In this excerpt from his new book ‘Adman Madman’, Prahlad Kakar proves that an overly rigorous approach can sometimes lead to the demise of a brand
We all knew it would happen one day, but when it did, we felt very desperate and unhappy. Vibha Rishi had been promoted to the Pepsi office in New York and it was with a heavy heart that we offered her a safe trip. She had been a huge support and stood like a rock behind the creative team at HTA (Hindustan Thompson Associates, later merged with JWT India) and our production house. She had so much confidence in us that she even pushed me to represent Pepsi in national level debates and address controversies on news channels. An era had passed. Subsequently, Anuja (Chauhan) left HTA to pursue writing. She made a very successful second career writing idiosyncratic bestsellers.
That left the suits completely exposed to Pepsi’s new team and in disarray: running around like bats straight out of hell, covering their butts with multiple folds of cheap toilet paper just in case there was a breakthrough like the shit hit the fan! The new honcho at Pepsi was a true corporate type, who followed the book to the letter and ripped the pants off the maintenance team, who had had it very easy until now because the creative team had their backs.
Now, with a brand new creative team of newbies and a brand new customer who wanted everything in writing and by the book (no nonchalant behavior tolerated), Pepsi was quickly losing its mojo and spontaneity.
The suits took charge and began following the T’s instructions. There were no sudden flights of fancy and flights of fancy, no additions or subtractions to a thoroughly researched script, but they wanted the humor to be there. After all, irreverent humor was in Pepsi’s DNA.
The problem was that the jokes quickly became forced and the humor fell flat because they tried too hard to be funny just for the sake of it. In life there are people who can and do laugh at themselves, and then there are people who take themselves very, very seriously and cannot bear the idea of being laughed at; they always have to laugh at someone else. That’s exactly what happened to the 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 towards Coca-Cola has always been that of an underdog, which is why they could storm the monolithic Coca-Cola and get away with it internationally. Coke, of course, chose to studiously ignore the spicy Pepsi, but in India Pepsi had become number one.
For the new team this was a big problem, and unfortunately they decided to act like number one and lost the plot. We realized this when HTA summoned me to Delhi to inform me about a small 7UP promo with Mallika Sherawat…
Upon arrival at HTA Delhi… I was ushered into the meeting room full of suits and started looking for a familiar creative face. Nada! All the suits were very serious when they informed me about a promo script for 7UP, in which Mallika lies on a bed and is molested by her handmaids, declaring that she is bored. In pops Fido Dido, 7UP’s animated mascot, and asks her what she wants. To this, Mallika replies, “I want to be cool! I want to be curvy and be close to all my fans.’ Fido says, “No problem.” He points at her and zap! She becomes a round 7UP bottle. End of commercial.
I agreed to do it because it seemed quirky and simple enough to be photographed from one angle. We just had to decorate her boudoir. I suggested she sit on some kind of couch, à la Cleopatra, and they panicked, referring to some kind of business checklist and not a script or storyboard. After a serious meeting they came up for air and said no Cleopatra, stay at the boudoir. I asked what her position should be: lying, sitting or in the lotus position? Another flurry and they came up blank. Now they finally dropped the egg on my lap and said, ‘Pepsi wants to storyboard it and test it. Whatever you want to do, put it in the storyboard!’
“Are you guys crazy?” I asked politely. ‘In the fifteen years that I have worked for Pepsi, we have not yet created a storyboard. Why now and why do we need to create one for such a simple implementation? One shot from one angle, with a close-up.’ All I wanted was to discuss the details with the customer and get started. When I said that, all hell broke loose. ‘Meet the customer? Without a storyboard? No chance,” I was told. I was completely surprised by the fear the suits evoked and their unwillingness to let me discuss the script with the client, which we did all the time with Anuja and Vibha…
So far we’ve done great work for Pepsi; in any case, we were all equal stakeholders in the future of the brand. The new team at Pepsi thought differently and had put the fear of God into their suits. The good old days were over! No more fun and games; we had to be dead serious about the work and the brand. Everything had to be checked and rechecked before being presented to the new Pepsi team, and all creative had to be tested and researched before being executed.
There was now a protocol in place: no nonchalant behavior or deviation from the pecking order. Only the suits would meet the customers, and so on and so forth. I was stunned that the entire style of functioning had changed overnight. Pepsi had become a protocol-driven company, just like any other company, and everything had become tense and formal.
The cover of ‘Adman Madman: Unapologetic 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. With a great sense of anticipation I flew back to Bombay. I called the team and informed them about the storyboard; we wouldn’t do it in drawings, but actually film the whole thing on a low-end handcam. I was to play Mallika Sherawat and had to be dressed in a grass skirt and a huge bra, size 44D. We would shoot in my salon, on my couch. And my four-year-old son Anhjin would play Fido Dido. We’d have to pick the ugliest guys in the office to play the handmaids and they’d need one of those big feathery fans on a pole to fan me like I’m a holy book. I thought, what the hell? If we were to create the storyboard, we should at least have some fun in the process and teach our tense client a little lesson in how to laugh at yourself. We recorded and edited the storyboard, where I replaced my voice with a sexy female version.
At the opening of the film I was talking to myself into a hand mirror that covered my face and only the voice could be heard. Later, I knocked the mirror away, revealing my furry mug in all its glory. It was one of the most obscene films I have ever seen. Just imagine: me, slightly overweight, with my hairy torso, a big hairy belly sticking out over a grass skirt, with two hairy legs sticking out at rest, trying to be Cleopatra (more like Kilo-phattara). A bunch of equally ugly boys, also shirtless, wearing only grass skirts, waving a feathered fan over a corpulent Kilo-phattara, eating grapes. And a devilishly cute four-year-old Fido Dido with a lisp completed the whole scene. It was gross and hilarious, if you took it in the right spirit.
I arrived in Delhi with the DVD tucked tightly in my jacket pocket and refused to show it to the police. I said that since the client wanted a storyboard, everyone could look at it together…
We marched in a small procession to Pepsi and installed the projector and DVD player in their conference room. I insisted that there be no rehearsals as it was just one thirty second promo repeated three times. Everyone fidgeted nervously until Her Ladyship arrived. She stormed in, making eye contact with no one, causing the tension in the room to rise palpably…
I explained that we had made a storyboard for her, on video, more or less following the story and dialogue of the film. And we played the DVD. As the first viewing, with all three replays, came to an end, there was a dead silence, save for a choking sound from a senior suit and a delighted giggle from a newbie at the back of the room, which was immediately interrupted as many shocked eyes rolled turned toward him and nailed him to his cross. I only had eyes for the client and watched with glee as her jaw dropped, and remained so for the entire performance… In the shocked silence of the room, the client recovered first and spoke in a pseudo-jovial voice : ‘Haha, that was a Prahlad joke, I guess.’
Then she turned to me and said, “Go ahead and make the movie.” And then she looked at the pair of worn suits and said, “Follow me.” Then she swore outside. I believe she took off their pants, chaddis and the works. But she let me make the film the way I wanted, much like the storyboard – with the real Mallika of course! The film was a great success and the launch of the curvy bottle was great.
But we never worked with Pepsi again.
It just goes to show that very few people in the advertising and marketing industry learn that if you want the world to laugh at you, you have to first learn to laugh at yourself. And so, in the years that followed, came the partial demise of a brand that had become ‘iconic’ for its advertising… The brand dropped to third place, behind Coca-Cola and the domestically developed Thums Up.
Reprinted with permission from Adman Madman: Unapologetic Prahlad by Prahlad Kakar with Rupangi Sharma, published by Harper Collins India, 526 pages, ₹799