The Bell v/s The Bull

(Recently, and after a long long time, I went through my last portfolio that is now 7 years old. And the first ad that I saw in it rang a bell. A loud loud bell. A loud fucking cycle bell.

This story will keep bloody digressing at every other point. I honestly know no other way to narrate it. I confess that I fib a lot in most of my stories, just to make it seem more exciting than it actually was. But this one’s true all the way. Not that the truth of this is exciting, but I can’t think of any better bullshit than its actual truth. So, here it is….just the way it was.)

Twenty minutes had passed and I was still staring at the first question in the paper,

“Is advertising an art or a science? Explain with arguments.” 30 Marks.

The invigilator kept pacing up and down beside me. My paper was blanker than my mind. I looked around. The silence kept reminding me about the importance of the event. I felt like an idiot to be answering this idiotic question after having spent 7 fucking years in advertising. Frankly I had no clue. Had I not been in it, maybe I could have written seven pages of academic bullshit. But experience had mind-fucked me so badly, that trying to find an answer that sounded true to myself was getting to be impossible. Because I knew that truth would fetch me no marks. Advertising was exactly the opposite of whatever text books made it out to be. I was trying hard to forget my experience and recollect the crap that the author of the prescribed textbook had written, who I was sure had never ever been in an agency.

As I kept pondering over that question, I was shadowed by a bigger question that was looming large over my head.

“Why the fuck am I writing this exam?”.

I spent some time thinking about this new improved question. Soon the question spiraled out of proportion and started to creep into every nook of my brain which was till then trying to find a simple answer to that stupid question in the paper.

I snapped out. And stared at that question again.

“It’s just plain fluke”

I scratched it out faster than I wrote it.

That was the truth. But too true to fetch me an MBA degree.

And I tried to think hard like the innocent ignorant MBA aspirants around me who were trying hard to remember the author’s attempt at this impossible question.

And then I heard a bell. A loud bell. No…..it wasn’t the exam bell. It was a shitty cycle bell ringing loud in my brain. A bell that drowned every other thought from creeping in. A bell that sounded much more important than the bullshit I was trying to craft.

Ok…Now come the digressions that I warned you about.

What the fuck is a cycle bell doing in this useless story?

Or more importantly or futilely,

Why was I giving an MBA exam after seven years in advertising?

Well, both are equally fuckall in their backstories. But let me start with the latter since my father plays a role in it. And I love my father. (So appa, this is for you. A story that I am sure you’ll never read. You would not care about. And you’ll certainly not be proud to know.)

After spending seven glorious years in servicing (yes, I was in servicing about six years back for about seven years. That’s a long time back but spending even a day doing that job makes it unforgettable) it struck me one day that I had been a bad student at college. It took me seven years of working to understand this. And I thought it would be important to get an MBA before they discover that I am not only bad at my job but also have a pathetic academic record. This insecurity eventually gave birth to wisdom and I decided to enroll myself into the cheapest, easiest and most non-interfering MBA programme available on the planet. People around convinced me that those 3 letters beside my name can actually help camoflage my incapability.

And my father had always instilled fear in me that my job was a transitionary illusionary phase. And soon the world will discover that I am neither qualified nor talented to do the kind of work that I was doing (Yes. I’m to be blamed. I had convinced him that it was as important as space research).

These mixed emotions attracted me to an M.B.A. degree offered by Symbiosis Centre for Distant Learning. A centre that was the answer to my father’s dreams which by then was getting equally distant. The fee was cheap shit. It offered those 3 letters. And yes. I had heard of Symbi…..and Symbi sounded cool to me.

I chose to do it. And cleared the first two semesters which I have no idea or memory as to how did that exactly happen. My father was ecstatic. Even more happy than me having gotten myself a job. That too, a job that was legal and that payed. But he had always been paranoid that the world will soon discover everything else about me that only he knew about. So this MBA was important for him. A kind of a shield that his son is earning to survive in this competent world, which he strongly believed, had no space for mediocrity.

But after clearing my 2nd semester, my brain started to generate new wisdom.

To join creative.

It commanded a lot of respect. And what was even better was that you could fake it. It was easy. You were granted that title by just being an appreciator of it. Which wasn’t possible on the other side. How much ever you appreciated mathematics, you still needed to be good at it to be respected. But with creativity it was easier. You just needed to passionate about it. And you could get away with it for a longer time. And no. You didn’t need no jack degrees to prove it. All you needed to do was moan and groan at every great piece of creative that you saw. And somehow you start sharing the credit for having created it.

I liked this concept. It seemed easier than the MBA mindfuck that I was going through.

I convinced the world that I was creative by faking orgasms over commercials that I barely understood. By appreciating art that I secretly puked on. And by having a strong opinion on any piece of creative that I was exposed to. I talked about performances, music, lighting and editing with authority. And yes it worked. I started to blend in with the creative crowd.

The planets rearranged themselves and soon I was in the creative department. Freely imagining any rubbish that I wanted to. It needed nothing. No MBA. No degrees. No shit. And I loved it. And I forgot all about the 2 remaining semesters and ofcourse those 3 important letters.

But my father did not.

“I don’t need this MBA anymore appa. I am now in creative.”

“I don’t care. A post-graduate degree is very essential to survive in today’s world. So you bloody well complete this course.”

Like all good advice, I found this uncool.

“But I took it up on my own. And I’m ditching it on my own. So why are you so concerned now. I am now in the creative department. They don’t give a shit even if you haven’t passed your tenth. So even if I do this shit, it won’t make jack of a difference.”

My father already hated this department which had no regard for logic, knowledge and precious education.

“It will. Even if it makes no difference to anyone, it will to me. I can atleast feel proud of my son. You cannot now give up in the 3rd semester.”

“But what is stopping you from feeling proud about me now. I have a job.”

The silence that followed made all the gas that I had been giving him all these years, evaporate into nothingness. He really didn’t believe that I was saving the planet. No. Not even the country, Not even my city. Not even my locality. Not even my street. No…..Not even his trust in me (why do I get this feeling that the last one broke the progression of the descending order?).

So there I was back at my MBA. Writing the exams for the 3rd semester.

Writing the paper on advertising. And I hated it. I hated it because my head was blank. After having spent 7 fucking years, I didn’t know if advertising was an art or a science. I mean, after seven years, who the hell cared what advertising was all about. It was about chasing artworks, negotiating deadlines and indulging in screaming matches. And ads were born out of confusion and clashing egos. It had no academic answer.

Advertising was all about guessing and gassing.

The guess was the art. And the gas was the science. And sometimes vice-versa.

This was the answer experience had taught me. And I had not bothered to read what the text book version of this was.

I couldn’t get beyond the first damn question.

But I still had to fill that answer sheet with some shit. Something. Anything, so that my father could believe that I was actually fit enough to do what I was doing.

But the cycle bell kept coming in the way. Ringing louder and louder. Till my brain went deaf and my pen went dumb.

Yes. Now to digression No. 2.

What the fuck is a useless cycle bell doing in this useless story?

Vivek Kakkad. The bastard who wanted a cycle bell. A cycle bell in the middle of my exam. The exam of my life.

Vivek Kakkad was an art director. An art director who was genuinely creative. He was so good at his job, that he had earned the license to be a bastard. A bastard who knew that the world loved his work. And would do anything to get their stupid ideas art directed by him and elevate them out of their mediocrity. He could make crap look good. And he eventually decided to only make good look even better. He was choosy and strongly opinionated. He would never work on something that he did not believe in. It seems like a good virtue, but only to those who weren’t victims to his high standards.

Kakkad had built a good portfolio. He also got himself some awards. He got himself a deadly job in Mumbai. And he was all set to go.

And being a good art director he knew how to paint a great picture of the world outside. And it is dangerous to hang around with people who are serving their notice period. They suddenly begin to look great. They seem wanted in this world. And you seem unwanted. And slowly this difference begins to grow in gigantic proportions, till the point where you begin to hate yourself.

I always felt Kakkad sniggering whenever he passed by. He would look at that shitty dangler that you were working on while he was busy packing up for the day with an expression on his face that read “Rot in hell you fuckers. I’m off….”

I had only one desire to be fulfilled before Kakkad left. He was yet to art direct an idea that I had come up with, which he had surprisingly liked.

About a month earlier I had told him about an idea that I was scamming on.

“Dude. It’s for cycles. You know….what’s the good thing about cycling. You see more stuff around you. You notice those little things that bring a smile to your face. Like some kids playing in the park. Or some stupid dog chasing its tail. So we just show these small joyful everyday scenes that happen around us and sign off “Life looks beautiful on a cycle”.

Kakkad took a long drag from his cigarette and smiled.

“It’s sexy man. I like it. I’ll art direct it for you.”

I was thrilled to bits. This was the first time that Kakkad had actually liked an idea of mine. It was like a Cannes moment.

“We could do it for Hero Cycles or some such thing. And send it to them and see what happens.”

“Ya.”

We spoke about this idea in great detail. So much that it had lost all thrill and juice. And what remained was only getting down to do it. Which was invariably the most boring part.

Kakkad kept pushing it. I kept reminding him. And it later seemed like he had now lost interest in the idea.

And he was leaving in a day. Forever.

And just before I walked into the exam hall my phone rang. It was Kakkad. And it was a Saturday.

“Dude. I’m in the office.”

“So?”

“I have come all the way to execute your idea. The cycle one.”

“Fuck dude! Finally. Thanks man.”

“Ya. Screw your thanks. Shut the fuck up and get here with a cycle bell.”

“A cycle bell. For what?”

“I want to sign off with the visual of a cycle bell with The Hero Cycles logo on it. It’s got a good feeling about it.”

“Ya…it’s a nice idea…but I’m about to enter an exam hall man.”

“I don’t care dude. If you get here in the next hour with a bell, I’ll do the ad for you or you can pedal your cycle to some other art director….ha ha ha ha ha”.

Kakkad had now become an expert in being a bastard. And it was a trait that he was proud of. And when he makes mean statements like these you never know if he’s joking or serious. And it is always serious when you think otherwise.

To me suddenly this little cycle idea become the most important one in my portfolio. It seemed like my passport to stardom. I picturised my portfolio beginning with it. And imagined creative directors going gaga over it. It even reached the Cannes podium. I knew that I had to get it done.

But I was there sitting in the middle of an exam, sitting and staring at the first question.

Is advertising an art or a science?

Right now it was a bully. A bully named Kakkad.

The answer to the question could fetch me an MBA degree that my pop needed for reasons best known to nobody. And getting out of that exam hall and buying a cycle bell meant a fancier job. Fame. More money.

I timed myself. For 45 minutes. And wrote whatever the fuck I pleased.

And ran out of the hall. And reached office with the prescribed cycle bell, infact 4 options of it.

Kakkad looked at it and smiled.

“I like this bell. By the way, what fucking exam was that?”

“My MBA crap dude”

“Ha ha…so what paper was it today?”

“Advertising”

Kakkad laughed till he fell off his chair.

I realized why he laughed so much, much later.

I cleared my MBA but got the least marks for advertising.

Maybe it was because of all the bull I wrote.

But I got a fancier job with a fancier pay.

And maybe it was because of The Bell.

The damn cycle bell.

Extra bleed

After 11 long years in advertising, I have finally identified a list of senseless activities that we so vehemently indulge in, like as if we are on a mission to save the world.

cart-before-horse-2

Long term strategy

It’s funny how we still cling on to this one, very well knowing that it is probably the most foolish thing to do.

The client who’s engaged you on this one is definitely not going to stay for long. Your boss is searching for opportunities abroad. Your flunk is making plans to the Himalayas with a latest SLR to build a portfolio that promises him a job outside advertising. The client’s flunk disagrees with his boss. And is only waiting for a chance to speak, or his boss to leave. The consumer cares a rat’s ass as to what you said in the last ad or what you are going to say next. The product you are about to advertise is going to undergo a plastic surgery in a few months from now. The servicing dude is negotiating his prospects to join the client’s rival company. The planner on the brand has 12 unused archetypes that he is dying to explore. The art director is going to stumble upon 17 new looks that’ll give him a hard on between this campaign and the next. The studio comps will crash. The supplier who stores the hi-resolution images is about to upgrade. The only person who knows where it’s stored is getting a job in Dubai. The model in the ad is becoming fatter or older. The celeb is either going to get more famous to a point where you can’t afford him or hit rock bottom where you wouldn’t want to use him anymore. The baseline will be rattled away away as many times that it will be nauseating to even utter it again. The producer will hold on to the rushes for a handsome ransom.

What long term!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why is it that we all meet every six months to discuss a long term idea. What happened to the idea that was declared long term six months ago.

360 degrees

It is 359 degrees of effort to sell one damn wobbler. It is invented to keep the overenthusiastic trainee busy during a pitch. It is invented to redirect internally rejected press ads to obscure mediums like ambient, direct mailer, internet, posters in gyms, beauty parlours, cinema theatres and the all time favorite push-pull sticker. The push-pull sticker somehow completes the package.

Films that make no sense to the strategy are bundled into viral. 

And then bizarre ideas that include park benches, buses, trains and other properties governed by government. Ha ha…..ok assume that the idea is approved, now can someone please tell me where does this government exactly sit, so that we can seek its permission?

The other purpose is for the sadistic pleasures of clearing your coffee cup from the table just when you are about to sip it, and empty out the dozen brown packets on the client’s table. And of course it’s evidence for that special guest who’s flown down to give the “We are a complete agency” speech. All this wobbling for that one wobbler.

Animatics

After months of power point slides, we then move on to a slide of a different kind. Puppets that slide from the side. It’s one versatile face that can take on many get-ups. Give it a bob-cut and salwaar and it becomes a young modern housewife. Lengthen hair and add bindi…wow it’s now a traditional obedient housewife sipping tea. Make the hair fall on the eyes and voila!!!! You’ve made her naughty. Cut the hair really short, strip it to mini skirts and add an ink blotch on its arm, it’s a tattoo sporting chicklet.

Now pick the relevant music…If you are confused follow these golden rules…..

Crows cawing as ambient sound…if it is dialogues.
Trance music ………if it is a look and feel film for the youth.
Elevator music followed by an aalaap…… if it is emotional.

And send the newcomer who just joined for the dubbing. And the junior planning for the research group. Load it with dialogues and narration as you have 2 odd minutes in hand. Fool proof it from all angles. And once you have it approved, squeeze all those dialogues in the final 20 second commercial.

Brand Seed/ Root/ Tree/ Plant/ Sapling whatever

Simply put, it is a comprehensive list of things you cannot do. In the sense, if anything manages to evade through this massive list of parameters, it is automatically given the status of an idea. The list is a collective effort of many people who know what they don’t want. Some idiot in advertising said that you can only say one thing in an ad. How boring!! Meetings would then last for just a minute. After so many years of education, you cannot now expect people to only say what they want to say. How about giving them an opportunity to say what they don’t want to say? That way, they can speak more and also get a sense of contribution. Let us take a stand that our briefs will not end up being mere creative catalysts. Let’s make it into an exciting scientific puzzle.

bewildered

It would be foolish to reinvent the wheel. A change in the system would mean rewriting the course material of MBA. After all, common sense and gut feel are too unacademic and fragile to place mighty brands on them.

Even successful brands that have stayed clear of these methodical approaches and innocently followed their gut, have now been postmortemized and made into structured case-studies, to prove that how unknowingly they have followed a chapter out of the voluminous theories of brand building. Only to make sure that a stray exception doesn’t end up defeating the efforts of a hard-earned degree. To make sure that freely available emotions don’t overpower expensive reasoning. To make sure that experiences of life do not demean exercises of the classroom. To make sure that common sense doesn’t end up retracing complex theories to fundamental human truths, that these theories were originally based on.

I read recently, that some fan took a Kotler’s best seller and went up to him, to ask him for an autograph. Kotler took the book and ripped it to pieces and chucked it in a bin and told him ‘Don’t bother, it doesn’t make sense anymore’.

Even Kotler realised that the prescription has become the epidemic.

It would be far worthwhile if we stopped reinventing brands, and put our efforts on the discoveries we stumble upon. But unfortunately, problems and opportunities bloody well queue up in a disciplined manner to follow this strict assembly line. Because the solution is fixed. We only now need to search for problems that match it. 

The list of these moronic practices is endless.

And it is so because, it’s a stupid formula that preserves this insanity.

Add all the members of the circus to one colander and then sift out the ones who have the ideas. And give the decision making powers to the ones above.

And enjoy the prolonged agony that keeps an entire industry alive. Advertising.

Disclaimer: This is a summary of my observations gathered from my total experience in the industry. The only reason I still manage to survive is that not all of them are true at the same time. 

MBA-Master of Bullshitting Artistically

I have finally found the MDH guide on ‘How to make your agency look up to you, in spite of sucking up to you?’

Its got some really valid insights, that can fool any agency fatang, without making him feel like one.

Here are a few excerpts…

CREATIVE CHALLENGE: A very motivating phrase, that masterfully disguises the fact that there are two bosses who have different points of view, and don’t even have the time to not see eye to eye. It is usually used in situations where you would want the agency to resolve this conflict. Other usages include: Budget v/s duration of commercial, thematic v/s tactical activity, product window v/s story etc etc. This simple re-phrasing of a ‘fuck up’ cunningly motivates naive creative people to become willing victims.

PROTAGONIST: Another useful term that automatically makes you the casting director. Finally, you need some incentive for having attended all those useless research groups in Kakinada and Sahranpur. This scary jargon, when used at the right time, gives you all liberty to be able to pick the face in the audition tape that most resembles the loudest respondent in your research group.

YOU MIGHT WANT TO: It’s a simple technique. Just replace all the ‘I’s with “You”. For eg: “You might want to make this colour a little more bright’. It sounds polite and is a simple mind game. It makes it seem like you are bringing out the best in the person, before you. You are recognising the refined taste that he has. All you are doing is just pointing out a little glitch that he might have overlooked. Go ahead and make these assumptions.

THIS IS A BRILLIANT STAGE 2: This is a refined way of bombing something you don’t like. An indefinite postponement makes the innocent agency believe that they are thinking way ahead of the times. 

LET’S PARK THIS THOUGHT: Another winning phrase, that makes the agency explore within the radar of mediocrity. Never underestimate the power of this. It leaves the agency with a hint of hope, and the confidence to confide in you, all the garbage that’s hidden in their disposal bag of ideas. A simple trick to now have your pick.

BRANDING SUFFERS: ‘Make the logo bigger’ or ‘increase the duration of the product window’ are passe. The latest is ‘Branding suffers’. Take it from us. Say this, lay back and watch the fun, of an entire agency going berserk. Senior management, Planning heads, Creative heads will congregate and think up of nothing but ‘making the logo bigger’ or ‘increasing the duration of the product window’. But hey, you didn’t say those bad words.

 

Please make sure that you don’t share this with agency folks. We’ve just had a joint body meeting and frozen on these highly highly confidential techniques on improving agency efficiency.