"Tujhe advertising baad mein sikhaoonga", a Piyush-and-me story

"Tujhe advertising baad mein sikhaoonga", a Piyush-and-me story

When I was asked to write a “personal piece” on Piyush Pandey, I was a bit stumped.

Piyush Pandey

Mumbai: What could I possibly write about a man, about whom so much has already been written? How did he make Ogilvy into one of the most creative forces in the industry, the uncanny ability to spot and nurture talent, his originality that changed the face of Indian advertising, his influence on the world stage, his incredible god-like stature in our business? I have nothing new to add there.

So, let me start at the very beginning, which, as the song goes, is a very good place to start.

January, 1987. I was a fresher, straight out of college, when Piyush Pandey hired me as a trainee account executive. Pandey was an account supervisor then (a pretty senior position in those days, unlike the throw-away designations of today). And the first thing I learned from him was, no matter what department of the agency you’re in, you need to see yourself as a creative person. Because this is a creative business. And Pandey demonstrated that every single day.

As account supervisor, he’d take charge of the creative on his brands. Especially when the brands needed more earthy Indian expressions and not translated from English lines. He wrote lines that are iconic even today – ‘Chamak Dhoop Si’ for Sunlight, ‘Fevicol Ka Jhod Hai, Toothega Nahin’ aur ‘Chal Meri Luna’…. all while being an account supervisor! He hadn’t moved fully into the creative department when he wrote the lyrics for “Miley sur mera tumhara”, Suresh Mullick’s beloved film on national integration. Piyush didn’t try and resort to poetry or flowery lines. He wrote simple conversational stuff, straight from the heart. Like he was literally chatting with the consumer. Great learning for me as a young AE, especially as I also got the opportunity to help him do all the storyboards for his scripts!

Looking back, I realise that everything Piyush did, he did it by keeping it simple. And fun. The more the laughter in the corridors, the better the work that’d come out. He believed in it. We’d often meet at his home, where we’d discuss the brief, he’d write the script and I’d do the storyboard. And then, we’d sit down to eat some delicious homemade aloo parathas with a special Rajasthani dry chutney his mom had sent. For a bhukkad like me, staying in a paying guest accommodation and eating all meals outside, this was a kingly feast. One day, I think I ate 12 parathas and finished half of his favorite chutney. Finally, Pandey had to say “Saaley, bas kar! Aata khatam ho gaya!”

However, the biggest lesson I learned from him was actually not in the office but on the cricket field.

In 87-88, Ogilvy was one of the top cricketing teams in the CAG Shield Tournament (the ad industry’s premier sporting event). And Pandey, with his Ranji background, was naturally the team captain. During my interview, Piyush had asked me if I would bowl or bat. And I’d said, both. With his characteristic guffaw, he said, “Chal, tujhe advertising baad mein sikhaoonga. Kal subah nets pe aa jaana!”

And boy, did he take his cricket seriously! All of us had to practice every morning from 6.00-9.00 am during the season and then go to the office for a full day’s work. Everyone had to practice fielding, catching, throwing and running before we got a chance to bat or bowl. Total task master he was, and I still have a chipped finger bone to show for it. His reasoning was very simple and firm; if you’re going to play with the company logo on your chest, you’d better put up a good show and play with pride.

Coming to the lesson I spoke about earlier…. It was during a match we were playing against a relatively weak agency team. Their bowling was very amateurish. But as it typically happens in cricket against a weak bowling attack, you can lose wickets very quickly, because of overconfidence. So, we were 4 down already when I walked in to bat. Piyush, however, was at the other end, batting strongly on 48.

The first few balls I faced were such dollies that I let my youthful impetuousness take over. I started swinging wildly, trying to hit each ball for a 4 or 6, even though I was not really connecting. A couple of balls almost grazed my stumps in slow motion. Which is when I saw Piyush thundering down the pitch.

Thundering is the word, believe me, because I’d never seen him that angry, ever. He grabs me by the shoulder, sticks his face into mine and with gritted teeth, says (for the sake of public decency, I’ve deleted some of the more colorful words he used):

Piyush: “Tujhe out hone ka shauk hai na? Toh koi acche ball pe out ho! Aur ja wapas!”
Me: “Sorry, boss”
Piyush: “Saale, main kitne pe hoon?”
Me: “48.”
Piyush: “Aur tu kitne pe hai?”
Me: “Zero.”
Piyush: “Phir tera role kya hai abhi?”
Me (thoroughly chastened): “Aapko strike dena”
Piyush: “Aur tu kya kar raha hai?”

Lesson learnt. I put my head down and took a fresh guard. By the time our innings ended, Piyush was not out on 175, having pasted those bowlers all over the park and I was not out on 45. As we walked back together, he slightly ahead with his bat held high and me two steps behind, I realised what an important thing I’d learned that day.

Teamwork isn’t about playing for your own glory. It’s about knowing when to play and when to rotate the strike. It’s about supporting your fellow team members and helping them play better. It’s knowing when to lead and when to follow. And this deep insight has stayed with me throughout my career as a manager and leader. Years later, I happened to meet Harsha Bhogle at a party and I asked him how he held his own in the commentary box with top cricketers like Gavaskar, Chappell, Boycott etc., and he said the same thing, “I just rotate the strike and let the experts play.”

It’s a huge lesson, folks. Something that every leader needs to learn. Only then will your team win.

Today, as Piyush moves to an advisory role at Ogilvy, I believe he’s done exactly that. He’s given the strike to his trusted team members and said “Go play your game now. I’m there at the non-strikers end whenever you need me.”

Well played, my captain.

This article has been authored by former BBH CEO Subhash Kamath.