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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Parixit Bhattacharya

The TBWA\India CCO on the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Blink to Speak, his surprising start in telemarketing, and the nuances of the diversity debate in India. Oh and all his brilliant side projects

5 Minutes with… Parixit Bhattacharya

A lot of people in the industry talk about ‘creativity for good’, but Parixit Bhattacharya actually means it. TBWA\India’s CCO has been pursuing ‘Creativity with a Conscience’ for years, both at work and outside of the agency. This year his belief in putting creativity to good use has had a huge impact. His agency’s project ‘Blink to Speak’ took the 2018 Cannes Health Grand Prix for Good but, more importantly, the tool that helps people with who cannot communicate via speech or sign language to talk with their eye movements has been having a real world impact. Since winning the award, they’ve started a volunteer scheme, have begun work on translations in Spanish and Turkish, have been invited to share the project in Seoul and are working with a growing list of hospitals. 

Creativity isn’t just good for society though, it’s good for the individual. When he’s not in the agency Parixit is constantly devising and creating products and projects. He has directed, he has created and sold products (like his slick AF Holi kit for celebrating the Indian colour festival in style), and now he’s delving into the art world. Perhaps it speaks to Parx’s revved up energy – before he got into advertising he was in telemarketing, where he was the top seller. You don’t achieve that without having an extreme internal motor.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Parixit for a wide-ranging chat that covers his journey from planner to creative, his take on the specific nuances of India’s diversity debate and adland’s pricing problem when it comes to its own product. And be warned, ‘Parx’ has a good line in good lines.

LBB> You started your career as a planner before becoming a creative director! That’s an unusual switch – what led to that leap?
PB> I came to Bombay as a telemarketer with a hotel chain having finished a course in advertising. Yes, I made some obvious choices. 

After becoming the fastest selling telemarketer for a couple of weeks I remembered why I had come to Bombay – to become a copywriter. So, I looked for a job but didn’t get one. I was hell bent on joining Leo Burnett. I loved the work they were doing on Bajaj automobiles and had heard great things about Aggie [Agnello Dias], the then ECD there and now legend, and one of my favourite Indian advertising minds. 

A friend went in for an interview there only to come back and tell me that I should meet them. A series of interviews later I found myself eating free apples through the day as their Brand Ideator in the Planning Department. I thought this way, at least, I would be a step closer to the creative department. My KRA sheet read: To come up with ideas to create fame for brands outside column centimetres and thirty seconds even in the face of odds. Soon, I started moonlighting as a copywriter, taking stabs at all sorts of briefs in the agency. They took a punt at me, giving me a position as a copywriter. I couldn’t be more grateful to Chax, Aggie, Kumuda, Arvind, Rajeev, Navonil, Shubhendu and my brother and friend Talha for the opportunity. They, of course, regretted it severely soon after! 

LBB> And has your planning background influenced you as a creative director?
PB> Yes, it has. Being around great strategists meant that very quickly I got good at asking fertile questions. I also got better at aligning all data points coming in from various client teams to state a problem well. I also got a chance to be part of many rich and interesting planning projects ranging from understanding deeper psychological mores of all kinds of people to seeing how mercilessly people can kill great ideas when asked to react to ideas and not the final product, to finding ways to make your idea win with people in controlled situations. But most of all, it prepared me to weave arguments like a lawyer in favour of the idea. I believe a good creative can argue for the brand like a lawyer and hide the argument through craft like an artist.

LBB> And when you started out in your career, what was the best piece of advice you got?
PB> I had the good fortune of being around legends from the beginning of my career. And consequently, I received a lot of great advice. 

One piece of advice that I didn’t pay much heed to came from an unlikely source with whom I had a fleeting exchange. This head of the agency and now legend told my art partner and I not to leave in a hurry. We left that agency in under three months for many reasons. Us being in our early 20s being one of the reasons. Over the years, I have understood that only when you stay in a place for a long time do you understand something essential about the nature of things. Because the nature of all things is the same. It is just your viewpoint that distorts its meaning. This understanding bodes you well in life and work.

LBB> I found your site, Creativity with a Conscience. Can you tell me about that project, how it came about and why it’s important to you?
PB> I like ideas that are useful and which make life better in some way. I have been championing this much before it became the flavour of Cannes. Now, actually, our whole industry is trying to save the world and sometimes disingenuously. It’s really sad when brands just pay lip service to a cause just to get mileage out of it without having real skin in the game. 

LBB> That mantra, creativity with a conscience, seems to be really important to you. I know we talk a lot in the industry about work ‘for good’, but equally, how important is it to just make sure that brands don’t ‘do bad’ in their advertising, for example by exploiting people’s vulnerabilities, by body-shaming etc.?
PB> Advertising is powerful. When at its best, it pushes culture instead of merely borrowing from it. Also, it is present everywhere. So, it becomes hugely important what signs and symbols we are putting out there through our work.

LBB> You’ve worked in Singapore and Dubai as well as in India – what were the key things you learned working in those markets and how did those experiences inform your approach?
PB> Singapore is efficient. Dubai is ambitious. India has heart. I try to combine these three in my approach to my work.

LBB> You’ve been at TBWA for over five years now – looking back, what have been the real milestones of your time there?
PB> Becoming the most awarded Indian agency at Cannes this year has been a big moment for us. It is a testament to the talent, hunger and prowess of our creative team and the agency in general.

Coming in with a Bronze for Creative Agency of The Year was a major highlight too as it underlines the massive transformation the agency has been going through under Govind [Pandey, CEO] over the last couple of years.

Having our young creative talent recognised across industry awards and initiatives is something that I personally am very proud and happy about.

Also, being the only agency in the region from the TBWA collective to be awarded multiple times at the APAC Effies has also hit the high notes on how strategy and creative work together at our agency.

At a personal level, the milestones came in the form of virtues like resilience, focus and the ability to be your true self no matter the circumstances.

LBB> Obviously this year Blink to Speak was such a big piece from an awards and also social impact perspective – how did the project come about?
PB> This project has been special from the get go, right from the inspiration for it. Geet Rathi, our design director, was going through a very tough time with her now late uncle who was suffering from ALS. She was very fond of him and would spend a lot of time with him at the hospital. His inability to communicate left her distraught. She devised a way to make sure she understood his most fundamental needs. She would write down messages that she thought he would most need to communicate on a curtain of the hospital room her uncle was in and point to them when he would try to communicate something. 

She shared this experience with us. And we thought there was a new language there. Then a team led by Geet, Sagar, one of our Creative Directors, and Arshia, one of our senior copywriters, developed an eye language. They met doctors, caregivers and patients throughout the process to make sure this was relevant and useful. And soon, we had Blink To Speak – the world’s first eye language for people with communication challenges due to paralysis and other motor neurone diseases.


LBB> Now that the project is out and has done so well, are there any plans to follow up and take it further?
PB> Two days after we won the Grand Prix our team was down at the launch of the BTS book in seven new languages and in a smaller, handy format. It also happened to be Global ALS Awareness Day. 

We are now creating a volunteer program as more and more people from various countries want to get involved. Books in Spanish and Turkish are underway. The list of participating hospitals is increasing, we have been invited by Pan-Asian Consortium for the Treatment and Research in ALS (PACTALS) at the inaugural international conference in Seoul. We are also meeting education bodies to include this in caregiver curriculums. 

LBB> Which other recent projects have you been particularly proud of?
PB> Last year we created Snap Counsellors. A Snapchat based discreet teen counselling service that received massive coverage and the teen community saw the sense in it. The creator, Raj Patil, one of our CDs, was personally invested in it and made sure it was a real-world solution with robust partners. Really proud of that idea.

We also were the first agency in the country to create a tech product from scratch with Tagsy. It was the country’s first women’s self-defence accessory. It remains one of the most ambitious projects I have participated in even though we couldn’t scale it up for a multitude of reasons. But hey, we live, we learn.

Lately, our work for Standard Chartered bank has met with great market success. It was a tough brief with too much to do but managed to get something that generated disproportionate returns for the brand and the business in the market.

Our work for the relaunch of Modern bread, the country’s oldest sliced bread, was an unorthodox launch for an FMCG product. We really like that we managed to give an ubiquitous product like bread a voice with Be Like Bread.

LBB> Outside of advertising, am I right in thinking you’ve also done a bit of directing with a film called Dear Dolly? I’d love to check it out! Is directing something you still do? And outside of advertising, what inspires you? How do you recharge your creative batteries?
PB> That was a while ago. I haven’t really found time to direct anything ever since I have been back. A lot of friends and associates keep asking me to direct, but I fear I won’t be able to do justice to it with the kind of time I have on my hands. I guess there will be a time for it. 

I love creating utilities and experiences and that has led to a need to create a product and then market it. One expression of that love is Modern History. A lovechild of Ankur Rander (Founder of Bombay Design Centre) and me. Rander is a phenomenal designer with a great vision and loves making products. So, we sacrificed our downtime and sleep to create The Holi Kit, the first product from Modern History.  It got rave reviews from creators and designers the world over. Rander and I have been working on a few projects since and one of them is taking shape now. 

Lately, I have found my energy shifting towards art. I have always been a keen follower but now I find myself wanting to create art. My own expression, unburdened by any commercial objective. I am working with my uber-talented friend Avani Rai on a couple of those ideas. We have shot one of them. Waiting to see the results. I am really excited about this one. I guess your first is always special.

I love personal projects. It keeps you fresh and it forces you to muck about with your process, which in turn, pours into your job as a creative in advertising. I used to derive a lot of inspiration from literature, art, fashion, music and genuine cinema. I have added my daughter, Zoya, to the list. 

She is seven and I find her hugely inspiring. I am fascinated by her process and the way she opens up to a new idea. The simplicity and heart with which she interprets the world keeps chipping away at my analytical self. It is just a new way of seeing, at least, for me. This relationship has made me even more curious about people. And consequently, I find a lot of inspiration in people in my day to day life. 

LBB> I’m really curious to ask – in Europe and the US, diversity of talent in agencies is a massive talking point. What’s the situation in Indian adland like?
PB> Diversity is the lifeblood of discoveries. And any creative profession thrives on discoveries. Not a long time ago, advertising in India used to be the preserve of the English-speaking, convent-educated elite from the metro cities. People like Piyush (Pandey) changed that and started the first diversity movement in the industry. Ever since, more and more interesting people from the deepest corners of the country have come and influenced the industry and we all are richer for it. 

But there’s a lot that needs to be done. Diversity is just no about backgrounds but inherent value systems, ways of interpreting the world and how they participate in it.
We as an industry need to get the gender balance right first. Women are natural nurturers. Just this aspect of women can impact businesses hugely. As a people, we need to have more gratitude towards the planet and more empathy for our fellow travellers. If industries, including ours, espouse these virtues too they will positively impact our lives and our planet. Women can help balance out the male ego in that context. 

Women also have a huge role to play in gender-sensitivity in communication. When you don’t have that voice inform the work or when you are buying the work it can show. 

Talking about diversity, there is an unspoken ageism at play in our business. Of course, our country has the largest young population in the world so the lure to have talent that are young and to create work that only talks to them are huge. Yet, I feel having people who have spent more time here on your side helps immensely. The young and restless combined with the wise and watchful make for wonderful discoveries.

LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in advertising right now? And the most frustrating? 
PB> The most exciting thing about working in advertising right now is that we don’t really know where it begins and where it ends. 

The fact that the solution can take any form is really liberating and challenges us to create form-bending work. 

The other thing that’s exciting is the fact that more than ever brands need to have a clear idea and purpose. Because if you have to be present in so many different mediums, in various formats and across diverse contexts you have to be a really clear brand. It is exciting to give brands that clarifying meaning as the starting point for creating work.

Another thing that I find really exciting is the changing definition of the perfectly formed team. Each project is different and the talent and skills required change with it. So, the opportunity to collaborate with different people is really enriching.

The most frustrating thing about working in advertising today is how cheap we give out our ideas. As an industry we suck at pricing our product.

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