DDB Mudra’s Sonal Dabral on Bollywood, admen brands and the enduring sway of Amitabh Bachchan

Sonal DabralMumbrella was in Cannes to catch up with Sonal Dabral, who is a year and a half into his role as chairman and chief creative officer of India’s DDB Mudra Group.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, Dabral talks about Indian admen who are bigger brands than their agencies, why Bollywood is bad for advertising and why he’d be a professional Blackjack player if he wasn’t a creative.

Who is the most powerful person in Indian advertising?

Either Piyush Pandey [executive chairman and national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India] or Amitabh Bachchan [one of the most popular Indian actors ever].

Amitabh Bachchan in Gujarat Tourism ad

Amitabh Bachchan in Gujarat Tourism ad

Just look at number of endorsements Amitabh is doing. He’s prolific. They range from hair oil to social services to state tourism. Each of them he does with tremendous conviction and power. As a creative, all you need to do is put his face in an ad. He is particularly good in the Gujarat Tourism campaign. His son, Abhishek, has done good work with Idea Cellular too.

Yes, there are pitfalls of using celebrities. Cricket and Bollywood stars are often used blindly, because they are sure to pull in a big audience. There’s a positive and negative side to it. The positive is that a big celebrity cuts through the clutter, although they cost a lot of money.

Watch Amitabh Bachchan in ad for Gujarat Tourism:

Watch Abhishek Bachchan in ad for Idea Cellular:

This might sound analytical, but I think you have to talk about the Indian consumer when talking about the most powerful person in advertising. In the next decade, India will go from the 12th to the fifth largest consumer market in the world. There is a huge shift of people from rural to urban areas, and this is a shift our industry needs to watch closely.

What’s the biggest story in Indian advertising at the moment?

It’s a trend which has caught on in India – cause. Many brands are going beyond the hard sell, and standing for a social good. Tata Tea is a good example, as is Times of India with its ‘lead India’ campaign.

Watch Times of India’s ‘lead India’ classic ad from 2007:

Watch Times of India’s ‘lead India’ ad from this year:

Watch Tata Tea’s ad featuring Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan in support of women’s rights:

In general, humanity needs some help. Our lives are becoming chaotic. If brands can help in some way, they will go a long way in India.

What do you make of Coca-Cola’s ‘Small world machines’ campaign by Leo Burnett? Do you think it is really a brand’s place to try to resolve the deeply entrenched political tension between India and Pakistan with a vending machine and a free can of Coke?

I’m an optimist. I look at this campaign through a different lens to you. Ideas really can change behaviour. And I see this as just one step, a small gesture, which could have a ripple effect. I think it’s a great idea and frankly I’d be questioning my job if I didn’t.

What’s your favourite Indian ad?

The Cadbury’s Dairy Milk campaign with the girl dancing on the cricket field from the nineties. That campaign was much loved and it made history – it was the first time that Cadbury started talking to adults as well as kids.

When you watch the ad now, it comes across as a simple piece of film. But it works not just because of a great script. It’s about the context and the point in time. India opened up to the world in 1991. This ad says a lot about how India was starting to change back then.

If you weren’t in advertising, what would you be doing?

An actor, director or singer. Something creative. Actually, I would probably be a professional Blackjack player, doing singing and acting as a hobby.

Some of India’s top creatives are brands in their own right. Is it helpful for creatives to be better known than the agencies they work for?

It would be a problem if they were failing their clients. A well known creative director opens doors. It gives an agency access and ease in selling.

You become a big personality in the industry because you’ve won awards and you’ve been good to your clients. As long as that continues, even if your personal brand is bigger than your agency, I can’t see anything wrong with it. The only thing to be wary of is if that personality walks out.

How do you think the public perceives the ad industry in India?

There are millions of deities in India, so it’s natural for Indians to hero worship. Advertising people are perceived by the public as those who rub shoulders with glamour. Plus people love advertising in India, just as they do in Brazil where admen are celebrities.

This didn’t used to be the case. But advertising has really blossomed since the 1990s – the renaissance period of Indian advertising. Now the public is actually interested in advertising. TV ads get discussed in social circles. So when the public looks at advertising’s creators, there is a certain sense of reverence – albeit without a full understanding of the amount of hard work and pain that goes into making ads, which isn’t glamourous at all.

If you could hire one creative, who would it be?

Dave Droga and Piyush Pandey. They’d make an awesome combination.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give young people wanting to get into advertising in India?

This is true of any other creative profession. You really do need to be driven by passion. Irrespective of what the hardships of the job are – and there are many – never lose it. Ideas will get lost, but never lose your love for what you do.

Is the relationship between advertising and Bollywood healthy?

No. In the sense that Bollywood produces a lot of crap. As soon as a director becomes a member of the 100-Crore club [a film that makes more than US$17m at the Indian box office], then creativity flies out of the window.

The industry thinks the consumer wants the same formula – which is untrue and, frankly, regressive. There is rarely a genuine attempt to reach an audience in a new way. There are some new films with new stars and good scripts. But too many films are still made without any creativity or insight – which does not do the ad industry any favours, since the ad industry is influenced by Bollywood.

But things are changing, both in advertising and Bollywood. The only thing that worries me is that – if we are saying that Cannes is the world’s top awards show and a barometer for how good we are – well, India did not get a single ad on the film shortlist this year.

I think what is lacking is the craft. Why? Well, as a country, we like loud theatre. We are a loud, emotional people. It’s part of our culture, our DNA. You can see it in the way we talk. Our gestures our loud. And that’s bound to come into out in the film we produce, which is not to everyone’s taste.

Maybe now is the time to look at more human scripts and a different approach to storytelling.


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