Pat, as he is popularly known, is arguably one of India’s most talented and thinking creative minds. BestMediaInfo met the Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Bang in the Middle to unravel his multifaceted personality. Suthan writes a poem every day and will soon come out with his book
Akansha Mihir Mota | Delhi| September 6, 2016
“All your beauty, charisma and aura will be looted by time. But even its best burglars can't rob the riches of your soul” — By Prathap Suthan
In a career spanning over 26 years, Prathap Suthan, Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer, Bang in the Middle, has worked with more than 200 brands and led the creative mantle for many multinational agencies. One of his favourite campaigns is India Shining. In May 2012, he set up Bang in the Middle with friends and colleagues.
In mid-1987, Suthan started working for Mudra Communications, Ahmedabad. He left Mudra in 1996, and joined Grey, New Delhi. A few more national awards later, in January 2004, he was made National Creative Director. By 2005, Grey climbed back up the creative ladder, and in 2006 it had the second highest number of awards at Abby’s and GoaFest, wins at AdFest, LIA, One Show and Cannes.
In August 2007, Suthan left Grey after 11 years and after hundreds of campaigns for clients like GSK, GM, Genpact, GE, SBI Card, ONGC, Indian Airlines, Domino’s Pizza, Aviva, Hyundai, Haier, Hindustan Times, India Today and Suzlon.
In September 2007, he joined Cheil Worldwide, South West Asia as National Creative Director. Three years later, Bang in the Middle happened.
Suthan grew up listening to Beatles and loves music from the 70s and 80s. He also loves listening to opera. Excerpts:
How has the Bang in the Middle journey been?
It started off with purely one reason and that is both Naresh Gupta and I started the agency when we had 25 years of experience each and had already led and grown agencies. It was time for us to start something of our own. The fact is that I can sit and talk to you right now without being checked from the people abroad and the freedom that I get. I can say anything I want, but I keep in mind a certain maturity and stature I bring to the business. I have freedom to take an off when I want, go where I want, hire somebody whom I want, pitch for new businesses that I want.
I also know that physically I am not 25 anymore, even though mentally I am 23 years old. But I do have limitations as well. For me, this is not a job but a full-time passion. There are only two things that I know: one is car driving and the other is creative direction.
Business is very good and growing. We are an independent agency. So, if a client comes and says that I want you to put 20 more people on my account, I really don’t have that money to immediately go out and hire. And what if the client doesn’t pay? So, I can’t have 20 people’s lives on my head and one fine morning say thank you very much. We are not an agency that hires and fires. For us, the last four years have been a revelation. We started off with self-doubt and we were extremely small. I think there is some amount of goodwill that we have in the market. In all my years in advertising, I don’t think I have ever built a disaster for any brand. So, that way I am not insecure and work has been coming. The only thing is that I will never be able to break into large multinational clients because they are all internationally aligned.
After you took the entrepreneurial leap of faith, did you ever question yourself on your decision even once? Did you ever doubt yourself before doing that?
When I left, there was a certain salary that I used to get, which was a sizeable figure on a cheque. So, there was a surety at the end of the month that money was coming into the bank. So, when we started off, we realised that the cheque is not going to come anymore. At the end of the day, we are all middle-class people and have middle-class fears. So, there were times when I doubted my decision, but now I am neck deep into this and absolutely convinced that this is what I want to do. If we were anything below average, we wouldn’t have survived so many years. Today we are 65 people.
How important are awards for you and the agency?
Awards are least important for me and I have a reason for that. My first award was the ‘Commercial of the Year’ for CAG in 1991 for a brand called Ajanta clocks. The agency entered the award without me knowing and then I was told that my film had won something I and had to go and get the award. When I came back, it made no difference to my life. Neither had I got any increment or bonus. Everyone just smiled at me and said well done and that was the end of it. It lasted one day and I did not get any job after that. I am never fired up to do campaigns to win awards. For me, as long as my clients are successful, I am happy. Adding business value to the clients’ business are awards to me.
What is the concept behind the agency’s unusual name Bang in the Middle?
After I left Cheil as National Creative Director, there was an Indian technology company iYogi that has approached me. They were looking for a new branding campaign and image for themselves in the American market. They were fighting with big technology names in the US market. So, I thought that if I can do that then it would be a new success in a completely different marketplace. They were heavily into digital marketing. They spent millions every month.We had to learn the digital medium also as we are advertising creative. Once we know the science behind it, we can always interpret in different ways. Unfortunately, the company was not able to do their IPO in the US because Facebook and Groupon had come and there was no money left in the American market. We were the creative unit inside the client and bang in the middle of the client. So, when the IPO didn’t happen, we thought that when we have a full team in place, why not start a full-time agency of our own? Then we had to decide the name of the agency. I have been saying bang in the middle throughout. Then I checked with GoDaddy to find out if BangintheMiddle.com was available. It is actually an American expression. So that’s how Bang in the Middle came up. It is a very nice and sticky name. It also has a very different connotation, which is sometimes misinterpreting.
You certainly believe social media has enhanced reach. How has advertising benefited? Has social media made things easier for advertising?
Social media today comprises multiple platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a couple of others. The prime distinction between social and regular media is that regular media is a one-way traffic. Social media allows engagement with the consumers. More importantly, social media is recasting the reason to exist for a lot of brands. So, why is Coca-Cola going away from traditional soda to becoming milk? Because people are coming back and sharing what they want from the brand. Suddenly there is an unedited voice coming in support of what consumers want. For me, Facebook is not just a brand but a platform of multiple mediums. You can post songs, write, share films and so much more. Today I don’t rely too much on television; it is a continuous stream that is happening. I watch what I want, see and read what I want and it helps me to edit out a lot of things that I don’t need. It is the most powerful platform. Social media is an organism and completely alive.
Monitoring social media is very difficult. Along with benefits, it also brings challenges associated. What do you have to say about that?
The knife is always kept at your place, but one day you decide to cut your wrist. You can keep cutting vegetables before that. It is your choice to do what you want from something. It is your choice to consume something or not. Everything in excess is bad. It all depends how you moderate your consumption.
What do you do when the client is rigid on something and is not willing to buy a brilliant idea? How do you deal with that situation? Do you also get tough in selling the idea or just move on with what the client wants. As at the end, one also has to take care of the finances of the agency.
It all depends on your conviction. The client has hired you because he believes that you can bring change or bring a fresh point of view to the table. We are communication experts and the clients need to trust us. If the client, after a lot of persuasion, still doesn’t agree, then it is their money and they can do what they want to. I won’t ask the client to leave as at the end of the day it is a commercial relationship.
But I will not advertise for a brand that is harmful. I will not advertise for a brand that is harmful for kids or cigarette or alcohol brands. But I will advertise for something where brands add something beneficial to society.
A brand would want an ad to increase product sales. How important is it for an ad maker to also consider his social responsibility towards society? How important is it for an admaker to be equally responsible to society as well as to the brand’s proposition?
You are in business because you want to make money. Advertising is not a socially responsible business. Today, the media industry, old and new media, is sponsored, grown and nourished by advertising and the consumers who respond to advertising. Without that revenue, no media platform will survive, including Google, and barring religious radio networks, no one will run media services for charity. From another angle, I would actually think brands and advertising don’t do the kind of damage and fanaticism that religions do because no one physically pushes you to prefer one brand over another. Or no one flogs you to use one kind of toothpaste. It will continue to be an emotional decision, where you make the eventual choice. You will decide whether you want to be moved by one specific brand. It will always be your call.
You have seen different seasons of advertising? How is advertising different now from earlier times?
For the last 30 years, I have been in advertising and have seen it grow and change. For me, it is the same thing and the only thing is that now there are different mediums on which you can advertise.
Where do you think Indian advertising stands at the global level?
I think it is pretty high. You must understand that advertising is a middle-class syndrome and flourishes when you have a thriving middle class. Advertising comes into use when maximum consumers are driven to buy something. In a lot of countries, they have crossed that barrier. People choose what they want and need not be told to buy this or that. In India we still need to inform people about a lot of things and in a country like this, advertising will flourish.
In one of your blogs, you have mentioned, “In my book, brains alone don't qualify people to be called leaders. Not quite enough. Not even close. There's a sea of difference.” What then makes a good leader?
Leadership is never taken. You can’t take leadership. People give you leadership. Leadership is the natural extension of who you are. You can’t pretend to be a leader. Leadership is also an ability to decide fast. Leaders are not just bothered about themselves, but the rest of the people. For a company leader, when they hire somebody, they consider him as part of the family. If you go to a leadership school and learn to be a leader, only some of those people become a leader. Why isn’t every creative director becoming a national creative director? When you are at the top, everybody will try to pull you down. So to overcome that, one will have to refresh with time and focus on what he wants to achieve. Leadership is a combination of many things. That is why I said, leadership is not about the brain, but the heart.
What pushes creative leaders to turn independent?
This is because there is no room on top. I became a national creative director of the whole agency and not NCD of Gurgaon. Today, designations are just given out and there is no value to it.
Do you think longhand copy writing is a dying art?
It is in a way. You don’t really have time to read. Long body copy writing comes in print ads. Nowadays, newspaper reading is reducing. When you write a long body copy, you also have to give a hint of what is there for him to read.
Commercials today are hugely influenced by Bollywood. Why is Bollywood seemingly leading creative work by the nose?
Given the fact that we are a nation driven by cinema and cricket means that they are important. India is a hero-worshiping place. These are the people who can reach anywhere in India.
In one of the blogs on your LinkedIn account, you have mentioned that you prefer staying away from Mumbai. Why so?
I come from Trivandrum and it is home for me. I have always lived in a house that has space and land around my house. Before I joined advertising, I was in the US and houses there had a lot of space. Then when I was in Mudra Ahmedabad, I stayed on the first floor, but there was land around the house. In Delhi also there is a lot of land around my house and a park outside. When I became the NCD of Grey, they showed me a flat where they were paying about a lakh and half, but that was only some 700 square feet area in the house! In fact, it was cheaper for me to go from Delhi to Mumbai by flight. I used to go there twice a week.
When I came here (Delhi) and was doing well for the company and myself, I realised that there were fewer people. Delhi as an advertising city was not as large as Mumbai at that time. Today, it is equal if not bigger in terms of amount of money that comes out of advertising. Mumbai is saturated with senior talent and Delhi is not. So, when I became NCD, I was the first NCD based in Delhi.
I was always the anti-Mumbai guy. I can never do the Bombay kind of advertising at all because I have difficulty in speaking Hindi. But that is not the problem. If Hindi would have been the problem, then I would not have been the NCD because an idea doesn’t have language. The fact that women are crying is the same across the world irrespective of the language.
How did you enter advertising?
From college onwards, I have been interested in writing. I started off with actually writing love letters for my friends at the cost of some mutton biryani! I perfected the craft of writing for a person. I wrote according to the nature of the particular person. Therefore, I wrote differently for different people. I have at times written letters for myself. I had to write letters for the girl and the guy also. Then I started writing for the college magazine. I used to write poetry and articles for my college magazine. I used to love ads and mug up all of them. We used to get Time magazine and National Geographic at home. We used to get National Geographic since 1972. It had fantastic advertising. I fell in love with advertising because my dad used to subscribe to Reader’s Digest and I used to read all the ads in them and enjoyed the language. I was terribly influenced by all that and started writing for myself – and eventually advertising happened.
You are an avid writer. People have been insisting you to write a book. So, when will you finally write a book and why haven’t you done that until now despite your love for writing?
I write poetry everyday on my Facebook page ‘Beyond layouts’. I publish the poems at 6:15 AM every day. Usually people don’t have publishers;I have three publishers who are ready to publish my writings. So I have a plan to use the poetry that I write every day in my first book. It is going to be something which I’ll do soon. There are a few things that I need to get done right now at work. Once that is over, I will focus on my book and it is going to be called ‘365’. My book will comprise a few pictures, poetry and a whole lot of soul.
What does a day in your life look like?
I get up early in the morning and publish my poetry exactly at 6:15 AM. Then I prepare tea for my wife and myself and go for a walk around 7 AM. After coming back from the walk, I read newspaper headlines mostly. Then I reach office around 11:30 AM. Coming back home has no time limit.
Is there anybody you look up to or admire among today's creative leaders?
I admire people who have sustained themselves in the industry. For example, Piyush (Pandey) and Balki. Balki and I joined advertising on the same day. I also admire Prasoon (Joshi) andJosy (Paul). I don’t like Servicing people because they have killed the industry. There was only one person whom I used to call ‘Sir’and that was AG Krishnamurthy, who passed away early this year. For me,he was the only man whom I respected. The other people, I don’t respect their work. I know all of them and have met them on occasions and in many places, but they are not friends.
What medium of advertising do you prefer more?
There is no specific medium that I prefer. I am good at everything and you have to be so.
You have reached the FB friends list limit now. All of them know you from their own perspective. We would like to know which is the real Prathap Suthan?
I don’t have a hidden side. What you know me on Facebook is who I am. I don’t think I can be a hidden person at all. I am very bad at lying and get caught. I have never been a political person in advertising.
In our industry, everyone wants to stab each other. If you brutally look at it, there is no industry which is more insecure than ours. No one wants to stand up for one another, no wants to stand together, no one wants to fight for each other, no one wants to be united to help each other. It's all been reduced to survival. It would be real and truthful to say that everyone is out with knives to get each other. Undercut each other, slash relationships, stab one another, plunder each other's businesses, and do everything to ambush and sabotage each other. No wonder we are all bleeding. And the lot that's laughing at our wounds is the client. What ought to be the brightest, happiest and innovative edge of communication thinking, is dipped and dripping in gore. What a pity.