The non-entrepreneur

The non-entrepreneur

Ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar insists that he’s not an entrepreneur. He claims, instead, that his life and businesses revolve around pursuing his hobbies. Thanks to this approach, today, besides being an ad filmmaker, he’s a restaurateur, cigar brand owner and promoter of a scuba diving institute, all rolled into one. 

Prahlad Kakkar’s day begins with the usual dose of yoga. After all, he needs to prepare for the pressure-filled day ahead. Or, so I thought. Then, Kakkar lands up in his office in Tardeo, Mumbai, well past noon. On reaching office, he starts work on his “most important agenda” for the day – cooking lunch. The office of Genesis Film Productions (Genesis), the 34-year old company that Kakkar owns and the one that has produced widely acclaimed ad films for brands like Pepsi and Britannia, is equipped with a state of the art kitchen. “After a good lunch, you feel a little slowed down. Only then, you’re ready to work!” says Kakkar, with an almost-serious look.

The legendary, outspoken filmmaker hardly takes himself seriously. But underneath the carefree demeanour is a man who believes in getting things done. He wouldn’t mention the seriousness or the discipline with which he works, until I force him to. “If I badly want to start something, even if it seems unviable on paper, I still go ahead and do it. The difference between success and failure is not about how great a plan you make, it’s in the commitment and the depth of that commitment,” he says, almost unconsciously.

It is with this thought process that Kakkar has managed to establish several small businesses or hobbies as he terms them. “If you don’t like playing host, don’t run a restaurant. If you don’t like cooking, don’t run a restaurant,” he blurts, as we talk about the early-phase of setting up Papa Pancho Da Dhaba, a home-style Punjabi food restaurant he co-owns. In 1995, after his first ever scuba dive in the Mauritius, he was convinced that India needed a scuba diving school. Without wasting any time, Kakkar and his wife became certified trainers; he put together a team of instructors and started Lacadives, India’s first scuba diving school in Kadmat islands in the Lakshadweep. Till date, the company has introduced over a thousand beginners to the “bliss of scuba diving”, as Kakkar puts it. Kakkar quickly expanded to one more island in the Lakshadweep before opening a third facility in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2009. He admits that in all his businesses, attrition is extremely high. He says, “I look for people who’re really hungry, who’re willing to own jobs and who fight for responsibility.” He frankly admits, “Some of these businesses pay for themselves, some are just turning around.”

At heart, an advertiser

Among his several passions and hobbies, ad filmmaking still gets top billing. Kakkar is known for his no-nonsense approach with clients and advertising agencies and he constantly wants to push the boundary in his communication to consumers. In our interview, it was impossible to get him to talk seriously and many of his clients, I am told, feel the same. But it’s the quality of work that Genesis and Kakkar have churned out year after year that does the talking. For two years in a row, in the past decade, Genesis was voted the best production house in the country by Brand Equity, an Economic Times supplement. His commercials have won awards at the New York Festival of Advertising and been nominated for the Lions at Cannes. He has repeatedly given India, commercials, taglines and jingles that hold a quality that many advertisers strive to achieve – that of being memorable. Along with Javed Jaffrey, Kakkar gave us the ‘Maggi hot and sweet tomato chilli sauce, it’s different’. For Gold Spot lovers, he’s the man behind ‘the zing thing – Gold Spot’ tagline. And, of course, Kakkar launched Aishwarya Rai (the first time she ever appeared on television was for a Pepsi ad that he directed) and got her to utter the words, “Hi, I’m Sanjana, got another Pepsi?” Kakkar’s approach to advertising meant that each and every aspect of an ad film was thought out carefully. Be it through the script, casting or music, knowingly or unknowingly, Kakkar has managed to make a large percentage of his ad films memorable and sustainable. More importantly, his ads enabled brand recall among consumers and they got people talking.


“After all, at 61, I am the youngest in this office. Considering the demographics of this country, you got to connect with kids. They have to connect with you not as uncle, not as sir, not as Prahlad, but as one of the guys.”


With credentials like these, it would be a sin not to extract some snippets of practical knowledge from the man. Finally, it was time to talk about what makes a 30-second commercial tick? “A great script is definitely the starting point. Once you know you have a wonderful script, you want to make sure you don’t mess up. You work that much harder to make the other aspects – be it casting or chemistry between the actors or anything else work,” says Kakkar.

Every concept, every idea, every script runs by Kakkar at Genesis. “It has to,” he says. “After all, at 61, I am the youngest in this office. Considering the demographics of this country, you got to connect with kids. They have to connect with you not as uncle, not as sir, not as Prahlad, but as one of the guys.” He goes on to add that his business model has never been about playing it safe.  In his earlier days, he used to direct two commercials: one, the way the client wanted it and another, his way. He always showed them both and several clients have responded positively to his ideas.  His mantra has always been about what works for the consumer and what works on celluloid. He says, “At the end of the day, in this industry, you are your own client.” For yet another Pepsi ad, Kakkar’s script involved Shahrukh Khan masquerading as Sachin Tendulkar and walking into a cricket stadium. It was a special Pepsi campaign for the world cup with a ‘There’s nothing official about it’ tagline. Kakkar had to convince Tendulkar to do the ad. WorldTel, a sports management company that was managing Tendulkar, wasn’t too thrilled about the script. But Kakkar knew he wanted exactly that script and persuaded Tendulkar and WorldTel. Before launching Aishwarya Rai, the ad agency he was working with wanted to look at one more option before finalising Rai. In the interview, Kakkar repeated the exact words he told the ad agency then: “I am sorry; they don’t make them in twos. We need Aishwarya as Sanjana. There are no options.” It’s this kind of steadfast belief in his ideas that has ensured his ad films are what they are.

The non-conformist

Sometimes, Kakkar gets miffed about clients and producers who want to hide behind the storyboard. He’s equally against research and research-driven storyboards. “Advertising is not a business. It’s either brilliant or its depressing. You have to push the boundaries, make a difference and add value,” he says. Kakkar is a firm believer in how advertising can be game changing for a product. In several product categories, there’s hardly any difference in the quality or nature of the product. The role of advertising is all about establishing a connect between the consumer and the brand, and in Kakkar’s mind, he’s certain that a research-driven approach should be ruled out to make this happen.

Kakkar is also convinced that for advertising-related decisions, “(on the client side) taking a call (on the script and concept of the ad) and doing that quickly” is paramount. His belief is, irrespective of whether a company is large or small, there should be one man, a senior management person, who is ready to put his head under the axe and make quick advertising-related decisions. “In a creative role, you have to be a risk taker. Go find a space for yourself and your brand,” he says to clients.

He cites an example from Britannia Industries. “Sunil Alagh, who was then heading Britannia had a budget of just Rs. 1 crore per brand. He knew he had to do something drastic to get noticed,” he says. Kakkar, of course, is referring to the ad where a longhaired kid is playing cricket, rolling on the floor, dirtying himself, with some brilliant background music and of course, the ting-ting-ti ting Britannia jingle. Kakkar says, “Mothers probably felt, wow, that kid is a rock star. I want a kid like that. The approach was a risk, though. If the campaign had failed, Sunil would have taken the blame.”

He then moves on to talk about failure. “It’s clichéd but failure is a part of learning. It teaches you many things, reduces your ego, and teaches you humility. But not taking a call, not taking a risk will be a complete mistake.” I’ve held Kakkar in a serious-talk mode for a little too long. He’s back to his normal self and tells me how he handles failure. “I pretend the effort’s not mine. A week later, I ask people, oh, that’s a terrible commercial, I wonder who made it? Of course, I claim all the good films are mine!”

Suddenly, we’re back to talking about his hobbies and some expensive ones at that. Apparently, he is extremely passionate about Cuban cigars. But these cigars were a little too expensive and he decided to launch his own brand of cigars, complete, with his own blend. He then travelled to Philippines, Dominican Republic, Panama and Cameroon to source the right ingredients and arrive at the right blend. Today, he manufactures his own brand, Shergar, in the Philippines, with the aim of making it as close as possible to his favourite Cuban cigars. One day, he wants to open a Jazz bar in Bandra and also, build his own yacht. In Kakkar’s case, he just doesn’t talk. He’s already roped in a world-renowned ship designer to get the design done on paper.

All said and done, Kakkar has spent his life, crafting some brilliant messages to communicate with consumers, in less than 30-seconds.  He’s done it with equal measures of passion, commitment and risk and the approach is no different as he goes about building his hobby-businesses.


In 30 seconds…

ON HIS EMPLOYEE MANAGEMENT STYLE

First, commit yourself to the opportunity we (Genesis) give you and grab it with both hands. If you want us to part with some work, you better do a good job. You have to own the job, not just do the job.

ON ADVERTISING IN SOCIAL MEDIA

These media platforms are very different from couch potato media vehicles. Make your ads interactive, seduce your customer away from what he’s looking for, play a game with him, give him a freebie. If these social media ads are non-interactive, they will completely fail in their dormancy. But if your ad turns around and says, hey honey, why don’t you come check me out, it’ll work!

ON THE CROWDED INDIAN MARKET PLACE WITH TOO MANY PRODUCT OPTIONS

We’re big enough to consume everything. The key is advertising should not fail the brand.

ON BEING A CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR

You’ve got to take risks. Don’t get into a space someone else is already occupying.

ON FAILURE

Failure is a part of learning. Not taking that call (decision) and not failing is not the right way to go.

ON PURSUING A NEW IDEA

If you are convinced about the idea, drop everything else and go implement. You will figure out things along the way.

ON THE NEED FOR DISCIPLINE IN BUSINESS

In business, you need a lot of discipline. That’s why I am not a business man!


Sunil Alagh, founder of marketing consultancy firm SKA Advisors and former MD and CEO of Britannia Industries, on his experience of working with Kakkar

Kakkar worked closely with Alagh on several Britannia ads. Of course, we remember the Britannia ting-ting-ti-ting jingle and the “Britannia Khao” ads that are still etched in our memory. We requested Alagh to share with The Smart CEO his experience of working with Kakkar.

“Working with Prahlad has been an immense pleasure.  He constantly thinks on his feet and is creating till the last minute of the shoot.  He has the courage to go beyond the brief, if he strongly believes on a point.  Humour has been his forte; he is open-minded, absorbs all suggestions and then, distills it to perfection.

His going beyond a script can best be defined by the Promise toothpaste ad, he did with my wife, Maya. During the shoot, he asked Maya as to how she would respond to a new toothpaste.  Maya came up with a natural “Oof Oh… not another toothpaste!”  He stuck to it (retained it in the ad) though it wasn’t in the brief and made a very memorable ad.”


SUNIL ALAGH ON WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE AN AWESOME AD:

  • First, have only one clear message
  • Assess whether the product is to be the hero or does it need emotional support
  • Work with the ad maker as a partner rather than a vendor
  • Follow creativity till the last minute of the shoot.  Do not put the script in a cast iron box
  • Add a dash of humour wherever and whenever possible
  • Good casting, script, etc is a given
  • Last but not least, let the experts do their work, without interference

BRAND WHAT WE REMEMBER? KAKKAR’S TAKE
Pepsi Ash as Sanjana and SRK masquerading as Sachin This was a copy of a Pepsi commercial made in the U.S. with Michael J. Fox. It was a tough ad to pull off simply because if we did a bad job, people would say we couldn’t copy it properly! If we did well, people would say it’s just a rip off. So, I said I would take up the contract only if we had a freehand on casting. Of course, it’s the ad that launched Ash to the Indian audience. People didn’t know her name then. They wanted to know who this Sanjana was. It was also the first time Aamir Khan acted in a commercial. He is of course India’s answer to MJ Fox. For the SRK-Sachin ad, I had to convince Sachin to go with the script we had in mind. It took a lot of convincing, especially his management company WorldTel, to stick to the script. Of course, a Sachin-hairstyled SRK was fun to watch.
old Spot The Zing Thing – Gold Spot Brand Gold Spot had a wonderful recall, much better than what a Miranda or a Fanta has today. The Zing Thing and the background score meant to convey: “The taste is so awesome, yet so familiar, that it brought the best and the worst in you.”
Maggi Javed Jaffrey’s accent while saying – Maggi Hot and Sweet Tomato Chilli Sauce, it’s different One of the most successful on-going campaigns we’ve ever done. Javed Jeffery spoke in a combination of Hindi and English which people still remember. All credit here goes to Javed and a copywriter from JWT. The ad tried to convey something like: “It’s not hot, it’s not sweet, it’s not sour, it’s everything, it’s different.”
Air India The Air India Maharaja (mascot) and how it is drawn The first ever commercial we did was for Air India (not this one, though). So, it was a brand we were passionate about. We got hold of the artist who created the Maharaja, the only person in India who could draw it in 3 seconds. The process of “forming the maharaja with a pencil” was used to introduce Air India’s new destinations and routes. The message: “It’s a home grown airline. It belongs to us and Indians can be Maharajas.”
JN Paints How colour of a paint was depicted in black and white TV JN Paints was a market leader in the 70s and 80s. In black and white television, we had to bring out the concept of colours. We did several ads to make this happen. We described these colours through conversations. There is one ad in which twins are born. The husband, after hearing the customary cry, asks the nurse – is it blue (for the boy) or pink (for the girl). The message: “If it’s colour, it’s JN Paints.”

Prem Sivakumaran is co-founder & CEO of Growth Mechanics, a leadership and entrepreneurship-focused business content company in India. Growth Mechanics publishes The Smart CEO, a publication focused on enabling peer-to-peer knowledge exchange among C-level executives and board members. The platform reaches over 1.2 lakh CXOs across its website, app, print publication & CEO Round Tables, and has featured on the cover India’s leading business leaders/founders from Infosys, Mindtree, Tata Sons, ICICI Bank, Biocon, Yes Bank and several others. In addition of Smart CEO, Growth Mechanics also organises the Startup50 Conference & Awards, an annual event to recognize India’s top 50 startups every year. Startup50 Alumni include Freshdesk, Oyo Rooms, Urban Ladder, Capital Float, Paperboat Beverages, among others. Growth Mechanics’ primary business model revolves around linking CXOs and Brands around engaging content and has worked with India’s leading companies including Mahindra Group, Godrej & Boyce, BASF, Airtel, Tata Docomo, Fiat, IDA Ireland, Yes Bank, Prestige Estates, Frederique Constant, Indian Terrain