Ad man and co-founder of chlorophyll, India's first brand consultancy, Kiran Khalap has ventured into writing in a major way. Not only did his first book Halfway Up the Mountain launch in December last year, his second book too is well on its way. This 'non-menopausal Indian male', as he describes himself, is an ex-teacher in an experimental primary school inspired by J Krishnamurti (one the greatest spiritual leaders of the 20th century) and by his own testimony, 'has been there, done that'.
From being an advertising copywriter to ex-CEO of an advertising agency, brand consultant and co-founder of chlorophyll, Khalap is also the winner of an Indo-UK Short Story Competition.Halfway Up The Mountain, published by Jacaranda, tells the story of Maya's journey through life, from a childhood in Konkan to married life in Mumbai and then stablility in the cool climes of Mahabaleshwar.(Click here to read a review of Halfway Up The Mountain)
In an email interview with indiantelevision.com, Khalap expressed his thoughts on creativity, chlorophyll and more.
How difficult was it to write a book like Halfway Up The Mountain from a woman's perspective? What was the inspiration?
I'll answer your second question first. My mother used to be chronically ill, so we had a steady stream of her nieces from the Konkan who stayed with us. They helped her, and in turn, our family helped them finish their education in Mumbai. As a kid I always wondered what happened to their hearts and minds when some of them returned to their village life. That fascination was the starting point of Maya, the protagonist in Halfway Up the Mountain.
First question now: If women can write from a man's perspective, why not the other way round? Anyway, it's a greater challenge to feel differently, think differently. There was one area where my understanding of how women think and feel did not work: Motherhood. I had to talk to friends who were mothers in order to understand the deep physical and psychological changes that they undergo. I also did a lot of desk research about motherhood.
How far are you with your second book? What does it deal with?
I have laid out the plot, worked on the three characters, worked out their stories and destinies, outlined the locales. Most important, I have an intriguing title (that it is intriguing has been proven by simple research!): Two Pronouns and a Verb.
You can interpret it as "I love you" or "I hate you" or one hundred variations of that construct, but the one I am going to focus on is "Who am I?"
My guess is all fiction that I will write will deal with one fundamental issue: How do we, as imperfect, complex human beings, approach the meaning of life? My dream is to write about the same subject through different perspectives, but always keep the language rich, poetic, sensuous.
What is the feedback from readers that you have got now that Halfway Up The Mountain has been on bookstore shelves for more than a month?
To me the book had to start a dialogue, so we provided a web site (www.hutm.com) to facilitate feedback. Most have written in with their immediate emotional reactions, but some have then gone on to analyse the characters. The latter are mostly people who read a lot of literature.
The common thing both have said is, "The book is unputdownable, beautifully written…parts of it move you to tears". To me that is very satisfying. I think my first job as a writer is to connect. My second job is to use the constructive criticism to improve myself as a craftsman.
If the advertising fraternity is full of creative brains, why don't we see more of them venturing into literature and allied fields like you have?
First, I don't agree that 'more haven't ventured'. My colleague Nalesh Patil is regarded as one of the best poets in Marathi, Gopi Kukde ventured into pottery, Alyque Padamsee and Rahul Dcunha are accomplished theatre professionals, Priya Pereira, who designed the book cover is the only one in India who does "artist books"…she is even got her stuff in the Guggenheim Museum!
Secondly, I am not very sure the creative urge has to find expression only in a creative 'product'. To me, at the highest level of creativity, you are able to experience the end of all divisions, you can feel in your bones how all consciousness is one. At that level, you don't need to create any 'thing'!
"Advertising is a culture specific skill: you don't need a foreigner to teach you how to speak your mother tongue"
How do you balance your professional responsibilities with your creative pursuits? How do you divide your time?
At chlorophyll, we believe the division between personal and professional life is arbitrary and unnatural. You can't be a shark at work and a dolphin at home. So I don't have a watertight division. But we do follow simple rules: Group meetings where we collectively work on branding problems are held at a fixed time every day. I won't compromise with those.
If chlorophyll started as a nascent experiment four years ago, where does it stand today?
Yes, it was an experiment. Most people, even friends, predicted failure. Today, most are saying that chlorophyll is the model of the future. Large agencies are attempting to replicate it within their large structures.
Internally, we are happy that we did not make expensive mistakes, and that we continue to learn from the inexpensive ones. (I think it was an expensive experiment for Madan Bahal and Rajesh Chaturvedi, who backed their instincts and trusted the 'bizarre' and 'unique' model of chlorophyll. Thank god for their instinct.)
Today, we have learnt to stay away from relationships where we are a substitute for advertising agencies. We are getting more and more of the right kinds of assignments: Creating brands from scratch or creating brand identities from scratch.
We had decided we would not scale up, and we have stuck to that decision (we are still six people working on everything). Very soon, we are planning to launch something that can be scalable without changing the business model.
How has chlorophyll grown, and how has it stood upto the pressure from mid and big sized agencies? Has it evolved from being a 'hybrid' between an advertising agency and a marketing consultancy? Any additions to the team?
chlorophyll has grown in its chosen area of operations: Branding, and especially corporate branding. We have invested in research on our own to test our models, we now have processes that are unique in the industry, some of which were used successfully even for mature marketers like HLL..
When we started corporate branding was 20% of our revenue, today it's 50%.
We have no pressure from agencies, because our clients now see clearly how different we are…we supplement or complement agencies.
The only additions to the team are Rajeev Badve, (who actually is a substitute for Gangadharan Menon who left chlorophyll in October 2002) and Parvati Mahadevan, who works on fixed assignments on research with us.
Who are the important clients chlorophyll has had in the last one year? Can you elaborate on any one brand that Chlorophyll has helped turn around in the last one year?
In the last one year, we have been working with the Taj Group of Hotels to build a new brand from scratch. We worked with Unilever Amsterdam on a HR brand, 'cascading' it worldwide. We worked with Polaris Software lab for their international 'product' brand as well as their corporate brand. We are working with Nihilent Technologies to launch their software product brand, and with Essar to rationalise their brand-product matrix.
It's been a year of remarkable learnings!
What exactly is it that chlorophyll does and ad agencies do not?
I guess two things; both are attitudinal and not skill related: We are worried about every aspect of brand communication, rather than just mass media. The creative person or account management person in most agencies is a victim of an industry culture where not having a TVC or a press ad to your name is very insulting, degrading, depressing.
On the other hand, we have managed brand HLL at the management institutes since 1999. Just having freaked out fun with emails, DMs, posters, events, flash movies. So long we earn what we call 'self-respect' money and we are working on the total brand, we are happy.
Secondly, because we have no layers and hierarchies we get to work with the key decision-makers rather than middle management. It allows us entry into the brand at the highest level.
Chlorophyll has remained resolutely low profile despite having some high profile clients like Levers? Is this deliberate?
Simple: We don't need to advertise ourselves because we can't handle more than a fixed number of assignments!
What were the learnings you carried into the conception of chlorophyll from Lintas and Clarion?
First: If you have talent, don't let it be controlled by an Excel-Sheet-wielding finance guy in New York or Singapore. Advertising is a culture specific skill: you don't need a foreigner to teach you how to speak your mother tongue.
Second, keep fixed costs low. That way you are not a victim of unwanted relationships.
Third, don't focus on competition or consumer. Focus on your discriminator, your integrity of business and process, your happiness.
In your interviews, you sound like you are against the mercenary attitude in growing an agency. But isn't that what is required in this age? Doesn't packaging and presentation and self promotion count to get ahead?
Yes, almost all of us at chlorophyll are aware of the havoc that the world's most insidious four-letter word ("more") can cause. So we openly discuss among ourselves how much we feel we need to make to be happy.
Secondly, we are clear we do not want to be businessmen, we want to continue to be self-employed professionals. Does a cardiac surgeon need to advertise? If you are a hospital, yes you do. We are not a hospital.