For over 90 days, cabin number 46 at the Mumbai headquarters of ad agency Meridian Communications Pvt. Ltd has been vacant, waiting for executive creative director Rensil D’Silva to return. D’Silva has been busy, juggling work on Kurbaan, his first film as a director, with overseeing the seven brands on Meridian’s roster.
His first brush with Hindi films came in 2001 when he wrote the story for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks. He then co-wrote the screenplay for Rang De Basanti in 2006. None of this, says D’Silva, would have been possible without the support and backing of Meridian and its parent company, Ogilvy and Mather (India) Ltd.
“I told Piyush (Pandey, chairman, O&M) I want to go out and make this film, and he said, ‘Sure, you must do it’. Ogilvy as a group is very encouraging and Piyush understands the need for a creative person to grow,” he says.
It’s a similar story at Lowe India. After the success of his first film, the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Cheeni Kum in 2006, R. Balakrishnan, chairman and chief creative officer at Lowe India, too, has been juggling work. In 2007, he opted for a more flexible arrangement with Lowe, and though it has meant fewer hours at the office there has been little respite in responsibility. “Even when Balki’s making films, he’s involved with the agency. Some ideas and scripts do go through him and clients obviously still contact him, but nothing like to the same degree when he’s here full-time,” says Charles Cadell, chief executive, Lowe India.
But with the economic downturn, can an ad agency justify a creative director who’s away for extended periods? Cadell clarifies, “Part of the reason Balki is so good is because of his passion for films. And if you were to somehow cut that from his life, then you wouldn’t have the same Balki, the same quality. So, it is an agreement that you reach with the organization and that’s what we’re paying for. We don’t say that we’ll pay for this or that. We pay for Balki.”
So while Balki worked on his second film, Paa, which releases on 4 December, Lowe asked its creative team to step up. Creative directors Arun Iyer and Madhu Noorani have shouldered a lot of the routine responsibilities. And, according to Cadell, that’s working fine with some of Lowe’s biggest clients such as Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Idea Cellular Ltd.
“Clients are only picky about the ideas they get. So as long as the quality of the ideas and the work doesn’t appreciably worsen, they are happy.”
The film connection can on occasion also work as a problem solver. D’Silva says a film or Hindi cinema association automatically makes a person seem a little more exciting. “Clients know that you’re going out on a limb to make something. So they encourage and support you.”
For most creative people in ad agencies, the chance to jump from the average 30-second spot to a full-length feature film is a dream they nurture from the start. The rise of the small multiplex film that breaks from mainstream Hindi film convention means many of those dreams can be satisfied on their terms. With Hindi film producers experimenting with new forms of story-telling and wanting to improve production values, ad makers are in demand, says Vijay Lalwani, a former creative director at McCann Erickson. Lalwani had jumped ship in November 2007 to write, direct and co-produce Excel Entertainment’s next potboiler, Karthik Calling Karthik.
It’s a move, he says, that was waiting to happen. “After five years, I got tired of the fact that the ultimate call was always going to be taken by the client. I wanted to explore the next creative challenge, which for me, was feature film making. Advertising also takes a lot of creativity; I’ve got all my training there and I’m grateful for that. But ultimately, I want to spread my creative wings.”
He adds that while an advertising background helps, it doesn’t guarantee the big break. “The training process is pretty much the same, despite the difference in format. Since we script our own dialogues, visualize, rehearse, go out and shoot, it helps. The fact that you’re well versed with ideating is advantageous as compared to a layman. People will be comfortable since you’ve done that process.”
In many cases, it seems advertising is the best way to get a foot in the door of the movie business. Cadell thinks that while this is the nature of the business globally, in India it may be magnified with a lot of creative people in advertising aspiring to be scriptwriters and directors. To satisfy these creative urges and still keep the agency ticking, Lowe India has started a program that encourages creative people to write scripts that will eventually be produced by the agency.
“It helps the agency, it helps the clients, it helps the quality of our work. But at the end of the day, you can’t have everyone in advertising going on to be a Bollywood (Hindi film) director. So while we actively encourage the art and the craft, not everyone has the talent or the calibre of a Balki,” says Cadell.
In short, not every ad maker has the good fortune or the raw talent to be a film-maker. And even for those who do manage that creative leap, while a hit is heady, a flop is in full public view. No more protected by the anonymity of a 30-second ad film.
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