Bringing up Lata, with Madhu & Aimee

Remember the comic strip Bringing Up Father? The comic strip ran for 87 years from 1913 to 2000, amusing newspaper readers every morning. Created by George McManus, Bringing Up Father dealt with a social climbing wife, Maggie, and her frustrated attempts to make her husband, Jiggs, adhere to upper class standards. I have taken creative license here and happily half-borrowed the title of the comic strip. Somehow, I found it rather fitting the story Bringing up Lata, with Madhu & Aimee.

The story looks back on a time when the three of us – Aimee Rego, Madhu Noorani & yours truly, grew up in the advertising profession and came into our own. It’s a tale from advertising set in the period 1991-96.

I returned to the Lintas (now Mullen Lowe) fold in 1991. By then, I had already spent some 7 years in the advertising industry, rising to the position of Client Services Director in Trikaya (now Grey). But I didn’t feel senior. Lintas didn’t think I had reached seniority levels either and asked me to join back as Account Supervisor.

I had been in Lintas earlier. But, I was nevertheless nervous. I had just spent 5 odd years in an agency known for its creative prowess. True, I could look back with satisfaction on great work done on accounts such as Lakmé, but the undeniable fact was that in Trikaya Grey, servicing types lived cloaked in the long shadows thrown by creative giants such as Alok Nanda, Christopher Rosario, Preeti Vyas Gianetti, Viru Hiremath and Vikas Gaitonde.

Would I be able to achieve great creative standards in Lintas, on the accounts assigned to me? That was the question uppermost on my mind.

I’m afraid I can’t quite remember my early interactions with Madhu & Aimee. But I can surmise that I must have been trepidatious. Because both projected a ‘snow queen’ sort of image. With skin colour that made them look more Caucasian than Indian, and a quiet demeanour, which made them come through as aloof and on a pedestal, Madhu & Aimee could intimidate anyone at first brush. Little wonder then that they were called ‘the white ladies.’

I also think that they found me and my earnestness about work amusing. I do know that later, they teased me a great deal over my Lakmé and other Trikaya war stories.

When was the ice between the three of us really broken? Again, I can’t remember much, anything really, about any early work the three of us did together. What I do know is that Madhu & Aimee were a calming influence on me. They may not know it, but I do. Their quiet, often relentless questioning, served to simmer me down and make me think harder over the brief to creative.

But since my goal was to achieve path breaking creative work, I never minded. Au contraire, I believe it helped, really helped. Why do you think that I have called this post Bringing up Lata, with Madhu & Aimee?

Looking back, I think we achieved a breakthrough in doing cutting-edge creative on…wait for it….Harshad Mehta’s account. Here’s the ad the three of us did*.

Breakthrough creative did I say? Some might argue more like creative infamy. For many years, I was reluctant to talk about my role in the Harshad Mehta is a Liar ad for obvious reasons. But I recently wrote a chapter on the episode for an upcoming book. Which is why I am staying away from saying much more here as it would be rather unfair to the author of the planned book.

Harshad Mehta is a Liar ad

But what I can do is reproduce here an extract from my already published book A Dance with the Corporate Ton. Here it is, describing the even more exciting work Aimee, Madhu & I did on GrowMore, Harshad Mehta’s company:

“Designed to issue a disclaimer that the Big Bull was not manipulating the Apollo Tyres stock, the attention grabbing headline ensured that the readers of morning newspapers everywhere read the full message.

I could say that the ad was the talk of the town that morning. It was. I heard tell that people were excitedly talking about the ad in commuter trains, buses and on the Street that morning. But the fact is that the ad would not have had the same effect if it weren’t for the fact that the ordinary punter on the Indian stock market had begun following Harshad Mehta much like stock investors are known to follow Warren Buffett in America.

The success of the ad got Harshad bhai highly excited. He had big plans for the Indian stock market and he now felt that advertising could help bring about a paradigm change in India’s thinking on the role the stock market could play in the fortunes of the Indian economy and GrowMore.

That was his brief. It was a mega one! It was simply mag!

The question was how to translate that brief into creative that would fire up a whole nation?

The answer just fell into place one day in my mind by connecting a few dots.

Post the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, the country was abuzz with excitement. India had been unshackled. It was akin to a second independence.

India had great potential. It had a market of some 1 billion people. Imagine what would happen if all that energy was to be harnessed?

To achieve that potential, however, attitudes had to change and the nation united to achieve its economic goals.

A company that ran ads to that effect would be seen as a thought leader and visionary.

Those were the dots. The brief I issued to creative used phrases such as:

  • India needs to undertake an economic war much like Japan did at one time.
  • India needs to forget about its religious differences and unite in a new religion – the religion of economics.
  • A nation with a population of 1 billion could be the biggest Bull Run in the world history of the stock market.
  • India needs a second independence movement.

The outcome of that brief was a print campaign with headlines that went:

India needs a new religion”.

“India should go to war”.

I don’t remember the 3rd ad but I think it had something to do with the second independence movement.

Harshad bhai loved the campaign. I didn’t even have to try selling the work. It just sold itself. Post that and other similar experiences, I am known to frequently say, “Good work sells itself”.

I knew I had a blockbuster of a campaign in the bag. Flushed with that excitement, I presented the work internally to Alyque Padamsee and Prem Mehta. They were delighted when they saw the work and called in scores of people in the agency to see it. As I mentioned, Alyque even sent the campaign to the Prime Minister’s office.

As it turned out, the campaign never saw the light of day because the client was arrested.”

Seriously, I don’t know why Madhu & Aimee did not demand to be taken off my accounts. Because many a brilliant campaign never saw the light of day though thankfully, no other client was arrested and thrown into jail.

There were these television commercials (TVCs) we did for Cadbury Break chocolate, to preempt the introduction of Nestlé’s KitKat. The first commercial had a disgruntled guy in a crowded Mumbai local train, being shoved around. Pissed off, he reaches for a Break chocolate to cheer himself up. One bite and he flips the situation on its head, swaying and dancing to the train’s beats and the shoves of people around him. The second commercial had a dog barking at all the wrong moments, interrupting the attempts of a guy trying to play a tune on the piano. Frustrated, the piano player reaches for a Break chocolate. Again, one bite and he has a brainwave. He begins playing the piano again, using the dog’s barks as an interlude. Scripted by Aimee & Madhu, and produced by Namita Roy Ghose and Subir Chatterjee of White Light, the Break commercials blew everyone away.

The television commercials had hardly gone on air, when the client called to say, “Stop the telecast. The product is melting on the shelves.”

I still remember my indignant reaction, “And, you discovered this now?”

I wish I could have uploaded the TVCs here so that readers of this post had more than my word to go on that they were brilliant. But hey, I can tell you that the TVCs won the Gold at the Ad Club Awards the following year. At least, Aimee & Madhu had that consolation. Otherwise seriously, they were working with a panvati (an Indian word for jinx).

Don’t believe me? What if I tell you that we had shot this really endearing commercial for Johnson’s Baby Feeding Bottles and that the Indian Parliament banned all advertising for the category the day it was scheduled to go on air?

Sigh! I tell you!

Bringing up Lata could not have been easy for Madhu & Aimee.

But you know what? I think we created magic together, and nothing and no one can take those memories away from us.

Here’s also the thing.

Over a span of some 36 years, I must have worked with scores of people from the Creative stream. I look back with fond memories of campaigns I worked on with Agnello Dias, Alok Nanda, Christopher Rosario, Elvis Sequeira, Geeta Gopalakrishnan, Prashant Godbole,  Rahul DaCunha, Vinayak Ponkshe, Viru Hiremath and Zaheer Mirza. I am reeling these names off the top of my head. There are more names I could mention. Shabnam & Uttam Sirur, for example. But, suppose, just suppose I was commissioned today to develop a brand campaign. Suppose further that I was given carte blanche to pick a creative team to work with.

Who would it be?

I can tell you, without hesitation, I would choose to work with Aimee Rego and Madhu Noorani. Why? Well, because I believe that the years 1991-96 saw a team come together who were committed to producing advertising that works for the brand. But it wasn’t just that. A friendship was formed and a bond created of absolute trust in each other.

And that my friend, you will agree is a rare thing. It also accounts for why Madhu & Aimee put up with someone who never quite fitted into the advertising world. Here’s an illustration from my book depicting that!

Illustration from the book A Dance with the Corporate Ton: Reflections of a Worker Ant


Featured Cover Image: Picture of Madhu & Lata from author’s albums. Picture of Aimee, courtesy Aimee Rego.

*The ad image here is from my archives. I am not certain if this version is faithful to the ad that was finally published but I am confident that the contents are mostly the same.

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