You will consider me insane to demand goosebumps while constantly seeking an emulation of the management consulting business. Truth bears testimony that the agency was once a cerebral playground — fine intellects and celestial talent connivingly provoking their imaginations. This was culture at its pristine best — each left to fix her own definition as long as there was no fixed definition. Both a proven magnet and an efficient adhesive — a well of unending happiness and occasional madness.
This madness was taken rather sincerely by the tenants of this industry — a valuable leitmotif for a position in posterity. At the HTA outpost, two celebrated cinema artists, while on the payroll, reportedly jumped from the first-floor window as sincere fulfilment of a fiery bet. The physical damage was minimal while the reputational currency shot up like the Sensex on boom day, a thespian evidence adding credence to genuine talent. During an offsite at the decadent Oberoi Palm Beach, two accomplished worthies embarked on a lovable rampage, commissioning water hoses and even distressing a Burma Teak door in a release of eccentric energies, quite common in conferences. As a minor aside, the Oberois exited the property shortly, the much-desired MICE segment turning out to be wolves without warning.
While the higher-order expositions demanded both courage and spunk, the shortcut to madness was the bottle of your favourite poison. Most regulars, including confessedly me, developed their signature post-inebriation rituals — spirited dancers to ghazal maestros to rabid palmists or simply unstoppable raconteurs. A culture inherited from the supreme bosses — well capable of demolishing entire litres without losing sanity or claiming vanity. Most truthfully, this rarely translated to harmful destructive behaviour — quite like the Armed Forces, being out of control was never a permissible liberty.
A sensitive yet robust aspect of this goosebumps brigade was the romantic relationship —forged in corporate custody with wildly swinging outcomes. Inspiring the pack was the ‘Happily Ever After’ brigade — a tiff over butter paper in the manual studio leading to effervescent attraction and eventually bonny babies. Demoralising many an aspirant was the ‘In-house Devdas’— the damsel in media, his muse, eloping with the investment banker traumatised by the copywriter’s pay slip. A sub-strain of this was the ‘Integration Exponent’, an attractive brand manager at the client facility deemed worthier than just the artwork approval. But most rampant was the ‘Fleeting Freelancer’ — a lifelong extension of the college campus with an After-Eight outlook towards bonding — Cello kebab in Peter Cat and James Bond in Lighthouse.
It is brutally notable that during my earliest decade, closest to the industry’s halcyon days, there was self-imposed civility among even the most dashing stroke-players — from every sex. Most of the despicable ‘Me-Too’ dramatis personae appeared at a later period in history — small fellows with big jobs who replaced debonair with desperate, in work and play. But in its pristine form, the romantic relationship, whatever be the intensity, was an important operational unifier — lengthy hours at work made sweetly shorter by amenable companionship.
At times I do wonder that while Starbucks made much currency of the ‘Third Place’, the advertising agency office was its truest representative, in fact more of a Place Zero. Most certainly work, a source of employment and purpose, but equally a comfort zone, call it home or playground or pub. While the inexactness of working hours made it sub-professional to many critical eyes, that was exactly what made it a source of happy attraction. It was the residence of the second or oftentimes the first family, responding to crises with the alacrity and sincerity of a fellow in blood, no agendas beyond the fraternal. We were united by a larger mission which we could not quite articulate, not defensible certainly by TV commercials and press campaigns.
So where did this ‘missionary’ zeal emanate from considering that neither our work nor our sinful lives were remotely missionary? A query I have raised to many old-timers and even journeymen, the responses and my own intuition lead me to a possible, albeit debatable, diagnosis. Advertising has never been the first choice for any professional — the more accomplished, the more accurate this dissection. For the copywriter it would have been writing or movie screenplays, for the art director it would have been pure art, for the ideation geek it would have been the movies or theatre. A pattern true for the servicing and media cadre — being so close to such desirable brands not possible from a direct corporate route thus the surrogate affiliation. Truthfully for many, advertising was for the wishful imagination a transitory profession, a preparatory incubation prior to the real calling — realistically for most that real calling never arrived.
The advertising agency, in spirit and form, was therefore an emotional refuge— each of us refugees in a glorious and often endless interim. Which led to this grateful unconditional affiliation to the workplace and not just the work — its sheer presence giving us a never-shaky unconditional ray of hope. A union of like-shunted souls who sought a larger brotherhood to gift their lives precious meaning. Amongst all of this, the sagas of pitches, promotions, roles, increments continued unabated — big enough to provoke fiery conversation but never large enough to disassociate from the beloved core. It was an intensely personal emotion, quite like a private indulgence, to be relished within the knowing self and rarely shared with the unknowing outsiders.
Exactly a very good reason why agency reunions are steeped in a very rare kind of emotion —an inverse wanderlust to visit a place I can never go again, not just about the people I do not meet anymore. The goosebumps were a daily feature of a place such as this, moments routinely emerging from the woodwork, which gave the callow heart a reason to leap. I still remember my very first, in the summer of 1997, a campaign crafted by Zarwan Patel for the World One network. At 2 AM, I had the irrational urge to call the client and rush to present the work immediately — my career has subsequently been blessed by many such encores.
Today, the advertising agency is caught between two demanding and diverse stools. In the necessary quest to equate with corporate climates, we must become clinically correct— modern managements frankly have no choice. Yet, in this quest for relayed rigor we will unhappily isolate this lucid soul that defined our delicious craft — like the Phantom of The Opera it will hopefully never leave the premises. Tomorrow I will conclude this short series, no further goosebumps or road bumps, instead some ideas you can hopefully digest, sans aid of psyllium husk.
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