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Piyush Pandey, the (real) mad man

In an interview replete with crackling one-liners and cricket metaphors, Piyush Pandey, India’s undisputed ad guru, talks to Anu Prabhakar about his childhood, his foray into advertising, love for ghar ka khana, and dream to publish his poems someday

Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman & National Creative Director Ogilvy & Mather South Asia

There is something quite old-school about the way we fix an appointment with Piyush Pandey. Flurries of text messages and calls are not exchanged with armies of PR managers. Weeks later, the final confirmation for the interview at his Mahim home comes quietly — in the form of a concise email.

Piyush Pandey at his house in Mahim. Pic/Sameer Markande
Piyush Pandey at his house in Mahim. Pic/Sameer Markande

Once there, we ring the doorbell and are let into the apartment, where the balcony offers a breathtaking view of the Sea Link. And right next to it stands Piyush Pandey, looking quite debonair with a burning cigarette hanging from his lips. We explain who we are and comment that he must be expecting us. “No,” he replies, looking utterly puzzled.

So here we are, in the middle of Piyush Pandey’s sprawling, ultra luxurious flat, with a view that costs several crores at least. And the host has no idea why we are there. But displaying some of that trademark cool casualness, he shrugs off our awkward attempts to explain our presence, agrees to speak, explaining that the appointment only momentarily slipped his mind, and settles for a chat.

Piyush Pandey
Piyush Pandey

From Jaipur to Delhi
In the course of our conversation, we learn that Pandey dislikes text messages and that he has only just begun to ‘WhatsApp’. “The biggest technological gift that the BJP election campaign of 2014 gave me was WhatsApp,” he laughs. He still steers clear of Twitter. “That’s a conscious decision. I have a lot of opinions on a lot of things which I may give out impulsively. I have seen so many people make a fool of themselves by commenting on every damn thing. I would rather stay away,” he explains. Yet, he insists that social media has not changed the way he works. “I have never given a damn about critics on social media. Everyone loves to talk, so at the end of the day, it is better to be your own critic.”

Pandey was born and raised in Jaipur. “I was the first son after seven daughters (one of them being actor Ila Arun) so I was thoroughly spoilt, but in a nice way,” he chuckles. At the insistence of his sisters (who attended government, Hindi medium schools) and his parents, he was sent to St Xavier’s School in Jaipur, where he spent an idyllic childhood swimming and playing cricket. “Cricket has played a huge role in my life. I used to be the captain of my school team and used to play for some of the best local clubs in Jaipur,” says Pandey. He was also a mischievous child — at the cricket ground, for instance, Pandey and his friends would deliberately aim for window panes while hitting sixes. He fondly remembers the atmosphere at home as being “fantastic”. “My sisters were heavily into art. My father used to recite poetry in his spare time. My mother was a homemaker but she got addicted to Hindi literature in spite of not having finished school. Our house was small so we used to be together all the time. At times, six or seven of us used to sleep together in the same room on mattresses on the floor. But still, we never used the word ‘privacy’,” he recalls.

Later, Pandey got into St Stephen’s College’s BA programme. “My parents allowed me to go for the interview only because they were sure I would never get in. I wouldn’t have got into the college if it wasn’t for my cricket,” chuckles Pandey, who went on to lead several cricket teams to victory at university-level matches.

But he also flourished in academics, much to the surprise of his parents. “My parents were convinced that if you were a topper at Stephen’s, you were bound to get into the IAS. And I was convinced that I was not going to spend the first 10 years of my life in some obscure place,” he explains. The decision, remembers Pandey, was not an easy one for his parents to reconcile with. It was also doubly hard for them when he chose a career in advertising at a time when the whole world wanted to be either doctors or engineers. “Nobody in my family knew advertising as a profession so they were clueless. Even I didn’t have an idea!” he laughs.

From tea taster to ad guru
Post college, his first official job was as a tea taster. “But I don’t think I am a tea connoisseur although I love a nice strong cup of Assam tea or for that matter, Sri Lankan tea too,” says the ad guru. During his tenure, he played sports with the likes of Arul Lal and Charu Sharma at the nearby club and, as he puts it, had a bit of tea in between. Soon, the world of advertising beckoned. “I was visiting a few friends in Calcutta. Arun Lal and wife said, ‘You crack one-liners all the time and you can do a better job than other ad guys,” he says. “So I first joined Ogilvy & Mather in 1982 as an account
executive trainee.” At Ogilvy & Mather, he says, everyone knew each other and seniors took care of their juniors well.

Pandey remembers the many dinners he and his colleagues were treated to at the Bombay Gymkhana. Was it anything like the American television series Mad Men? “I wish it was, but it was not,” he grins. “We worked till late at night, making slides for presentations instead of hanging out with chicks and having a lot of booze.” Although the first campaign that he wrote was for Sunlight detergent powder, his debut assignment was the Chal Meri Luna ad campaign. “I had just brought a tiny apartment in Andheri and had borrowed money from a bank, my sister, friends and mother. So I didn’t even buy a TV as I wanted to return the money. But I wanted to see the first telecast of my commercial and my neighbour had a TV. I asked him, can I stand outside your window and watch my ad? He asked me to come inside but I told him that I didn’t want to disturb him. So I watched it from outside his window. I felt like I was on top of the world,” he smiles.

But ask him about the campaign that changed things for him and he singles out the iconic Cadburys ad, Kuch Khas Hai, where a young woman runs into a cricket field and prances about to celebrate her cricketer-boyfriend’s winning shot. Pandey famously conceptualised the ad at the back of a boarding pass while on a flight from Hawaii. “At that time, popular perception was that anyone who is above 14 years of age and eats chocolate in public is kiddish. The challenge was to change that scenario and we based the campaign on the fact that there is child in each one of us no matter how old we are,” he explains. “And, India went mad.” Several high-profile ad campaigns followed — most notable among them being Fevicol, Asian Paints, Vodafone and of course, the BJP election campaign of 2014, which he describes as a “remarkable job”. “I had the privilege of working with Mr Modi on the Gujarat Tourism campaign. I admired his knowledge, dedication and commitment,” he says.

Music and lyrics
We look around Pandey’s tastefully decorated apartment and notice his collection of hats. “I love hats and so does my wife. I am not a conscious hat collector, but whenever I see something interesting, I like to get it. It is also in keeping with the various hats that I have to wear in my job,” he chuckles.

We wonder whether he is also alluding to his many achievements outside of advertising, mainly as a lyricist. Pandey cherishes the time he penned the lyrics for his mentor and former boss Suresh Malik’s Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. “I have written lyrics for advertising and for my sister’s album. I do write poetry for myself and maybe one day I will publish a small book,” he explains.

Pandey’s early morning calls, which former colleagues fondly describe as ‘wake-up calls’ are quite legendary. “Yes, I am an early riser. And yes, I am still excited about ideas. And yes, I want to share it with my colleagues without any delay. So I am their alarm clock,” he says.

Pandey will complete 33 years at Ogilvy & Mather this year. It was also here that he met his wife Nita, in the early 90s. “At that point, both of us were married to two different people. I met her again many years later when she came back to Ogilvy at a time when both of us were single. We decided to get married within four days of never having a cup of coffee together outside office,” he explains. “Work-life balance is extremely important. If you’re serious about your partner, you will make sure that you find a balance, which is about understanding each other’s needs and living up to it,” he adds. A music buff, Pandey loves all genres of music. “Particularly the older ones,” he explains. “I love Indian classical, ghazals and both old filmi and Western songs.”

So what does an ideal day in the life of Piyush Pandey look like? “A beautiful day is when the birds are chirping, the sun is rising, you have a cup of tea in your hand and the mind and the pen are in sync with each other. It also includes ghar ka khanna with friends and family,” he smiles.

My favourites
Food:
Ghar ka Khana or desh ka khana

Sport: Cricket
Music: Indian classical music, ghazals, filmi and Western songs

Inside track
Born: April 9, 1955
Education: St Xavier’s School, Jaipur and St Stephen’s College, Delhi
Favourite recent ad: The story of Geeta Phogat for Jindal Steel
The kind of ads you like: Ones that respect the intelligence of the audience
The kind of ads you hate: The ones that desperately try to make a sale without giving a damn whether the consumer likes it or not.  These are ads that are totally written from the seller’s point of view without being sensitive about the receiver.  Normally these are plastic stories where the creative and the client believe that by repeating a brand name several times, you will make an impact on the consumer. Remember David Ogilvy’s old saying:“The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife”

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