India’s Mad Men

In the old days, there were only two classes of people: the ones in advertising and the ones who had jobs

In the days of yore, advertising was the civil service of the corporate world. You had to be bright, cultured, refined and a complete maverick.

You needed to be adept at the three Cs: conversation, culture and Camparis. Calcutta was not the city then that it is today. It breathed a sense of refinement that lingered from the Raj. Stories were crafted by people who could discuss Marx and Malraux with as much ease as the makings of a perfect Mughlai paratha.

In many ways, advertising and its practitioners grew up as connoisseurs. In those days, clients were the lower classes. Advertising was uniquely Brahminical. There were only two classes of people: the ones in advertising and the ones who had jobs. Ours were inheritances and not just careers. The folks who would later work at Clarion in Calcutta would also remind themselves that Satyajit Ray also walked those corridors with baritone to boot and brandy in hand. Those were elegant times.

I joined advertising in the 1980s for almost the same reason that everyone who joined the profession did: we were unemployable elsewhere. Not because we were not worth it. But only because no job was worth us. We were to the halo born and not just the manor. We came armed with Wordsworth and Tagore and not a silly MBA degree. We spent afternoons discussing the intricacies of Godard or the film craft of Ritwik Ghatak, not poring over some silly balance sheets like the minions who worked elsewhere. In the evenings, we were often spotted with exquisite women chirping over chicken gold coins at the Saturday Club, which then was more civilized than it is today.

My first job was at Contract Advertising, which had then been set up by Hindustan Thompson Associates (today’s JWT) under Shiben Dutt’s wings. Yes, the same man who went on to write the “Made for each other" tagline for Wills. Shiben, who was the head of creative (and my boss), was the nicest man you never got to know. People cowered in his presence and he never suffered fools—a trait that I have imbibed with aplomb.

Shiben was everything I admired in a man. He was bright, blunt and boorish. Such men don’t walk the earth any more. To add to his refinement, Shiben was also an alcoholic. He loved alcohol so much that he never married. But under the veneer of this boorishness was a kind man. And a man who was a great teacher. But in the same office, there was some absolute crass idiot (whose name I can’t remember) who was the branch manager. Both Shiben and I left Contract to join Ram Ray at Response, the agency he had just started.

And the rest is history. Ram was (and remains to this day) the finest advertising mind you could ever imagine. But advertising was only part of his repertoire. He was as involved with the workings of a Yale lock as he was with the newly launched Apple desktop publishing equipment. I joined Ram in 1984. He also became the sponsor of a play that I performed in and as Bhutto. Yes, those were the times when your bosses encouraged you to do things you loved and not what their wives did.

Ram taught me so much. From tangential thinking to tequila drinking. From appreciating fine wine to figuring out where we could get the best jhal muri. We would go for client meetings that were more food fairs and less advertising reviews. I have Ram to thank for a weakened liver, and also a protruding belly. Food was our elixir, as was debate.

We fought over fonts.

We cried over Camparis.

We laughed over Lagavulin.

Yes, those were the times when advertising folk spoke in English and wore suits. Before the Mad Men of today.

It was one evening, while attempting to seduce a neighbour’s daughter in the park, that I met Derek O’Brien. Yes, the same gent who is now in Parliament. And he asked me if I was keen to work at Ogilvy. I jumped at the offer. I was then ushered into the offices of Achin Ganguly, a venerable mind and a staggeringly decent man. Ogilvy was then Ogilvy & Mather and David Ogilvy was still alive.

Ogilvy was staid, yet exciting. There were prima donnas such as the Roda Mehtas and the Mani Iyers, but then there was also the genius of Suresh Mullick that one engaged with. From discussing the commercials for Cadbury to winning the pitch for Tata Steel, those were my best years. My branch manager in Calcutta was Romit Chaterji, whose single biggest contribution to the office was to let me pitch on my own and only worry about planning the after-party. Derek and I were the resident Mafiosis.

It was then that I was introduced to the quaint world of Dalhousie Institute by Derek, and to the charmingly seductive Anglo-Indian women who frequented it. In those days, the waltz was still a dance and socials were where you danced and not ate food at.

Our pitches were wondrous too. I remember becoming very good friends with Russi Mody and Aditya Kashyap—both titans at Tata Steel. Meetings at Tata Steel with RHM (Russi Homi Mody) were not about the positioning of the brand but the consistency of the mayonnaise in the egg sandwiches. We ended almost every meeting with some fine port while chomping on cigars. I continued to be with Ogilvy till 1993. And then left advertising for a while before I returned to start Equus with my brother Swapan in 1996.

By then, advertising had changed. Port was replaced by jaljeera and chicken consommé by vada pao. Clients were now devious and no longer decent. They wanted your work, seldom your company. Advertising blokes would work long hours only to go home drunk. Louis Malle had disappeared from the scene and they would never ever speak of Mrinal Sen’s contribution to cinema.

Advertising morphed from lifestyle to livelihood.

The Mad Men had become like everyone else. Sane and sterile.

Thankfully, memories such as the ones I have penned are not easily obliterated when they have been so joyous and meaningful.

I still stare at the cognac glass and remember a stirring campaign.

Suhel Seth is managing partner of Counselage India. suhel@counselage.com and Twitter: @suhelseth.

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