He started off in advertising in HTA as a college dropout in then Calcutta, when it was the capital of Indian advertising. Swapan Seth today is the Chairman of Equus and is considered a creative maverick. In a candid interview with BestMediaInfo, Seth talks about everything under the advertising sun
Roshni Nair & Akansha Mihir Mota | Delhi | November 7, 2016
Swapan Seth began his career at the age of 19 at HTA (now JWT), Calcutta. Within a year, he was transferred to JWT’s Hong Kong office. Seth won his first Cannes Lions when he was 22 and a Clio when he was 23. At 24 he became the youngest ever Creative Director at Clarion and by 26 he had taken over as Vice-President at Trikaya Grey. Seth started his own agency, Equus, at 28 along with elder brother Suhel Seth.
With time, the elder Seth handed over the reins of Equus to Swapan. Today, Swapan Seth is known to wear several hats – copywriter, art collector, cinema buff, columnist, style maven…even acting!
In a style typical of the man, the brilliant and maverick creative who is a votary of longhand copywriting doesn’t mince words as speaks to BestMediaInfo in a no-holds-barred interview. Edited excerpts:
What is that one thing about Equus, in its DNA, that works for the agency?
We understand luxury better than any agency. No hubris here. It is the truth. And we are very, very quick. Our TAT is our USP. And we are bereft of egos. We leave them in the basement and then take the elevator.
We see that Equus has worked across categories. Which category is the most difficult to work for?
I think media is the most rigorous and difficult category. We have done our best work for them. We have also done our worst work for them.
What is Equus’s philosophy in terms of client acquisition? How many pitches in a year does Equus make? What is the strategy here? On what basis do you decide to pitch for a client?
We largely pitch for brands that we like or are consumers of. It is a very simple philosophy. To sell what you buy is a lot easier. And we also pitch for businesses that have happy clients. I am done working for boors and unhappy sods. But we pitch aggressively. And I cold call like a fiend.
“Those days in Calcutta, advertising was meaningful. We drank cheap rum and there was no goddamn email. We did great work during the day. And then we would party at Pink Elephant”
Which is your favourite piece of work, one that you have worked on, and the one piece of work you wish you could have been a part of?
My favourite work in recent times was the Mint Lounge campaign. It is another matter that they sacked us a month later! I am also proud of how we turned around the Oberoi Gurgaon communication. No hotel in the world has bought such edgy work. I am grateful to them.
Work that I wish I was involved with? All of Ryan Mendonca's wonderful Bournvita work. Prateek's Nescafé stammerer ad. I called them to tell them I was a fan. And the voiceover of both the commercials was my ringtone.
We also lost a lot of business. So it has evened out.
What about talent/people induction in Equus? Who all have you brought on board?
There are some extremely talented and wonderful people at Equus today. I am particularly grateful to Arjun Chandra, Amanat Dugal and Paulomi Dey. They have injected great flair into our work. And Sreya (Seth) has been a great glue. She has bound both the teams and clients rather adroitly.
Coming to advertising as an industry, do you think there is overemphasis on women-centric ads nowadays? Do you think this is becoming an overused mantra?
I think it is reflective of the times and the rightful emergence and domination of women. I think it is wonderful actually.
“My only regret is not having worked with Hindustan Lever. Imagine a long copy ad for Vim!”
Do you feel the advent of digital and social media is affecting the purity of the creative process?
Not at all. It is simply demanding new creative incarnations. The conventional film and press ad is passé.
But do you think India is at the right stage to dive into this digital rush in advertising space?
Of course it is.
Consumers have become too critical on social media front about everything. Does it restrict creative freedom, since there is the ever looming threat of a backlash on brands?
It is important to be able to take the rough with the smooth. Social media applauds and raps your knuckles with the same vigour. It is great.
There are so many independent agencies coming up and doing well. On the other hand, there are a few old agencies that are not doing well. What according to you has worked for the new ones and not worked for the earlier ones?
I have not been able to figure it for decades. The other thing I cannot figure out are the valuations of some agencies.
Do you think a lot of ads these days sound like PSAs?
Shed some light on the ventures that you are involved with as an angel investor…
None, besides an online luxury brand of curated products called 30/3.
“The one thing I cannot figure out are the valuations of some independent agencies”
What happened back then that triggered the exodus of advertising folk people from Kolkata to cities like Mumbai and Delhi? What is the story behind the brain drain from Kolkata?
I suppose they just got tired of Olympia. But Calcutta is buzzing right now. It is an immensely creative cauldron. Shame that the advertising out of there now simply sucks besides Hey Hey Co and my design doppelgänger Anurag Hira's shop.
I know Ram Ray is a purveyor of good advertising as well. But then businesses left Calcutta and as a result, so did talent. Calcutta had the most creatively evolved clients back in the late nineties. There was PK Dutt, a Lever lifer who bought some brilliant advertising, including my personal best – Haata maane Bata. There was Sanjiv Goenka, Harsh Neotia, Aveek Sarkar, Sudhir Jhunjhunwala, Vivek Saraogi, Sumit Dabriwala, Gunjan Chandra – all of whom had excruciatingly good creative taste. There were the razor sharp Ranjit Barthakur, Hardeep Singh, Sudhir Chand and Kurush Grant. Even Chandu Misra.
You don't run into such great minds so often. I count myself lucky to have worked for all these people. I could write a book on Calcutta and advertising.
They were civilised. Advertising was meaningful. We drank cheap rum and there was no goddamn email. We did great work during the day. And then as a team we would party at Pink Elephant and many years later at Incognito at The Taj Bengal.
There was 5-A-Side soccer at CC&FC. The Ad Club Awards. Cricket matches with clients. Office picnics to Baruipur. There was a certain fraternity feel to the business. That vanished. Not just from Calcutta, but from advertising. Now we advertising folks meet each other at this bar called Twitter. Piss-ups have morphed into tweet-ups. Advertising is all about making connections. The business today is disconnected from itself and its soul. I now only know one client in Gurgaon who has a bar in his car.
“The younger generation is infinitely brighter, more responsible and hardworking than we ever were. Let us not take it away from them”
Everybody has heroes and mentors. Name yours in advertising.
Two mentors. Rangan Chakravarty, who encouraged my craft and taught me two vital lessons in advertising – that it is quite okay to respect account management and that if there is a writer better than you and under you, let him overtake you. Rangan never cared for credit. He was simply consumed by doing good work quickly. That has stayed with me. Rangan didn't teach me advertising, he taught me a culture. Then there was Doug Brown who taught me my craft. He taught me how to bring grace to paper. They were two completely opposite people.
Heroes many. I have never worked with most of them but I have enormous respect for them: Kiran Khalap, Piyush Pandey, Prasoon Joshi, Rohit Srivastav, Vikram Sakhuja, Geetanjali Ghate. Even Raj Halve, a staggering mind.
Given that hotels in Cannes are packed every June, I would imagine all is well with us!
You have taken on much responsibility from a young age. How did you tackle the pressure that must have come with those responsibilities?
I am on Telma 80 and Rosavus F! That should tell you how brilliantly I have tackled it. Of course I am tired. Of course it has been difficult. I have wept over lost pitches. And I have gloated over small wins. But I had a great time. My only regret is not having worked with Hindustan Lever. Imagine a long copy ad for Vim.
You wear so many hats – ad man, CEO, art collector, fashionista, writer, foodie, family man, etc, etc. How do you find time to do all that that interests you? How does a day in Swapan Seth’s life look like?
I sleep at 9.30 PM and wake up by 3.45 AM every day. I am mostly done with my work for the day by 8 AM. I am home by 5.30 PM. I spend time with my kids till 7 PM. From 7-9 PM, I am on my computer watching movies or hearing a great interview or talk, or watching some ballet or opera. I do not step out in the evenings unless I have to or know the menu of the food being served that evening. If it is desi, I go. If not, I don't. But seriously, advertising is just one of the things I enjoy doing. I used to teach Curiosity at Vasant Valley. I do carefully chosen speaking assignments. I read a book a day. I watch a movie every day. And I have my art, my cooking all going for me. I go on travel writing assignments.
Most advertising people just do advertising. That's why they are mostly boring. I think the trick to being able to do many things is the ability to say no to many things. I am splendid at saying no.
“It is important to be able to take the rough with the smooth. Social media applauds and raps your knuckles with the same vigour. It is great”
Where is advertising headed and what does the future look like?
I have no idea. If I knew where it was headed, I would head elsewhere. But seriously this is a motherhood question. Only Trump can answer it.
You are known not to believe in the quantity of work done, but rather on the quality. Do you think that kind of model is sustainable in today’s times where it is so much about scale?
It is sustainable only if you are largely unmolested by obligations. I have very limited needs and curtailed ambitions. Only my drinks are large and I am a firm believer in the truism that it's about the sharpness of the nail and not the size of the hammer. I was happy growing people. I am proudest of my ex-colleagues and trainees. They are doing so fabulously. The success stories of Equus are Anu Raj, Satbir Singh, Nadeesh Ramachandran, Anusheela Saha and so many more. The most wonderful thing about leading is the feeling of being left behind. So many of my colleagues have gone way ahead of me leaving me behind. That is both heady and humbling.
You have been a strong votary of longhand copywriting. Is it a dying art today given the predominance of digital and software and specialist production houses that have invaded ad agencies?
It is a dying art only because 95.8 per cent of copy-based creative directors are lazy, third rate copywriters. Plus I enjoy writing it. I nearly died the other day when Nando's asked for long body copy. Can you imagine the joy of writing 500 words on chicken? But I am blessed to have clients that indulge this love of mine. I am writing my best now and on July 8, 2017 when I turn 50, I plan to release my best work.
According to you, what is lacking in the new generation creative people and any word of advice for them?
This is crap. The younger generation is infinitely brighter, more responsible and hardworking than we ever were. Let us not take it away from them. Yes, they don't have lives beyond advertising because we don't permit them to. They don't see so much or read so much because we stuff their days with impossible deadlines. I have learnt the most from my colleagues over the past few years. They are awesome sauce and cool AF;)