Mad Men

Better Business Writing: Ogilvy and Rolls-Royce
David Ogilvy’s immortal Rolls-Royce advert, circa 1957

 I started my professional career during the early ’70s when I entered the rarefied world of advertising. To put it more precisely and succinctly, I successfully applied for, in response to a newspaper advertisement, and was recruited by a reputed advertising agency in Calcutta. As more than 50 years have elapsed since that first, hesitant step into the whirlwind, heady world of copywriting, art direction, media planning and account management, it was time to press the pause button. In short, a longish career which took into its ample bosom jobs in other household-name corporate houses, as well as a stint in brand consultancy. I am now enjoying a life of well-earned leisure. Time to reflect and reminisce. Put my feet up and light a pipe. Speaking metaphorically, of course, as I don’t smoke. Naturally, I am not alone in this. Most of my colleagues from that era, now scattered across different parts of India and the world, tend to similarly wallow in the past, wearing rose-tinted glasses. Still others have shaken off their mortal coil and are probably looking down at us benevolently from their heavenly abode, wondering when we’ll be joining them! It is but logical that at our age, there is more for us to recall nostalgically, than to look forward to with keen anticipation. Not that I wish to be maudlin. It is what it is.

To get back to advertising, when I was fresh out of university looking for a ‘management trainee’ job, the one profession I was blissfully unaware of was that of the activities in the beehive cauldron of an advertising agency. I was, like any other human being living in the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, fully exposed to advertising, both consciously and sub-consciously. Or as the ad gurus might put it, subliminally. Wills Filter – Made For Each Other, Lipton Means Good Tea, Come Alive With Nescafe, Dunlop Tyres – Make Your Money Go Farther, You’ll Wonder Where The Yellow Went When You Brush Your Teeth With Pepsodent and many more such seductive messages were hard to miss. Newspapers, Hoardings, Cinema, Radio, they were all in our ubiquitous line of vision. Television was still a fledgling medium during the ’70s. The Asian Games in New Delhi, which opened the floodgates to the television industry was well over a decade away. As I said, we were aware of the brands thanks to advertising in our capacity as consumers, but many of us never gave a second thought to the complex machinery that went behind the creation of the advertising. Until, as I say, I landed the job.

rediff.com Business News: Check tobacco companies' brazen adverts, urges  anti-smoking body

A quick admission here. After half a century, I don’t mind conceding that while I got the appointment thanks to my performance in the interviews, written tests and group discussions conducted by the agency, the fact that my father held a senior position in a large nationalized bank that had a year earlier selected this particular agency to handle its advertising, must have helped in no small measure. This was par for the course in those days. A word in the management’s shell-like ear that ‘the boy is so-and-so’s son’ did no harm to the candidate’s chances of being appointed. Other things being equal. To be fair to my old man, he informed his superiors that I was being recruited by their agency, entirely on merit! He even made it clear to me that I cannot accept the offer if his bosses demurred. Fortunately, that did not happen. Furthermore, getting the job ‘under the influence’ is one thing. Making a decent fist of it as a career is altogether a different proposition. In any case, my dad retired a few months after that and I was pretty much having to paddle my own canoe thereafter.

In such circumstances did I commence my career in advertising. While I had opted to be a copywriter, the management persuaded me that my all-round communication skills could be better employed in the area of client interface. The much-loved, late British comedian Tony Hancock, had he been sitting on the interview panel, might have said, ‘He has such a nice face.’ Thus, I became an Account Executive Trainee, and worked my way up slowly and steadily in the agency’s ladder of progress. Something that always stayed with me was a poster, partly torn, stuck outside the door of one of the agency’s creative honchos. It was an Oscar Wilde aphorism – ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’

Over the decades, I worked in a couple of other agencies before joining a tyre major of world renown in their marketing division, looking after brand advertising. This is not intended to be an autobiography pertaining to my professional career. I just felt a little bit of sketching in of the background would help in better understanding what is to follow.

The thing is the creation and placement of advertising as it obtained during the ’70s and ’80s was a far cry from what it is today. I could dwell at length describing, point by point, the various ways in which life has changed in an advertising agency. For instance, agencies don’t entertain clients any more. The legendary Oly’s pub in Calcutta would have gone bust, but for the ad agencies’ patronage. What’s a client agency relationship if you can’t do some serious elbow-bending, and chalk up the expenses towards art charges and incidentals? Unthinkable.

Olypub entrance from Park street - Picture of Olypub Bar and Restaurant,  Kolkata - Tripadvisor
Ad men’s watering hole of choice

Instead, I decided to meet a lady, who shall remain anonymous at her request, who is one of the top creative brains in one of India’s leading advertising agencies today. Let’s just call her M, shall we? With due apologies to Ian Fleming. It is worthwhile for the reader to understand that M is a product of the millennium and speaks that language. She is being interviewed by me, a product of the ’70s, virtually a fossil by comparison. The resultant roadblocks in communication, though we were both conversing in fluent English, could be attributed to this huge chasm in the different eras in which we operated. Without further ado, I’ll just dive into the conversation.

I waded in breezily. ‘Good morning M, thanks for sparing the time. You must be “up to here” in campaign presentations, brand launches and so forth. During my time we used to be engaged in long, liquid lunches.’

She didn’t get the joke. ‘Things have been hectic, as you suggest, but it’s all in a day’s work,’ replied M without breaking a sweat, adding, ‘much rather be “up to here” than staring at the wall and wondering where the next assignment is coming from, don’t you think?’

‘Oh yes, quite, quite. Tell me M, as I entered your snazzy, open plan office, I noticed banks of state-of-the-art computers on every work station. Is that where all the bright advertising campaigns are created?’

‘Well, it’s actually created in the human mind first. The computer is only there to make it easier to render it quickly into a visual format. Today, clients want everything yesterday, you know.’

‘The definition of “yesterday” was very different yesterday, if you get my drift M. Back in the day, harking to the ’70s, we had slanted wooden boards with plenty of drawing and tracing paper, marker pens, pencils, erasers, rubber solution and all kinds of other implements for the visualizers, art directors and finishing artists to work with. Everything was done by hand, and we could not rush things. Even if the client was in a hurry, and when was he not? These hard-working beavers slaved away day and night, slouched over their desks, with no guarantee that their work would see the light of day. The creative head called the shots, and we in account management were putty in their hands.’

The beauty of a line drawing

‘Wow, sounds quite antediluvian. Nowadays, our clients will throw a fit if we took anything more than 6 hours to revert with a workable idea, and another 12 hours to render it in finished form for media release. Not just print, but television as well. Welcome to the millennial world.’ M was clearly revelling in her post-modern euphoria.

‘Ha, so you clearly did not first come up with what we called a pencil rough for internal assessment, followed by a finished rough for client approval and then the final artwork for block making.’

‘Block making?’ queried M.

‘I see you are stumped. Yes, those days printing involved processing from copper or zinc blocks, which were supplied to the newspapers or printing houses for final release. All this took time, but the end product was a work of art. Tell me M, I am curious. Can good ideas really germinate when you work in such unseemly haste nowadays on your Apple Macs or whatever?’

‘Easy come, easy go, I say. This is the way it is. Our clients are not bothered if the campaign with “the big idea” does not last for over 3 months. Longevity is passé. We just have to keep coming up with new big ideas, as often as it takes, in tandem with competitive pressure.’

‘But Wills Made for Each Other and The Marlboro Man are still fondly remembered today, are they not?’

‘Remembered yes, but the tobacco industry went up in smoke and so did the ad campaigns. They are all museum pieces now. So, kindly refrain from repeating catchy slogans from the ’60s and ’70s.’ She was being quite haughty. She didn’t quite say, ‘We are not amused,’ but I could sense it.

I played my trump card. ‘Yeah, but what about David Ogilvy? Or for that matter Satyajit Ray? Did you know Ray started off as a visualizer in an ad agency in Calcutta, an agency that was the forerunner to the one I worked in, and that he once made a documentary film for Dunlop India? Sadly, no one can find the film.’

M was quite riled by now. ‘Why am I not surprised? Yes, and Ogilvy was a chef in a French restaurant. So what? You old fogies will keep prattling on about Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce campaign till the cows come home. Satyajit Ray will always be celebrated as a great film maker, but not because of some Dunlop documentary no one has ever seen or heard of. Charulata, yes. Pather Panchali, definitely. Jalsaghar, indubitably. Let’s just leave it at that.’

Frankly, by now I had had it ‘up to here’ with this insufferable woman. M, indeed! I could have taken a lot of her nonsense, but old fogies? I think she gets all her pre-conceived biases from watching too much Mad Men, the hit television serial that captured the advertising zeitgeist of the ’60s. I stood up and said rather frostily, ‘Yes, let’s,’ and stalked out of her open plan room, my steaming cup of good Lipton tea not having passed my lips.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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4 Comments

  1. Times have changed, and not just in the Ad world, both for better and worse.
    It’s a new world and the younger generation that runs it has little time to waste on the past and it’s glories.
    More’s the pity, as they could still learn something from us old fogies!

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  2. Your writing reminds one of PGW . Lucid, entertaining and with a tinge of British humour

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  3. Thank you, Tarun. Wodehouse was my earliest hero and continues to be so. You can read all my earlier blogs on this site. If you are interested, two of my collection of essays are available on Amazon and Flipkart – ‘A brush with Mr. Naipaul ( and other pieces)’ and ‘I write, therefore I am.’

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