Trials & Tribulations of a life in advertising

Monday, February 20, 2006

I know the feeling

This is for SG.

Reasons for hating your new job:

1. You suddenly discover your boss has two personalities. One that you saw during the interview and the one that’s sitting 10 feet away from you.

2. The value added responsibilities that your boss talked about during the second round of interview come down to just that. Adding more files and artworks to your existing workload.

3. Since it’s a new organisation, the level of enthusiasm on everyone’s face is directly proportional to the propensity to backstab.

4. The situation is slightly worse than the usual office politics. The reason being since it’s a new firm, nobody knows who belongs to which party.

5. You realise there’s an inverse relation between your salary (that has seen a substantial rise) and your KRAs.

6. Everyone’s so bent upon impressing the boss so much that you think there’ll be an annual award with a gold plaque that has “Blue eyed boy/girl” written all over it.

7. The boss loves it so much that you think he constantly carries such a plaque in his briefcase.

8. You have to get the nod from your boss before and after doing everything. You begin to wonder whether some day soon you’ll have to get a nod before and after doing nothing.

9. You shout at yourself. “What was I thinking when I said yes”.

10. You finally fall in love with Dilbert.

Reasons for not hating it enough to leave:

1. It’s wrong to suggest that your boss has two faces. The truth lies somewhere between 18 and 26. And you’ve always known that.

2. Even while chasing mindnumbing artworks and dealer panels, you have to realise the truth. In advertising the only thing that matters is the brand. Some of your current colleagues are shining examples of that.

3. Everyone’s equally indulging in one-upmanship. That’s because everyone is equally scared. The only thing that competes with your salary as you move up is your fear of losing it.

4. You are not an overpaid 35 year old with multiple EMIs. You are an overpaid 25 year old with a single, manageable EMI. So, chill.

5. Once some of your campaigns manage to gain some visibility, inadvertently, you’ll also get some. And with it will come better opportunities.

6. Even if it’s chasing illmannered dealers, it’s much better than just sitting around and chasing your cursor the entire day. Believe me, it’s no fun.

7. The only good thing about being micromanaged is that you learn how to micromanage your future subordinates in case you feel like.

8. You were absolutely right when you took this decision to join. Had you taken the other option, you would have been shouting at yourself and the entire world. The other experience would have been way too predictable.

9. You’re not married to this place. The opportunities that were there sometime back will present themselves again. This time, with better remuneration.

10. It’s great to fall in love with Dilbert.

Strategic Rape Part II

Strategically speaking, the only reason we’re in this business is to impress others. We write briefs, conduct market surveys, spout case studies and create commercials with the sole aim of making an impact on our defenceless victims. And we’re damn good at that. Our list of victims include our existing clients, potential clients, research agencies, focus groups and of course, the general public. But it becomes extremely funny when we target our arsenal at each other. Words like strategy, then, play a significant role in career enhancement in advertising. You are nothing but the sum total of all the heavy-duty phrases you can throw around at ease. And to help you in that endeavour, here’s a list of phrases everyone must learn to survive in the corporate world.

Any idiotic thing you say can look very significant if you add the phrase, “Strategically speaking”.

You don’t “agree” with someone. You realise both are on the “same page”.

Only those devoid of any ambition would need “something that stands out”. The more worldly wise would always prefer “something that’s clutter breaking”.

Always “agree to disagree”.

Never miss out on the “key deliverables”.

If you haven’t been able to discover “effective differentiation” in your “key result areas”, you’ll never earn your “progressive performance incentives”.

If you’re not kept “in the loop”, you’re in the wrong circle.

“Filtering” is in. Every other variation beginning with “selection” is out.

“Synergy quotient”. In other words, how well two or more things fit together.

To be continued.

Inzamam ul Haq and Islam

You have just lost the one-day series. And you have lost the last one dayer by a monstrous margin. Your team has been smothered in all aspects of the game. You are called to the presentation podium as the losing captain. You are asked to comment on the loss. How do you begin your reply, simultaneously telecast to millions of television sets worldwide? You begin by saying, “Bismilla-e-rehman….”

Inzamam ul Haq knows the power of religion in a country based on just that. He knows the influence of Islam in routing public anger. And he knows it’s not nice being at the receiving end in an Islamised Pakistan. The captain on a sticky wicket has just proved he knows how to quieten the critics. He knows Islam will rescue him. He knows the potential of a televised prayer.

To understand the irony, try remembering how many Indian players have invoked religion under such circumstances. Tendulkar chanting Jai Ram? Azhar crying out “Allahu Akbar”? For all our internal squabbles, we are miles ahead of our disintegrating neighbour on that count.

Even erudite cricket commentators can’t escape being the clichéd mouthpiece. Before the series began, Rashid Latif had this to say about the current Pakistani team. “Since most of the players in the team are Muslims, there’s little chance of anything sinister like match fixing happening”. Totally forgetting the fact that it was precisely those Muslim players who were the dubious pioneers of match fixing.

But this is Pakistan where religion is the unifying theme, cricket included. Where individual preferences are always subordinated to the collective will. Where the incompetent can always seek refuge in religion. Where religion is the crux of the us-versus-them conflict. Where Irfan Pathan is singled out, just like Azharuddin and Syed Kirmani before him, not for his talent, but for his religion.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Paris Hilton as Mother Teresa, Kitsch as Art

Forget automobiles & breweries, the finest German contribution to world culture comes in the form of certain unique words with probably no parallels in any other language. One such irreplaceable phrase is kitsch. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “art, objects, or design considered to be excessively garish or sentimental, but appreciated in an ironic or knowing way”. Extravagantly loud and excessively gaudy, kitsch is what determines our popular culture from movies to fashion, sports to literature. And guess what, we can’t have enough of it.

At a basic level, kitsch, for those in urban India, operates in its most vulgar form in front of our eyes on a daily basis through Page 3. Nondescript photographs of irrelevant get-togethers, made-for-print smooches, flea market designers, socialites with too much money and too little taste, all of them cloud our mornings, vying for our attention. And, you and I, along with a new class of wannabe paparazzi with an unending appetite, feed their fantasies. C’mon, we all love the daily display of who’s revealing how much. And at a global level, nobody better fits the description of kitsch than the heiress of the hotel empire, the wooer par excellence, Madame Paris Hilton.

The darling of US tabloids and the diva of late night television, she even had her own reality show, along with her off and on best mate Nicole Richie. With only her surname as her resume, Ms. Hilton continues to court attention wherever she goes and whatever she wears. And you could’ve never guessed the nationality of her latest admirer. T. Rajeevnath. But Rajeevnath who?

National award winning Malayalam director T. Rajeevnath, wants her to play the title role in his next movie on Nobel Peace laureate Mother Teresa. That’s right people, you read it right. According to news reports, “the director was impressed when he read a report sometime ago in which the hotel heiress said she had refused to pose nude in Playboy magazine and decided then to shortlist her.” Ms. Hilton refuses to reveal her tangible assets for some ready cash and she merits the role of one of the most selfless individuals in human history. Not a word about her acting abilities, if any. Not a word about her resemblance to the Mother, if any. Not a word about her selfless services, if any.

But then again, that’s kitsch. “Excessively garish… but appreciated in an ironic… way.” We know she’s tasteless, we know she’s crass. But we want her there, just like her numerous co-stars. Because at the end of the day, her vulgarity can be matched only by our voyeurism.

Boredrooms & 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”.

To be continued

Monday, February 13, 2006

On Valentine's

“Random thoughts for Valentine's day. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.”

That was Jim Carrey as Joel Barish grieving about his loneliness in Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, probably the most ingenuous and innovative movie to come out of Hollywood in the last two years. The title itself is taken from Alexander Pope's poem "Eloisa to Abelard":

How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.

Anyone who has ever fallen in love must watch this movie at least a couple of times (You will understand it only if you watch it a couple of times). It’s the most poignant commentary on love, loss and isolation of the times we live in. The basic premise is intriguing enough: What if we could erase a select segment of our memory regarding an individual or event? What if you could replace your memory? What if the procedure fails? And, more importantly, what if you still cannot get that individual or event out of your mind. As the movie’s tagline suggests, “You can erase someone from your mind. Getting them out of your heart is another story.”

And today, ably assisted by the corporate world, we pay tribute to that truth. That, there is no getting away from that someone, if your heart has decided (to your utter surprise) that, that someone indeed is the one. That, even with all the imperfections on both sides, together what you have is something that you could have never had individually. That, given a chance, you’d still want to fall in love with the same someone.

And as the fate-struck lovers try to negotiate through their cluttered memories (Kate Winslet as an unforgettable Clementine), the truth comes out.

Clementine: I wish you had stayed.
Joel: I wish I had stayed too. I swear to god I wish I had stayed. I wish I had done a lot of things. I wish... I wish I had stayed.
Clementine: Joel? What if you stayed this time?
Joel: I walked out the door. There's no memory left.
Clementine: Come back and make up a good-bye at least. Pretend we had one.

Strategic Rape, Part I

How do you recognise someone from the advertising industry? Long hair, torn jeans, the-permanently-lost-in-thought look? Sorry. That’s dated. There’s a more accurate method. You don’t even have to look out for this particular trait. It’ll come out on its own. If you don’t miss this sign, you can say with conviction that the object in front of you, or over the phone, or in the chatroom belongs to the genus Advertisia illuminia.

Ladies and gentlemen, you identify this species through its recurrent usage of the word ‘strategy’.

Never in the history of humanity has one word been so disgustingly gang raped by so few people. It’s official now. The Award for the Most Abused in History (AMBUSH, anyone?) goes to strategy. It was selected from a privileged cluster that included some of its close cousins – strategic, strategically and stratagem. If there were a shelter of abused words somewhere on the planet, ‘strategy’ would have a permanent citizenship there. In fact, don’t be surprised if the shelter itself is named with ‘Strategy’ in it. If the job is given to any Indian advertising agency, chances are, it will be called ‘Strategically Abused Words’.

Why do people use, abuse and misuse them every frigging minute? The answer is quite simple. It’s the best bet to make sure that all your actions and thoughts carry unimaginable significance. Everyday functions of negligible consequence assume great significance when strategy is somehow squeezed into it. And nowhere does it apply more than advertising, since the whole business is subjective. So, instead of saying, “We should have more print ads so that more people can see us”, we generously tell our clients, “It makes sound strategic sense to leverage the long term, effective and in-built advantages of print vis-à-vis television as it fits in well with our long term strategy of counter fragmentation”. Or instead of saying, “I have a plan, Let’s switch off the lights when we leave”, we mouth “Strategically, all our resources should be used in such a way that the synergy is not lost and wastage, if any, should be…”

We use the word so frequently because we look important and imaginative when we utter it. Strategically sound, don’t you agree?

48 Hours

Started off this morning with a meeting for a client who had signed up with us quite recently. To say that the meeting was disastrous would be an understatement. The client has given his laundry list to which my colleagues have eagerly added their own dirty linen. Bottom line; I’m working on a client about who I’ve little idea, on a campaign I’m not at all convinced, on a deadline that would even make the seasoned engineers in NASA envious.

Not that I wanted any of this to happen. I gave my well-rehearsed set of excuses this morning.

I know as much about the client as I know about interplanetary communication.
All the art directors in our agency are tied up in various projects till the next century.
I have an unavoidable appointment with my Vaastu consultant this Saturday.
That meeting might take the whole of Sunday too.
The Monday morning deadline looks as realistic as India winning the next soccer world cup.

So the considerate set of managers present in the room, after taking into consideration all the pros and cons, took a well thought out, strategically sound decision. I have to do it. I have to find an art director, “Anything can be done in 48 hours” and “I have to make the deadline work”. Even to my seasoned ears, that last bit was shocking. So, here I’m on a Friday evening trying to figure what on earth our client wants to achieve with this campaign. Oh, I did manage to find my art partner. And together we’re trying to make the deadline work for us. If only someone would explain the damn job to begin with.

Private & Public

Why do people blog? Why do millions around the world spend hours keying in their views, dissents, feelings, protests, cries, observations, beliefs to an unknown audience? Why not share your thoughts with your girlfriend, best friend, spouse or peers? What drives that desire to share your inner self with those you might never see? Is it because it’s convenient? I don’t think so.

The leitmotif of the past decade has been the internet. No, I’m not here to lecture anyone on how it has changed the world or how it has brought lonely hearts the world over a platform to open their – what else – lonely hearts. Or how the net democratised pornography. No, I’ve something else in my mind. The internet and the accompanying revolution in mobile communications has seen a surge in the number of must have gadgets. From cell phones to ipods to laptops. So, now it’s easier to communicate with those around you. You can send text from the confines of your CEO’s room on how archaic his ideas are. So, if you now have all the gadgets you never even dreamt of, to communicate with your girl friend and your best friends, why do you share yourself with an unknown audience?

Because people, the net has allowed you and I to display all our personality traits. Including the very fact that you and I may have more than one personality to begin with. A mysterious side that we can’t share with anyone around us. A rebellious side they may not take seriously. A lonely side that they can never understand. The net, with its freedom of anonymity, allows us to express that voice. A voice not many of us have. But a voice that some of us are struggling to stifle. So, instead of sending your girl an sms about how your day has been, or calling her up late at nite to share a quirky thought, you share it with those masked faces on the worldwide web.
A mobile phone is about being in touch. E-mail is about being together. An ipod is about being in vogue. And a blog is about being lonely. Good nite.

10 to 7

It’s 10 to 7 in the evening. And I happen to be in one of those industries where you can never say with confidence if your day is about to end or begin. Whether you’ll go home in your usual state of desperation or whether things will get worse. Advertising, for all its shortcomings, is pretty good on that count. It’s full of surprises. So ladies and gentlemen, in a world where every wannabe toilet graffiti artist migrates to the net under the fine façade of blogging, here’s one more. An unadulterated assortment of attitudes, pretences and feelings. Some genuine, some make-believe. Not in the distant hope of getting rejoinders. (I get more than my share of those on a daily basis!).

It’s 7 now. I can hear faint murmurs from the adjoining room where my boss is having his seventh discussion of the day on one of our latest clients. He has just finished writing his campaign. That’s his idea of rescuing the world from all its calamities. And something tells me the client is beginning to be impressed. Watch out guys, a televised disaster is coming your way. And if I stick around, I’ll be his next victim. He’ll quietly motion me to his room and explain his outdated, recycled-to-the-zillionth-time idea. And I’ll be forced to give him my well thought out, earth-shattering suggestion. “I think we can change the background colour from pale blue to lilac”. “Or mauve”. Before such a tragedy occurs, lemme make the smartest move that I’ll be making today. Leave.