream you can get lost.

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