Exclusive | Skill is important, but nothing without loyalty: Ogilvy's Sumanto Chattopadhyay
In an industry where the true meaning of creativity is altering minute by minute, creative brains of the industry have to be up to the task. At first sight, tall Sumanto Chattopadhyay with his long hair and beard looks as if he has just walked out of the sets of Lord of the Rings. The Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy, South Asia, is one man who has a keen vision of creativity and out-of-the-box concepts. When not making award-winning advertisements, Chattopadhyay takes up the role of a writer, a model or an actor.
Year on year, he has won prestigious international advertising awards. This year he picked up a Cannes Lion for the iFold project. Adgully in conversation with Sumanto Chattopadhyay; following are the excerpts.
Adgully (AG): Firstly tell us what motivated you to take up advertising as your profession, since you seem to have a very diverse educational background?
SC: Advertising is a field where misfits fit in. I got my bachelor’s degree in economics and master’s degree in applied mathematics in the US. But I could neither see myself as an economist nor fit into the math geek mould. I got my MBA at McGill University in Canada but did not fit into the pinstripes club either. Finally I accepted advertising as my thing and it accepted me.
AG: Please share with us some of your early impressions of your chosen profession?
SC: When I entered advertising, Alyque Padamsee was God. At that time, being creative in advertising was seen as a subset of creativity in the arts. Mr. Padamsee and company were actors and directors in plays and films. Others were painters or authors. Did you know that Kabir Bedi and Salman Rushdie both worked at Ogilvy in their early years? I too gravitated towards acting, dabbling in theatre and cinema. I remember when I acted in Barefoot in Mumbai (Hosi Vasunia’s adaptation of Barefoot in the Park), Mr. Padamsee came backstage on opening night and shook my hand. I doubt if he remembers this, but it meant a great deal to me at the time. Last year, I had the privilege of acting in a short Hindi film directed by celebrated director Buddhadeb Dasgupta. It was based on a Tagore poem in which the poet appreciates the beauty of a dusky village girl – whom he refers to as Krishnakali—or Dark Bud. I played the poet’s role.
I try to make time to keep the actor part of me alive. Not just to keep an advertising tradition alive, but because nurturing different aspects of one’s creativity, beyond advertising, is what keeps one fresh.
“The best people in advertising aren't the ones who were born to make ads, but the ones who were meant for so much more.” I am quoting a Facebook status update of my colleague Sofia Ashraf – I think it would be marvelous to be one of these people.
AG: How difficult or easy was it to get into the groove of an ad agency culture?
SC: When I first moved to Mumbai, I felt a bit lost. I had moved from an outpost, so to speak, to the nerve centre of the Indian ad world. I felt I had a point to prove. I would keep comparing my work to what others around me were doing. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t all that bad. The reason I wasn’t getting ahead as fast as I wanted to was that I didn’t get my ‘PR’ right. I was blunt and outspoken. This rubbed people the wrong way. Now that I’m older, I feel I’ve toned down. But my well-wishers still keep telling me to behave myself. I do what I do and say what I say because I feel this compulsion to be true to my thoughts. But not everyone looks at it that way. Ah, well!
AG: How was your experience working with Ram Ray?
SC: Ram Ray is an early adopter of technology. At his agency, Response, we were using Macs well before other agencies did. And Mr. Ray knew the machine like the back of his hand. Mr. Ray taught us to be at the cutting edge of technology. In fact, I should not restrict that statement to just technology: He taught us to be on the cutting edge. Period.
AG: Share some of your best works that you are proud of.
SC: Ogilvy Kolkata – which is a part of my portfolio – is the only agency office in that city to win international awards. We have won three in the last few years – two at Cannes and one at the Asia Pacific Ad Fest. Something to be proud of, I feel. Also, Kolkata agencies end up doing few national campaigns and few television commercials. We managed to buck both trends. For example, we did several TV commercials for Lafarge Cement. One of my favourites is a film for Lafarge Concreto cement in which a family of four plays doubles badminton with each pair sharing a single racquet. The voiceover says, ‘bachat kahin bhi par ghar banane mein nahin’ (Save on anything except on building your home). The second commercial in the series shows a guy on a scooter getting off periodically and wheeling it along to save fuel. The films are done in retro Bollywood style.
Last year we did a highly effective national campaign for Tata Steel out of our Kolkata office. What was interesting was that we got documentary filmmakers to shoot our ads—they were, in that sense, not ads at all, but unvarnished stories of the people whose lives the company touches. The result was that Tata Steel’s corporate image shot to the top across all parameters.
Coming to Mumbai, the campaigns that I did for Maharashtra Tourism over the years gave me a lot of joy. One of these was for the Deccan Odyssey ‘palace on wheels’ rail trip. It was positioned as ‘The Great Indian Train Journey’. The creative execution hinged on the way Maharashtrians and other Indians nod their head to say yes or no – nods that foreigners find very hard to decipher! Each poster featured a Maharashtrian with his or her head mounted on a spring. The poster posed a typical question asked by foreign tourists – such as “Is the curry spicy?“ or “Do you ride an elephant to work?” The head on the spring always nodded in a way that left the tourist wondering if the answer were a yes or a no.
Recently, the iFOLD project that I was involved in gave me great satisfaction. It was a simple idea with a big impact: If you have to post a letter, bill or document, give it an extra fold and you can use an envelope that’s half the size. We adopted this ourselves at Ogilvy and then approached Vodafone and other clients to adopt it as well. Vodafone is now saving many trees every month, and saving money in the bargain, by mailing their bills in smaller iFOLD envelopes.
AG: Share any '5 key changes' that you see in the industry since you started your career?
SC: One is , Indian agencies getting integrated into international networks. Once the Indian economy opened up, the cross-pollination between the India office of a multinational agency and its offices in other countries grew. And homegrown agencies tied up with foreign ones to become a part of an international network. Secondly, Indian-made campaigns traveling abroad; in the past it was India that had to adapt campaigns created in the West. Now we are creating campaigns for the world. Lenovo is a good example. Thirdly, the introduction of the timesheet; I’m sure it has its uses, but it doesn’t work for me. The amount of time spent on a brand means little. It’s the ideas that one comes up with for the brand that count. Next I believe is ‘Media departments separating from creative agencies.’ When the creative and media departments were part of the same office they jammed together and fed off each other’s ideas. No more. Lastly, its ‘www.’ The internet has changed the industry in so many ways. We no longer create campaigns in isolation. We get inspired by work from all over the world. By the same token, we have to be careful not to plagiarize – because the worldwide web would expose us immediately.
AG: How would you like to rank creativity in ‘Indian advertising’? Also your comments and thoughts on creativity in other parts of the world!
SC: India is a microcosm of the world. Many cultures, classes and communities coexist. When you are talented enough to be able to appeal to this diverse bunch, your creativity can confidently travel anywhere. In countries where the level of education and sophistication of consumers is uniformly high, one is able to create advertising that is cleverer – without having to worry if the audience will ‘get it’. Also, the homogeneity of those societies means that they have cultural references that can apply to the whole population. So it’s easier to find a creative angle that everyone relates to. In India, besides cricket, there is little else that binds the whole population together. And even cricket doesn’t really engage the female population to the extent it does the male.
AG: You have been overseeing markets other than India, what has been your experience of creating advertising for other countries?
SC: I have a long relationship with Ogilvy’s Sri Lanka office. Starting with a six-month stint there in 1997, I have been involved in some way or another with them. The key difference there is the size of the market. The population of the entire island is comparable to that of Greater Mumbai. This means that budgets are much lower. The lack of money means that advertising is generally a little less evolved compared to more developed markets. (Which of course doesn’t preclude a few shining gems coming out of the emerald isle from time to time.)
Creating advertising for other countries is a challenge as you are operating without intimate knowledge of their culture. I work on Pond’s ads for the Asia Pacific region. One has to develop a sense for which face will be considered beautiful in a particular country, which dress will be seen as fashionable without being too forward and how subtle or exaggerated an expression needs to be to register. These things may sound trivial but they often determine if an ad is a success or a failure in a particular market.
AG: If not advertising then what?
SC: Movies, perhaps. As an actor. As a writer. Even as a director – though I would probably make a documentary and not a feature film. Or I might create and anchor a show on the arts. Then again, it could be something completely different. As long as it’s something that inspires me and gives me a chance to inspire others.
AG: What would your piece of advice for the new and young professionals in this domain!
SC: Have you seen George Clooney’s film ‘The Ides of March’? Clooney’s character runs for President. Ryan Gosling plays Steve Meyers, a brilliant young communications specialist in Clooney’s campaign team. The campaign manager Paul Zara fires Steve when he learns that Steve has been disloyal. Paul’s words to Steve hold a lesson for us:
There’s only one thing I value in this world Steve, and that’s loyalty. Without it you’re nothing and you have no one… it’s the only currency that you can count on. That’s why I’m letting you go. Not because you’re not good enough. But I value trust over skill. And I don’t trust you anymore.
Of course skill is important. But it’s nothing without loyalty. So my advice to new and young professionals is to never be Steve.