Piyush Pandey on winning an election, exporting Indian ideas, the creatives he admires, his proudest moments, scam, and the future of advertising in the world’s biggest democracy

Piyush PandeyPiyush Pandey worked as a tea taster before joining Ogilvy & Mather as a trainee account executive in 1982. Almost exactly thirty-two years later, he is the executive chairman and national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India and South Asia, and has been named the most influential adman in the world’s largest democracy for eight consecutive years by The Economic Times.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks from Pandey’s home in the heart of Mumbai, the Jaipur-born winner of more than 600 creative awards talks about the role he played in getting India’s new prime minister elected, the creatives he most admires, his proudest moments, the biggest challenges facing India’s ad industry, whether Indian advertising can cross borders, scam, and an idea that came to him while riding on the back of a motorbike.

The view from Piyush Pandey's home in Mumbai

The view from the balcony of Pandey’s home in Mumbai

You’ve worked at Ogilvy since 1982. Ever thought of moving on to pastures new?

I’ve worked at Ogilvy for 32 years this month. I’ve enjoyed it all the way through, because I’ve performed a number of different jobs. I joined as a client servicing assistant, then in the mid-eighties I shifted to the creative department. I worked on culture-based campaigns to reach the masses; the job was to Indianise the British advertising that we had done in an earlier time.

In ’93, I became creative director of the Bombay agency. A few years later, I was asked to run the Bombay office too. Then I became national creative director and chairman. I’ve done a mixture of roles, being both a captain and a creative. So I’ve never experienced a feeling of fatigue or wanting to move elsewhere.

If you had to choose one, what’s your proudest moment as a creative director?

If they don’t change every year you should retire! This year has been a particularly proud year because of many different pieces of work. But particularly the work for the BJP [the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won the largest election in history, in which 814.5 million people were eligible to vote, in May]. I’ve also recently created the longest commercial of my career, a four-minute 40 seconds film for Fortune Oil.

The media must have been expensive…

The impact was such that it didn’t have to run on television for long, and it was widely viewed after it was seeded in social media.

Piyush Pandey's living room

Pandey’s drawing room

What’s your view on where India is right now in its development versus the rest of the world?

As Martin [Sorrell, the CEO of WPP, the owner of Ogilvy] said the day before yesterday, you should only start worrying about the rest of the world when you’ve exhausted the opportunities in your domestic market. There is a big task ahead to venture into emerging India in the countryside. We’ve reached this audience through non-traditional media until now, but we’ve a lot of work to do. I hate to compare where India stands internationally. I would much rather do work that the people of India appreciate.

How do you know that the people of India appreciate your work?

Well, yesterday a wonderful thing happened. I went to Goa with a CNBC journalist who is helping me write a book. On our way back, I realised that I’d forgotten my wallet. In it were means of identification, which meant that I couldn’t get into the airport. But my journalist friend told the airport security guard that I was the man behind the famous ads for Cadbury. The guard said he loved ads, so I was granted entry into the airport. If I’d told him not that I’d made ads that reached people, but that I’d won 40 Cannes Lions, he’d have told me where to shove my Lions.

Ogilvy’s famous ‘Kuch Khas Hai’ ad for Cadbury:

What do you see as the main obstacle to the development of India’s ad industry?

I believe that the advertising expenditure of Indonesia [which has less than a quarter of the population of India’s] is higher than in India. But I think that now things may change, because competition has greatly increased.

Sure, but what about the obstacles that may prevent this from happening?

I come from an era of transition. The biggest obstacle then was for advertising people to see life differently; clients to do things that they hadn’t done before, and for agency personnel to reinvent themselves. How many English copywriters disappeared at the end of the eighties because they didn’t adapt? One of the big obstacles we face is that a large part of the countryside is unreachable through television. That’s why our agency started Ogilvy Outreach with Hindustan Unilever [The Indian operation of Unilever in which the Anglo-Dutch firm owns a 52 per cent controlling stake] to reach the ‘media dark’ areas of the country. These are obstacles to be seen as opportunities and challenges rather than barriers to be depressed by. Mobile is growing at a speed that is quite amazing in India. But we need to create stuff that is as distinctive as the work we create for TV. We shouldn’t put TV work on to mobile phones. We have to ‘think mobile’.

The new face of India

The new face of India

What do you make of the potential impact of India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whom you helped get elected with your ad campaigns, on India’s advertising industry?

The prime minister is a great believer in technology, and I believe that the progress of the ad industry will happen faster because of that belief. He’s been talking up development and the use of technology. He’s talking about what tourism can do for a country in terms of employment and wealth creation. All these things are making us optimistic about life. In our breakfast meeting with Martin [Sorrell] in which we circulated a to-do list, one of the things mentioned was to make a move in sanitary products, because soon there will be toilets everywhere in India, which we so desperately need.

You were one of the people behind the campaign that got Narendra Modi elected (and created 200 commercials, 1,000 print ads and 100 radio scripts in the process). To what extent do you think media and advertising influenced the outcome of the election?

To jump and take credit for the election victory is a very naive way of looking at life. Media and our work did justice to a great product. We created a fantastic campaign. We’re very proud, and the country’s very proud of what we did. But I’m not convinced by the assertion that we created a wave – we rode the wave. Yes, we talked to the people of India in a language that they understand. But to take credit is to take credit from the man himself and his workers. We were air cover. The battle is won on the ground. I’m not being modest. I’m just being a realistic. Success has many fathers. It’s foolish to bet on one.

In ’87, we launched Titan watches. For the first time they came up with watches that were within reach of a lot of people financially, and with designs that India had never seen before. We did not make Titan watches. We did not design the watches or set up Titan shops around the country. To say that we were part of team that made it happen – I hate statements like that.

Watch a classic Titan watches ad:

Sir John Hegarty, the co-founder of BBH, told me in Cannes recently that Big Data is a “nonsense” and that nothing can replace creative intuition and instinct. Do you agree?

Hegarty: big data is 'nonsense'

Hegarty: Big Data is ‘nonsense’

Yes. But it’s a very convenient thing to say. Because when you make a commercial that 50m people see on YouTube, do you use the data? Yes, because you flaunt the reach of the ad. Then data becomes your friend.

Data is important, but there’s a point where you put it aside and take a leap of creative judgement. But what is data? It’s information. If I don’t get information on how people live in a remote part of the country, what am I to do? I need people to share information with me. But then I completely disagree with people who say that data is God. Data and intuition have to go hand in hand; there’s a balance you need to strike.

As a child, I had the opportunity to travel a lot of India using modes of transport that the common man uses, as I was playing cricket around the country – cricketers didn’t have first class travel then, so I was very lucky to get a lot of feel for the country.

But there’s a limit for what data can do. David Ogilvy said that you shouldn’t use data as a crutch; it’s a fine balance. If you take data and research at face value, then you will create something that is obvious. I would like to read between the lines to work out what someone would say in front of 20 other people. You get boring advertising when you follow data too literally. But you still need to understand what the data is telling you.

Anyone in the world who thinks India is one country is fooling themselves. It’s at least 28 different countries in one. Yes, there is a soul to India that you can communicate with a single piece of advertising. But it’s damn difficult to do.

If you travel 100km in India, the food changes completely. It’s not like in the UK, where you get shepherd’s pie everywhere. In Uttar Pradesh, coconut oil is used on the head and body for moisturising purposes, but in the south of India food is cooked with the stuff. In UP, people would think you’re mad to be eating it. And if you to go to Kolkata, a lot of food is eaten with mustard oil, but in other parts of country it’s used for a massage.

India is one of the region’s strongest creative forces. To what extent do you feel Indian creative thinking can be exported across the region?

I’m paid for delighting audiences in India. If in the process the work travels, it’s a bonus. But if I started to think about advertising that can cross borders, there’s a risk that I would leave a gaping hole in my understanding of India. The bus commercial for Fevicol was a big winner with a lot of people around the world. But I didn’t create it for Cannes. I created it for India.

Mumbrella has written a lot about scam recently, and we have boycotted Cannes because our content director, Tim Burrowes, does not think the festival is taking the issue seriously. What are your views on scam?

Well, the security guard at Goa Airport wouldn’t have let through the day before yesterday if I believed in scam. Having said that, ideas come to creative people without a brief. And I would say that if you’re so passionate about that idea, go and sell it to the client. And if you’re desperately passionate about that idea, go and find a new client.

Fevicol never briefs me. They see me as an extension of their business, which I’ve worked on for 30 years. The latest idea I had for them was during the run-up to the elections. It was one month before the results came out. One morning I woke up and had an idea. I said to the client that if you don’t do it in the next two days, you will miss great opportunity. That was a proactive idea, and in the end it went like a maniac on YouTube.

How do you get inspired?

After so many years, the creative process is like breathing to me. Ideas come and you throw them out instinctively because they don’t make sense for the client. But to answer your question on a practical basis, you have to keep your eyes and ears open. You can’t force it. Go and listen to music concerts. Go to the movies. Go and watch your favourite sport. Whatever you are passionate about, do that. Embrace that. Keep the windows of the mind open. I was traveling on a motorbike once. My colleague was riding the bike. When the idea came to me I wrote it on a piece of scrap of paper on his back.

I asked this question of Prasoon Joshi, the chairman, CEO and chief creative officer of McCann South Asia, in Cannes a few months back. In the UK, not many people have heard of even Sir Martin Sorrell or Sir John Hegarty. But in India, like in South America, admen are celebrities. Is there a danger that ad folk in India, like yourselves, are bigger brands than the agencies they work for?

It depends on how seriously you take yourself. It can be damaging if you take yourself too seriously. But it can be a fantastic advantage when you’re taking fresh thinking to a client. When I introduce my team, my clients know that they are come highly recommended. Everyone knows that no one is Superman who works across all clients. Some competitors used to say, who does Ogilvy have apart from Piyush? Well, we have a battery of very strong creatives. The reputation of Ogilvy has changed. It’s not a one-man team. We have 400 people in the creative team, and 1,400 people in the agency as a whole.

So who do you respect as a creative in India?



Different people for different things. R. Balki [the chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas & Partners] does some very good work. From time to time, Taproot does so also [the founder of Taproot, Agnello Dias, featured on a Mumbrella hangout in March]. The rest I’m not naming because I don’t see a consistent body of work. You see some good stuff from McCann once in a while, but not all of the time.

Look at the article on Firstpost.com from a few days ago [which was headlined ‘From Lalitaji to Google reunion: 67 years, 67 great Indian ads’]. Yes, this is just one man’s opinion, but I would say that of that body of work, around 20 of the ads were by Ogilvy and around 50 of the 67 were either by Ogilvy, Lowe or J. Walter Thompson.

Watch the Happy Dent ad featured in the article, created by McCann India:

If you look at the last five years’ of awards shows in India, you’ll find the same pattern. Not just creative awards, but effectiveness shows also. There are fine individual pieces of work by other agencies, but consistency over time is key. I’m just giving you the facts as they stand.

That said, there are lots of people who produce bad work, but clients may have bullied them or they may have just had a bad day. A 24 year-old may have written it under circumstances that I don’t understand. You have to be very careful in what you say about other peoples’ work, because it can have a very negative impact, particularly on young people. A lack of knowledge about how a campaign was created can be very harmful, so I don’t tend to criticise other people’s work. Privately I might say so, but never in public.


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