Mohit Jayal, managing director of Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) Delhi, thinks that the illustration of his face on the company website makes him look “bulbous”. To rectify this, we are having his photo taken as a basis for the sketch on this page.
Jayal, 43, is flustered, however. He’s been asked to pose outside the wrap-around windows of Threesixty° at The Oberoi hotel in New Delhi (one of W+K’s clients), and he’s worried that people inside are starting to stare. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he says, grimacing as he crouches against a wall.
Jayal has already tried to get out of this interview once in the last few days, proffering his colleague—W+K Delhi’s executive creative director V. Sunil—as a substitute: “He leads a far more interesting life than I do, that’s for sure. He’s also less bulbous-looking, damn him.”
The horror over, we sit down in the restaurant (no one is staring). Ordering a glass of juice, Jayal prefaces our discussion with more protests: “I don’t know why you want to talk to me. I’m going to say boring things,” he fusses, nearing a pitch of self-deprecation hitherto reserved for Hugh Grant in a Richard Curtis movie.
This affable bluster turns out to be misleading. It soon gives way to an incisive and capacious argument that takes in the Indian collective consciousness, what the recent foreign direct investment (FDI) reforms mean for Indian brands, the truthfulness of the AMC series Mad Men and the rise of W+K’s most precocious baby: IndiGo airlines. To complete the transformation, the watermelon juice gives way to a vodka martini—Finlandia, dry, no garnish. The adman cometh.
There has, arguably, never been a cooler moment to be in advertising. The phenomenal success of Mad Men, chronicling the lives of a group of employees at a creative agency in 1960s Manhattan, US, has firmly entrenched the idea of the ad man or woman as the orchestrator of the cultural zeitgeist, curator of cool.
“Mad Men…,” Jayal says, considering the impact of the show. His speech comes in bulletin bursts, meandering and sprinkled with jovial expletives. “It’s all true. It’s brilliant. All the stuff that Don Draper says, right from ‘You’re born alone and you die alone’ to how his gang sell an idea. That is how a top-notch creative agency works. That shit is all true. It’s perfect.”
Although the Delhi office of Portland-based advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy has only been running for around five years, it has managed to create a buzz with its swanky, booze-fuelled parties in the Garden of Five Senses, dedicated magazine Motherland, and a quirky office in Sheikh Sarai that has recently been upgraded to a new “grown up” one near Select Citywalk mall. Its flagship clients, IndiGo airlines and Royal Enfield, have gained iconic status in a market starved of globally recognized Indian brands; no mean feat for a young creative agency, as Draper and Co. would know.
However, Jayal struggles with the notion of being cool. On his path to advertising, after graduating in politics, philosophy and economics from Hertford College, Oxford, he describes being interviewed for a job by some “cool management consultants– handsome chaps with Hermes ties”. Jayal says he was asked to try and estimate the number of skiers in Austria. “I had some kind of spasm and just cried… Did I start crying? No, but I felt like crying.”
Instead Jayal went to work for Leo Burnett in London, and got married soon after. He quit that job, and moved back to India, where he met V. Sunil, who was then working for Ogilvy and Mather (O&M), but wanted to start an independent business.
The men combined their forces in an independent agency, A, started by Sunil in 2004. “We believe in a lot of the same things,” says Jayal, of their unorthodox work philosophy. “We just can’t bear compromise. I don’t know how to put this. In all forms, we react strongly to compromise. We’d rather die. We are kind of fanatical about it.”
"In parenthesis Mohit Jayal is always on the look out for new brands to transform. “We are advising the Air Force right now, so I’m in a little bit of heaven,” he says. His ideal account? “I’d really like to work with Haldiram’s. It’s just such a strong product. They’ve done such a good job—people just love it. They are out there, they give you what you want, they give you more of it, they give it back, they give it different, they give it quick. I’d really like to make it even more brilliant than it is, add a layer to it."
A difficult position, he admits, especially for a young agency trying to attract new clients. “It limits your growth. But, on the other hand, the right kind of client seeks you out, because strong clients don’t want people to compromise. They want partners.”
The clients that sought out A have indeed become partners. Jayal describes the day A pitched for the IndiGo account “with more or less a piece of paper”. On it, they sketched their idea of “a passenger experience cycle. It’s just some person on a train. They see an IndiGo poster, they log on to the site, they check in, they fly… they tell their friends. In those days it was pretty advanced thinking. Now everybody talks about a customer experience cycle. Or if they don’t, then they’re some kind of cave people.”
Jayal and Sunil brought the Royal Enfield and IndiGo airlines accounts with them when A merged with W+K in 2008, creating W+K Delhi. Since then, their ads have attracted widespread attention—not all of it favourable. From the ethereal, soft focus Handcrafted in Chennai TV ad for Enfield, to the Chicago-style music video for IndiGo, in which Gilbert and Sullivan’s pacy and eccentric Major-General’s Song is adapted for IndiGo staff (“We’re flying international”), their approach seems to be working. IndiGo has recently taken the top spot in market share of any airline in India—quite a feat in six years, even given the failure of one if its erstwhile competitors, Kingfisher Airlines.
For Jayal, IndiGo was always a special client. “I’m an aviation-obsessive,” he says. “Air Force kid. Grew up on airbases. Father and his brothers were military fliers—he was a test pilot. Supercool.” Being an Armed Forces kid took Jayal overseas, and introduced him to life in England for the first time. Jayal was enrolled in the decidedly un-cosmopolitan environment of a “big violent comprehensive school” in rural Lancashire in the early 1980s.
“It was pretty rough,” he says. “At that time there was the National Front and skinheads and whatnot. It was good though—it made me tough, because those lads were ‘well‘ard’, as they say there,” Jayal draws easily on reserves of slang from both Oxbridge and state school. “So I’ve seen both sides of England.”
At Oxford, Jayal also met his wife, a French-Bengali scientist at Cambridge University who worked in pharmaceutical consulting and now lives with him and their two daughters in Gurgaon.
The move back to India was important for Jayal’s ambition: To nurture an Indian collective identity by strengthening the country’s brands. One of their early campaigns was for Incredible! India (Sunil had been working on the campaign at O&M, and first brought it to the A agency and then W+K with him).
“Brands are one of the places where you are going to see this whole recovery from the post-colonial confusion,” he says. “Look at Enfield. It’s a post-colonial brand. A Brit baby that was abandoned in Chennai and then raised as an Indian brand and nurtured and loved in India… how’s that for a sentiment? Brilliant.”
Jayal gets most excited talking about the opportunities offered by the relaxation of the rules surrounding FDI that will now allow international companies entry to the market. “It’s going to be war,” he says. “Weak brands that have existed here in a protected market will be challenged and wiped out.”
Any trace of hesitation in his manner has mysteriously disappeared.
“Hey, man, it’s the jungle! Welcome to capitalism!” he exclaims. “The good part is that companies that have been lazy and sold people shit and expected them to take it will not be able to do that any more. And that’s damned straight. It’s good.”
He pauses to smile. “I get quite fired up about it.”