The ace adman talks about the changing face of advertising over the years, how social media still has to mature and the challenges of dealing with tough clients
Akansha Mihir Mota | Mumbai | June 20, 2016
Bobby Pawar, the MD and Chief Creative Officer of Publicis India, has fearlessly faced life’s challenges. With years of experience in the industry, the adman is known to have the ability to turn around the fortunes of the agency he joins. In his career span of more than 20 years, he has worked with the best of the people in the best organisations such as Ogilvy and Mather, JWT, DDB Mudra, BBDO and Rediffusion Y&R.
In a candid conversation with BestMediaInfo, Pawar reveals some key moments from his career and life, which have made him the man he is now. He shares his views on the ever dynamic and changing phase of advertising and how has it evolved so far. He also talks about his love for storytelling, writing, his family, Indian advertising and the various mediums evolving.
How do you rate India’s chances this year at the Cannes Advertising Festival?
I think there are interesting pieces of work this year. There is Bajaj Vikrant that should do well. Then Khali obviously, and also we have the Nerolac Calendar that we can hope for. There is this Tripstr for broken Compass from DDB, which is quite strong. Then there is a good print campaign for Alzheimer's. I don’t think this year for India would be a vintage or a phenomenal one, but I think it will be a pretty good year for Cannes.
Do you think 'The Great Khali' ad made by your agency has a chance to win at Cannes?
A lot of people are talking about it. But knowing about it and voting for it are two different things. I tend not to expect too much from this. But I think that it should do well, considering it is being talked about. A lot matters around how you present the case study at the Cannes. Let’s see if we have put our best foot forward or not.
Going back to the past, do people still ask you about the JWT-Ford Figo ad controversy? In hindsight, do you regret doing it?
I don’t care about it, honestly. I guess when it happened, it was a big deal. But I tend to move away from things. It was an experience. It definitely made me far less trusting than I used to be. Now, I am not as naive as I was then. But these things happen and you just need to move on. The people who worked at Ford didn’t even report to me. I didn’t even oversee that account and it was outside my ambit. A lot of people in the industry didn’t blame me, but only a few. It’s like a three years old issue. You are the guy at the top and sometimes you have to take the responsibility for things that happen under your watch, whether you are responsible for it or not. That is the mantle of leadership and you have to bear it. I don’t regret anything now because I have not done bad because of it, neither have I died. I am doing well with Publicis. It was an opportunity for me to learn a lot from the incident. I just chose to look at it like that. We have been getting calls for business even after the incident. So, it doesn’t seem to have affected anything. We are still one of the best in the country.
What difference do you see in ads today from those of yesteryears?
Obviously, the culture moves. Therefore, the work will move alongside because a lot of advertising will borrow from popular culture. In that sense, the cultural references that advertising makes are different. For example, the music used in advertising has changed. The kind of lifestyle that is depicted in advertising is different from the lifestyle depicted in the earlier years. In the past it was a more conservative mindset and now brands are embracing a far more aggressive mindset. For example, in Maggi hot and sweet we had a man playing the role of a woman. These are the progressive views that are adopted by the brands. These things didn’t happen some years back. The kind of humour is different. Previously it used to be a little more slapstick and now it has changed. Advertising in a sense is a moving art of times. It updates itself along with the times.
Do you think the emergence of digital and long-format films will sound the death-knell for the 30-second TVC?
I don’t believe in death-knells. It is a kind of simple physics. Energy is neither created, nor destroyed. These are all forms and they will always take different ways and differentiate. People who said that the print advertising is dying or is dead are wrong. For example, what Oreo does are the posters repurposed for the internet. Storytelling is storytelling and if you are fixated at the form of storytelling, then you have to worry about those things. I am just trying to look at the larger picture. Storytelling is not just a video but anything that helps communicate to the viewers. If you do an activation, then that is a story because somebody engages with you on that. That engagement in itself needs to have a beginning, middle and end and that end needs to be rewarding. So, if you look at it then a lot of things in this world are stories. Therefore, I love advertising and that is why I am a storyteller. This is for what I was born to be. Digital is just a tool for me to storytelling.
Now that you have said that you like storytelling, do you plan to venture into writing books and making films or videos?
I have never planned a thing in my entire life. I started writing to earn money. I used to write poems for friends, for their girlfriends and they used to pay me. In a way, I am doing the same thing now. I don’t write publically because it is a personal thing and scary. Writing is the scariest thing I know because there is nothing more terrifying than an empty page. Because an empty page can be anything, it could be the most beautiful thing in the world. I am so afraid that I might not live up to the potential of that page and that is scary. I have started writing poems, short stories and a lot of things for the last few months and who knows what’s in store in future. I have just stumbled into things pretty much all my life. Definitely, that is not the right way to do things. I have incredibly been fortunate for the rewards I have got.
Consumers today have become very critical of social media. Do you think that restricts creative freedom?
There are two things: you have to be sensitive and also take a strong belief in the stand for what you are doing. If you put anything out there and it has a strong point of view, there would be people who will have a different point of view and then you should be able to take the critique as it comes. You have to remember that on social media, the loudest people are the haters because they want to get their anger out. The negative stuff gets out there far more than the good stuff. You have to keep all those things in mind. The haters will go overboard to pull you down. That’s when you cannot be emotional. There is no such thing as complete creative freedom. If you want your work to be successful then there are certain limitations in what you do.
Do clients restrict an ad makers’ creative freedom?
Client have a business, brand and marketing objective. So, they will always try to get the work that will fulfil these criteria. At the end of the day, it is their money and therefore, they will have a point of view. You need to have a really nice understanding of the clients’ expectations. If you understand their work well, then they will definitely trust you for what you do. Words like freedom are like ‘hippy’ terms and they don’t really apply. You have to do justice to the problem at hand.
Which category do you think is the most difficult to advertise?
In my experience, supposedly the tough category is cement and we have done Khali in that segment, which has been much appreciated. The category being difficult or not, it depends on your clients’ ambitions. How far are they willing to push things and if the agency is good enough to deliver that ambition. I have trouble working with certain clients, who didn’t want to push the envelope. Then you just resign yourself to it, but not so much with categories. It is only clients who are tough to work with. If the clients have a small ambition then not much can be done about it.
How has Publicis performed since the time you joined the company?
Let me tell the facts. We have grown quite a lot. From more than the year, we have been winning the businesses consistently. We have been winning new businesses almost every week.
Your LinkedIn account mentions your designation as Managing Director, Chief Creative Officer, Problem Solver, Writer. Elaborate on Problem Solver and the writer part…
That is what I do! Whatever problems the brand faces, my job is to solve them. Whatever issues we face here, I have to resolve them. Even at our office, if the internet is down and that is causing a problem for my people, then it is my responsibility to solve that problem and that’s the burden of leadership. If I can’t solve the problems of the people who are working with me, then it’s of no use. It is something that just happened by accident. Now, coming to the writing part, these days I do find time for writing. Writing should come from within a person. I write about the experiences I had. So, it takes the form of short stories. I mostly share my written pieces with my wife at times.
What is your all-time favourite commercial to date?
It is the old Volkswagen commercial. It is shot in a really early morning winter day and it’s dark. It’s a black and white commercial. The guy gets into his Beetle and is driving across the snow. The ad ends with the quote, ‘Ever wonder, the man who drives the snow plough, how does he gets to the snow plough.’ It is such a simple observation that the guy who clears the snow with the plough, how did he manage to drive there. The car that drives over the snow must be pretty good. So, I really love the simplicity of the ad. The ad is emotionally intelligent. I have never like clever ads. I like the intelligence of the idea. The most intelligent ads are fairly straight. The intelligence in the ads should be in the observation.
Can you mention an ad that you have worked at and got emotionally involved with?
Probably, I got most involved in the Silent National Anthem when I was in DDB Mudra. I would never forget the experience of shooting. We shot with hundreds of kids and they were amazing. The kids were so incredibly enthusiastic. Everybody in the crew cried while shooting it, including me and the director. The film was shot in a day.
You have worked with JWT, DDB Mudra, Ogilvy and BBDO and Rediffusion. Out of these, which has helped you grow and evolve as a person and as an ad man?
The most impactful stint for me was when I worked with Ogilvy from 1995 to somewhere in 2000 and I was young then. We grow really fast. Piyush hired me and we were a small team. Because it was a big office we didn’t have time to look at everything. So, we pretty much ran everything on our own. Going abroad and working was also another impactful thing. I got a chance to work with the Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy. I got to learn so much from these top notch people. I got a chance to work with the people whose names we read in books here. I was very lucky to work with them.
Which is that moment in your whole career span that you will always cherish?
I cherish that moment the most when I was not even there. It was when the CAG awards that happened in the United States and it was the second or the third time that I won the copywriter of the year award. I was here in Mumbai and the awards were happening in the US. So, my mother and sister attended the award show and went on the stage to get the award. It was very overwhelming. This was when I was working with Ogilvy.
How do you balance work and family life?
Around last year, I made a conscious effort to give time to my family. I dropped the kids to school around 7:30 am, then I rushed to office and reached around 8:15 am and about 4:30 pm, I left from office. Even if I have to work late, I work till 9:30 pm. So, I ask the company to buy me an expensive bottle of wine for me. I might just have one glass, but I buy it. If you will make me wait then it is going to cost you. So, I have started finding time for my family now. If there is work on weekends, then I do it at home.
Did you always want to be in the advertising field? If not, then what?
I had no idea where I wanted to be. A friend of mine wanted to be a copywriter. I studied English literature. I said how hard it could be. I said ‘Angreji to humein bhi aati hai’. So, I asked him to help me with this and I also started writing a few things. After that I started giving copy test for a few months. Then I got in and now I am here.
Do you think people are relying too much on the social media to promote the brands?
Clients don’t really understand social media as much as they should. If they understood then they should have paid social agencies far more than they are doing now. The companies only pay around 1-2 lakh to somebody to manage their social media. They give their social media accounts to the kids who are sitting in a cafe and don’t even have proper grammar, to manage their accounts. It is only how it is handled, will tell how it will evolve.
What is the most important thing according to you for a brand to connect to people?
I think shared value. For example, the value that Harley Davidson shares is freedom of the open road, Dove’s value of real beauty is a shared value. Once you have built that you can build platforms on top of that and tell stories. Consumers and the brand should share the same value.