What’s life without expression?

The baby decides to test her vocal chords by tentatively singing the ‘a..a…ah’ note. The mother’s head turns on hearing the sound. She lifts her hands to her cheeks even as her eyes widen in delight. Rushing to her singing baby, she echoes the ‘a..a..ah…aah’ melody. The baby gurgles and beams in delight. On another stage, a female actor questions her co-actor with an elegant lift of the eyebrow. He responds with an ever so tiny shrug of the shoulder. He then grins sheepishly and lifts his hand out beseechingly in apology. Elsewhere, on yet another stage, a speaker is on his soap box, gesticulating to lay emphasis on his words. His voice is animated, lending passion to his speech. In contrast, the dancers on stage 4 are mute. They have no need for words. The graceful movements of their limbs are a poetic language they use to communicate to each other and the audience. There is yet another stage. It’s called life. On it, a trillion neurons in all living creatures jostle in their rush to find pathways of expression. It’s way beyond important. Because, what’s life without expression? It would be stark. Devoid of all meaning. 

‘What’s life without expression?’ In 1997, Mohammed Khan voiced those very words. I still recall the moment. He was sitting on his chair listening to me. As my words trailed out, he swiveled his chair, turning his back on me. Time felt suspended, as I waited to hear his reaction to my thinking. I didn’t have to wait long. Almost immediately, he swiveled back to face me. Stroking his chin, he looked quizzical as he mouthed, “What’s life without expression?”

But wait, I have rather got ahead of myself in narrating this tale from advertising. Why were Mohammed and I even discussing the innate need of living creatures to lend expression to one’s existence?

I’ll tell you why. It was because Max Touch (now Vodafone) had asked Enterprise Nexus to come up with a campaign. The task was to advertise the brand’s sponsorship of the annual Prithvi Theatre Festival. The Max Touch brand account was with Mudra Advertising. I don’t recall why the Max Touch team approached Enterprise. I only recall that they did. Perhaps Suresh Reddy (now CxO, International Telecoms) will remember. Suresh was with Max Touch then and our principal coordination point.

Enterprise Nexus did have a relationship with Max Touch. The agency was handling World One, a consortium of cellular operators offering roaming. Max Touch was a member. Perhaps, the reason for briefing Enterprise was just the client looking for better creative work.

We were thrilled with the opportunity to get a leg into the door. It was a challenge though. How does one prove the agency’s prowess through something as mundane as a brand sponsorship of a theatre festival? Add to that, the brand and the Prithvi sponsorship had an established identity we were mandated to retain!

There was a third issue, as I saw it. Most brand sponsorships were advertised by simply slapping the logo onto text announcing an event. At best, negotiations were fierce on the size of the logo. There was little or no attempt to seek brand relevance to the event being sponsored.

What then, did I ask myself, was the connection between theatre and a telephony brand? To my way of thinking, this was the issue that needed resolving first. Brand colours and identity could wait.

The issue kept playing on my mind till a moment when a simple thought formed in my brain. Both are in the field of communication!

People reach for a phone to connect, to talk, to express their thoughts and feelings. Artists do the same in a medium of their choosing. Only better.

Dancers, musicians, writers, painters take the need to express life (and themselves) to another level altogether. They achieve that through beautiful renditions of how life plays out. Their art plays on emotions, ranging from the tragic to the joyous. The expressions they lend tip the scale, transporting the audience into realms of the unimaginable, the ethereal and even the divine. Art asks ‘What’s life without expression?’

That then was the curtain raiser to my talking to Mohammed Khan and his beautiful rejoinder. What’s life without expression?

With that line, Mohammed briefed the creative team, Zarwan Patel and Prashant Godbole. They took that and ran with it, developing a stunning campaign for the brand and its sponsorship.

It was so brilliant we didn’t have to sell it to Max Touch. They saw the work and loved it. The Max Touch team wanted the main brand campaign. It meant, however, shifting the account from Mudra. We were asked to fly up to Delhi and present the work to Aniljit Singh. The meeting went well and a decision was taken to shift the Max Touch account to Enterprise.

I was over the moon. But little did I know that life was waiting in the wings.

Shortly after, Mohammed climbed onto the auditorium stage at Nehru Planetarium, Mumbai. He had been asked to conduct the Annual Review of Advertising by the Ad Club in the city.  The audience awaited him eagerly because they knew Mohammed could be relied on to not pull his punches.

Sigh! Mohammed lived up to his reputation. One of the campaigns he chose to rip apart was the Max Touch work done by Mudra.

Needless to say, the account didn’t move after that.

At that time, I fervently wished Mohammed had dropped reviewing the Max Touch work. Now, I laud him for not having done so.

After all, what has political correctness achieved? Do I really need to answer that question? The state of branding and the erstwhile advertising industry is answer enough. Right?





Featured Cover Image: Siva Thandavam by Balu Velachery (Flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0)

4 thoughts on “What’s life without expression?

  1. Thank you, Lata for reliving some of your experiences in advertising. For some it is warm nostalgia and for everyone, enlightenment. You bathe these episodes with a happy feeling and the people in it with the respect due to gurus. A writing model for reminiscences. Mohammed Khan was a natural communicator and more, an aesthete. Art and refinement had to clothe all his work. He did live up to his “What is life without expression?”– blissfully setting aside all those worked with the more left brained corollary : What is expression without life? The protagonists of lifestyle and behavioral research and strategic planning. But Mrs Art did all the talking. Thanks again for sharing your personal insights into legends like Mohammed and Ravi Gupta.

    1. Ivan, I am so glad that you have read my advertising days reminiscences. What is expression without life? So beautifully put! Yes, life has to be managed. Unless you are Mohammed Khan:)

  2. I am quite out of touch with the industry and it’s people today. But I suppose Mohammed Khan has retired and is applying his genius to other fields. Animals and insects come out of hibernation. Not me.

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