Trials & Tribulations of a life in advertising

Thursday, November 16, 2006


It's finally here. "Hannibal Rising", the first book in seven years from Thomas Harris that traces the evolution of the most admired villain in fiction, will be hitting the stores on December 5th.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Words you badly wanted to learn, but didn’t know who to ask

Can you describe the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of a pillow when you hit the bed?

Haven’t you noticed how people stand when they examine someone else’s bookshelf? The-one-hand-tucked-in-pocket look that all of us are used to? Can you describe that posture?

And who hasn’t had trouble balancing hot and cold shower taps? Can you put a word to it?

Another universally acknowledged phenomenon. The sneeze that tickles, but never comes. Do you have a word to describe that irritating feeling?

Ladies and gentlemen, help is at hand.

Aptly titled ‘The Meaning of Liff’, it’s a project by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (Yes, the legend behind the Hitchhiker series) to define and put words to people, situations, things and feelings that, unfortunately, have no names as of now.

Think about it.

How many times do we say ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ while meaning ‘no’?

Or how many times do we find a lost object immediately after we have bought a replacement?

Sure we know people who would suggest to everyone that they should split the restaurant bill equally and then order two packs of cigarettes for themselves?

Imagine if we could put a name to such things, occasions or people. That’s exactly what Adams and Lloyd have done.

Take a tour. Your vocabulary will never be the same again.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Diwali is here. So are the Dhamakas

The festive season is here. It's that time of the year, when millions of Indians, rising beyond the differences of caste and creed, language and gender, reach out to each other to find meaning to the most fundamental of all questions: where can I find the best deals in washing machines and vacuum cleaners?

That's right. Diwali, in advertising and marketing circles, connotes just one thing. Shopping. From dishwashers to plasma televisions to water purifiers, this is the season that drives otherwise sane individuals to go on wild shopping sprees. Take a look around and you can see it for yourself. No, that's not true. When you look around, you can count yourself lucky if you can see anything beyond the immediate 50 feet.

That's because, on an average, every 10 feet is covered with 7 banners, 18 hoardings and 75 posters. And each one of them is inviting you to participate in some shopping festival where, for e.g., you buy a high end refrigerator, get a scratch card which is an endurance test for your fingernails and after scratching it - assuming your fingers are not bleeding and are still attached to your palm - you end up being the lucky winner of, guess what, an amazing bowl set, the kind that would be instantly returned by your maid if you were to gift her.

I know what you are thinking. I must have gone for such a shopping expedition. No sir. This column is like your average dentist reassuring you that it will not hurt. You know it will, he knows it will, your maternal aunt in your native village knows it will. But still he reassures you. Similarly, I am an expert in Diwali shopping not because I shop, because - and follow me carefully here - I happen to have branded such a shopping festival for a major brand for this festive season. And I'm not unique here. Every advertising agency worth its brief would be working on a hundred such shopping festivals as we speak.

But I need not be in advertising to tell you what's been happening to your newspapers of late. With the exception of the masthead, every other inch of space in all major dailies is filled with ads proclaiming essentially the same thing; Come, Buy, Scratch. In fact, don't be surprised if your newspaper guy throws the paper and it breaks down an entire wall. On a related subject, I think the Municipal Corporation of Delhi doesn't have to bother itself with this demolition drive of illegal buildings. (Most buildings, legal, illegal or partly legal, will be demolished if you throw both Hindustan Times and Times of India together at them.)

You think I am exaggerating. Just watch out for this Dhanteras and see if you can spot any news in the newspaper. Editorial content is being so tightly squeezed between Diwali ads that some headlines might read, "North Korea says it will explode another Diwali Dhamaka". Every newspaper prints so many additional pages to accommodate these ads that the average number of pages is somewhere around 275. And as you prepare for this coming weekend, in all likelihood, you might get your papers in two or three separate volumes; "Good morning sir, this is your Times of India, Volume I. Volume II will be shortly airlifted to your thirdfloor apartment. And regarding the supplements, the Indian weightlifting team is in charge of that, sir. Please talk to them."

Good luck people.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Media Nights at Turquoise Cottage

Among the many questions that life throws up at advertising professionals in Delhi, there is one that’s paramount. The issue that most of us spend hours trying to fathom. We discuss it in great detail during office breaks (which is most of office hours), lunch hour (which stretches from one to somewhere between three thirty and four), and we analyse it threadbare during our drives to and from office. With multiple philosophical, psychological, sociological and financial layers to it, we come to office everyday trying to grapple with this fundamental question of our lives.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the number one question that every advertising professional asks himself or herself in Delhi is, "Why is Turquoise Cottage (TC) so overcrowded?"

For those of you not so privileged to be in the luxurious confines of South Delhi where water and power shortages have migrated to such a level that people are surprised to see running tap water, TC is one among the most popular pubs that plays mostly classical and modern hard rock and serves good liquor. And the crowd is very cool too. But that bit about music is very important because in Delhi, Jazzy B is considered to be alternative heavy metal.

With another branch in Gurgaon – which, to put it softly, is dead – TC is the most sought after place to party for the entire media crowd. For a very good reason too. Every Wednesday is a media night where there is a flat 50% off for those in the media.

So every Wednesday you’ll find TC brimming with both true media and the surrogate media crowd. Surrogate media crowd comprises of those fortunate human beings who do not happen to work for advertising agencies or media firms, but are unfortunate enough to have friends in media with clearly legible visiting cards. Put these two crowds together and you have the entire South, South West, South Central and South East Delhi in TC every Wednesday and even during the weekends.

I believe there is space for about 100-125 people in TC, which most of my friends who frequent the place like me, would claim is a gross exaggeration in itself. But on these special days, don’t be surprised if the actual figure is something like 12,000. It’s so crowded that I’m looking forward to a Lost & Found poster outside the pub very soon. I sincerely believe there are guys still wandering around TC, who have "lost" their girlfriends in the basement.

Last night I was in TC. And as usual, the crowd was cool, the music was rocking and everyone was jostling for enough space to bring their drinks to their mouths. That tiny movement might take anything between 5 to 15 minutes depending on who’s pushing you from where. In fact, after sometime, you forget the fact that you ever had hands. If your mobile is on vibrator and it’s in your trouser pockets, by the time your hand reaches that pocket, most of your genitalia would have been electrocuted.

OK, enough about elbow space and legroom. I am more interested in the fundamental natural act of breathing, or the lack of it. Because of an amazing system of ventilation done by a firm called "No Ventilation", the smokefilled basement makes you think you’re somewhere outside Pushkar trapped in a dust storm.

If you happen to be away from the bar, it might take an hour to get a drink which is roughly the time it takes to reach Manesar. And by the time you actually get to the bar you would have forgotten what you were drinking or more importantly, who you were with. There have also been documented cases of people forgetting who they were. To avoid all that, I was standing near the bar. So, every time someone wanted a drink, I would be pushed like an arch towards the bar with my face very close to the sink and would be in that position until that drink got served.

Even if you are not into headbanging, you’ll end up doing it at TC because that’s the only way you get to talk. "You need another drink?" my friend asks in a sign language. I violently bang my head to and fro to signal that I need one. And it’s is an amazing place to shake your legs. Just stand anywhere the designated dance floor, which is most of TC, and you’ll be pushed from all sides, and forget shaking your legs, your entire body will be swaying to Linkin Park. Which is exactly what I did last night. (And, last night there was an exceptionally hot girl in black with a nosering and a red dupatta to make the night all the more happening.)

All said and done, TC is definitely one among the best places to be seen at and to party in South Delhi.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

We only kill each other

"Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge."

The then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir didn’t exactly quote Gaguin after the gruesome massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. But the ethical dilemma of a nation constantly in war to protect its borders doesn’t prevent her from speaking her mind. It’s time to avenge the insanity. It’s time to be as resolute and as merciless as the enemy. After all "every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."

Steven Spielberg’s Munich is an investigation of those compromises. An impartial narration of the Israeli retaliation through the hands of a not-so-elite team from the otherwise elitist Mossad. The team is headed by Avner (Eric Bana) and comprises Steve (Daniel Craig), Carl (Ciarin Hinds), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), and Hans (Hanns Zischler). Their mission is to assassinate the leadership of Black September responsible for the Munich massacre. With the inimitable Geoffrey Rush as Ephraim, Avner’s case officer, the team sets out to seek out the terrorists from the shady alleys of a deeply unpredictable Cold War Europe. It’s an "officially unofficial" mission. They begin to pursue leads, build contacts, use moles and execute their targets one by one.

But this isn’t your typical Spy vs. Spy vintage Cold War story. This isn’t a terrorists-on-the-run Hollywood cliché either. It’s a dispassionate account of the reasons and the moral dilemmas involved in the transformation of people from individuals to instruments of an ever-escalating war. As the Black September leadership is eliminated in carefully planned individual attacks spreading from Athens to Beirut, the moral issues that got sidelined in the immediate aftermath of the Olympic Village Massacre begin to surface.

In a world where nobody’s trust can be safely secured, even after the payment of millions of dollars, team members begin to doubt the efficacy of their mission. National sentiment begins to be balanced by religious righteousness. And it’s the same spirit of vengeance Avner finds in a faction of PLO they are forced to share a room with. It’s the same questions about the search and denial of a homeland. As Munich unfolds into a human drama, you realise that the combatants can easily switch places and it would be hard to recognise them.

It’s also a crude reminder that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. There’s little of black and white here. Munich is more about the innumerable shades of grey that all of us possess. And precisely because of which, the most interesting moments in the movie are not the exceptionally well shot action scenes. The most captivating moments are when the characters from both sides express their moral dilemmas and limited choices. As a committed, and soon to be murdered Ali from PLO explains to Avner, "you don’t understand the struggle for a homeland because you have a home. The home is everything".

Yet, even after the end of the mission and from the confines of his apartment in New York, it’s his feelings about home and his past deeds that keep Avner awake. He believes he is being hunted and he blames everyone from KGB to Mossad for that. And Avner discovers a particular feeling that some of his erstwhile colleagues had begun to nurture – guilt. In one of the most poignant conversations towards the end of the movie, Avner confronts the hardened Ephraim to question him about the choices he was forced to make. Ephraim gives the reply that could have come from any of the characters on either side of the movie: "We kill for our future. We kill for peace".

Steven Spielberg needs to be lauded for his objectivity and impartiality in bringing to screen one of the most controversial events from the most tragic geographical struggle in human history. It’s an in-your-face account of what happened in that Olympic Village and more importantly, what happened next. More than the possibility of peace, what haunts you is the prospect of a never ending conflict. As one of the characters says in a reflective mood, "all of this blood comes back to us". Yes, Munich is proof that no matter which side you sympathise with, it always does.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Certainly, a ten point something

In 1995, Chetan Bhagat, left IIT and like thousands before and after him, simply failed to log out. He carried the years with him; the never ending tests, late night paranthas, movies in Priya. Years later, from the secluded confines of an investment bank in Hong Kong, he decided to revisit his alma mater. His nostalgia takes him on a rendezous along the corridors and friendships that once defined his life. And if it was an engineering degree from undoubtedly India's best scientific institution the first time around, on his second visit, Chetan Bhagat comes out with what is a significant achievement in Indian fiction. We'll never know how much of "Five Point Someone" is autobiographical. We'll never know how much of it is unreal. What we do know is that he has achieved something truly unparalleled in Indian writing in English. He has made the familiar the popular, defied the stereotypes and in the process touched the hearts of thousands.

To know the significance of "Five Point Someone", one only has to remember that this is a nation where Khushwant Singh remains the bestselling novelist. In one sweet stroke, Bhagat has upped the ante. And he has done it in a style that's as intimate as it's casual. Through some skilfully sculpted characters - Hari, Ryan, Alok, Neha, Cherian - he has produced a narrative that's both honest and humane. Hari Kumar is the narrator of who we don't know much about. Only towards the end of the book do we get to know that his father is an imposing disciplinarian. Alok is the only hope of a semi-paralysed father and a struggling mother. He needs his ten points because he needs his sister's dowry. Ryan doesn't accept his parents' love but is glad to accept his pocket money from their pottery business. Cherian is the cold hearted Head of Department with the beautiful and level headed daughter Neha carrying family secrets too scary to be let out. Bhagat brings out their passions and fears in a seemingly effortless manner. Ryan's rebellion, rooted against his parents, but aimed at the system that refuses to budge, Alok's fears of losing out on a steady income, and Hari's intimacy with Neha that both of them find hard to define; these are the threads that make Bhagat's debut novel a candid account of teenage crises in an elitist institution. He doesn't imitate, he doesn't patronise. He just shares.

And what he shares is not something that you find regularly in Indian fiction. There are no lengthy descriptions, no tiring passages. (Bhagat doesn't spend more than 30 words at a stretch describing the IIT scenery). The prose is not lyrical either, and thank heavens for that. There are no cliched examinations into the pasts of the main characters. The protagonists are too interesting to require any background check on their past. And it's this honesty that makes reading Bhagat so interesting. An honesty that makes you easily identify with at least one of the main characters. The crises that he throws up are the crises every teenager faces. The choices he presents are the choices we all would have faced at one point in our lives. "Five Point Someone" is the diary Chetan Bhagat must have mentally updated in his years at IIT and he chose to click the refresh button at a time when there was a clear dearth of original talent. He has thrilled us, he has touched us. And he has done a much needed "Trainspotting" in Indian fiction.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Boredrooms And Other Forms Of Torture

Of all the systemic and institutionalised forms of torture known to mankind, the boardroom is the most agonizing. Here you have a captive audience that can be called at a short notice and forced to endure excruciatingly long hours of sheer torture. Unless you have a valid excuse – reasons of health or more often than not, another boardroom meeting – you cannot escape this persecution. I have one such agonizing agenda later this afternoon.

I have been attending boardrooms for a little over four years now. And I’ve noticed certain inalienable truths about meetings in general.

1. No office meeting has ever ended within the stipulated time. Once in the advertising frame of mind, you can discuss all evils surrounding humanity. For as long as you want.

2. No meeting ever limits itself to the agenda. Meetings that begin with the latest market findings can effortlessly digress to closely associated subjects like Ganguly opening the innings.

3. No meeting has ever begun on time. If everyone is unusually punctual, the first 10 minutes will be devoted to just that. How come everyone is on time today?

4. Whenever someone says “I’m viewing this with an open frame of mind”, you can certainly conclude that he or she has already decided what the issue is and what ought to be done.

5. “I think we have a consensus here” is a beautiful rendition of “I don’t give a damn what you guys think, I’ve made up my mind and you’ll follow it”.

6. It’s not important how good or bad an idea or suggestion is; what matters is who is stating that. As you move up the value chain, you have to confront the inescapable truth. You don’t judge an idea. You judge the person.

7. You can go into a meeting without preparing for even 5 minutes. To be the star of the show, all you have to do is keep reacting to every trivial thing discussed there.

8. When you find nothing else to criticise an idea or an individual, you can “count on your experience”. “Two years back we had a similar problem and..” or “In my previous job, we tried this track”. Nobody can ever dispute your non-existent, totally irrelevant experience. Of course, unless someone else is clever enough to do the same to you.

9. In front of others, subordinates generally laugh with their boss at the slightest hint even if they have heard that recycled joke a million times.

10. The time tested ploy to answer someone when you are asked whether something’ll work or not, or whether an idea is the right one, you can always fall back on this gem. “Maybe, maybe not”.