'There aren't enough ad people equipped to give clients solutions they deserve' : R Balakrishnan - Lowe executive creative director

A man who happened to chance upon advertising, an individual who stands by his beliefs in this very pseudo world of advertising.

A die hard Ilyaraja fan, R Balakrishnan, popularly known as Balki is a concoction of enigma and a staunch enemy of balderdash. He is an unassuming individual who calls himself a solution provider and not a creative genius.

Meet the personification of simplicity himself, Balki, executive creative director, Lowe, in a tete-a-tete with's Sonali Krishna.

How long has your association been with Lintas? What is that one unique characteristic of Lowe that Balki has brought to the company?

My association with Lintas has been for nine years now. Four of them in Bangalore and maybe five here in Mumbai. What have I brought to Lintas? I think Lintas was always a cutting edge agency during the time Alyque (Padamsee) was there and well after that.

For a little while, I think it went into a safe zone of behaving and acting like a big agency. Somewhere, the cutting edge nature of advertising took a back seat to a lot of things. It was getting into a slightly serious zone. So my only contribution to Lintas has been to kind of bring back, just a little bit, the edge that was there before. I haven't done anything new.

How did the transition from Balakrishnan to Balki happen?

It was long back. Some of my friends used to call me Balki. But on the first day, when I came into advertising (in Mudra, about 15-16 years ago), the person who recruited me, started calling me Balki and then everybody there started that. I went into the room, and he said "meet Balki" and I never know why he called me by that name. (Laughs). Ever since then Balki, stuck.

"I think clients have a 50 per cent role to play in the advertising that gets produced."

Correct me if I am wrong but I believe that you swear by the philosophy that the success of a campaign is basically derived from the client.

Hundred per cent because I believe that a campaign is nothing but solving a problem. Somebody is paying you money for it. So how well you do it is crucial. I think great campaigns have exciting problems and you must first thank the client for bringing it to you.

Secondly, I think no advertising can be produced, if a client does not see the solution as clearly as you do. Somewhere in his head, when you tell him the solution and he buys it he knows that that's the right solution. So when you meet people who know in their gut what the solution is, then you have a great client.

Is this philosophy peculiar to Lowe and you or is it a common industry trend?

I don't know if this is a common industry trend. I think clients have a 50 per cent role to play in the advertising that gets produced. They may not have to articulate the problem so much if they could feel it. Once they do and inspire you, you know the kind of solution to provide. Then they would have already guided you to a certain corner.

So the client automatically becomes a part of the creative process. And on top of it, he pays you money.

"I think the trick is about getting the best possible solution half the time and getting the best solution half the time. You can't be ideal all the time"

Do advertising people recognise this?

If they don't they are foolish because today, clients in a funny way, are far ahead of advertising people in terms of solutions. There were days when people in the industry used to sit and curse clients for not buying their creativity. They thought that clients were so safe and we in advertising are so cutting edge. That's bullshit. They know what the purpose of advertising is. They know what advertising can or can't do for them. And they know the trends around the world and that solutions can be achieved in different ways.

I don't think there are enough advertising people who are equipped to give them the solutions they deserve. It's the other way around today. The clients are ahead of the agencies.

And why is that?

Clients have a business to run. The pressures on them are a helluva lot. Therefore they are defining their problems very, very clearly. They know how to achieve success in their respective fields. They are able to focus far better than advertising people can. Clients know what kind of advertising works.

They are more realistic in terms of: "Is this going to solve my problem or not?" They have fine-tuned their learning into receiving solutions that are correct for them far faster than advertising people. We just release an ad and if it doesn't work, we get sacked. That's all we have to lose. But if it doesn't work for the client his business is at stake. I believe that there still are a few advertising people, a handful, maybe 20 - 30 in the industry, who know what it is all about. They can actually reap fortunes for the client.

If I had to ask you the key ingredient in creating an ad, what would it be and why?

Listening. I think hearing out the client and understanding his problem and then sitting back and either thrashing out things with other people or sitting in a corner and throwing away a lot of ideas that keep coming to you till you arrive at the right solution is the key.

I think the process of doing an ad is one of resilience, one of hope, one of luck and one of perseverance. It's about an agonizing problem and sometimes giving up and then waiting for a solution to strike you. When such a solution comes about, you have to be receptive enough.

Sometimes you cannot be receptive to a solution when you say this is the idea but it's not there as yet. Then you are blocking off a solution before it comes to you. You have to take the call. Even though your gut says this isn't it, or this is not quite ok, sometimes you may need to stop because of practical considerations of time and money and effort and everything else. I think the trick is about getting the best possible solution half the time and getting the best solution half the time. You can't be ideal all the time.

How do you gauge the efficacy of an ad campaign? What methodologies are adopted to track and monitor the campaign?

There are a whole lot of methodologies unless it is an image building campaign which does not require any sales. I don't think anybody today can afford a campaign just for image. Unless if they are doing very well. But most of the advertising has to lead to increased sales. So one can automatically gauge if the campaign works or not. Anyway advertising contributes only 20 per cent. It can never claim success for 100 per cent of the product by itself.

There are a whole lot of things that you do and if you suddenly see a rush, you know it is happening because of advertising. There are methodologies to find this out. When there is a rush for a product, you talk to people and find out why they have brought it. The will offer you reasons. That's one way of doing it.

Sometimes people just like ads. A lot of people may mime the jingles but may never go and buy the product. Those are ads which have a funny theory; you can tell whether the ad will work or not, not on the basis of how popular it is. But on the basis of whether the ad has got the right focus for the product. For instance, Lifebouy has a certain kind of feel; you know something in that soap will make it work.

"If people are waiting for India to win 35 Cannes and sweep the Grand Prix and then say Indian advertising has arrived, they are damn foolish."

Where is our advertising headed today? Has Indian advertising attained global standards?

I don't know about global standards but I think Indian advertising is the best in the world. I'll tell you why. If people are waiting for India to win 35 Cannes and sweep the Grand Prix and then say Indian advertising has arrived, they are damn foolish. Because I think global advertising has not arrived. Simply because we can understand, appreciate and easily do what they do. They cannot do what we are doing. In a lot of ways we are unique. We are never boring. Bad advertising is.

Indian advertising has a charm that is so unique, so distinct that it can never be replicated anywhere in the world. Yes, Indian advertising will continue looking up to the west, will continue wanting to ideate them. But that's because of our inferiority complex. However, we will very soon take pride in this culture called Indian advertising. When you are doing something, you say something else is superior. It's a mentality and we have more of it than anybody. But I think we are doing fantastic stuff here.

But do you feel we are at ease with our culture?

Yes, we are. We are now more at ease with what we are doing, what we believe in. We are not ashamed to say that.

So we are beginning to think of our stuff as 'cool' too. Yes I see that trend.

Do you think the days of piggyback riding on international ads are passé and that Indian ads are making their rounds as the piggy itself?

You see, we are a funny combination of people. We are extremely humble, we have a tremendous inferiority complex and are tremendously arrogant. The arrogance is: let's better what the west can do damn well and then say we are damn good. That's one way we are arrogant.

The inferiority complex comes from our belief that we're not good. At the same time we want to beat them at their own game and then continue laughing.

Then we belive that we have much more of a stature to say that we are creating a genre of Indian advertising.

Who would listen to us in the world right now if we say we are a genre without beating them at their own game?

Like I mentioned earlier, if the benchmark is Cannes, we have a serious issue.

I keep saying that we don't have to play baseball to look damn good in cricket. You can play cricket and be damn good at it.

But do you see Indian ads being emulated?

No, that will not happen because they don't have that complex. There are very clear about their culture, their humour and they continue doing their own stuff. It's also because if you have Cannes as your goal, then you have a problem. Unless you have 55 great Indian breakthroughs, which could happen and then the world starts seeing the wonder here. And we create new genres and do our stuff really brilliantly, consistently. Then I think the world will wake up and take notice. We are doing great stuff.

But can we do better? Yes, we can, far more brilliantly than we are currently doing. Once we start delivering consistently, then I think the world will notice us.

And with time, I definitely see Indian advertising making its mark in the international scenario very soon.

Is there a dearth of good and path-breaking advertising in India? If so what do you attribute it to?

That depends on what you call path-breaking advertising. According to me, there are only three, four path-breaking ads across the world. Volkswagen was one, Nike was the second, then there was Smirnoff and Absolute vodka. Heineken was another. There are only 5 - 6 examples right across the world. Even if you look at Cannes, there isn't any great work there. There are one-off ads that come with some great ideas.

"We are a funny combination of people. We are extremely humble, we have a tremendous inferiority complex and we are tremendously arrogant."

If you could name some India-specific path-breaking work..

Oh! In India, the path-breaking work done right in the beginning was Hamara Bajaj. Then I think Coca-Cola is path-breaking work (Thanda series). Maggi sauces was good at one time setting up a new trend. Asian Paints (Har ghar kuch kehta hain) is path-breaking work according to me. I don't think much of Fevicol. Yes, it is a clever ad but I think Asian Paints scores in the Indian context. Just because you show an Indian, or a bus or Rajasthan it does not become great. Path-breaking is defining totally new trends. Surf was one such work at one point of time (Lalitaji series).

The new ad for Liril Orange does not have the regular Liril jingle. Why change what was synonymous with the brand?

Two reasons. Actually, the client Gopal Vittal (Hindustan Lever's category head of soaps) had this insight. He just said that since the last 22 years, you are still calling this brand 'freshness'. For 18 years, one bathed under the same waterfall. If the brand is fresh, the advertising must be fresh. The best way to do that is change everything that's old about it. So the first thing we said is to change the track.

The jingle is a mixture of Ilayaraja's (who else!) 1989 classic track, Jhallantha and Maniratnam's Telugu debut, Geetanjali. Does the agency get the copyright to use such songs from the past? If they do, is there some way to offer credits to the original composer?

Of course, we have a copyright. You can't add a credit because we have borrowed and composed the whole thing, we have written our own lyrics. We have not used the same song, only the melody. Like we did for the Bajaj Chetak's gadi boola rahi hain. We bought the rights of the track and recomposed it. Because the words might not exactly fit the requirements.

Is it true that you are one of Ilayaraja's biggest fans?

I have always said in all my interviews that Ilayaraja is the God of music even if we all live for another 5000 years to compose music, we won't get as melodious as him. And I believe in using good music for advertising or anything else. Even if I had to make a feature film, I would still buy Ilayaraja's old songs and recompose them.

How important are awards to you?

See, I have nothing for or against awards. They are not important to me. There are some people in the business for whom it is very important. I am not saying it is a perfectly ideal environment. The awards philosophy is different. They are going to have very few campaigns like Thanda matlab Coca-Cola or Maggi sauces.

We'd love to do something that fits both these categories. But if we win awards we'd like to win on criteria. But it doesn't mean that a lot of campaigns that don't win awards are not path-breaking in doing something.

But I believe you do not approve the kind of people who judge what agencies create and would hate to expose a young writer to the kind of comments these people make about good work. Do you believe that awards are a farce and politically manipulated, a façade?

That is a fact of life. I have always said that if you go to several advertising panels, some of of which you are a part of, you should hear the comments made about ads. Without any clue they expect a Wheel ad to be like a Nike.

You are into seeing Cannes reels, you're into seeing One Show, you are into seeing whether you, as an Indian, see these Indian ads fitting into my global scheme of what advertising should be. That is not the right way of judging advertising. Because, advertising is supposed to solve a problem for a certain person. If it succeeds, you should award it.

I would say that at least 70 per cent of the people who are part of the panel should not be there. They should not be judging advertising. Because 30 per cent of the panel gets overwhelmed by the 70 per cent because you are doing a majority kind of a thing there. So, there's no point when you have five good people in a 30-member panel, 25 of them not qualified.

Isn't there a sudden surge in celebrities willing to endorse anything for big bucks?

I don't think they will endorse any product even if the money is big. I think they have a very, very clear idea about the product. And they make extra sure that the product they endorse is not some rubbish.

Which work do you prize the most?

None. I think most of it is rubbish. Because in advertising you get a big kick doing the ad and by the time you finish and it is on air, you don't want to see it again. And most of my ads, I never want to see again.

What is your take on the Mirinda - Hutch controversy?

Trivial thing. It's fine. I don't know how much they are going to gain or lose out of it. It doesn't matter. If they think it's money well spent, it's money well spent.

Political ads: Comment on the quality in terms of creativity and execution?

I think the 'India shining' campaign was another path-breaking series. Whatever the poll outcome, if the BJP had not got into wrong alliances, today, 'India Shining' would be shining. It could have gone into the books as to what a campaign can do. It's like good advertising does not work if your distribution network is not in place. The same thing has happened to the BJP. I think it is a damn good campaign.

And do you believe political ads should be encouraged?

I tremendously encourage political advertisements. They are products and people are buying them. I think parties should have the opportunity to tell people about their brand.

But what about the mud-slinging advertisements?

I think that's because of the immature nature of political advertising in India. After a couple of elections, it will be far more mature and there will be a lot more class in the way it's done.

Surrogate advertising; do you think it achieves its objectives?

Hmmm, surrogate advertising achieves its objectives as long as people don't believe its surrogate. As long as people know what product is being promoted, it's not surrogate advertising.

What kind of loss is the industry looking at with the ban on tobacco ads?

Huge. Quite a big loss. To put together the whole tobacco advertising industry, it would be about a Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) loss. Lowe did not handle a lot of cigarette business.

How did you begin your journey in this field? Would you call yourself creative?

I always wanted to make films. So after college, I went to the Madras film institute to do a course in direction. I did not like the panel that interviewed me because they asked me stupid questions. So I walked out.

I got into the Masters in Computer Application (MCA) course. This was the college right opposite the film institute. I always liked computers, so I said that I would study for a bit. I studied there for three years. In the last year I was thrown out because of lack of attendance. I used to play a lot of cricket.

Then I saw an ad in the papers for Mudra (The Hand). I remembered seeing it after Buniyaad. The assignment was to send in 100 words describing who you are. And a Naganand Kumar, Mudra's organisational behavioural head called me and asked me to come to Ahmedabad. I didn't know what copy writing was. So I took it on. We also watched 180 movies in six months. Anyway it was great fun as I started copywriting finally. It was a pretty cool way of being in a industry. So, that's how I started.

I met Ramesh Sippy a year ago after 14 years and told him that he was the person I wished to emulate in advertising.

Who is your inspiration? Where do you draw your energy from?

I listen to a lot of Ilyaraja's music and see his movies. I see the best of European and the worst of Tamil cinema. I see Telugu, I see Kannada and of course Hindi. And I watch cricket. So, these are my only inspirations.

Would you call yourself a good leader? As Executive Creative Director, what is your primary role and how do you train and mould young minds?

I have never seen myself as that. First of all, I believe this is a democratic country and nobody is a leader till somebody wants to be lead by me. I don't know if I am a good leader or a bad one.

I don't believe in the theory of learning from failure. I want young people to grow much faster than I could. I want them to be perfect in two years. I don't want them to make the mistakes I made. The frustration is when they tell me that they want to make exactly the same mistakes as I did.

Do you see yourself in any other profession?

Ya, I would love to make a film, a feature film. And I also want to do cricket commentary. At least for one match, I want to be a commentator.

What is you biggest regret?

My biggest regret is smoking. Because it really affects my head in the night. Because when I go back home so heavy, by around seven in the evening, I am just zonked. So I smoke more to be active when working late. I don't regret anything else.

If I had to ask you to define yourself in one word , what would it be?

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