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Narendra Modi is a great listener: Samrat Bedi

Adman Piyush Pandey spearheaded the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Lok Sabha election campaign with a then little-known ad agency, Soho Square. Anu Prabhakar talks to Samrat Bedi, head of its Mumbai office, about making it in the ad world and pulling off the mammoth feat

Samrat Bedi has an interesting way of explaining human behaviour - he cites the example of horse racing to do so. “If your horse wins, you’ll take the credit for it and will be perceived as very intelligent for choosing the right horse. But if it loses, you will give 30 excuses for losing the race.

Samrat Bedi at the Soho Square Mumbai office in Goregaon. Pic/Nimesh Dave
Samrat Bedi at the Soho Square Mumbai office in Goregaon. Pic/Nimesh Dave

And that is typical of most people,” he says. Unusual parallel or not, it was one of the best lessons he ever learnt - one that would stand him in good stead, especially when it was time to organise one of the most talked about political campaigns in recent times.

Life in south Mumbai
Born and raised in Cuffe Parade, Bedi’s was an idyllic childhood, filled with memories of playing football with his friends at Priyadarshini Park, with the rain pelting down on his head. And going to the Mahalaxmi Race Course with his grandfather on Sundays, where he was surrounded by excited men and cuss words in the enclosure reserved for non-members.

“I was only 13 or 14 and at that time, kids were not allowed into the racecourse. But I grew a moustache I think that was just my Punjabi blood,” chuckles Bedi. But his most lucid memories come from his hometown, Phagwara in Punjab.

“I used to go there every summer. When my train pulled into the station, my cousins would run alongside the train,” smiles Bedi. “The train stopped only for two minutes, so we had to roll up our luggage quickly, jump out and hug everyone. There was such unbridled love.”

Though he insists that he enjoys the more ‘humble’ things in life, growing up in the posh side of Mumbai had its own perks like being a regular at the National Centre for Performing Arts and enrolling for the late Pearl Padamsee’s theatre classes, where he met his wife, Binaifer. His love life and this is no exaggeration resembled an old Hindi movie.

There were cultural differences (Binaifer is Parsi), family opposition (lots of it), sneaking out post curfew and even a best friend who covered up for the couple. “We eloped when I was 18 and we got married when I was 21,” he grins. “But all’s well today. My wife and her family have stood by me and been a guiding force in my life.” Today, the couple has an 11-year-old daughter, Maia.

Initially, however, life was far from romantic. The young couple lived apart for a year after marriage, till they could afford a place of their own, and often had to choose between French fries and a dosa for a meal. While Binaifer proofread Shakespearean plays for Rs 10 per page, Bedi took up a clerical job.

“I was paid Rs 800 per month,” says Bedi. “I used to hate it.” In fact, being quite outdoorsy, Bedi always thought he would branch out into the field of sports. “I used to swim, play tennis and football. I love horse racing (his personal email id is the name of a racehorse he first bet money on. And won). My dream is to coach a football team and own a racing horse,” says Bedi.

Entering the advertising world
Advertising happened unexpectedly. “My friends in advertising said there is this company called Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), and they were offering Rs 1,500 per month.

And I thought, ‘That’s cool! I will go!’” laughs Bedi. “I was young and impressionable.” An understatement perhaps, considering that he attended the interview wearing an earring. “The interviewer took a note of it and I had to remove the earring later,” he laughs.

After stints at Rediffusion and Synchronicity advertising agencies, Bedi rejoined O&M in 2000. “I had some fantastic bosses who allowed me to make mistakes,” says Bedi, who worked on the brand launches of Dove Shampoo, Indian Premier League, Vespa scooters and Cadbury Bournville. But the campaign which, in his own words, was the quickest learning curve ever came much later the BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign.

“The kind of work that Soho Square (a subsidiary of O&M) did after winning the account in early March was unprecedented. I had never worked so hard in my 17-year-long career,” says Bedi. “A lot of work - I would say 90 per cent of it - happened out of the Mumbai office.

Our team of around 35 people started work right away,” he explains. While making one of the company’s earlier pitches, Bedi met the man himself - Narendra Modi - for 10 minutes. “What struck me was that he is a great listener. He listens carefully and is sharp,” he says.

Working on the campaign was like being on a perpetual high. “Every day was a Monday and every time was daytime - we had virtually no sleep. We had to understand the political scenario which changed every second, and had to be quick to react on all counts at any given time,” he says. Two of the campaign’s catchphrases - ‘ Acche din aane wale hai’ and ‘Janta maaf nahi karegi’ - were created by Soho Square.

Looking back at it all now, he sums it up neatly in the most profound way possible - by quoting Yoda from Star Wars. "Yoda says to Luke, 'Do. Or do not. There is no try. And for us, this was 'do'. There was simply no 'try', which is such a cop out word," smiles Bedi.

Inside Track
Born: December 12, 1973
Education: Schooling at St Joseph’s High School in Colaba and graduation from HR College of Commerce and Economics
Mantra in life: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose best advice i ever got: You cannot make everyone happy
Unfulfilled dream: To manage an English Premier League side

My favourites
Film: The Black Stallion 
Book: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Sport: Football
Destination: It’s a tie between the swimming pool and the tennis court

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