Piyush Pandey and Ogilvy: A look back at Indian advertising’s greatest innings

The legendary adman Piyush Pandey makes way for next-gen leadership at Ogilvy, perhaps signaling the end of one of advertising’s greatest innings.

By  Delshad Irani | Priyanka NairSep 26, 2023 5:43 PM
Piyush Pandey and Ogilvy: A look back at Indian advertising’s greatest innings
As it goes in the nineties' Cadbury ad, kuch khaas hai hum sabhi mein, there is something extra special about Piyush Pandey. His work has proved to be an inspiration across generations. His ideas and words have cut across India and the world. (Imaging: Triparna Mitra)

Piyush Pandey and his iconic moustache have been the face of Ogilvy India and Indian advertising for decades. The partnership between the man, Indian advertising and Ogilvy started in 1982, when Pandey was a 27-year old cricket player who tried everything from tea tasting and construction before he landed in advertising.

He’s spent a little over 40 years in one job. It’s a legacy and relationship that’s certainly as majboot as Fevicol ka jod.

“When Piyush enters a meeting, the atmosphere changes instantly. There is a lot of humbleness in the room,” a close associate of Pandey, who wished not to be identified, told Storyboard18. “These days, he does this occasionally, and we miss having him around more often.”

On September 26, Ogilvy announced that Pandey is stepping into an advisory role, giving up his position as executive chairman of Ogilvy India. Pandey’s big step back from an active role has retirement murmurs ringing loud again in the industry.

"We thought he'd stretch it out for another year at least," said an ex-Ogilvyite when he heard the news.

Regardless of retirement chatter, Pandey’s decision to make way for the next generation of Ogilvy leadership is one for the books. And it wouldn’t be a stretch by any measure to call it the end of an era. The Piyush Pandey Era.

Ogilvy + Piyush Pandey = Indian advertising

Pandey, 68, doesn’t consider advertising a job.

“When you're having so much fun, how can you call it work?” he has asked in the past.

Jaipur-born and bred Pandey’s first brush with advertising was when he was in school. He and his brother Prasoon, who later worked at rival ad agency Lintas, participated in radio ads thanks to sister Ila Arun’s publicity firm. They sang and did voiceovers for soaps, agarbattis, locks and the State Bank of Bikaner. In return, the brothers got a princely sum of Rs 50.

Fast forward a few years to when a twenty-something Ranji Trophy cricket player decided to start his innings in advertising at Ogilvy in 1982. And what an incredible run it’s been.

Pandey changed the language of Indian advertising from English to Hindi and broke the creative monotone with work for brands such as Asian Paints, Cadbury and Fevicol, including the game-changer ‘Egg’ film, which gave brand makers the licence to take creative leaps and start lateral thinking.

They are masterpieces from Pandey’s portfolio that have become a part of culture, resonating to this day in recreations made for the new generations. Like the iconic 1993 Cadbury campaign Kuch Khaas Hai – the dancing girl ad as it is popularly known – that was recreated in 2021.

For the original commercial, he wrote the lyrics in English on a plane and later changed them to Hindi.

“When magic has to happen, it happens,” Pandey told us.

He also spun his magic in politics when he wrote Narendra Modi’s first Indian election slogan in 2014 - “Ab ki baar Modi sarkar” which helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win a huge victory. The slogan was later borrowed by Donald Trump.

As it goes in the nineties' Cadbury ad, kuch khaas hai hum sabhi mein, there is something extra special about Pandey. His work has proved to be an inspiration across generations. His ideas and words have cut across India and the world.

Pandey is easily the most recognisable Indian face in global advertising and he was instrumental in putting Indian advertising on the world map. He was the first Asian to be president of the Film, Press and Outdoor juries at Cannes Lions in 2004.

In 2018, Pandey became the first Asian (along with his brother Prasoon Pandey) to be honoured with the Lion of St. Mark, an award that towers above all others. In many ways, the award was an acknowledgement of Pandey’s role in shaping not only creativity and advertising but also the rising power and influence of South Asia on the world stage.

For his incredible journey and success, Pandey has always credited the people in his life. His family, his bosses and mentors Ranjan Kapur, Suresh Mullick and Mani Iyer, brother Prasoon and nephew Abhijit Avasthi, countless creative and business leaders at Ogilvy, the teams, the younguns, the peers, rivals including R Balki and Prasoon Joshi, as well as close friends and associates like Sonal Dabral and the late Rahul Bajaj. And all those who have worked with him and for him over the years, scripting one the most spectacular advertising journeys the world has ever seen.

Cricket analogies

A few months ago when we asked Pandey what he thought of colleagues who say that brand Ogilvy India = brand Piyush Pandey, he turned to cricket again.

“I don’t take such comments seriously. The day you take it seriously, you take yourself seriously. The day you take yourself seriously, then you can start winding up," he said in his inimitable way.

"I believe that I am a product of Ogilvy. I believe that my success is based on a lot of team members of mine who are products of Ogilvy. Together, we win because we have a great team. A Brian Lara cannot win for the West Indies alone, despite being the best in the world. Then, who am I? I have succeeded to whatever extent I have because of the amazing team I have. The teams have changed over the many years but each one of them is a rockstar and they make me look good,” he said.

But the Piyush Pandey stamp is incredibly strong and it will be difficult to fill those shoes, said an ad veteran in an earlier conversation with Storyboard18 about Ogilvy after Pandey.

"I believe that I am a product of Ogilvy. I believe that my success is based on a lot of team members of mine who are products of Ogilvy" - Piyush Pandey

“Organisations need to realise that their top talent will leave a stamp that will eventually help grow stronger. That will obviously change, in this case when Piyush retires. He will be difficult to replace but that will not make his successors any less of a leader,” the former media and advertising leader said.

And that, perhaps, is Pandey’s greatest legacy. Not the brands he’s built. Not the awards. Not the iconic campaigns. Not the crores of rupees he’s helped add to business bottom lines.

Pandey's greatest legacy is his people and unwavering faith in the power of ideas.

At the recent Storyboard18 YoungGuns event, Pandey shared a few words of advice and encouragement for the young talent present that day about navigating the world of advertising in a tech and AI-led age.

Pandey said, “Beware of technology because when you are using artificial intelligence (AI), some real intelligence is also required. Somewhere where you use your own touch, somewhere you need to touch the hearts. If you look at the best of technology-led advertising, you will find that there is something touching your heart somewhere. No audience is going to see your work and say how did they do it? They will first say, I love it… Technology will help you, but don’t let it lead you.”

"With due respect to people who have routine jobs, I think advertising is way too exciting. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else" - Piyush Pandey

Master of ideas

Ideas have defined Pandey’s life in advertising and he believes ad agencies and clients need to get back to worshiping ideas and not technologies and trends.

Pandey has always been an ideas man. They come to him anywhere and everywhere. Late Rajan Kapur, the legendary Ogilvy chief and adman who hired Pandey, once recalled how Pandey, who started as an account executive, would come up with ideas on the way back from meetings at the Hindustan Unilever office. He wasn’t even in the creative department back then.

Pandey’s portfolio kick-started with the Chal Meri Luna ad (1987), but it was his work with Suresh Mullick for the Mile Sur Mera Tumhara national integration film for the Lok Seva Sanchar Parishad in 1988 that exposed him to the power of advertising. Pandey wrote 17 drafts and it was the 18th draft he presented to Malick at the Ritz Hotel in Mumbai that was approved.

The Ogilvy campaigns that followed defined and set the tone for a new age of Indian advertising, which was deeply rooted in Indian ways and culture, cutting across classes and masses. It was Indian advertising for an emerging Bharat.

In previous conversations, Bharat Puri, managing director of Pidilite, recalled when he was a young marketing professional at Asian Paints and the primary language of advertising was English. It was the new era of colour television in India that changed how brands communicate with audiences.

“A lot of what was advertised in English would get translated or transliterated,” Puri said. “I said, ‘Listen! The country’s mass speaks so many wonderful languages. Why are we advertising in English?’ There was this wonderful campaign which was, ‘Celebrate with Asian Paints’ which was translated as Asian Paints ke saath Jashn manao. I said, ‘Guys, I want somebody who has grown up speaking Hindi at home.’”

Puri was sent a writer – Pandey, who was called the copy chief of Indian languages at that time. Pandey told Puri, “Partner, give me some time.”

And before Pandey got home that day, he came up with the line, “Har khushi mein rang laaye.”

At the start, when they handed the brief to Pandey, they said, “Yeh le saaley, yeh bakwaas hai.” But what they gave him, said Pandey, was the “biggest lottery ticket.”

Pandey and Puri have worked together for over three decades.

Gentleman's game

It’s hard to tell what Pandey loves more – advertising or cricket. He never leaves a conversation without a cricket analogy.

When we recently asked Pandey what excited him about advertising after over 40 years in the job, he said, “Most of you are aware that I love the game of cricket. It’s a sport that I have played a lot too. So let me compare cricket to advertising.”

Here we go.

“Just like in cricket, every ball is a new ball and every over is a new over. What excites me about advertising is the fact that it’s not the same every day. I have something new to look forward to every day. There is a new match to play, a new bowler to face, and a new problem to solve. With due respect to people who have routine jobs, I think advertising is way too exciting. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Back in the day, Pandey had a diary called the Red Book at Ogilvy, where all those who worked on accounts like Pidilite (maker of Fevicol and Fevikwik) had to write down what they'd seen and observed in the market.

That's how iconic work is created. That’s how legends are made. Born out of deep understanding and real insights.

The diary was lost when Ogilvy moved out of the old office and into a new one. We wonder what else will be lost to time and moves.

First Published on Sep 26, 2023 4:47 PM

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