"You can experiment with the paraphernalia, but you should never touch the core of the brand" : Prasoon Joshi - McCann Erickson National Creative Director

He's a creative whizz, multi-talented, and collects awards the way some people collect postage stamps (harking back to the time of snail mail of course). He is the force behind the 'thanda' Coke campaigns (to name the most celebrated of his recent achievements).

Prasoon Joshi, national creative director McCann-Erickson, is a man juggling two careers and more importantly, excelling at both. Joshi now a veteran in the advertising industry, is moving on to newer heights, taking up his obsession for music, and is already making noticeable headway as a renowned lyricist.

As national creative director, Joshi has been involved in conceptualising, developing, designing and nurturing McCann-Erickson and has been a significant player in elevating the company to its current standing. With his music career on a high too, we might just be in for a surprise, with Joshi not far away from cutting his own album.

Excerpts from an interview Joshi gave to's Sonali Krishna:

With the ongoing elections almost drawing to a close, and the array of political ads that were splashed all over the TV this time round, what is your take on the India Shining ad campaign in terms of its creative content? Do you think they managed to drive home the point?

Yes, I think they did justice to the task given - tom tomming the achievements of the Government. Letting people know what this government has done. I think it has done that. And in its creative sense it was bang on. One can debate the time of the campaign, as to whether it was the right timing or whether they should have done it at all, but that is another issue and I will not get into that. But as far as the professional take on advertising is concerned I would say that it was a task even for the ad agency and they were successful.

Could you expand on the timing bit.

Maybe they needed to do it later, maybe they gave too much time for the opposition to react, maybe they could have done it just before the elections. I don't know. I am not a political expert, I am an advertising professional. I can only tell you that everybody has the right to sell their products and service it. Government being a product, a party being a product and you have full right to do a corporate campaign for the image of the party. It's as simple as that.

How was 2003 for the Indian advertising industry in general?

2003 for the advertising industry has been pretty good I would say. In terms of a lot of new product launches happened. The business also grew. Maybe not as far as it should have gone, but it definitely grew. We are definitely progressing in terms of the quality of creative concerned. In fact, we picked up many awards in Cannes this year. And nationally we had Ad Asia In India, so it was a good year for India.

What are your focus areas this year? How is Prasoon Joshi going to steer McCann and what is his vision for 2004 -05?

Vision would be a big statement.

As in a short-term vision?

Ya, that is better, because I don't believe in a long term vision for a company. Especially so for an advertising company, which is a service provider. Yes, you can have some pillars of your principals and ideologies on the basis on which you form a company. The McCann-Erickson firmly believes in and I firmly believe in doing advertising that works. I have time and again stated that what gives me most pleasure, is when I am standing somewhere and I hear people talking about my ad and talking about the product which I am selling.

What advertisers should remember is that we are in a business that needs to be in sync with the changes taking place in society. If you plan for ten years hence, and there a huge changes happening in the society, you have to cope with it. You have to be always ready to adapt to your environment. External influences, media explosion in the country, so people are changing, likes and dislikes, tastes are changing, so you have to be in sync all the time.

So I think that's the reason I would say I want to do something new, something which is out of the box every year. Something that is breaking the form, breaking the genre and taking the conventional forms and trying to think afresh. So essentially discovering, identifying and developing a new language which Coke thanda did, which now wakaw (Vanilla Coke) is doing, it's like a new language or if you see the NDTV India (Zubaan pe sach, dil mein India) campaign. Every channel was talking funny ads, we took a very serious stand. That's where I feel McCann stands, to be different and to be honest to the brand. If I felt, NDTV India was talking funny, then this campaign would not suit its personality. The campaign should suit the personality of the brand. The image of brand is our responsibility.

It sounds very easy but its very difficult to do. Everybody has a personality. And because of this personality you occupy a certain space in the consumers' mind and you have to be true to that personality. That's how you build brands. You can't keep changing that. The core of the brand should never change. You can experiment with the paraphernalia, the periphery, the rafts of the brand, but you should never touch the hardware of the brand. The hardware of the brand is very important and you should always keep that in mind.

Have ads undergone a metamorphosis over the last few years? What are the significant changes or trends in the industry?

The industry has seen a big change. What has happened is Indians have become very comfortable with their own identity. Speaking in their own language today is not something that is seen as uncool. Earlier it was, people would unnecessarily use borrowed language. Today they are more themselves and that has happened because of economic empowerment.

So, because of the empowerment, the comfort level with one's own identity has come about. Internationally, the world is looking at India. People are investing in India. Therefore I feel that 'India Shining' was a good campaign. Because India has gone up in the world map. People are talking about Mr Vajpayee getting the Nobel prize for peace. I mean, one has never heard of these things before. This has affected advertising in a big way.

Advertising is also becoming increasingly Indianised, those days are gone where you can just create an aspiration around a brand and sell it. You can't just show a foreign location, a foreign model or a sexy chick. It won't work.

So because of this change in the mindset of the people would you say that piggybacking on international ads have reduced?

Big time! Except for some categories like fashion and technology wherein we look up to the west. Barring these categories which are like born abroad, others just will not help anymore.

There seems to be an increasing trend of humour becoming part and parcel of ads today.

Humour has always been a part of Indian advertising. It's just that the players keep changing. Earlier there was 'Bool na jaane, ECE bulb laana'. That was also humorous. 'Sare ghar ke badal daloonga', 'Aap biwi se kitne pyaar karte hain', these were also humourous. So, its not that humour is new to the ad industry. It has always been there.

Another thing I would like to add; it is tough to make people laugh, but it's even tougher to make people emotional in today's cynical world. So, you don't see many brands that emotionally connect with people, so that's a challenge. Due to a lot of cynicism in society, emotional themes are very tough to handle. But once you've made somebody emotional about your product, your brand, you've won him forever. That's a tough task.

"There's a very thin line between being an imbecile and being creative"

How is your creative team inspired ?

They are bubbling with ideas. Because it is very important to taste success. Since our campaigns have been successful, we've been acknowledged by the industry, by the consumer and by our clients, that sends out a positive feel. Specially when you are dealing with creative people; very emotional people. The first thing about creative people is that they are very insecure. Ya, you see when you write a poem and you want to narrate it to someone, you are very conscious. You are letting someone into your inner thoughts and hence you become very vulnerable. It can be a disaster if you are not taken seriously. You see people crying sometimes, at times people take leave and just don't come for three days. That's the affect of rejection. That's the reason, the way the world is going, the first thing they would like to do is make a formula on how to get rid of creative people.

Creative people are moody and hyper sensitive. Also, there's a very thin line between being an imbecile and being creative. Because you are breaking things. I think its the toughest job, because in all other professions one has tools, creativity has no tools. It's just you, your blank paper and your imagination. Creative people have to share a good script, a good song or a serious thought, so its a lot tougher in that sense.

Where do you personally draw your inspiration from?

My life is my inspiration. It's being hypersensitive to your surroundings. That is why you find most of us unhealthy. Because everything gets magnified. A rejection is a rejection for a normal guy. A rejection can result into suicidal attempts in a creative person. Because you heighten everything. Everything is extreme to you, that is why you are able to write. We transcend our limits, that's the reason we are able to express ourselves.

I'll kick off on a bit of a tangent here. About the bag loads of awards you've been collecting these last two years. Isn't it all getting rather clichéd and repetitive. One would think that as a creative guy, you would get put off by all this institutionalized adulation.

This is a very grey area. Awards give me happiness only when they have done the job, when I have done my job. I have a way of rewarding myself on something I do. That's more important for me than the external celebration of different institutions. But, at the same time, I do not mind awards, as far as they are coming after I have delivered. Honestly, what I hate is, that there are people who have not done a single big campaign in their lives, which has really done justice to their client's product. And they keep cracking a formula of bagging an award. Now, when they are awarded, and on the basis of that, they are respected in the fraternity, that puts me off. Because they are not doing their primary job.

When you talk advertising, you write what people want you to. So my first job is to impress the consumer and as a byproduct if I happen to impress my fraternity and get an award for it. Very good. I would love it!

Advertising recently also seems to have gone retro - for eg: the Close Up - Kya aap close up karte hain Close Up, Amaron, Perk, Vanilla Coke (with Vivek Oberoi)... do you think this that the 70s are on a revisit? - spawned off a retro - the 70's / 80's theme in their kind of look and feel. Is this just a coincidence or is there some process at work?

No, no it's nothing like that. It's about experimenting with form. Everybody is trying new ways. Somebody finds a way, and people just follow the formula. It's a genre. If you look at all these ads closely, they are different. In fact Vanilla Coke, its unfair to call it retro, because it is set in today's time. Only the guy is stuck in time. The idea was to make a guy stuck in time, who is still in the 80's, the only thing he is willing to try is Vanilla Coke. So it's the character of yesterday in today. It's basically segmenting the forms and advertising keeps trying to do that.

Name your Top 5 favourite campaigns of all times (Indian and International. Also, what has been the most effective advertising done in recent times according to you?

Its difficult, but off hand I can tell you, I love the Hamlet cigar ad. Of course the Volkswagen ad. I like the What's up campaigns, the Absolute Vodka ad is very good, Nike is superb.

Indian ads, I like the One roof campaign by Enterprise, 'One country , one roof'. That was a very nice campaign. I liked the Cadbury's Perk campaign (girl dancing on the cricket field). I like the Coke thanda campaign, the NDTV India campaign and the Vanilla Ice campaign.

"It is tough to make people laugh, but it's even tougher to make people emotional in today's cynical world"

Which campaigns gave you the most personal satisfaction and why?

Mostly I get personal satisfaction out of my public service campaigns. My polio campaign, I derived the most satisfaction out of. In fact I even composed the music for that one. It gives me a sense of doing something worthwhile, I feel like I am contributing and giving back to society. So my basic satisfaction in advertising comes from writing for people who are the not so fortunate in life.

Does a Prasoon Joshi also face creative blocks? How you overcomes them ?

Yes I do at times. And a creative block can be the scariest thing in the world.

I overcome that by just by taking a break and leaving it for some time. I do not try hard, fortunately. I feel that, you can't think of ideas, ideas have to come to you.

Make yourself worthy, and ideas will come to you. Ideas are floating around everywhere. They attract the right mind, a right person. You've got to be open enough for ideas to come to you. And then you should have the command over the craft. I am a great admirer of craft. I think ideas are overrated. Without craft you are nothing.

I used to write 5 pages of body copy and then select one paragraph from there. That's how we were trained. So I keep writing. Everyday I write a poem.

How do you manage to find the time to nourish this gift of yours and juggle between two careers when most of us are bogged down by the rigmarole of routine?

I am committed to it. I feel I have lost out on something if I don't write and don't express myself. I write in the car. Sitting and waiting for someone at the reception, I might just start writing. It's up to you, if you want to waste your time or make something out of it. Everybody has 24 hours. Hard work never killed anybody.

From 1 May, tobacco ads on TV will become redundant. What kind of a loss is it to the ad industry with tobacco ads being banned two days from now?

Yes, it's a huge loss but I don't know how much. I believe that something that is allowed to be sold should be allowed to advertise. I come from that point of view. If it is perceived as so harmful, the product itself should be banned. But it will still be sold, and the government is ready to take the revenue that it generates. If you really want to help people then don't ban ads, ban the whole product.

Who is your role model?

In advertising someone I really respect is Neil French. He is someone I have learnt a lot from. In music, it's Kishori Mohammed.
Who are your favourite ad film makers / directors you like working with? Apart from Ashutosh Gowariker that is.

Ashu is very good. I work a lot with a guy called Dadu (Black Magic). I like Prasoon Pandey's work very much. I also like Ram Advani's (Equinox) work very much. Ram was one who did Vanilla Coke. I don't think anybody could have done Vanilla Coke as well as Ram Advani. It's Ram's film, and I knew when I was writing it, it would be Ram's film.

What is your view on using Brand ambassadors… and do you think the huge monies that a client pumps into a Sachin Tendulkar or Amitabh Bachchan are justified? Also do you think that the Big B brand still has its appeal or do you think it has been over exposed and done to death?

The fact that they are selling it is justified. It's about breaking the clutter. What is happening today is that there is too much of a clutter, because of the media explosion. So many channels, so many programmes. So, brand ambassadors have to be used well. Although, it is the script that rules. If you have a good idea that goes with a big personality, then it works.

But don't you think that Big B has been done to death. I mean he is endorsing every third ad.

It's not his fault. It's the fault of the people who have created the ads. I think Big B is a fabulous performer. Not everybody can use him to the optimum. Let's not forget, people, no matter how much they see him, love him.

I am a consumer and I am tired of seeing him over and over again.

I think there has been some problem with the kind of scripts that have been written for him.

Don't you think the credibility factor also goes down?

Not so much with a person like him. Also don't forget that we are starved for heroes in our country.

What are the current campaigns / accounts that Prasoon Joshi is personally working on?

I am working on Marico, Saffola, some work is happening in Chloromint, Alpenlibe

No questionnaire to Prasoon Joshi can be complete without a reference to Aamir Khan and your celebrated Coke ads. When is the next one due and…?

It will be out, but I am not sure when, because right now we are concentrating on Vanilla Coke. So, wait for some time. If I tell you then it won't be a surprise.

"Imitation is flattery"

How do you react to the comments that without Aamir your Coke ads would not have had half their fizz?

The only thing I am going to say is that Aamir has been a part of Coke ad for the past six years. So, why is it then, only in the past one and a half years that it got so successful.

A case in point is the thanda reception that the Aishwarya and Vivek Oberoi one got.

At times you go wrong. I am no God. Nobody's perfect.

What are your views on increasing plagiarism afflicting Indian advertising? For eg: Miranda - Orange controversy? Not that it is new. Earlier the charge was that many Indian ad honchos just lifted ideas from sources like the Black Book.

Imitation is flattery. If somebody had to plagiarise from me, I would think it would be a great compliment. This is something that is fun. You should not stop these things.

How does the international advertising scenario affect Indian advertising and how much is Indian advertising (thematically, style, and conceptually) inspired from international advertising?

You should actually ask me the question the other way round. I mean, if you look at the Peugeot commercial, it was shot in India for the UK market, and the Rajasthani look. India, today is truly a post modern country where contradictions can co-exist. We have a lot of layers. I think India is going to make a big impact in advertising in the West.

How is radio shaping up as a medium? Is it still perceived as an ad on?

I think lots can be done on radio. And especially what the Kaan awards have done this year, it has been very good. Radio will definitely boom in India. I have great faith in radio, it's just a question of time.

But can a campaign solely survive only on radio?

Yes, it can, I have done it. I did a campaign for Satyam theaters in Delhi, which was solely on radio. It is one of the favorite spots. It was a huge success. In fact people used to call for booking tickets and say 'oh by the way your ads are very good'.

I believe your creativity has been deeply influenced by your childhood years in the Garhwal. Conversations with trees, birds and mountains while playing in the hills which were part of your formative years in Almora, Gopeshwar, and Rampur. Is this true?

Yes, I have always been very close to nature. I used to go deep into the mountains and just hear the bird chirping. Just being with nature would inspire me to write and rejuvenate my creative senses.

I believe you are from Garhwal, is it true that people from there are very straight forward and upright?

Yes, that's very true. In our village, which is Kumaon in Uttaranchal, we never used to lock our houses. So the concept of locking is very new to me.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't your writing career in fact begin in the fifth standard. I hear that you circulated a handwritten magazine, which was read by both students and teachers alike.

How did you know about it? Yes, I used to make a hand made book with my poems and I used to circulate it among the students and teachers. And people used to wait for the next issue. For two days, I would just be drawing and writing.

After 'Mann ka Manjaree', what is the next album you are working on?

I have penned the lyrics for the Saif Ali Khan-Rani Mukherjee starrer Hum Tum. The music album is ranked no 2 right now. And I have just finished writing for a film in the south. I am doing an album with (AR) Rehman, which revolves around the caste issue in India - essentially the Dalit movement. I am also working on my fourth book on poetry.

So are we going to a see Prasoon Joshi - the singer very soon?

Well, I might, Shubaji (Mudgal) has spoken to me about it many times, and I had got several offers too, but my heart lies with writing. My love and passion is more toward writing, it is giving me the most satisfaction. So, lets see...

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