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Book extract: Why a sense of humour is good for any company

In this excerpt from his new book ‘Adman Madman’, Prahlad Kakar proves that a far-too-rigorous approach can sometimes lead to a brand’s decline

Prahlad Kakar.
Prahlad Kakar. (Getty Images)

We all knew it would happen someday, but when it did, we were left feeling very distraught and unhappy. Vibha Rishi had been promoted to the Pepsi New York office and we bid her bon voyage with a heavy heart. She had been a huge support, and stood behind HTA’s (Hindustan Thompson Associates, later merged with JWT India) creative team and our production house like a rock. She had so much faith in us that she even pushed me to represent Pepsi at national-level debates and address controversies on news channels. An era had passed. Then, Anuja (Chauhan) left HTA to pursue writing—she made a very successful second career of writing quirky bestsellers.

That left the suits totally exposed to the new team at Pepsi and they were in a tizzy—running around like bats straight out of hell, covering their arses with multiple folds of cheap toilet paper in case of a breakthrough when the shit hit the fan! The new honcho at Pepsi was a proper corporate type, who followed the book to the letter and took the pants off the servicing team, who had had it very easy so far, as the creative team had their backs.

Now, with a brand-new creative team of newbies and a brand-new client who wanted everything in writing and by the book—no casual behaviour was tolerated—Pepsi swiftly lost its mojo and spontaneity.

The suits took charge and started following briefs to the T. There were no sudden flights of fancy and imagination, no adding or subtracting from a thoroughly researched script, but they wanted the humour to be there. After all, irreverent humour was Pepsi’s DNA.

The problem was that the jokes soon became forced and the humour fell flat, because they were trying too hard to be funny simply for the sake of it. In life, there are people who can laugh at themselves and do, and then there are people who take themselves very, very seriously and can’t bear the idea of being laughed at—they always have to laugh at someone else. That’s exactly what happened to a hapless Pepsi India, who started taking themselves very seriously, especially the fact that for the first time in their history, they were the number-one cola brand in any country.

Pepsi’s whole attitude to Coke has always been that of an underdog, and, therefore, they could cock a snook at the monolithic Coke and get away with it internationally. Coke, of course, chose to studiously ignore the pipsqueak Pepsi, but in India, Pepsi had become number one.

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For the new team, this was a big deal, and, unfortunately, they decided to behave like number one and lost the plot. We realized this when HTA summoned me to Delhi to brief me for a small 7UP promo featuring Mallika Sherawat…

On arriving at HTA Delhi… I was led into the conference room full of suits and I started looking for a familiar creative face. Nada! All the suits were very serious as they briefed me on a promo script for 7UP where Mallika is lying on a bed, being fussed over by her handmaidens, when she declares she is bored. In pops Fido Dido, the animated mascot of 7UP, and asks her what she wants. To this, Mallika replies, ‘I wanna be cool! I wanna be curvy and I wanna be close to all my fans.’ Fido says, ‘No problem.’ He points at her and zap! She becomes a curvy 7UP bottle. End of the commercial.

I agreed to do it, as it seemed quirky and simple enough to be shot from one angle. We just needed to embellish her boudoir. I suggested that she should be on a kind of couch, à la Cleopatra, and they went into a tizzy, referring to a kind of corporate checklist and not a script or storyboard. After a serious huddle, they came up for air and said no Cleopatra, stick to the boudoir. I asked what her posture was supposed to be—lying, sitting or in the lotus position? Another flurry and they came up with a blank. Now, they finally dropped the egg in my lap and said, ‘Pepsi wants to storyboard it and test it. Whatever you want to do, put it in the storyboard!’

Thunderous silence.

‘Have you guys gone mad?’ I asked politely. ‘We have not done a storyboard in my fifteen years of working for Pepsi. Why now and why do we have to make one for such a simple execution? One shot at one angle, with a close-up.’ All I wanted to do was discuss the details with the client and get on with it. When I said as much, all hell broke loose. ‘Meet the client? Without a storyboard? No chance,’ I was told. I was totally taken aback by the fear generated by the suits and their reluctance to let me discuss the script with the client, which we did all the time with Anuja and Vibha…

We had done a great job for Pepsi so far; if nothing else, we were all equal stakeholders in the future of the brand. The new team at Pepsi thought otherwise and had put the fear of god into the suits. The good old times were over! No more fun and games; we had to be deadly serious about the work and the brand. Everything had to be checked and double-checked before it was presented to the new Pepsi team, and all the creatives had to be tested and researched before execution.

There was now a protocol in place: no casual behaviour or deviating from the pecking order. Only the suits would meet with the clients, et cetera, et cetera. I was flabbergasted that the whole style of functioning had changed overnight. Pepsi had become a protocol-driven corporate like any other, and everything had become uptight and formal….

The cover of 'Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad'.
The cover of 'Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad'.

In the middle of this circus, I had a brainwave and told them with a very straight face that I would do the storyboard. There was palpable relief and joy at the announcement. I flew back to Bombay with a sense of great foreboding. I called the team and briefed them about the storyboard; we would not do it in drawings, but actually shoot the whole thing on a low-end handycam. I would be playing Mallika Sherawat and needed to be kitted out in a grass skirt and a humongous bra, size 44D. We were to shoot it in my drawing room, on my sofa. And my four-year-old son Anhjin would play Fido Dido. We would have to pick the ugliest guys in the office to play the handmaidens and they would need one of those big, feathered fans on a pole to fan me like I was some holy book. I thought, what the hell? If we had to do the storyboard, we should at least have some fun in the process and teach our uptight client a small lesson on how to laugh at yourself. We shot and edited the storyboard, replacing my voice with a sexy female version.

The opening of the film had me talking to myself in a hand mirror that covered my face and only the voice could be heard. Later, I whipped away the mirror, revealing my hairy mug in all its glory. It was one of the most obscene pieces of film I have ever seen. Just imagine—me, slightly overweight, with my hairy torso, a large, hairy belly protruding over a grass skirt, with two hairy legs sticking out in repose, trying to be Cleopatra (more like Kilo-phattara). A bunch of equally ugly guys, also bare-bodied, just wearing grass skirts, waving a feathered fan above a corpulent Kilo-phattara, eating grapes. And a devilishly cute four-year-old Fido Dido with a lisp completed the entire tableau. It was gross and hilarious, if you took it in the right spirit.

I arrived in Delhi with the DVD tucked firmly in my coat pocket and refused to show it to the agency suits. I said that since the client wanted a storyboard, everybody could watch it together…

We trooped off to Pepsi in a small cavalcade, and set up the projector and DVD player in their conference room. I insisted on no rehearsals as it was only one thirty-second promo repeated three times. Everybody fiddled nervously for Her Ladyship to arrive. She swept in, making no eye contact with anybody, raising the tension in the room palpably…

I explained that we had done a storyboard for her, on video, more or less following the narrative and dialogue of the film. And we ran the DVD. As the first viewing, with all three repeats, came to an end, there was dead silence, except for a choking sound from one senior suit and a delighted giggle from a newbie trainee at the back of the room, which was instantly cut off as many horrified eyes swivelled in his direction and nailed him to his cross. I had eyes only for the client and watched in glee as her jaw dropped open, and remained so, for the duration of the entire screening… In the horrified silence in the room, the client recovered first and spoke in a pseudo-jovial voice, ‘Haha, that was a Prahlad joke, I presume.’

She then turned to me and said, ‘Go ahead and make the film.’ And then she looked towards the bunch of distressed suits and said, ‘Follow me.’ She then flounced out. I believe she took their pants, chaddis and the works off. But she let me make the film the way I wanted to, pretty much like the storyboard—with the real Mallika, of course! The film was a huge success and the launch of the curvy bottle was awesome.

But we never worked with Pepsi again.

Just goes to show that very few people in advertising and marketing learn that if you want the world to laugh with you, then you have to first learn to laugh at yourself. And so, over the next few years, followed the partial demise of a brand that had become ‘iconic’ because of its advertising… The brand slipped to number three behind Coke and the homegrown Thums Up.

Que sera sera.

Excerpted with permission from Adman Madman: Unapologetically Prahlad by Prahlad Kakar with Rupangi Sharma, published by Harper Collins India, 526 pages, 799

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