David Guerrero of BBDO Guerrero reviews the latest book written by India's legendary ad man.
I have known Piyush since the mid-90s when Neil French used to convene a regional CDs conference at the Sugar Huts hotel in Pattaya. And in our first collaboration we sat in the pool and discussed an idea for an ad. Which went on to win a Grand Prix for the Philippines (quite possibly the first of its kind) at the London International Awards. The ad, which ran locally, took the form of a public service announcement. The headline simply ran: No to dope. No to heroin. No to coke. And then in much smaller lettering beneath that: A public service announcement from Pepsi Cola.
While we both worked in the same agency network we saw quite a lot of each other. And even when I set up my current agency he accepted my invitation to come and speak at the Ad Congress in Baguio in 2003. Since then our meetings have been confined to bumping into each other in Cannes. An example of why that festival draws so many people together.
So it was with some trepidation that I took on the task of reading – and reviewing – his book: Pandeymonium. To be honest the title wasn’t that encouraging. Was it going to be all about ‘crazy’ goings on in his agency? A personal philosophy of disruptiveness and chaos? In other words, was it going to be all madness and no method? And frankly did the world need another ad-man’s memoir of forgotten and perhaps forgettable campaigns that were oh-so-funny at the time?
A three and a half hour commuter flight seemed the ideal place to start. If I could get home without looking at the entertainment system then it must be OK. And as it turned out it was better than that. By the time I landed (all too quickly) I felt like I had gone on an adventure with a friend. (The seatback TV staying firmly off.)
To travel in the company of Piyush is to enjoy warm and generous company. He evokes the ‘cooking’ of tea that he remembers from his childhood. And the poetry of his father the first lesson in storytelling. His own recitals at school did not start promisingly. Going as he said “over the heads of the judges.” But he tried again and had the audience rolling in the aisles. Experiences that gave him confidence for the rest of his life. And from then on he was ‘careful to select content so as to bring a smile to people.’
Family is at the core of the Piyush universe. His mother ‘was his CD.’ His nephew and nieces were actually both judges at Cannes in the same year. His brother is one of India’s leading directors. And despite being an avowed technophobe the title of his book comes from the name of his family’s What’sApp group. A lively and constantly active place.
The other big force in his life – and one that he chose for himself – was cricket. His father used to criticize his choice of ‘cricket over classroom.’ But as things turned out cricket was at the heart of Indian culture. He discovered that ‘to be passionate about something is vital.’ And he is now ‘eating a bat for a meal.’
By accompanying his father around the country as a child he learned to talk to – and appreciate – the artistry of the carpenter. And the cobbler. Characters he was to bring to life later in famous commercials for Fevicol glue. As he puts it: “Don’t let the child in you die. He or she is the genius. You are not.”
This ability to ‘chat with all kinds of people’ also extended to clients. As he puts it: “We must try to understand the human being behind the client.” And while he is patient with bureaucracy and systems he is less so with research. As he puts it: “Asking normal people stupid questions will get you a stupid reply.”
Naturally he is a huge believer in crafting the message. Perhaps his most famous commercial for Fevicol – titled “Bus” - shows an enormous number of people are clinging onto their place on a provincial bus. At the time it was up for production he was faced with shooting in a ‘stand-in’ location or a more authentic one. Naturally he prevailed upon the client to spend the additional money it took to pay for the further location. And the ad has been running for over 10 years.
He has things to say about music and jingles. “Use music but don’t sing brand names.” And celebrities. Warning that “people get lazy when they have a star. They think the job is done.” He continues: “When you work with a celebrity, the viewer must find the celebrity, the script and the idea memorable. Not just the celebrity.”
On larger themes he talks about working ‘where you can make the most difference’ and ‘standing up for what you believe in.’ There is a lot more to tell you about but you should really get the book for yourself. I do want to share one story I enjoyed though.
His father used to tell him that ‘in his day he had to study by the light of the street lamp.’ Piyush replied: ‘It must have been very crowded there.’ His father said ‘What do you mean?’ To which Piyush said: “It’s because everyone’s father says that.”
And like any good ad-person he then used the story in a commercial.
This article was first published in the January-February 2016 issue of adobo magazine.
Photo by: Yam Nava