Mumbai: Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and creative director at Ogilvy & Mather–South Asia, speaks in an interview about the advertising campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministeral candidate Narendra Modi in the 16th general election that the party won with a remarkable mandate. Ogilvy-Mather’s agency Soho Square created the BJP campaign. Pandey credited the BJP’s success to the “fantastic product" that it had in Modi and his ability to communicate with the people. Edited excerpts:

What would you say was clinched this win for the BJP?

The clincher of any campaign is the product. No campaign can sell a bad product. This one had a fantastic product in Mr. Modi and that product knew its value and communicated to people what it stood for. Everything else was surround. And the clincher is communication, which started not now but many years earlier by communicating with people through social media, by speaking to people and several other things. It’s a role model experience for any product. If the product is good, then the product must communicate. A bad product with great communication will never succeed. I think engaging people, involving people, and participation is behind the success of the Modi campaign. By which I don’t mean the Modi media campaign, but his communication with the people of India.

How do you create advertising around such a controversial figure? What value can advertising add to a telegenic personality?

‘Controversial figure’ is a wrong statement, and I don’t agree with it. It is a very nouveau rich statement on a person who is a grassroots person. There are mishaps in everyone’s life. Did you cause the mishap? And the general clearance is—you did not cause the mishap. Some people think you (Modi) are controversial. You look at the product and its attributes and communicate that to the people of India. Any successful campaign listens to its audience—in this case, the people of India. If the audience is unhappy about certain issues, you address those. If the audience has certain aspirations, you address that. Just goes to show that the campaign respected the audience and aligned itself in a fashion where you were not blowing your own trumpet, you were addressing the needs of the audience.. There was a lot of research, but if you ask me and know me, you don’t bank on research, you know the mood of the nation anyway. As an individual. did you need research to tell you that there is a lot of corruption in the country or that there is a need for a decisive government? My observations are the same as yours, and it was backed by research also. Every human being knew what India was looking for and what India was missing. That formed the genesis of the campaign.

Any large leader has to address and appeal to a wide cross-section of audiences—some more liberal, others fundamentalist. How did the campaign address that aspect?

Let me answer this with an analogy; you go to see an Amitabh Bachchan movie, that doesn’t mean that Mr. Bachchan was the director and the lyricist, the spot boy and everything. There are many people who played a key role, but you lead with a face. And the face that India was looking at with a lot of expectation was that of Mr. Modi’s. He represents the values of a collective. And in Mr.Modi’s case it was so obvious, that everyone said these are the values we are looking for, and people rallied around him and made things happen. Mr. Modi has a very sorted head, which knows that there are people in all sections of society who have different needs. Those were communicated to us and we worked on that brief. And the brief was so precise and to the point that it made our job very easy.

The real recall, some would say, was in the line—Ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar. What went into that thought process?

No line can ever be read out of context. It is the context that you create that adds relevance. Earlier the line, “Abki Baari Atal Bihari" (this is the time for Atal Bihari) was used, but we had to add context to it. “Bahut hua brashtachar, ab ki baar, Modi sarkar." (enough of corruption, this is the time for a Modi government) Or “Bahut hui mahengayi ki vaar, ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar." (enough of inflation, this is the time for a Modi government). That gives it context. So you have to see what is the product, what is the audience, and where is the relevance of the product with the audience and lines emerge. There were thousands of people involved in this campaign, and we were happy to be one of those contributors in the mass media. Battles are won on the ground. No election can be won without the karyakartas (party workers) on the ground. Everything else, is at best air cover.

What importance do symbols play in this entire process? For instance, in Modi’s selfie, the lotus brooch after casting his voting.

The lotus symbol is what the party owns and wears on their heart and they have a right to wear it on their sleeve too! It’s as simple as that. And people identify it with that symbol. I’m not sure if such symbols helped influence voters at a sub-conscious level, but it did make things very clear: Don’t mistake me for anyone else… I am the man with the lotus. I have nothing to hide. You must wear it as long as you are allowed to wear it.

What were some of the learnings from this election?

When you’re dealing with a billion plus people in a decisive scenario like an election you have to be on your toes. Our learning is listening to people, who you may not think of as ‘advertising-savvy’ but are ‘people-savvy,’ on the ground. Keep your eyes and ears open and be humble.

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