Q&A with Publicis creative chief Bobby Pawar: India is finding its creative voice but mind the hype

Bobby PawarBobby Pawar is the managing director and chief creative officer of Publicis Worldwide, South Asia.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks, Pawar talks about the democratisation of creativity in India, the hope and hype of Indian advertising, how a country finds its creative voice, how he gets inspired, and how he was affected by the Ford Figo ad fiasco in 2013, which meant the end of his time at J. Walter Thompson.

Bobby, just in the last week, we’ve seen some great work come out of India, not only from Publicis for Nerolac and Ambuja Cement, but for Visa by BBDO and others. It’s a great time for Indian advertising it seems…

I think it’s a good time for creativity in general in India, in all forms, beyond advertising. Advertising is part of the creative explosion that happens. Stand up comedy is big, people are finding their creatives voices online and offline. Independent music independent and Bollywood is blossoming. Lots of people are coming on to the scene, finding their voice and exploring. The democratisation of art and creativity is happening. It’s one of the best times to be in the creative business in India. Any form of creativity thrives on patronage, and we’re seen a greater level of patronage than at any time in the past.

What do you mean by patronage?

As important as creativity is, is the person who supports it. More clients are interested in breaking through and engaging people on a wider level than ever before.

More people are buying art and music than ever before. We are seeing the economic democratisation of creativity. Even in the smallest town, there is the desire to come up with creative ideas that make a difference. Those stories and points of view are now finding a voice.

Not every country in Asia has a creative voice yet. Thailand has, India has, China has, Singapore, perhaps, hasn’t yet. What needs to happen for a country to find its creative voice?

A few things need to happen. The first is exposure. What’s happened in India is that a multiplicity of channels have been throwing content at people, and the internet and especially mobile phones have enabled that on a huge scale. If you watch dance competitions on TV you’ll notice that the best performances are coming from the smallest towns in India. Some would think, how did they do that, what would they know about modern dance? Well, they’ve been watching YouTube. Inspiration leads to desire and passion, and that’s what’s happening now in India. The dream is to do something, be brilliant at it, and bring part of your own world into it. Democratisation, passion and skill are coming to the fore. India’s voice is not one voice. It’s a chorus of voices – an intellectual voice, global indian voice and a local voice – and they’re coming together at the same time.

What was the inspiration for your agency’s most recent two commercials, the first being a mockumentary charting the struggles of a giant man so strong he broke holes in walls, but everything was ok after the house was redone with Ambuja Cement.

Why not use the Great Khali, who’s the biggest Indian of us all, and tell a story about his struggles? In a sense it was the most obvious thing we could have done. So obvious no one else has done it.

And what about the ad for Nerolac Suraksha, which told the story of a doctor who was given no respect by his postman because of the shabby exterior of his house.

The idea came from a very simple insight. The mindset is to spend all the money on the interior of your home. If you have an independent home, 0.01 per cent of the people who pass by will see the inside of your home. Everyone looks from the outside to judge what sort of person you are. It was the simplicity of the idea that the team had. I thought yes, it’s as simple as that. Now let’s exaggerate the hell out of it – that always works well in India.

Who do you think is doing good work in India at the moment?

Contract Advertising has been doing some good work for Tata Docomo. McCann have been doing some nice work for Nescafe over the past year. Some of the smaller shops are doing some good stuff too.

Clearly, it’s a pretty exciting time to be in advertising in India right now?

It’s also scary, because the competition is so much greater. There’s lots of fighting in the market. Which is great because you have to keep raising the bar.

India is talked up a lot these days. It’s one of the world’s fastest growing ad markets. It has been performing well at highly regarded award shows such as Warc. Martin Sorrell (WPP’s boss) visits a lot. But is India really fulfilling its potential?

Let’s be honest. There’s a lot of hype. The market is being over-talked. You listen to it and pull it out the other ear. We are taking ourselves very seriously. We don’t want to lose the mojo that keeps us going. People want to glorify and justify decisions they’re making. India is a good place to be right now, but that should not be an indicator of the kind of place it could become. One thing we need to do is keep on challenging ourselves. The other thing, the bigger game, is how to get more diverse talent into the industry from different backgrounds, not just into creative roles, but into planning or account management too. They don’t have to be B-school [business school] grads. What made this business great is people who came from outside of the typical fields.

Did you enter the business from outside the usual route in?

Yes, I was an engineering college drop-out. I did three years of computer engineering before quitting and moving on.

Ford Figo adsYour recent work has shown a creative pushing the envelope. But I have to ask, how did your experience at J. Walter Thompson [Pawar was chief creative officer of the agency when, in 2013, a Ford Figo ad featuring women bound and gagged in the trunk of a car, unapproved by the client, went viral. The creative team were dismissed and Pawar quit] affect your creative judgement, if at all?

The Ford team didn’t report to me. But whatever happened, happened. You take it on the chin and move on. I have no sense of regret there.

The important thing is, it is not about the place, it’s about what you want to build that matters. A purpose. I was at JWT and DDB before that. You try to build a place that enables great work in all its forms. If you say you need to re-examine your purpose because of one punch on the chin, maybe you didn’t have a purpose in the first place.

A cliché though it probably is, do you have a creative mantra?

I want to understand why a problem exists; to understand the problem behind the problem. Without that understanding, you can’t find a creative solution. You need to find the human element that connects the problem to the solution and get to the heart of that.

I think that the first few ideas should always be discarded. You have to write the mediocrity out of your system; keep digging away and raising the bar. If you don’t see the flaws in what you did one month back, you’re not progressing.

If you asked me about the Ambuja Cement ad in a month, I would tell you five things I would have done differently. In everything you do, you will make mistakes. But with time if you don’t realise what they are, and understand what could have done better, you won’t evolve.

So how would you improve the Ambuja Cement work?

One thing is that maybe the music was overdone a little bit. Perhaps the story could have been a tad more interesting. It’s minor things. But it’s so recent. I need the distance of time to look back and assess the mistakes.

What do you do for inspiration?

I’m a voyeur. I’ve always been that way. When we’re out having dinner, my wife always complains that I’m more interested in the four tables next to us. Comedy and joy comes from everything around you. Our job is to dramatise that and make it funny. I’m a giant reader of life in itself. If someone’s having a conversation I want to know what they’re talking about.

I love poetry. It’s a dramatisation of what happens in life. It gets you to think about things in a different way.

And I have a three year-old who surprises me everyday. He’ll say the damnedest things that turn out to be pretty good ideas.


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