With his simple yet powerful storytelling, the ad industry’s favourite man with a moustache, Piyush Pandey, captured the heart of the nation in the 1990s. Emerging after decades of drab, information-led advertising, Pandey created brands and ideas that have stood the test of time. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Your career followed a remarkable trajectory from account servicing in the 1980s to a creative burst in the 1990s. What were the campaigns that enabled this growth?

In the late 1980s, I used to do some stuff on the side for Ogilvy’s clients who wanted work in Hindi. In 1987, I had the opportunity to write the lyrics for Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. Ogilvy bosses Suresh Malik and Mani Iyer came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time on the accounts side and encouraged me to hop over to the creative side of things.

However, my entry into the creative side was rather odd, as it wasn’t easy for them to bring me over at a senior position without upsetting the existing team. So I was given the designation of copy chief, Indian languages. It was a new role that was created for me and no one had any idea what it meant.

The bosses spoke to the creative teams and made a list of clients who wanted specifically Indian content—those were the accounts handed to me. Most of them regarded these brands as really boring and were more than happy to part with them. In the process, I got Luna bikes, Asian Paints and Fevicol, and that became the work I became known for in that decade.

Piyush Pandey at his home in Mahim. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Piyush Pandey at his home in Mahim. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

What was the general mood of advertising in the 1990s?

It was a great decade for the country. With the onset of liberalization, there was a new confidence. Your mood expresses yourself in your energy, your willingness to experiment. The 1990s were everyone’s definition of a golden era and that was the case with advertising as well.

There had been good print-work going on in the country since the 1970s, but it was the 1990s when television advertising really took off. The 1980s had been the early days of TV advertising and a lot of the work had been inspired by briefs sent by the mother company based on what they were doing in other markets. However, in the 1990s we ignored all of that and created an idiom that was entirely our own, and did work which caught the fancy of the industry and the people of India.

People started believing in this Indian approach and the success of those campaigns proved that. We did some very successful work for Asian Paints, Cadbury’s and Fevicol in the early part of the decade. Towards the late 1990s, we did exciting campaigns for Kelvinator, Onida as well as the National Literacy Mission. The 1990s were also the period when India (became) “happening" internationally and our ads started getting noticed. I would call this the time when advertising actually moved from information to entertainment.

The way clients looked at products also changed. I remember so many clients who came to me saying they wanted Fevicol kind of advertising and I used to tell them that they needed a Fevicol kind of mindset.-

How did advertising itself change from the 1980s to the 1990s?

This was the time when satellite TV went berserk. The year 1982 was when colour TV arrived in India, for the Asian Games. When satellite TV came in the 1990s, opportunities increased and clients wanted more television advertising. The way clients looked at products also changed. I remember so many clients who came to me saying they wanted Fevicol kind of advertising and I used to tell them that they needed a Fevicol kind of mindset.

I believe in storytelling and that is what I was doing back then, and that is what my team also did, and maybe that is why almost everything we made back then turned to gold.

We made sure that no matter how small the product, we wouldn’t reject anything. The 1990s gave advertising the momentum it needed and it also saw a belief in India and its people. A lot of international clients now say that they will not run the same ads that they do in America and that they want to do ads specifically for the Indian market. And that was something that started in the 1990s.

Was life in advertising then anything like that shown in ‘Mad Men’?

We were working like dogs and having a ball. There were a bunch of young people with me and everyone was raring to go. And we used to go into award shows as one big gang all dressed in black. I don’t know about Mad Men, but those were indeed mad days. We used to party hard and also work very, very hard. Alas, I missed the actual Mad Men era as I was too young back then. That was the life set in 1970s’ America and the stories are true. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the benefit of it. But I think we had way more fun than they could have had in the 1970s. We were perpetually on a high.

I watched the Cadbury’s ad with the girl dancing on the cricket field recently and even after all these years, there is something about the song that fills the viewer’s heart...

When I speak at management schools today and the first frame of the girl dancing on the cricket field appears, all the students go mad. And the crazy thing is that they weren’t even born back then. A lot of credit for this goes to my ex-boss Suresh Malik, who encouraged us to do something different. Before that everyone was super-boring and they were singing brand names alone. It was he who insisted that we should make songs instead. And it was a transformation from singing “Nirma Nirma Nirma" (a washing powder brand) to actually making a song where the brand didn’t appear at all in the lyrics.

Again, it was Suresh who stressed the importance of the music for each song. For an ad like Cadbury’s, I wrote the lyrics and then went and recorded it with jazzman Louis Banks. He created the tune and then something funny happened. I was in a bit of a hurry and had written the song in English on the plane on my way back from Hawaii. After I finished recording it with Louis, I suddenly asked myself why the f*** I had done this in English. And so I sat down and used the same score to write a Hindi version and it worked 10 times better.

Similarly, when we were casting for this ad, we auditioned a whole bunch of models, many of whom could dance. However, the one we finally picked was a girl who could not dance but did what she did with all her heart.

How important was casting for your ads? The people you chose often became iconic brand ambassadors for the products.

This kind of new approach in advertising was propelled by casting changes. One man who has changed how we cast people in ads is my brother Prasoon Pandey. He took casting from plastic model-like faces to real people who could perform. I was writing the ads and Prasoon was casting for them and together we also tried to get our other film-maker friends to cast real.

We also changed the way people looked at models. In those days people were not comfortable using dusky-complexioned models. We used Sheetal Mallar in an ad for a suiting brand. A lot of credit for the people we cast in our ads also goes to film-maker Ram Madhvani, who worked with me on a lot of the ads. He brought the right people for each ad and we made the final selection together. Like for the Le Sancy ad, we immediately found our “Rahul" when we saw him dance.

For the Cadbury campaign, the regular way to think would be to get a dancer, but we turned this on its head by casting someone who could not dance. This was the time when we started casting 70- to 75-year-olds in our ads while targeting 35-year-olds and this was because I wanted people to say, “God, if I live to be that old, I better be that happy."

Tell us about your use of Hindi as a medium of advertising and the fact that you reached a wide cross-section with each campaign.

Basically, I come from Jaipur and at home we only spoke Hindi and although we used to go to St Xavier’s, which was an English-medium school, the language we spoke with friends was Hindi. So I was comfortable with both languages, as were many in the country. But I always believed that while people would understand English in India, the same thing told in Hindi would truly get the message across. It was not just good enough to make them understand our ideas—we needed to move them with something that hit you here (pointing to his heart).

The ads were meant to target people across the board, irrespective of social strata. To achieve something like this, we had to look at the human being inside the carpenter and the CEO alike. All of us have some common trigger points and that sort of came naturally to us while we were making these ads. We didn’t have to plot our demographics and target audience on graphs and charts.

Once, I was in Jaipur in the Rambagh Palace Hotel for the Ad Asia awards. I was waiting for my car in the portico when a security guard with a magnificent moustache 10 times bigger than mine came up to me and started chatting. He asked me when I had left Jaipur and I responded saying that I had never left the city and that I still had family and home here. He then said, “You are stuck to Jaipur just like Fevicol." And the fact that he was cracking his own joke based on an ad I had made was for me a bigger award than those given at glittering ceremonies. And this is the kind of reach that is heart-warming.

What is your favourite campaign from this period, from among the ones you made as well as others?

This is a very difficult question because I have always believed that if your favourite campaign is not your most recent campaign, then you should retire. I love most of the campaigns from the period and if I put together a reel of the 1990s, I am sure that neither you nor I will be able to decide on a favourite. Right from Cadbury’s to the Kelvinator campaign with the chattering teeth, there was something magical in all these ads. However, I can tell you that the people’s favourite campaign from this time was Cadbury’s. Outside of the ads I made, there was this fantastic TV campaign in Hindi that my brother did for The Times Of India. It was path-breaking, as no one had done something like that before, and I have often mentioned that this is one campaign from the 1990s that I wish I had done.

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Piyush Pandey’s 1990s showreel

Fevicol

Simple, succinct, and with immediate recall value, the Dum lagake haisha tag line really built up Fevicol (which till then had been popular largely among carpenters) as a brand. The ad used a basic tug-of-war concept with its natural rhythms and poetic metre. An elephant and a referee were thrown into the mix and the end result was a winning campaign that made Fevicol a household name.

Le Sancy

Picture a cheeky young boy dancing in abandon to his favourite rap number while the shower is directed in full force at a bar of soap. A stern voice, presumably that of the mother, can be heard sporadically screaming, “Rahul, paani chala jayega." The water actually stops, the soap endures. And that is how the world was introduced to Le Sancy and little “Rahul".

Cadbury’s

All of Pandey’s magic came together in this ad which went on to win “The Campaign Of The Century" at the Advertising Club Bombay’s Abby Awards. A superb storyline, a great song scored by Louis Banks and memorable characters made an entire generation believe in the power of chocolate. The model in the ad, Shimona, didn’t know how to dance but her euphoric victory jig when her boyfriend hit the match-winning six captured a billion hearts.

Asian Paints

Celebrating the family unit and the idea of home, this ad brought home the stories that exist within four walls. The Pongal ad with a song by A.R. Rahman, and the Diwali ad featuring an army man returning to his home and his family in time for Diwali, tugged at heartstrings. These were ads that celebrated homecoming and tradition but were also in sync with a newly liberalized country.

Kelvinator

This simple, dialogue-free campaign, which had a set of dentures in a glass chattering away every time a refrigerator door opened, was quirky, fun and made Kelvinator the “coolest one", both literally and metaphorically.

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