Covid-affected India through a creative director’s lens
As India gets back to recovery mode on the back of a resurgence in consumer demand, the currently-on IPL season and a festive season round the corner, Sumanto Chattopadhyay, chairman and chief creative officer at 82.5 Communications shares his work-from-home schedule last few months
Indians do not use toilet paper. At least, most don’t. So, the global pre-lockdown run on loo rolls passed us by. While many of the other, mostly negative, experiences of the pandemic were and continue to be shared by us—often on a bigger, more horrific scale than elsewhere—this is one inconvenience we have been immune to. (If you are from another part of the world and can’t contain your curiosity, we use either a ‘jet spray’ (self-explanatory?) or a ‘lota’—a big plastic mug—instead. (Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj devoted an entire episode of his show to the joys of the latter. In case you are the literary type, it was also a minor theme in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.)
A loosely-related fun fact: Most middle-class Indians didn’t clean their own bathrooms before the pandemic. That was the job of the maid. So once lockdown precluded domestic workers from entering the home, we had to learn to do it ourselves. This, along with the paranoia of the pandemic, led to an explosion in toilet-cleaning and other hygiene products—which kept the advertising industry afloat. Though just barely.
From bandying about the term ‘new normal’ without having the faintest clue as to what it meant to adopt a radically new way of working (and living) without batting an eyelid; from scrambling to create the agency’s Covid-19 Commandments—a playbook for sensitive yet relevant communication—to not being able to bear to see one more ad on the pandemic bandwagon, it’s been for me as a creative director, a roller-coaster half-year. And counting.
Advertising is locked out
Initially, lockdown locked out a bulk of advertising. Creating cheap and cheerless memes—‘moment marketing’—reflecting the Indian prime minister’s latest gesture to calm or distract the populace was one of the few things brands did.
Our leader provided fodder: He asked us to clang pots and pans to show appreciation for health workers one day. Another day, he asked everyone to turn on their lights at a particular time to dispel the darkness of Covid (which led to fears of bringing down the country’s power grid). He repurposed concepts like the ‘lakshmanrekha’ (a line you must not cross) from our ancient epics to get not-so-literate people to refrain from stepping out. He chose a cumulative period of 40 days for the first lockdown extension—significant not only because it is the specific number of days of the original quarantine, introduced during the Black Death, but also because this length of time is connected to Hindu tradition. Then, when Covid-19 spiralled out of control, he stopped making these announcements and advertisers had to find other topics to base their low- or no-cost social media communication on.
We sank into despair as fees were cut and contracts were terminated. We trod water with those who were not putting out any real work or, at best, getting us to create ‘home-made’ ads. Sometimes, we applied Indian ‘jugaad’ innovation and got real cameramen to shoot with family members as models, giving the ad a professional sheen. We created relevant pro bono communication—to raise awareness about the rise in domestic violence during the lockdown, for example. We created internal communication to keep morale up in the face of an uncertain future. Apart from the globally-shared fears of impending job loss or, worse—the loss of one’s life or that of a loved one—there were the added problems of working from an Indian home: Try doing a client call from the dining table of a tiny apartment with all members of your multi-generational joint family in the same room making their respective noises.
Glimmers of hope
Then, unaccountably, glimmers of hope: As people wearied of the pandemic and rekindled their appetite for non-Covid-related goods, as e-commerce and online payments, which had been lagging in India, got the fillip they needed with buying from home rising sharply—brands suddenly wanted to advertise again.
Clients started asking for ‘proper’ ads once more. First one. Then another. Then yet another. Our response was exhilaration mixed with panic: Hurrah, but how the heck do you shoot when there still are a hundred and one restrictions on travelling, gathering in groups and indeed working in public spaces? Filmmakers quickly found workarounds. With that and the authorities being coaxed to relax a few rules—for the greater good of reviving commerce—we were soon shooting full-fledged tv commercials and online videos.
BC - Before Coronavirus
The budgets were lower than what we would have thought possible to work with Before Coronavirus. But they were budgets, nonetheless. We had real work. Hallelujah! We saw a future.
Never had one imagined that one would supervise a shoot from home via a video call—a shoot happening in another city, where it was permitted to shoot, when it still wasn’t in yours, but where no one could go because of travel restrictions; a shoot the director was directing from home, from yet another city; with locally-sourced models who removed their face-shields only when the camera was on; with a skeleton crew, as the usual numbers were not permitted to gather.
Within a month, we graduated to what is considered by the industry as the most desirable or most complex type of ad shoot, depending on how you look at it: A shoot with a Bollywood star. One with a 100+ crew, in a studio. Everyone had to be tested prior. The makeup man was sanitized before he was allowed to apply makeup. A ‘tunnel’ was built between the star’s vanity van and the set. The director wore a PPE suit.
While supervising a shoot via—at times patchy—video calls has its challenges and is not quite the same as being there, there are some plus points too: During a multi-city shoot with multiple crews, the director and I could ‘virtually’ shift location in moments. When shoots for two brands fell on the same day, I could simultaneously supervise both via video calls on two devices. That’s when it hit me: This was the new normal. Something I would have thought, six months ago, to be bizarre—as bizarre as the schizophrenic dressing style it engendered—but now took as a matter of course.
Hygiene kept us employed
As I mentioned, it was the hygiene category that kept us employed during the early days of lockdown: New brands were launched. New categories were launched. Hand sanitizers, heretofore a niche product in India, went mainstream. Fruit and vegetable sanitizers were introduced. Hand wash sales zoomed. ‘Spray and pray’ took on a new meaning as surface disinfectant aerosols for everything from doorknobs to kitchen counters to toilet seats became all the rage.
As India gradually unlocks, faced with a Morton’s fork between death by starvation and death by Covid-19 - and people are fearfully stepping out - other categories are coming to the fore. ‘Immunity’ is probably the biggest of these. From nutritional supplements for children, to yoghurt, to herbal products derived from ancient Indian Ayurveda, brands with immunity-building credentials are thriving. Sometimes, it’s too much of a stretch though—such as a clothing brand claiming the protective goodness of herbs. (To wear or to eat, that is the question.)
Products find new relevance
Products like e-cycles are finding new relevance. An e-cycle allows you to commute more safely than public transport—where, in the Indian context, social distancing is almost impossible. It is much cheaper than a car or a motorcycle, so it appeals to consumers with tightened belts and purse-strings. (It helps you get fit too—thereby boosting your immunity?) And it’s good for the environment, something urban Indians have developed a new appreciation for—after breathing clean air for the first time in decades, with factories shut and polluting vehicles off the road.
Meanwhile, I’m still largely confined to my home, with Mumbai seeing all-time-high infection rates and, therefore, our physical office indefinitely closed. Nevertheless, I feel I can breathe again. Not just because of the cleaner air. But because the wheels of my industry—indeed that of the industry as a whole—are turning again.
The Indian Premier League, festival season and optimism
The Indian Premier League, the advertising ‘super bowl’ of India, has just been revived. Though postponed from its normal March to May season and relocated to the UAE, it’s happening. Our stadiums remain shut, but what matters is that the biggest event of Indian television is on. Along with the advertising that’s a part of it. The quality of cricket as well as the ads—hastily put together—are not what one is used to. But the consumer economy is winning.
India’s main festival season, comprising Navaratri, Durga Puja and Diwali, is around the corner. During this turbo-charged Indian triple-Christmas, not just shopping but expenditure on things like house-painting reach an annual crescendo. Many are seeing it as the inflection point, we need to catapult us out of the economic crisis. In fact, e-commerce giants are betting on a Diwali season happier than that of the old normal. Their brick and mortar counterparts are ‘cautiously optimistic’ too. This is as much because of hard-nosed projections of consumer spends and pent-up demand as about deep-rooted faith in the positive power of these religious events.
Never mind that Covid-19 cases in the country are in the millions. I won’t specify how many million, because the up-to-date number at the time of writing would be grossly out-of-date no sooner is it written. Suffice to say that we are hurtling towards the status of the most afflicted nation on earth.
But Indians have another incurable disease: Optimism. While hospitals over-flow and cremation grounds see day-long queues, malls have opened. People’s offices may be shut or shut down, but they’re out shopping. Deadly irony or economic lifeline?
For me, all said and done, ad shoots really are the green shoots of hope. Looking ahead through the rosé-tinted lens of a creative director, I see that it just might be a happy Diwali. And a prosperous 2021.
Sumanto Chattopadhyay is the chairman and chief creative officer at 82.5 Communications, part of the Ogilvy Group.