Select Page

The Drum meets Ogilvy's recently named global chief creative officer, and replacement to Tham Khai Meng, Piyush Pandey.

1982 was the year Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi won eight Oscars, the year India showcased its confidence as a nation by hosting the Asian Games for the first time and the year color TV was first introduced in the country. It was also the year Piyush Pandey made his first foray into advertising, joining Ogilvy as a suit following stints as a cricketer and a tea taster. 

“I come from a city called Jaipur in Rajasthan and can still remember my first taste of advertising,” Pandey tells The Drum, prior to his appointment as global creative chief. For him, that was the sound of vegetable sellers in front of his mother’s house. 

“Everything we do is advertising and this recent trend of saying we do something different – content, direct mail, stories, whatever – is the most stupid thing I have ever heard.” 

It is perhaps easier for a man who is the winner of over 400 advertising awards from all over the world, who is the only Indian to have won a double Gold at Cannes and who has the distinction of being the first Asian (alongside his fellow ad man brother Parsoon Pandey) to have received the Lion of St Mark, to espouse his love for magic over math. But he also refuses to buy into the argument that creativity is receding in the market and that data is to blame. 

“We should be thanking the wonderful Mr Big Data,” he says in his inimitable style. “What is big data or tech or any of those things you all seem to be talking about instead of advertising? Data and tech gave me the ability to find your address and ring your doorbell. But after you open the door I need to say something that will get me invited inside. That is advertising, and all this data v creativity talk is just nonsense.”

Of course Pandey’s trajectory in advertising has not only followed the story of a modern India – from the early days of TV advertising in the 80s to the onset of liberalization in the 90s to the age of rising middle class, the economy and #MeToo – it is also part of the industry narrative that is riddled with constant change and flux. 

It’s the future of communications, not the future of agencies

At a time when brand owners are seeking to reinvent agency relationships and maximize efficiency, agency models are changing. So in a post-Sorrell world, what does the future of creativity and advertising look like? It’s a question that almost seems to irritate Pandey, who then pauses for a smoke. 

“That is the stupidest thing ever said,” he continues, talking about the agency model. “There’s no such thing as an agency model. There is, however, a communication model. Anyone who thinks that everything is about logic and charts is fooling themselves. Why are we no longer talking about people? Has the human being changed to such an extent we will all become robotic? Yes, data must help me, but data cannot be my boss and will never be my boss.

“Trends sway people and I’m hoping like hell brands realize they are communicators. I’m including data guys here as well. We all need to understand that a vehicle and a message are two different things. New vehicles are there to carry my message, but if there’s no message is there any point to these vehicles?”

When the inevitable question around the bloated advertising group that is WPP – and indeed the beleaguered Ogilvy network (at least in the UK) – arises, Pandey, who has been at the network for almost four decades now, has this to say: “Whether it is Martin Sorrell or Mark Read or whoever is next, the only thing I have to say to them is don’t ever forget we are in the creative business where instinct is the most important thing. Otherwise we will all turn into bankers.”

India, from a creative standpoint Pandey pushes back further and challenges the rhetoric around how consumers are falling out of love with advertising, saying this is a tune played only in the west.

“In India, the audience fortunately still looks forward to advertising – they are not waiting to fast forward,” he says, adding, in a veiled dig at the state of advertising in more developed areas of the world, “but that’s only because we are giving them something they really want”.

Pandey proudly goes on tell the tale of how, after being offered jobs all over the world by people who said he couldn’t make a mark globally from India, he decided to “take the Indian flag and park it internationally”. He feels that him and his brother winning the eighth Lion of St Mark was not just a personal validation but a rare distinction for Indian advertising. “It felt really good,” he gushes.

But then this is the man who redefined Indian advertising by curing its colonial hangover and using Hindi as a powerful idiom to speak to a nation of a billion people. This is the man who wrote the lyrics to what became the anthem for national integration, ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’, in the late 80s and coined the defining slogan for the prime minister Narendra Modi: ‘Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar’. In 2016 he was deservedly honored with one of the highest civilian honors – the Padma Shri.

Pandey puts it all down to his love for life and people. “Life is my first love and advertising gives me the opportunity to learn from life and people and share it with everybody around me.”

The business of advertising

So what next for him? Bollywood films. Some of India’s best filmmakers are former admen. R Balki was the chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas and the famous Prasoon Joshi wears many hats including poet, lyricist, script writer and ad man. These are only two examples. Pandey gets a bit bristly when asked whether all creatives from the subcontinent are frustrated filmmakers. He wrote one film in the 90s set against the lethal gas tragedy in Bhopal, India in 1984.

“I’m not a frustrated Bollywood filmmaker. I made Bhopal Express – an amazing social story on a small scale – without taking a single day off from work. My brother and I wrote on weekends.”

What gets him out of bed every morning is advertising and what it can do for people. His favorite ad this year is a Savlon campaign that created ‘soap chalk’ to help schoolchildren in India wash their hands. Created by Ogilvy Mumbai, it won 10 awards at Cannes Lions 2017 and the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions 2018 for the most creatively effective campaign. His all-time favorite work remains the polio eradication drive. “This was the greatest campaign for me ever as the results achieved were even greater.” The government’s drive endorsed by the ad campaign saw India become 100% polio free in 2014. 

“That was when I first realized I was in the right business. Advertising.”