As the worthies revel in the glory of the Cannes shortlist, this is a good time as any to dwell on a quirky sub culture of agency life. The glorious duality of doing work for business and generating work for self — the former paying for salaries and the latter responsible for fame. Those familiar with espionage literature will know about double agents but in this merry creative world, most folks do play a lovable double role.
My initiation to this industry was rather Brahmanical and that too under the auspices of the Thompson gharana, where creativity was a second tier citizen. The heroes were strategy, servicing, good sense and a penchant for sustainability — campaigns emanating from this house were designed to last. After significant apprentice years was one permitted disruptive perestroika and the licence to provoke and peddle outcomes that were, ahem, outrageously talented but strategically insignificant. Cannes was not a favoured destination for these folks, possibly due to prohibitive entry fees, and a culture of parallel creation neither sought nor encouraged.
But everything changed when I joined Rediffusion, a bastion of self-proclaimed disruption. Quite suddenly, local creative cadres were whisked off to undisclosed locations for unmentionable outcomes, while current client expectations were left to ‘jugaad’ acumen. I learnt much later that these were indeed award boot camps, where the artificial and untrue were marinated for that elusive curation of metal. That this metal would become a far more potent surrogate for mettle, unlike real work, was a revelation that followed suit rather quickly, over lingering gins and tonic especially during appraisal zones. My age of innocence was truly over as Cannes became an agenda of substance that needed to be nurtured.
After a few years I was attached to the monastery of Contract, where virtue embraced every corner of physical real estate, not just mindspace. But here too, I sensed the passion of the acknowledgment as this agency was a pioneer of recipiency in the early days of truthful merit. Thus, there was an organic momentum although rather subdued in the face of new-age pretenders who were rather mercenary about this agenda. As the management changed, a fierce crop of ambitious Young Turks was brashly clear about personal agendas. We even hired an award exponent entrusted with the perilous task of goading metals out of manicured minds as opposed to petty matters such as revenues.
In my final agency tenure, the French stalwarts, I did note a happy equilibrium of the real and the surreal, as if an effortless coexistence. A function most clearly of the well-entrenched cultural nuances both away and at home, which allowed all to breathe and fly in merry tandem. But then one could not still ignore the frenetic energy prior to the award submission, a certain state of passion that was surely unique and unerringly short-lived. It is only human to put self above service and the establishment says aye, the foot soldiers must willingly succumb.
In sum, this is a pleasing duality of agency culture and most certainly a copious tactic to compensate for pedestrian compensations. Yet I do wish that the twain does happily meet, as is increasingly the pattern driven by cognisant clients across the transactional universe. Where awards are dictated by genuine and scalable outcomes driven by creativity as opposed to anecdotal episodes, which are shallow and mellow. The most significant learning of the digital era is unfettered amplification and there is a learning that award committees must imbibe, whether judging or creative. And clients of course, for in their deepest pockets and wisdom reside the strength of the agency partner and greed must be amply resisted.
In a strange way, I do believe that the unforeseen online festivals will be logical instigators for this much-needed culture of genuineness. When the addictive headiness of universal bonhomie moves from the Gutter Bar to Oshiwara, courtesy of the pandemic, a dash of good sense may well just prevail. But till then it will be ‘Upar Cannes ki Dukaan, Niche Client ka makaan’.
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