Some offices hold few surprises, more insight. Such as the spacious executive office in an advertising agency in mid-town Mumbai. It has a dark carpet, clean, white surfaces, and a floor-to-ceiling wall of trophies, next to a meeting table. The formidable line-up of awards is predictable: The room’s inhabitant, Prasoon Joshi, is a much-applauded poet, songwriter, screenwriter, copywriter, executive chairman of McCann Worldgroup India and president of its South Asia regional arm.
Like many in his industry, Joshi is nomadic about his work location, and often works outside the office—at home, in hotel suites with his team, or by himself, using noise-cancelling headsets on planes. The office is clearly, however, his personalized workspace, a gallery of his achievements as well as a suite conducive for both group meetings and solitary work.
Connecting brands and consumers
Joshi has occupied this space for nearly three years now when McCann moved into the building and fitted out the interiors.
A range of objects on the cabinet behind Joshi’s desk captures his repertoire of work in both advertising and entertainment. There are mementos from the brands and the films he has worked on, including General Motors and Chevrolet miniature cars, a tribute to the recently released film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (for which Joshi wrote the script and the lyrics), and a framed series of coins from ING commemorating a memorable advertising campaign. How does Joshi manage to weave the different strands of his professional work-life together? He offers a straightforward answer: By constantly honing his ability to connect with people.
“The intelligent clients who come to me, they know the role of advertising and communication is connection. It’s not that they do not know how to do business. They’re not coming to me for the same reason they’re going to McKinsey. They’re coming to me because I understand the business and I understand the consumer and I can be the bridge. And they see the examples of it, not only in advertising, through my work outside advertising also,” Joshi elaborates.
It is important to remember that while consumers might express feelings through brands, advertisements themselves are inherently intrusive, he states. “You better have entertained me or informed me or added value to my life, otherwise you have no business to intrude,” he adds, jokingly raising a gavel, placed behind his desk, which he says he uses to reject mediocre work.
Joshi employs a number of tactics to “sharpen his craft”. First, to keep in touch with popular culture, he makes it a point to interact with as many people as possible, whether addressing a crowd of thousands at the Jaipur Literature Festival, mingling with friends, family and locals in smaller towns, speaking with college youth during events or just watching movies in cinemas to see audience reactions.
Second, he strongly endorses creative cross-pollination, where working on films can result in ideas for advertisements and vice versa. “We’re in the profession of communication, where we are dealing with words, images, poetry, music, popular culture. So anything I do in popular culture, it’s only going to help.”
Finally, Joshi seeks to “create filters” for himself by which he can understand his client’s problems, and generate solutions. “I believe in absorption. I don’t take notes. I absorb. And I believe a system knows how to absorb and how much to keep and how to create filters. And those filters are very important for me. I soak myself into a brief but after a point, I don’t need that.”
The idea-generation process itself usually takes place in two stages—“gregarious” brainstorming in workshops with his colleagues and clients, followed by a more “meditative” stage, where Joshi “goes back and forth, chiselling and crafting the idea”.
The line-up of trophies prompts a discussion about the value and significance of awards, often a controversial subject in the advertising industry. Those displayed in his office relate to his advertising successes, there are others at home from his literary career, he says.
Joshi is clear about the merits as well as the hazards of industry awards. “There are countless people who have started award shows. But there are very few who are of significance,” he states, pointing to a row of metal pencils and lion-shaped trophies from the One Show and the Cannes Lions Festival, respectively, both global advertising competitions.
“Pencils and Lions were very rare...now we keep winning these, so we feel very good about it,” Joshi says. He also highlights another, more old-fashioned-looking trophy. “This is one of the first individual awards I won when I came to Bombay, it was given by the Radio and Production Association, which was a big organization then, many great voices came from it.” Awards should serve simply as a motivator to enhance one’s craftsmanship, professes Joshi. “It’s a platform where your tools can be sharpened, where you can be exposed to more and more ideas, which will help your everyday work.” Unhealthy competition or excessive one-upmanship are signs that the awards process is malfunctioning, he says.
Joshi’s references to craftsmanship remind me of a seminal book on the subject, The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett, who describes craftsmanship as “the desire to do a job well for its own sake” and involves “accumulated learning, reflection, repetition and habit”—all traits exemplified by Joshi.
Joshi’s workplace also seems to embody that of a master craftsman, according to Sennett, who says, “In craftsmanship, there must be a superior who sets standards and who trains. For the craftsman, authority resides in the quality of his skills”. Joshi similarly states, “Everybody who works with me, in a sense, respects what I’ve done. And looks up and comes to learn something from me.”
While Sennett goes on to advocate the virtues of craftsmanship as a template for life in general, he does include a cautionary note. Medieval workshops often did not endure because “the master’s originality inhibited knowledge transfer”. Luckily for Joshi, modern communication makes this much less of a challenge.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.