Failure, Embarrassment & Rejection became my best friends: Josy Paul

The Masterclass by Josy Paul, Chairman and CCO of BBDO India, as part of the Lions Live programme, was a candid account of the creative genius of Paul, his way of thinking, his failures and his many successes that have shaped his work over the years.

The Lions Live programme offers original thinking and expert perspectives on what’s coming next, masterclasses and beautifully produced short films, crafted by some of the most creative people on the planet. Lions Live unites experts from across the creative industry, from the brands adapting to fast-shifting consumer behaviours to the agencies adjusting business models and the pioneers innovating future solutions. 

Paul’s Masterclass was part of the ‘What I’ve Learnt’ module. Titled ‘Discovering your unique self’, the address was a candid account and immensely inspiring, where Paul spoke about his professional journey, starting with his first ever pitch that he made to a MNC when he was working at Ogilvy. This was followed by his struggle for starting ‘David’ for Ogilvy and the reason for quitting it, along with some anecdotes about his three best friends – Failure, Rejection and Embarrassment and how he got all fuelled up because of them everytime he had to face any one of them. He also gave an insight on how BBDO was started in India. Here is the unabridged address...

How to find yourself through advertising and creativity?

Let me start with my personal story, when I was a young trainee at Ogilvy. It was my first piece of work that I had to present to a large multinational client and unfortunately on that day, no senior management person came with us to the meeting. I went with a young account executive, and when we reached there, we noticed that the entire marketing department was there for the presentation and it was just the two of us. I presented the idea, and they looked at each other and said ‘No, this is not what we expected’. I was so stunned with that reaction, it was like something happened to me and I don’t know, I just rushed to the window, I stood at the window sill and threatened to jump out of the window. I looked at the entire marketing department and said ‘You guys are responsible for this, this is my first piece of work and your rejection is like the end of my career, so I might as well do this.’ Everybody was really shocked and the marketing chief, who was a very kind sort of guy, told everyone to leave the room, and then it was just him and me, and he walked gingerly towards me, like I was a crouching tiger and he said to me in a very sweet, kind voice, ‘Step down my son, I love your passion, I know how you feel and I would feel the same, so just step down, give me a chance, let me live with this for a bit and we’ll get back to you.’ Something about his voice felt right and I left. When I reached the agency, my CCO was waiting at the entrance. I was a bit concerned as to why he was waiting for me. He held me by my ear and he took me around the office like a punishment and he took me to his room and he sat down and said, ‘I got a call from that multinational company, they approved your work, but they don’t want to see you again.’ For me, I don’t know what happened, that was the first time that I, in a way, sensed who am I, and it was like a need to save something, it was a need to survive and it just came from within.

Difference between selling and buying

When I think about it, I realise I tried too hard to sell a piece of work. But many years later, when we won the Grand Prix for a campaign called ‘Touch the Pickle’, we didn’t have to see, the client bought it. There is ingredient in that which was the difference between trying to sell, which I did when I was a young trainee, and today when we didn’t have to sell. Between selling and buying, and understanding the difference between selling and buying is a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of finding yourself.

How we set up ‘David’ for Ogilvy

Someone who shared an interesting point in my career – this was in June 2000 and I had set up an agency called David, along with Ogilvy and WPB. My partner, Madhukar Sabnavis, and I went to the Ogilvy Board in India and said that there is need for a challenger agency in the industry. Then there was one more thing, we thought David Ogilvy had chosen the wrong end of his name – where Ogilvy is a big name and David is an ideology, it is forever and that is how we began this agency. It was very exciting, as we began to attract all kinds of interesting people, just by our point of view. The thing is, when you join an agency, you have to resign from adulthood. You didn’t get an appointment letter, you got a resignation letter which mentioned all the things that you had to resign and accept the responsibility of a six year old. It was quite funny to look at the faces of people, while they were signing the resignation letter, because that was something no one had done before, and our office, it was like a playschool, we had toys and all sort of cuddly things. I sat on a commode, and if the idea was good, it went into the bathtub, and if the idea was bad, it went into the commode. When it came to new business, we were a bit on the edge. So, the way the new businesses were, it was very different. I will give you an instance, once an electronic company asked us to pitch. There were a lot of agencies pitching for it, and I think we were probably one of the less significant agencies that was pitching as we were relatively new. My partner and I were on a flight from Mumbai to Delhi and we had around 30 pieces of work that we had prepared during the weekend, as I told people that we shouldn’t spend more than 2 hours for this pitch, because we don’t know what the outcome is, so let’s do limited amount of work. So, the entire office came together and there were some 30 pieces of work and it was delivered to us at the airport, I had not even seen it, I had just given the inputs and I had left on Sunday. Monday morning I look at my partner and say, ‘Do you know what we have to do with this work? Do you have a PPT?’ he looked at me and said, ‘I have no idea, I thought you were handling this and you knew,’ and we both realised that we both had no clue about the work and we were going for a pitch.

How to do research at 30,000 feet

So I looked at him and said ‘I have an idea, let me handle this’. I stood up and looked at the passengers, we were at the front of the aircraft – not in business class, but economy. I stood up and lot of people might have thought that this was hijacking, but I said ‘we need help, we are from an ad agency and we’re going to meet a client and we have a lot of ideas and we don’t know what is good.’ It’s amazing how people are, all these people said that they would help. So, I started picking each work and started walking up and down the aisle. The breakfast was over and the air hostesses were sitting behind, they heard the commotion and they came rushing forward, so I explained to them what was going on, so they said that they would help us, so these air hostesses walked up and down the aisle with our work and people began to vote, and from 30 pieces of work, it came to 6 pieces of work, but we wanted to get even sharper. So, we had another round of voting and while all this was going on, no one from the business class had a clue about the same, as there were two business heads who were going for the same pitch. From 6 we came down to 1 piece of work and everyone said, ‘You are going to win, we love this piece of work’. What happened was a spontaneous thing, you don’t know, you can’t tell, it just calls you, it just happens. When the flight landed, all these guys stood for us, and as we were leaving, they began to clap, it felt like we were rock stars, there was just one piece of work along with so much of energy. But what happened after that is a totally different drama.

How to win a pitch in 5 minutes

The company we went to, didn’t even think we would come, we were so insignificant that they didn’t even call us till two days were over and someone said that I think these guys are still around. He said that the MD might meet you, but he will give you only a few minutes, he has no time. So we went inside the MD’s office, he said, ‘No Sitting, only standing, only 5 minutes’. Just think about it, what happened on the aircraft I had become irrelevant, and what is happening now, when a person makes you feel small, something happens to you, I saw the faces of all the people in the aircraft, and they spoke to me, and I spoke for them. For that 5 minutes, when I spoke it impacted the MD so much that the stress on his face had gone and a miracle cream made him younger and he looked at the piece of work that I showed him, something changed that very moment he looked at me and asked, ‘Which agency are you from?’ and I was so stunned, I couldn’t believe that nobody had told him even the name of the agency. But after that, something impacted the MD so much that, we not only won the business that we went for, but we also won all of the business for that company. That’s because of what happened back in the flight and that is how you can win a pitch in 5 minutes, because of the energy of so many people. I can still see those two to three days in front of me, whenever I close my eyes, this happened in the year 2002.

Finding your roots

The agency got famous and our work began to get recognised, we won a lot of international and national awards and were being called for debates and other industry events. As we began to rise up WPB ranks, it was decided that David would go beyond India, and the agency would become an Asian Network, We would go to 8 countries and there would be a discussion at Vietnam. I got permission to go to David Ogilvy Castle in France, as I wanted to go there and feel the energy of where David came from. I sat under the tree where he used to sit. I sat there the whole day and wrote a letter to David Ogilvy, I buried that letter under the tree, where his ashes are also buried, and I collected the soil from there and came back to India. From India I went to Vietnam, where we had a conference and I shared my experience and the positivity I felt when I was at the David’s Castle.

Don’t make a PowerPoint, make a powerful point

Sometimes you realise that you don’t need to make a PowerPoint, but a Powerful Point. That is what happened in Vietnam; I had not planned this, it just writes itself, it’s like a calling, and the calling writes you.

Calling writes you

It was then decided that David will merge with Bates, another large agency. At first, something was not right, it was like something was stolen from the original spirit of David and I began to protest, I began to wear T-Shirts which said, ‘Just because it makes sense, does not make it right’,‘If you mix milk with water, you don’t get more milk, you get milk and water’ and stuff like this like a soft protest. And people would ask me, why I was doing it. I said because it doesn’t makes sense and then people would come and take photographs with me, I became the entertainer, and the man on whom people secretly laughed at, the protest didn’t work, and slowly David merged with Bates. For me something died, so I quit. We melted down our awards into slabs, which said, ‘I am David’ and gifted to each other. So I quit, I failed.

Failure, embarrassments and rejections are your best friends

Failure is an amazing thing, Embarrassment is energy, and Rejection is something I began to love. Failures, Embarrassments and Rejections became my friends, I was going through hell. When you lose something, it lives with you, it is organic. But for me, those 3 things were something that gave me fuel to think about the next thing. I got so many offers in those 7 months that I struggled. JWT was very kind to me and they made me the CCO, but I was restless, and in that restlessness, somebody reached out to me.

How BBDO started in India

That somebody were my guardian angels who were watching me, when I was going through the struggle. These guardian angels are Chris, Andrew and David. Chris reached out in an amazing way, I received a book which said, ‘The Pirate Inside’ and it was written ‘From a Secret Friend’. I was curious about this secret friend and I rushed through the garbage and looked for the courier package and it was from ‘BBDO Singapore’, that is how I traced back to Chris and he called me and I met with Andrew and David. The next thing I knew was that I was given a chance to set up BBDO India. How do you set up a great agency like BBDO in India, especially when you’ve been a reject, but things just happened.

And then there was the terrorist attack…

It was the anniversary of the biggest terrorist attack that had happened in Mumbai a year ago, and I was approached by a newspaper to do an ad for the anniversary, and I tried for a month, but I couldn’t write a word. So, I told the same to my partner and we planned to make a monument of the sound, we decided that more people would come by listening to the sound, and the thing is I have never chanted in my life, I only knew the word chant, I had never chanted. So Raj and I went, and in between we stopped at my college and I told a few students there that I wanted to create a monument of sound. Around 11 students agreed and thought it was interesting, so they followed us. On the way we printed 1,000 copies of chant that Sandy had written for us.

How to build a monument of sound

We came to Taj by 3.30 in the afternoon and all around were NSG commandos, as they knew people will come. We were the first ones there, we held hands and began to chant. For two hours, people just stood there and nothing happened and the students said that they wanted to go home as nothing was happening. But I asked them to be patient and wait. The truth is I only felt it, but I couldn’t be sure whether it will happen at all. Suddenly, two and a half hours later, people started joining in. Everyone wanted to know who started it, and that was our plan, we wanted it to be organic, we did not want it to be about the source, but about action. Four and a half hours later, when we left, as the crowd was huge, we looked back to see that there was a wonderful monument of sound. I also wrote an article, that said, ‘The future of advertising is about creating acts not ads.’ And that is how we found ourselves once more. And found the meaning of why BBDO in India.


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