May 1, 2014

My Life off Advertising: KV Sridhar (Pops)

By Preksha Sharma

Even today it is not so difficult to imagine KV Sridhar (Pops), creative head of the Indian subcontinent, Leo Burnett (update: Pops has now quit Leo Burnett after a long and phenomenal stint) as a young boy secretly reading his grandfather’s diaries about his exploits as a forest official. The world knows the great ad man that Pops is today but there are a numerous extremely exciting stories about his journey that has led him to where he is now.

One such story is about Pops’ first playground — his grandfather’s office lined with cartography equipment that became his first exposure to exploration. Pops grew up in a family of four brothers and a soccer player father. One of the strongest influences in his life came from his maternal grandfather who was a cinema actor, theater artist, playwright and a lawyer. Says Pops, “When we were growing up, all five of us (siblings) took a lot from my actor grandfather because of his flamboyant personality and the glamour associated with his profession. He owned a gramophone and also had the latest music. He was one of the reviewers for the American Library, so every month he used to get a huge box of American books. He used to write plays and theatre books, some of which are still in the drama institutes.” Thanks to him, Pops and his siblings took acting in plays and movies at a very early age as child actors. He also took to radio programmes, which provided a good pocket money at that time.


Though Pops’ father did not play a decisive role in the choice of his profession, he was very supportive of his son. “My father always encouraged me in painting, drawing and arts. He supported whatever his children wanted to do but the only thing he used to tell us is that we must go to college to get a degree. He also said that art schools only teach about art, but if you go to a regular college, your knowledge of life would be much more. This eventually helped me in understanding what science is and what art is.”


Pops did not know it at that time, but he had an early stint in advertising too. This was painting a 40 feet high poster of his brother for a college election against a powerful candidate. Pops, now a well-known painter, has painted many billboards and signboards in his early days. He says, “I used to do portraits very well so my father took me to his friend who had a billboard painting company for Hindi and Telugu movies. As a child I had no fear to paint or draw, so instead of a zero number brush, I took a 5 number brush and instead of HB, I took 6 B because I used to paint hoardings. I used to paint 40–50 feet portraits of films like Zanzir, Sholay and Deewar. I even did signboards and learnt many things on my own.” Learning things and managing things on his own is a very integral part of Pops’ personality. He says he always had this entrepreneurial spirit to earn money.

Pops, interestingly, has dabbled in various professions in his early career. He has been a medical representative, trained art teacher, set designer for movies and simultaneously conducted group and solo exhibitions of his fine arts work. He also flirted with lithography and copper plate etching for about two years after which he (finally) ventured into advertising to get financial support for his paintings. During an interview for his first job at Advertising and Sales Promotion (ASP), the general manager of the company told him that the agency did not have enough space for his seating. Pops returned to the agency the next day with a foldable chair (which he got by bribing the watchman of the company) and yes, he got the job.

After working for about two years, Pops left ASP as an art director because he wanted to be in the service sector. “Those days advertising used to be in compartments. Copywriters worked on their own and the entire art department worked separately with no interaction at all. As a result, the art director or copywriter did not know advertising completely. You should know what you are doing and why you are doing it and the only way to do so is by being in the front line.”

With the ardor to cover the holistic advertising process, Pops handled the office of a Kochi based advertising agency in Hyderabad. After this, he soon moved on to set up his own agency. He narrates his experience of successfully running that agency and then renouncing it when it was at its peak. “We [he and his partner] made a lot of money. But then I went into introspection and questioned myself if I was chasing the wrong thing i.e. money. I got into the business and servicing side only to understand what I was doing. I realized that I should focus again on creativity.” After this thought struck him, Pops left everything at Hyderabad and came to Bombay where he met a couple of agencies but they all offered him a job in servicing which is exactly what he didn’t want to do.

Then came an interesting phase in Pops’ life. He decided to take a break from all this and went to Goa. “After that I came to Bombay and spent Rs 22,000 out of which I exhausted Rs 14,000 at the Strand Book Stall on books and art materials. I hired a truck for all this material and went back to Goa. I lived there for eight months where all I did was read and paint. In that period, I did not speak to the world and it was the best part of my life.” He did 140 landscapes, out of which he sold 40 in the flea market, ‘just for the kicks of it’.

Advertising beckoned again though. Pops worked with Ulka (Now Draftfcb+Ulka) in Hyderabad and then JWT in Bangalore, a period which was, he says ‘a discovery of myself as an art director’. He believes that his best works of his advertising career were produced as an art director in Bangalore. He experimented with advanced photography techniques in those days when photography was not very common in advertising. He also earned a reputation of being ‘the most expensive art director’ because he invested a lot in creating lavish sets and styling.

Another very interesting story in Pops’ journey is how he came to design the famous Gandhi font. “Gandhi’s spectacles were being auctioned by the Indian Government for less than million dollars and I was really tempted to sell everything that I had to buy them. Then I really thought about how I would be able to keep his vision alive and I decided to create a font with his glasses and keep the font alive,” he says. Gandhi is undoubtedly a major influence in his life and also a reason why he is a vegetarian. Another important influence is Gautam Buddha. He was deeply inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha that changed his attitude towards life. He says, “In the book the young Siddhartha requests for a job. A shopkeeper questions him in an interview, “What do you know?” to which Siddhartha replies, “I can think, I can read and I can starve.” This stayed with Pops.

After years of establishing himself as a creative leader in the Indian ad world with scores of awards and accolades, Pops realized the intensity of impact that  advertising has on the masses. He says, “Our entire contribution to the society is that we have the power to communicate to the masses; we have the power to change their actions. If the ministry of health or education were to make a commercial on this, it wouldn’t receive as much attention as 5–6 brand commercials would. So imagine the kind of awareness which can be created.” He embarked upon creating social awareness through this medium. In 2004–05, he started working with the NGO ‘Laadli’ to help propagate the girl child in the Indian society, an issue close to his heart. “I have tried to change this huge discriminatory bias this country has against girl children through my ads, he says.” With HDFC Life Insurance, he switched the boy child with a girl to lay emphasis on how she needs to be educated. The culmination of this can also be seen in the last Kaun Banega Crorepati commercial where “Badhaai ho ladki hui” was the theme for one of the campaigns where the emphasis was on how knowledge can help a girl child.

Another subject that has touched Pops deeply is the communal harmony in the country. “I grew up in Hyderabad where most of our neighbors were Muslims. The Godhra riots really affected me. So I hired a group of actors from National School of Drama and a female director and shot something at the same spot. I wanted to use this skill and change the entire human behavior and if you can make a difference, then why not.” Since 2006, Pops has been supporting the UN (United Nations) to save and promote the girl child in a country through advertising and media. Pops’ impact on advertising has clearly not only helped the industry and the brands to grow but also the people.

For Pops, storytelling is not just limited to advertising and painting. He had to tell bedtime stories to his kids every night. “I had to write a different episode of Tom and Jerry. I had to write a different story every time based on the same theme. In this process of teaching them by telling stories, I have created many characters.”

Do his children understand his profession? Pops says, “It is very difficult to explain what I do but they grew up with it. My son’s school once taught the class about important professions like lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants, etc. and did not mention advertising. My son then wrote an essay arguing that everyone works in advertising (as all my friends were in advertising). Both my kids helped me to switch from print to television.”

When not brainstorming in the office over the next brand campaign, Pops likes to paint and spend time with his better half who is a major inspiration in his life. “She used to write but she stopped after our children were born. She said that my success is her success and told me that if I don’t become successful, then I would be taking her success away. She supported me through our 25 years of married life and my success is surely her success.” Pops recalls a piece of advice by an old couple on the day of his marriage, “Marriage is not about being 50-50; it’s about knowing when to be 70 and when to be 30.” He has adhered to this advice not just in marriage but also while dealing with clients in his professional life and it has helped him understand important relationships in life.

 This article was originally published in Kyoorius Magazine 14 in 2013.

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1 Comment

  1. hema



    ery inspirational. Much to learn from such great personality.
    Thanks for sharing.

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