Passage From India

Piyush Pandey, who presides over the film and press and outdoor juries at the International Advertising Festival at Cannes this week, “has his thumb firmly on the pulse of the public psyche” in his native India, says Neil French. What that means, explains Pandey, executive chairman and national creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in Bombay, is finding ideas powerful enough to speak to a country with 22 different cultures and languages.

It’s a process that has well prepared Pandey for leading two 21-member international juries to consensus after weeding through 5,081 film entries and 9,979 press and outdoor submissions. Pandey’s selection by festival chairman Roger Hatchuel—at the suggestion of Jeff Goodby, under whom Pandey served on the film jury two years ago—makes him the first from Asia to take on the high-profile and high-pressure role at Cannes.

It’s an appointment that honors not only Pandey’s personal creative achievements—he’s helped Ogilvy in India win eight Lions in the last two years—but that of an entire region. “It’s a huge honor,” says the 49-year-old copywriter. “It’s recognition for the country and continent that you come from.”

Credited with helping India find its creative voice during the country’s dive into television advertising in the ’80s, Pandey is best known for the quirky, sometimes dark humor in his work. He picked up a bronze at Cannes four years ago for a Fevicol glue spot, directed by his brother Prasoon, that contrasts alternate movie scenes showing the same man hanging from a rope bridge: In one, he slips from his girlfriend’s grasp to his presumed death; in the other, he’s held in place by the glue. In a PSA for the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an elderly man gives up a seat to a smoker as the voiceover says, “Be nice to smokers. They don’t have much time.” A 2002 print execution for the association, showing a cowboy next to his dead horse with the headline, “Second-hand smoke kills,” won a gold Lion.

Pandey’s ascent at Ogilvy began in account services. He’d gone to college in New Delhi on a cricket scholarship but quickly took to his arts studies and surprised his parents by winning another scholarship, for academic performance. Pandey went on to earn a master’s degree in history, but diverted from the expected path of becoming a government bureaucrat by working as a tester of teas in Calcutta for three years.

After meeting a college friend working in advertising, he moved to Bombay and joined Ogilvy. A couple of years later, Pandey, who often describes himself as “a guy who happens to be [in advertising] by chance,” wrote his first ads, for the Lever detergent Sunlight. He officially jumped to the creative department after writing a song for a well-received three-minute spot promoting India’s National Integration Act that featured national celebrities. “It was a bit of a ‘We Are the World’ for India,” says Pandey. “It suddenly made me a lot more in demand within the organization.”

Born in Jaipur to a family with nine kids—two boys and seven girls, one of whom, Ila Arun, is a famous folk singer in India—Pandey found that his background gave him an advantage in the upper-crust ad industry. “I was one of those few people who had lived life in a middle-class home and happened to speak the Hindi language better than the kinds of people who joined the advertising world,” he says, “which was very English-driven and very metrocentric in their thinking.” But it was his ability to tap into human emotion with humor that helped him excel.

With a flair for creating entertaining, often offbeat work that incorporates the region’s flavor and languages, Pandey became “the epitome of advertising in India,” as French, Ogilvy’s former worldwide creative director, puts it. Despite his lofty position, Pandey still writes ads every day. “Advertising, like cricket, is a team game with a playing captain,” he explains, “unlike tennis, which often has a non-playing captain.”

“He’s a very talented creative, and India being a junction of the East, Far East and West, he has this good mixture and understanding of the different cultures,” says Hatchuel. “Above all, he’s a good manager of people.”

His primary directive to the juries, Pandey says, will be to leave prejudices at the door. “The idea is to remove everything from our minds that can influence us and be focused on the work we see there on those particular days,” he says by phone from his Bombay office. That means not letting the award-winning history of a brand influence opinions. “We’re kind to the known a little more than the unknown—that’s human nature,” he observes. “Familiarity is something we must watch out for.”

His advice to the creatives lusting after a Lion this year? “It is the best you could have done, but you have no idea what is the best that others have done from so many other countries,” he says. “So go there and enjoy yourself—and if you turn out to be the best, go get pissed.”