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Prathap Suthan on Advertising in 2024

Prathap Suthan, a distinguished name in Indian advertising with a career spanning over 35 years, recently shared insights into his remarkable journey. We had the pleasure of discussing his illustrious career, including some of his highly acclaimed campaigns that have left a lasting impact on the industry. Additionally, we explored his thoughts on the state of advertising in 2024 and the exciting prospects that lie ahead.

Prathap Suthan on Advertising in 2024

You have had a very long and successful career in advertising, with the creation of some mind-blowing campaigns. Can you share some insights from your early days in advertising and compare how the industry has changed over the years?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: Clearly, things have evolved around us, and we have adapted accordingly. I was born at a time when television was nonexistent; it made its way into our lives in the early '80s. In Kerala, where I'm from, television arrived around 1982-83, compared to cities like Bombay or Delhi. Before that, our knowledge of television was limited to what we saw in movies, read in books, and consumed in the news.

Changes occurred, and we adapted, progressing from A to B to C. It's not as though I was transported from 1987, when I started, to 2024, skipping over all the changes. I have been part of every moment and every day between these years. And I have personally witnessed and navigated these transformations - resulting in a seamless transition across decades.

However, the advertising industry, and how it operates today, has undergone a shift. The fundamental role of advertising remains constant, much like the enduring essence of journalism. While the mediums and channels for journalism have evolved, and the methods of delivering news to people have changed, the core principles of journalism remain unchanged.

Similarly, the fundamental purpose of advertising, the reason it was created, endures. Yet, there have been numerous additions and enhancements in advertising.

Do you think over the last 20-30 years the skills needed to excel in advertising have changed? (Advertising was not as data-driven as it is now)

Mr. Prathap Suthan: Consider the field of Medical Science: when you fall ill, you consult a doctor. In the past, a doctor's toolkit was limited to a stethoscope, touch and feel, and basic diagnostic tests were prescribed. However, this scenario has undergone a significant transformation with the advent of new technology. CT scans, MRI, robotic surgery, etc.

Despite these changes, the fundamental reason for a doctor's existence remains unaltered—they are there to diagnose and treat. The methods of diagnosis and the instruments used have evolved, but the ultimate goal of preserving human life persists. The core skill of interacting with patients also remains constant.

Similarly, advertising, much like medical science, had its inception for a specific purpose. In fact, certain aspects of advertising involve a form of diagnosis for a brand—identifying issues, determining necessary actions, deciding what needs to be removed or added, and so forth.

There would be no one better to answer this, but what are some key skills you could identify in an individual for a legacy-building career in advertising? Focusing on creativity and copywriting.

Mr. Prathap Suthan: Allow me to provide a bit of background about the type of person who would find this skill set appealing.

Back in my school days, I had a penchant for storytelling, but not in the contemporary sense of the term. I excelled at telling imaginative tales—I was quite skilled at spinning colorful lies for even the most mundane stories. It wasn’t something deliberate. But that was my natural reflex.

People enjoyed listening to my embellished narratives, and though I wasn't aware of it at the time, I now realize that this innate ability to invent, exaggerate, and engage in conversations is a valuable asset in the world of advertising.

Reflecting on my journey, I recognize that individuals with a natural inclination to create stories, exaggerate details, and craft interesting conversations possess qualities essential for success on the creative side of advertising.

Another crucial trait is curiosity—the desire to understand how things work, accompanied by an inclination to question everything. Whether it's pondering over the mechanics of a car, the reason behind a logo, or the significance of the logo's color, fostering a curious mindset is key.

Moreover, the ability to express oneself is vital, and this can manifest in various forms. Some may prefer drawing, carving, painting, or creating caricatures, while others, like myself, find their medium of expression in writing.

As the saying goes, 'the more you know, the more you realize how less you know.' For instance, consider something as commonplace as your smartphone. Ask questions about its origin, the materials used, the software that goes into it, who created all those, who made the hardware, and explore even more directions. Dive into details like the colour, texture, and possible new tech. There are millions of questions that you’re holding in your hand.

By questioning the seemingly ordinary aspects of life, you not only gain insights but also cultivate the inquisitive nature required for a fulfilling career in advertising. Now, when it comes to writing, narrating a story in a medium—be it a newspaper ad, a lengthy brochure, or a 5-minute film—poses a unique challenge. The essence of the story or the underlying thought remains constant, but the channels of communication constantly shift.

In today's landscape, digital platforms dominate, each presenting its distinct advantages and challenges. Emerging mediums like stories, reels, gifs, and carousels provide creative spaces where people continually innovate to convey narratives.

Humans are inherently dynamic, and our minds are far from stagnant; we constantly generate new ideas because, fundamentally, we are not dull individuals. Our desire for action and engagement propels us forward, driving the evolution of platforms.

In parallel, the mediums for storytelling undergo change and development, yet the essence of the story persists—it's the ‘how’ of telling the story that keeps and will keep evolving.

Let’s go back in time to your first film. Can you take us through your creative process?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: Hmm, it's an interesting story - my first film wasn't exactly what you'd call my 'first' film. It was for a company, Ashoka Biscuits, based in Hyderabad. Now, I'm not even sure if the company still exists. The film was for a product called Ashoka Creamy Wafers.

One day, my boss told me that we had to create a film for this company. While there wasn't a specific brief, we sat around for a while and rambled about for some time. Soon I returned with an idea to build them as a children’s company.

The primary truth on which I based my thinking was that the majority of their products were designed for children - wafers, biscuits, and the like. So, I thought of writing the film with the core thought being - 'Ashoka: The Kids Company,' emphasising that their offerings were crafted for kids, by kids.

The film was spun around a music track – a minute long jingle. I shared the script with my Creative Director, and while he said it was good, the discussion ended there. About a month later, the Chairman of the agency called us all to the conference room, and showcased a film that the agency had made for a Hyderabad-based client.

To my surprise, it was the same Kids Company film that I had discussed with my boss earlier. I immediately looked at my boss – perhaps with surprise, curiosity, doubt, ridicule, suspicion, and even disdain, but he totally avoided eye contact. Obviously, he didn’t want to credit me – either privately or publicly.

One distinct memory I have of that film was its music, composed by Vanraj Bhatia. I have long searched on YouTube etc., but I have never been able to find that film.

Diving into one of your first highly acclaimed films, which is no less than a marketing case study as it stands at the intersection of business problem-solving and advertising – 'Ajanta Clocks'.

Mr. Prathap Suthan: I recall being called into a meeting, and there were these two Gujarati gentlemen who appeared visibly downcast and disheartened. The client services head and the branch head who were already at the meeting explained that the men had come from the town of Morbi, where they had an imported stock of a million quartz movements (which makes the clocks tick) in their warehouse.

Apparently, market feedback indicated that people disliked the inbuilt sounds that these clocks made. The music interlude that came up with every new hour was absolutely annoying. The company therefore found itself in a precarious situation with this unsellable inventory, facing an imminent threat of bankruptcy if a solution wasn't found.

So, as the brief came to me, I spent time over it, and slowly realized that as long as the brand couldn’t delete the annoying musical aspect of the clocks, there was nothing new one could borrow and bring in.

Eventually, I decided to flip the narrative. I planned to make people enjoy the music, and turn the music into a key feature of the communication. Make the disadvantage into the advantage.

This idea laid the foundation for the creation of the ad film. Initially, my film featured a pregnant woman. The clients loved it, but they sought my opinion on its effectiveness. I expressed confidence in the film, but being only my second year in the business, I admitted to having just a strong gut feeling with no concrete gauge of how the market would respond.

Following this, the agency sent the script to Ram Madhvani, who suggested a crucial change: replace the pregnant woman. When I asked Ram, he took time to explain. 'She is too young; the loudness of the music will have a more significant impact on an older person's mind than a younger one. If an older person enjoys the music, then the music is truly good.'

This pivotal adjustment, made by Ram Madhvani, set the stage for the film's success. The film not only helped Ajanta Clocks clear their inventory, it also propelled them to become the world’s largest clock manufacturers. The film too continued to run for around 20 years. I am not sure of any other commercial that’s run unchanged for so long.

In addition to all of this, the film won numerous awards, including the Commercial of the Year at CAG (Communication Art Guild) – which was at that point, India’s toughest award.

However, I vividly recall returning to my Ahmedabad office after winning CAG, hoping that my CMD would be thrilled and celebrate it. But he didn’t.

I remember walking into his large office, very proudly took the award out of my rucksack, and placed it on his table. He just looked at it, said well done, and asked me to place it on a shelf among the other awards, and get back to work.

In hindsight, I think he deliberately did it. He possibly saved me from potential pitfalls in my career, and prevented me from getting carried away. This one single experience has played a significant role in my perspective on awards.

While I've won several awards and even served on the jury at Cannes Lion, awards have never been my primary focus. Never have I goaded my team to create award winning entries. Scam just doesn’t work for me.

My priority lies in the success of the product and the brand in the marketplace. If the client who entrusts me with creating ads is more profitable than I am, it signifies a win for me, my team, and my agency. It means our collective judgment on advertising has been sound.

Do you think Ajanta Clocks film could work in 2024?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: I mean, it could. It's an endearing film, and perhaps if it were redone, it could still work because it's not a dated idea. The core concept still holds potential. However, the execution could be refined, making it more polished and slicker.

What is your creative process like? From a brief to the concept to the execution?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: The most crucial aspect for me to grasp is 'What is the message I need to convey?' To achieve this, I simply need to comprehend the 'what' from the business.

Without a clear understanding of this, I won't be able to strategize the 'how' to communicate it effectively.

All I require is that one tipping point, the singular differentiator, and then I can proficiently handle the execution of advertising. Unfortunately, many individuals essentially from the marketing and client-side struggle with articulating the 'what' effectively.

Your love for writing is a well-known fact, to the point that writing becomes a superset under which copywriting falls. But if we are talking in the sense of copywriters, do you have a process, a framework that you follow for creating ads? Something that aspiring copywriters can emulate?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: Even today, the moment I hear a brief, I can determine whether it will work and understand why it might not work.

With my years in the business and experience, I know I have a deeper understanding of consumers and the country than many younger clients who formulate briefs.

Frequently, I find myself guiding and refining the brief during the briefing stage. At times, some very clever clients may present an inaccurate brief to gauge if the agency can identify discrepancies and assert that the project is not viable. It's come up because it’s become evident that some agencies blindly follow whatever the client states. Engaging in a conversation immediately after the brief is essential, asking questions and clarifying the 'what,' is crucial to reaching the 'how.'

Once I have a clear understanding of the 'what,' I don't take much time to conceptualise the creative aspect. Following this, I aim to encapsulate 'One Thought'—precisely one central idea around which the creatives will revolve.

Collaborating with my partner Naresh, who’s a tough nut to crack, armed with a strategic bent of mind, and possesses extensive market knowledge, we work together to distill that one thought.

What is your take on the new technology coming into the industry?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: A lot of my peers, who have been in the business, have moved out of advertising for various reasons. Many people are extremely good at what they do and have excelled in other fields, but a lot of others have also been scared by the profusion of technology that has come into play.

See, technology is not a master; technology is your slave. I don't know why people don't understand that critical difference.

We have invented technology to do things faster, not to replace us. But the fact of the day is that a lot of experience in this industry has gone, and advertising needs people who believe in brands. Business today has multiplied as a result, with far too many brands and advertising agencies.

I mean, today we have One-Person Advertising Agencies; even then, we will not be able to match up to the business opportunities that are lying out there. With new venture capital money, brands have been launched, but there is a science needed to create long-term sustainable brands. At the heart of this lies the soul of creative people. And we cannot create creative people in a factory.

I can definitely understand individuals using ChatGPT, using artificial intelligence to complete the boring work so that people can focus on the interesting tasks. The work that invariably requires the human touch.

Artificial intelligence can only take you so far, beyond which the human touch must intervene to create masterpieces that would stand the test of time. Because the person who raises the bar will always be a human being — in fact, it should always be a human being.

The day machines start doing that is when we will be doomed. I personally think removing humans from industry, would end up in unemployment that reduces innate buying potential, and then consequently it will begin to hurt economy.

You need people with money in their pockets to buy the products that we advertise for. Otherwise there will be mountains of unsold inventory and shrinking profits. No buyers, no economy.

Now, we recognize that proficient consumer understanding comes with years of experience, but is there a way for young professionals to hone their skills in consumer understanding?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: One thing I have realized, which is actually a severe problem with Millennials and Gen Z, is that although they have all the tools with them, it still does not make them complete advertising professionals.

Just like someone makes food, the intricacies that go into creating a dish—from the craft of selecting the right ingredients to cooking the condiments for exactly 7 minutes and 52 seconds or whatever is the perfect time - there is an art of putting things together. All of this is custom-made, artisanal, and bespoke, and nothing is artificially intelligent about this. The human touch and the years of experience can't be replicated by a diagnostic tool. The layers of crafting unfortunately come with experience. You need to invest time to build this.

Now, we have heard rumours that while you were in college, you used to write love letters for your friends in exchange for food. Was this the start of your journey from writing to copywriting to advertising maestro?

Prathap Suthan on Advertising in 2024

Mr. Prathap Suthan: Actually, the origins of my interest in writing trace back to one instance in the 8th grade. During an English comprehension test, despite being an average student, the day I wrote an essay, I felt like I would top the class. Initially scoring 83/100, we even poked fun at the student who was ranked number one in English.

However, within the next ten minutes, someone from the staffroom returned with 5 marks deducted, bringing my score down to 78 and making me the second-highest scorer.

I was quite upset and declared that I hated English and would never write again. Yet, something shifted within me, prompting me to question why I should be so upset.

I loved writing, and from that point on, I resolved to write in a way that even if they cut 5 marks, I would still be ahead. I consider this instance to be a turning point in my life. I vowed to write my heart out, and this determination started back in the 8th grade in 1975.

Why don’t you write a book?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: Recently, a very promising space exploration company approached me. I met their founder, and he wanted me to co-author and essentially capture his story, writing it in a book.

As an avid space enthusiast, I have always been fond of space books in school and college - authors like Eric Von Daniken, Arthur C. Clarke, John Updike, Douglas Adams, etc., I have a special connection with space.

In Trivandrum, there was an exhibition at the American Centre that displayed a moon rock. I visited and still have a button and a cap that commemorates that moment. So, perhaps in the future, there might be a book. I could start structuring things and be in the process of writing.

About Bored Poetry, why is it called Bored Poetry?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: This stems from grasping what advertising is and comprehending the business of advertising. Advertising is one of the most insecure industries globally, especially in India.

Peer-to-peer appreciation is something that hasn't happened much in our country, as publicly acknowledging that someone is better than you or that you are not as good as someone is uncommon.

It arises from a profound understanding that one person will never be able to emulate what someone else does or writes, as creative expressions are shaped by personal experiences. So, the term 'bored poetry' actually originates from setting no expectations for the outcome.

By labeling it as such, I essentially allow you to form your opinion (good or bad) about my writing without the pressure of managing expectations. With 'bored poetry,' I haven't given them the avenue to criticize me, and that is how I've closed the loop of managing criticisms and expectations.

Would you say that the ads you have written are, in some way, a reflection of you?

Mr. Prathap Suthan: See, there is one brand that essentially represents me, and that brand is Vimal Suitings. I worked on Vimal during the time when I was courting my wife. So, all the things I wanted to do for my wife translated into the ads. The Vimal Man was a maverick lover, not a classical one. He was a rebel, a rake, and someone a little bit of a playboy. The Vimal personality is significantly different from a Raymond personality; the Raymond personality is much suaver and more gentlemanly, while Vimal is the exact opposite.

The Vimal man could jump onto a horse and gallop to the office. I always thought I was the Vimal guy, and whatever I wanted to do got translated into the ads. There was this one instance when I wanted to book the whole theatre and propose to my wife, which became an ad.

These are extremely non-traditional ways of doing things, reflecting who I am as a creative person. I would never want to imitate someone else, and therefore, I always look for new narratives and ways of doing the same things.

As the Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Bang in the Middle, what are the key advertising trends in 2024 that you have identified, and how can agencies equip themselves and stand tall?

Prathap Suthan on Advertising in 2024

Mr. Prathap Suthan: There are very few agencies that can stand tall today, as, frankly speaking, agencies have gone and shot themselves in the foot. As agencies, we have undersold ourselves, become slaves to clients, and assumed a submissive stance, allowing clients to dominate us. Consequently, we find ourselves unable to negotiate for more money. Without additional revenue flowing into the business, there is no joy in the business, and we can't attract the right talent.

With the proliferation of digital media platforms and new formats, the workload has surged, yet clients are unwilling to pay. In essence, "There is no money in the business."

Consequently, agencies lack talented individuals, becoming hollow entities. I can assert without hesitation that agencies are being paid a fourth of what they should for doing six times more work.

Unless this financial equation is rectified, and agencies are compensated adequately, the future of this business looks bleak. It's nearly on the brink. Big businesses, supported by large 'organisms,' will continue to thrive, pun intended on 'organizations.’ The bottom line is that agencies are being paid terribly. Sadly, my driver gets paid more than my newbie copywriter.