April 28, 2014

Dialogue: Rajiv Rao of Ogilvy & Mather

By Payal Khandelwal

It is just about impossible to find a chink in Rajiv Rao’s armor. He spearheads the creative function at Ogilvy & Mather, arguably the topmost agency of India, along with Abhijit Avasthi. He has created some of the most successful and inspiring pieces of work including the inimitable Zoozoos and Pug campaigns for Vodafone. He is the winner of several national and international awards.

He is one of the great creative minds of our time. He is not only consistently brilliant at what he does but also almost indispensable for his agency and for the Indian advertising industry. And despite of all the success over the years, he just never relinquishes the humility factor. He is one of the most self-effacing guys around in the business. We spoke to Rao about a myriad of things including his early days in Ogilvy, Quentin Tarantino, Bombay, music, Sajan Raj Kurup, Piyush Pandey, his regular day at work and more.


Was there a big moment when you first realized you wanted to be in advertising?
Honestly, there was no big moment as such. I was always good at art and drawing at school. Eventually, I joined Sir J.J.Institute of Applied Arts and that was the right thing I did. I did Applied Arts which is mainly for advertising but to be honest, I didn’t have any clear plans at that time. I just thought it would be nice to learn more of art and see what happens eventually.

Of course, I had seen a lot of ads and was very fascinated to see the world of advertising so I did join advertising after I finished my college. And once I started working, I figured that it’s a fun job and I would say that working really made me realise that advertising was the right thing for me.

What are some of your earliest memories of Ogilvy?
I joined Ogilvy at the end of 1999. (The late) Mahesh V was my partner at that time. We met Bobby Pawar and Anil Bathwal who were heading Ogilvy Bombay. They loved our work and we were fortunate to get the job. It was a huge kick for us to be a part of Ogilvy and it was exciting and scary at the same time. We had people like Prasoon Joshi, Mahesh Chauhan, Shiv Sethuraman, Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar, Ramanuj Shastry and many other crazy guys who have all now moved on.

From the early days, I clearly remember one thing. The day I joined Ogilvy, I was in for a complete culture shock. I had worked in Ambience (now Publicis Ambience) which is a medium sized agency and that had been my experience of advertising till that time. Ogilvy was a very different place. It had completely different energy. Everyone was always excited. Every day was a celebration of either winning a client or doing some kickass work. There was always so much positive energy around and everybody was a rockstar, a winner. That was quite cool. You eventually get used to it but it takes some time to realise that Ogilvy is such a different place.

How great and how daunting is it to be often known as the “man behind Vodafone Zoozoo and Pug”?
The good part is very easy. It’s very simple to introduce yourself. So even when I meet people who don’t know much about advertising and just say that I have done Zoozoo, they immediately make a connect. Especially when I go for a visa interview, they usually ask ‘so you are from advertising, what work have you done?’ and when I say Zoozoo, they are impressed. So in such scenarios, things get much easier. There is a certain kind of special attention you get and in this particular case, I am sure I will get a visa! This works in most places in India especially.

At the same time, the expectation from the clients is huge because of Zoozoo. They expect something as big and refreshing as that. I think it’s quite natural to expect that but the fact is that these things happen only once when everything falls into place. It’s difficult to repeat the same success. We are all responsible for it including the client to have bought the crazy idea and for them to have the budget to do it. IPL was the biggest platform in the world to have launched the campaign. We were fortunate to have worked with Prakash Varma (Nirvana Films). He really made the magic happen.

What’s the kind of work chemistry you share with Prakash Varma?

We have a lot of things in common. The way we think and approach things and the storytelling aspect are very similar. He is able to visualize what I have in mind and he always makes it even better. As a creative person, it’s very important that the director also sees the story the way I see it and I think he understands this very well. We have a great understanding. There is always an open discussion and we might agree or disagree on a few things but we eventually sort it out. We are also very comfortable with each other since we have been working together for so long.


What does a regular day at work look like?

Every day at work is quite different. Usually, it involves meeting my teams, brainstorming with them, developing work, meetings with clients, sharing ideas with them and getting briefed on new projects. On some days, there are shoots where you really see your idea coming alive. Obviously, all this doesn’t happen in one day.

Today, for example, I have a PPM (pre-production meeting) post lunch and it will be a long one. We will meet with the client today and take him through how the director sees the film and then we start shooting in two-three days.

What’s the kind of equation you share with your juniors?

This is probably something you should ask them. I am very easy most of the times. I am open to meeting them anytime and that’s a part of my job. And moreover, the deadlines are always very tough, so we have to meet often to discuss ideas. There is no option.

And I am quite honest about my feedback if something’s not working. And we continue to keep working on it till we get it right. It can be painful at times but it’s important. I would rather go to the client with the right idea and not waste their time. But the process is never 100% right. We may all think that we have done the right thing but the client might see it differently.

Do you usually present many options to the client? Have you ever just taken one single idea?

There is no conscious decision about that but when you go with two different ideas at least, it helps the client to see the good idea. And we make sure that both the ideas are equally good and the final decision is taken together.

Sometimes, we may even go with four ideas but it may not be the right thing to do because it can get confusing. Usually in a pitch scenario, we go with multiple ideas, but with a regular client, just two or three equally good ideas suffice. And it’s not just for the sake of giving options. It’s good for us too. If we work on ten ideas, we filter the best two or three and take those.

It’s a rare case but sometimes we do take a single idea too when we are absolutely confident that this is it. But usually it’s not easy for clients to buy that one idea.

Who are the people that have inspired you the most?

I think at every stage there is someone or the other you look upto and they kind of have an impact on your life but it keeps changing. It could be anybody. It could be someone in the office also who is doing some fantastic work. I get inspired on a pretty regular basis and there is no one specific that I idolize.

But one person who has made a huge impact in my life is Piyush(Pandey). Even before I joined Ogilvy, he really inspired me. I really look upto the way he has changed the industry and advertising as such. I have learnt a lot from him after joining Ogilvy. He has changed the way I look at things. I have also looked upto Elsie Nanji’s work when I started out in advertising. This was way back in the 90s and she was doing some very refreshing, cutting edge and outstanding work in India at that time.

I am also inspired by John Hegarty and Dan Wieden. From my earlier days in advertising, every piece that BBH and Wieden+Kennedy did was brilliant. So internationally, these two guys have been inspiring at various times of my work life. But besides advertising, there are a lot of filmmakers, design people etc. who have influenced me at different points.


How has your relationship with Piyush evolved over the years?

I was very scared to meet him before I knew him. But now it’s been 14 years in Ogilvy and it’s enough time to know someone really well. We work very closely. Of course, he is still Piyush Pandey but we work like partners. I have a huge amount of respect for him and I completely believe in what he thinks. That’s always the right thing for me. And I really respect his work. Even today, whatever he comes up with is still far superior to what all of us can do. He is still at the top.

Out of your contemporaries, whose work do you admire the most?

I admire the work of Raj Kurup (Creativeland Asia). Raj has been doing some great work on brands like Hippo, Frooti, LMN and Cinthol.His work has always been surprising, refreshing and solid. Hippo is one the best examples where he created a very successful brand.

How do you usually deal with doubts about your own work/ideas?

I think the best thing to do is to take an idea you are excited about and share it with as many people as you can and see if it really works. The most important thing is to sleep over it and see if you are still excited about it the next morning and if you are, then probably it’s a good idea. A good idea is something you feel excited about on any given day. So you need to go through the entire process but it’s not easy to evaluate your own idea.

Where do you usually get feedback from about your work?

It can be from anyone — clients, other people from the industry or friends. You can always check the comments when you post work. Obviously you can’t take everything seriously. You have to take everything with a pinch of salt because there are a lot of people who will thrash anything and everything they see. But the worst scenario is when no one is commenting. I feel that it’s worse than getting negative comments. The work at least has to have something that people talk about.

There are enough ways these days to gauge reactions. At Ogilvy, we really follow Twitter. We check all the tweets after posting new work. Those are not the people from the industry. They are usually laymen who see the work as it is. They don’t have any agenda and they either love the work or they don’t. They do not analyse it.

Personally, you are not very active on social media. Why?

Yes, I am not very active on social media. May be I am just too shy. I don’t really want to tell the world what I am doing or what I am eating etc. I just don’t like that whole idea. I am an old school person. I am not a part of the Facebook generation. I am on Facebook but not active. And I am admitting it openly because I am not going to change suddenly and start posting I am here, doing this, doing that.

Please don’t take this the wrong way though. I am not saying it’s a cool or uncool thing. It’s just that I find it odd and it’s something to do with me. And honestly, it’s a great thing that today’s generation believes in sharing what they are doing with the world. There is always a plus to it I guess.

But you do keep a track of what’s happening digitally.

I do, in whatever way I can. I am always looking at new things happening around the world. That’s the reason I am on Facebook, so I know at least how the world of social media works.

You are a stickler for perfection. How do you make sure that the passion for perfection percolates through your team?

It’s not a conscious thing. It just comes naturally to me. When I am working with my team members, I keep making changes till I am happy and this can go on till the last minute. But the important point is to know when to stop. It’s not like you are creating art; it’s advertising at the end of the day. And there is no point in doing something so perfectly that it doesn’t meet the deadlines. The trick is to get it right in that time. But yes, people who work with me are used to me making changes. I am sure they don’t like it but it’s for the best. It’s important to evaluate the work in each and every way.

How much do awards mean to you? What do you feel about scam work?

I love awards. It’s good to be recognized for something you have done really well. It feels great and I think it’s true for any creative person. And you feel good not just for yourself but for the good piece of work which the industry has acknowledged. And most importantly, it helps you do better work and to push boundaries. That’s where the awards really help.

Coming to the second part of your question, creating scam work is just not fair. It’s a crazy obsession. The obsession has to be to do good real work but if you are doing it purely for the awards, it’s completely wrong.

Have you ever thought of leaving the network and starting on your own?

Not really. I think Ogilvy as a place gives you the opportunity to do big work and I would like to continue doing that. We have got the best people working for us and have big powerful teams and it’s great to be a part of these teams. Our clients are equally passionate about doing great work. So going on my own would mean letting go of all this and starting all over again. I don’t want that.

What’s the one single piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out in advertising?

Idea is everything and idea is everywhere and mostly around us. All we need to do is to spot them.

What is the biggest change you have seen in the Indian ad industry since you started out?

When I joined advertising, if you had an idea it could just either be a film or a print ad. Today, a good idea has absolutely no limits. It can take any form and many forms and has the power to reach everyone across the world in a matter of hours or minutes.

Coming to Vodafone, the casting of almost all Vodafone ads is impeccable. Do you get involved in the casting process?

For the Vodafone ads, I work with Varma mostly and I like the way he does the casting. I know that I will get the right people for the films. But may be at times, if I feel it’s not the right person, I suggest looking at somebody else. Sometimes we might have different things in mind but we all, including the client, make the decision together. We are always involved but most of the times we are very happy with we have got.

Are you interested in filmmaking?

I love the process of filmmaking. Filmmaking is so close to what we are doing. And I have always been a part of the process. Last year, I directed a few films for Vodafone’s Made for You campaign. Sometimes when I feel that I can visualize an idea clearly and it’s something that I should direct, I tell the client that I would do it myself.

Will there be a progression to feature films in the future?

I can’t really say.

Who are the directors you really like?

The last movie I saw was The Wolf of Wall Street. I love Martin Scorsese and I am a huge (Quentin) Tarantino fan. Both the guys are very old school and yet absolutely brilliant. And there are many other indie filmmakers who do some really good stuff. That’s a very different genre which is not about a big story/big scale but very refreshing to see.

Also, do you get involved in stuff like the music of the films?

Yes, of course. I think everything affects the film at the end of the day, be it music or casting and we do get involved in all these aspects. I won’t say I have a great knowledge of music but at least I know if the music is right or not for a particular film. I can tell if it’s really capturing the mood of the film etc. There could be a difference in the opinion and the director may think differently but I do give my feedback and get involved whenever there is a need.

And personally, what kind of music do you usually listen to?

I listen to all sorts of music and there is no particular favorite genre. In fact, I don’t like to stick to one kind of music. My iPod has everything from jazz to latin music to rock to western classical to electronica.

When you see something creative or inspiring that you can use later for a campaign or a film, how do you usually make a note of it?

That’s a good point. I don’t usually write it down. I wish I could do that but I feel the best thing is to make a note of it in your head. If you see an interesting idea and you want to take that or use that in a very different way, that happens quite naturally and you can’t really make a note of these millions of inspiring things you see on a daily basis. And today we see interesting things all around us, on the phone or online, and I think the brain automatically stores everything and it comes out naturally when I need it the most. That’s how it works with me at least.

Does the city of Bombay influence you in any way? Do you believe that a city you stay in can actually influence your creativity?

In some ways, Bombay is an amazing city but honestly I don’t know how it works. Bombay is completely chaotic and lacks order and it’s almost magical how each and every day things manage to function properly. But what’s great about Bombay is its people. Everyone has so much energy here and people work 100 times harder here than in any other city. Everyone has a dream and everyone has a willingness to outdo themselves. The spirit of Bombay is amazing and that affects all of us to do better than we can and constantly push ourselves. And that way Bombay has influenced me too.

So yes, I am sure the city where you live does influence you. This is the reason why so many creative people go to Goa for example. Some people think that they need that kind of space and it works for them. A city definitely affects your way of thinking and it inspires you. It plays a big role in some way.

Most people in the industry vouch for your non-confrontational attitude but has it ever been a disadvantage in your work life?

I think that it has been an advantage actually. I have never gotten into any arguments or fights and thankfully, nothing ugly has ever happened. And it’s just the way I am and it’s always worked for me. Even if I want to get something done, I don’t think raising your voice or being pushy or aggressive can help in any way. There are many other ways of getting things done your own way. But yes, may be a couple of times, I definitely wish I had made my point much louder.

This article was originally published in Kyoorius Magazine 19

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  1. Nitai Das



    It’s a great to go through…Thanks Rajiv R. for sharing his great experience in life in Advertising and in his life…

  2. gazal chawla



    Its great to know about such personalities :) Bravo for your WORK. I always wanted to have my carrier in Adds but end up being an engineer. When i get time i explore your work. read about you all.. Piyush sir..prasoon sir.. Its a pleasure itself :) #GoodLuckALL

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