If I was in my 20s and starting an agency today, I would start a digital agency, 100%.
With only his second TV commercial ever, Naresh Ramchandani scooped the coveted Film Grand Prix in Cannes. That was in 1990. Twenty years later, Naresh became Communication Designer and Partner at what is probably the most highly regarded design firm in the world, Pentagram. In the following, he tells Michael Weinzettl about the extraordinary course his career has taken and the many milestones along the way.
L.A.: Naresh, in your bio it says about your time in school: "Does the Asian thing of getting good O levels and A levels." Can you tell us a bit about your background and elaborate on the "Asian" thing?
Naresh Ramchandani: Oh God, it does say that, doesn't it? Well, there are a couple of things here. One is that I've always believed in working hard and doing things as well as I can rather than finding pleasure in getting away with a minimum of effort. I don't know if that's Asian as such but my father worked hard and my mother still takes on a lot, so it's been a value that they've passed down to me. I got a pretty good set of O levels and A levels because of that, although not quite the straight A sweep my parents would have loved (I blame my geography teacher). The other thing is that I grew up in London at a time when racial prejudice was way more common that it is now and I remember being self-conscious about my ethnicity when I was a teenager. Now I've grown up a bit I've come to embrace my Indianness as an incredibly rich and supportive culture and value system, so I wear that badge with pride and stick it in my bio and everything – without overdoing it, of course, because I speak about eleven words of Hindi.
L.A.: What drew you to literature, to words, as a young man?
Naresh Ramchandani: "As a young man" –
I like that. Well, as a young man, I used to devour books every night. I was very inspired by the way writers would use words to paint vivid pictures and tell fabulous stories and puts sounds in your head. Dr. Seuss was an early inspiration, the way he would play with the sound and rhythm of words and write stories that ran around your brain like songs. What an all-time genius he was! Also, I remember being seven or eight and reading The Hobbit and it kind of blew my mind that one writer could not only have invented a whole world with traditions and mythology and customs; he actually knew it so well that he could be effortlessly humorous with it too. Being seven or eight, obviously I didn't work any of that stuff out at the time but I knew that there was a dazzling surefootedness to the writing, and I remember thinking I would like to write something like it myself. One year later, I was on Radio 4 reading a little poem I wrote about Noah's Ark but no one called me "The next Indian Tolkien" or anything.
L.A.: So, who were your favorite writers as a student of English and American literature?
Naresh Ramchandani: There were so many I liked, and for so many reasons. Dickens, for his love of people. T. S. Eliot, for his intellectual commitment to experimentation. Robert Frost, for using metaphors with brilliant clarity but with a beautiful degree of ambiguity too. Scott Fitzgerald, for making my heart ache for a billionaire. Eugene O'Neill, for creating downwardly spiraling worlds of claustrophobia and misery. William Carlos Williams and Ford Madox Ford, for being writers but having DJ names. Mark Twain, for putting vernacular into prose. Kurt Vonnegut, for doing it even better. Arthur Miller, for finding the most agonizing tragedies in the dreams and delusions of everyday people. Oh crap, that's all men, isn't it? Sorry. But basically, apart from the bias towards male writers, I think I did the best course in the world.
L.A.: Are you still a reader?
Naresh Ramchandani: I read much less fiction than I used to and that's mostly because I'm writing my own stories and, for me, it's hard to immerse yourself in a world you're creating with characters and rules and aesthetics and then go and plunge into someone else's at the same time. Also, it's especially hard to do it without becoming envious or dispirited by writers who can do it way better than you. I do read books on holiday but I try not to go to Waterstone's because I get stressed by the astonishing array of new books that, apparently, I should be reading. So, instead, I've tried something different on my last few holidays: reading some meaty classics that I've always had but never read: Crime And Punishment, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, and so on. People like Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy – not the latest or buzziest, admittedly, but not too bad at writing books either.
L.A.: How did your love of literature translate into copywriting? Did you take that turn for economic reasons instead of, say, pursuing an academic career?
Naresh Ramchandani: To be honest, the thought of becoming an artistic or academic writer never crossed my mind. My parents and their families were all professionals, most of my friends were heading for the city or "proper" professional jobs, and I just assumed I had to leave university and earn a salary because that's what you were meant to do. I look back and wonder if I could have been braver, but in truth there was never a chance of taking "the road less traveled" because I had no idea how to find it. So I left university determined to earn a salary by writing. I was happy to be a journalist or a copywriter; it was an agency, not a publication, that gave me a job.
L.A.: What got you interested in advertising in the first place? Were there any famous ad people you admired at the time?
Naresh Ramchandani: I think I can blame John Webster for most things. When I first saw the Smash Martians commercial he made, I was simply blown away and frankly still am. Featuring Martians laughing at humans who haven't learned the advantages of instant mash potato … it's the ad that had the lot: a whopping sci-fi conceit like Terminator or the Matrix but without the agony of watching a bad performance by Keanu Reeves; a ludicrous comic conceit in the notion that aliens would use potato sophistication as a yardstick for species development; stoner humor, because those laughing Martians are clearly on something, and it's not spuds; and a post-modern absurdity in the way the whole ad ends with the stupidly sweet and amazingly disconnected "For Mash Get Smash" jingle. I was so knocked out by that ad that I wanted to name my band "The Smash Martians"; in fact it still feels like a good name for some new indie band somewhere. Anyway, it felt like a wonderfully clever but also wonderfully sweet piece of commercial entertainment, and I think that was always the John Webster trick: he seemed to impress and charm in equal measure. I kind of say this enviously because that's the trick I've always tried to pull off, to create communication that's striking enough to make people notice you but human enough to make them like you. Of course I've never achieved Webster's effortlessness or his success, but I'm still trying.
L.A.: You were 27 when you won the Grand Prix in Cannes for your commercial for Maxell Tape, the second commercial you'd ever created. What was that like – to start out your career with such a bang?
Naresh Ramchandani: To be honest, I didn't think it was a particularly big thing at the time. I thought, oh, that's how it works, then; you get a brief, you write three nice creative routes; the client chooses one, you work on it for a few days and nights, crafting the words and the jokes to be as good as you can; you shoot in a day in Islington market; it wins an award or ten, one of them is the Grand Prix at Cannes, and that probably happens all the time. I didn't go to Cannes to pick up the award because it seemed like such a schlep. And, actually, I have never been to Cannes, which is not me taking an arch position or anything, I've just never been invited. Awards are still not a big thing for me. It's nice when the industry likes stuff I've done but that's way, way down on my list of priorities
– in fact it's not even on the list, to be honest. The list goes a bit like this: Is it unusual enough to be noticed? Is it good enough to be liked? Is it something the client feels proud of? Do my group of creative friends like it? Did it make some cultural noise in some way or the other? And, most of all, did it work? In 1995, when Dave Buonaguidi and I became creative directors of Chiat / Day London, we actually withdrew the agency from creative awards and it was brilliant. We were putting a young creative department together and I felt that awards were a bad distraction because they seemed to reward work that was formulaic and smug and clever-clever, or at least they did at the time. I wanted our young creatives to be free of that distraction and experiment with new kinds of work that solved the problems originally rather than half-solve them with the kind of stuff that would also win them awards. It was really liberating, and I think our work was freer and more creative as a result, and awards are things I've never felt the need to go back to.
L.A.: You've done so many outstanding and high-profile campaigns over the past decades. What is some of the work you're proudest of?
Naresh Ramchandani: Thank you! I'm proud of all of it, it's really hard to pick things out. "Chuck Out Your Chintz" was a perfect storm of a great problem and a fantastic brand, and an assiduous client and a brilliant strategic solution that we turned into a commercial and a little piece of culture with the help of a song that I wrote on my guitar. I'm very proud to have been a part of that. The first campaign I made after Maxell was a pre-Benetton socially-minded campaign for Fuji showing how reportage photography can help raise social issues. The two commercials featured issues that were very personal to me: subtle racism towards an Asian mother, and awkwardness around a mentally disabled person. I'm incredibly proud of that campaign too. I'm also incredibly proud of the three years' worth of videos and podcasts to date that have made up the inspiration stream for "Do The Green Thing," the online creativity vs. climate change charity that I co-founded and help to run. If I'm stepping away from individual pieces of work, I'd say the thing I'm proudest of is that I've always been in a position where I have been able to do good work. I think a large part of that is to do with money. Whereas I'd love to be wealthy, I'd hate to become wealthy by doing years of uninteresting work solving unimportant problems – you know, the FMCG-Faustian pact. Working under Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott at HHCL was an inspiring and amazing apprenticeship, and of course I was paid as a junior and didn't expect anything else. Being co-founder and creative director of St Luke's was always a passion, not a money thing because I, like everyone else, only had 0.0001 % of that crazy cooperative. Being the co-founder of Karmarama meant we took active decisions to do enough interesting work for small-paying or pro-bono clients, because that's what we wanted to do and the balance sheets were ours alone to balance. I'm sure in the history of the world there have been one or two agencies who have been irresistibly creative, fiercely independent and gobsmackingly wealthy, but they're the extraordinary exception. In most cases, excessive money is the root of all mediocrity and it's a pact that I'm pleased never to have taken.
L.A.: Would you agree that, over the years, there has been a shift from concept-based advertising to art-direction-based ads, i.e. that the art director usually takes over nowadays?
Naresh Ramchandani: Well, as art colleges have fed more and more creatives to agencies there's definitely been a shift away from writers so I guess that means there's a shift away from writing, and I guess that means a shift towards art direction. If I was feeling nostalgic, I would say that being a writer now is a bit like being a Butch or Sundance, where your skills are as good as they always were but the era is moving past you. If I was being more positive and entrepreneurial, I would say that, as the world moves towards design, there's more uniqueness to writing and so it leaves me in a better position to create communication that's different.
L.A.: Are the best ideas today to be found on the net? Would you say that digital, as an advertising channel / medium, has surpassed print and TV?
Naresh Ramchandani: I think the era of big static set-piece commercial communication is over, full stop. Communication needs to be lighter, faster, more iterated, more participative and more distributed, because that's how people consume culture – and, clearly, that means digital. If I was in my 20s and starting an agency today, I would start a digital agency, 100 %. Of course I would make sure that it did all the things I believed in – disrupted, connected,
experimented, enhanced bold nimble ideas with perfect craft – but I would do it all in html and at 72 dpi. There's absolutely no question about it.
L.A.: In 2000 you and David Buonaguidi founded Karmarama, which you left five years later. What was the experience of running your own agency like?
Naresh Ramchandani: Well, don't forget I was a co-founder of St Luke's, too, so in some respects it was nothing new. But in other respects it was very new, because St Luke's was started as a cooperative of us and run by some peculiar pickled consensus, whereas Dave and I were able to create exactly the agency we wanted – small, creativeled, doing work we wanted to do for people we liked working for, and for causes we wanted to help, and exploring the media we wanted to explore. Without the same film directing skills or height or haircuts, it felt like we'd created our Camden version of KesselsKramer, and it was fabulous and the learning was enormous. At HHCL, I learned how brands could disrupt. At St Luke's, I learned how brands could stand for something. At Karmarama, I learned how brands could connect by being in the right place at the right time in any one of a million different media opportunities that brands and their agencies were increasingly allowed to play with. When we did work for Tokyo Life for Selfridges, or Van Den Puup for Ikea, it was about creating a strong bold idea, yes, but also we also learned how to make the idea live and breathe beyond traditional advertising media – stores, sites, stickers, screens, point of sale, promotions, editorial, advertorial, flyers, freesheets, virals, and all that jazz.
L.A.: What was the story behind the Make Tea Not War poster?
Naresh Ramchandani: There was a writer called Scott who was working for us for a few months, and actually it was his initiative. He pointed out that Tony Blair had behaved badly, the country really cared, there was a huge protest march happening in ten days' time in London, and it would be good to support it. We called an ambient media company and asked them how much it would cost to print a couple of thousand placards, and when they said it was a couple of thousand pounds we thought, hey, why not? And from then on it was pretty instinctive. We were always going to do something a bit more mischievous than your normal protest placard. "Tea" felt like it hit a national common sense nerve, the Kalashnikov made Blair's behav-ior seem as invidious and dangerous as it was, the teacup on his head defrocked his dignity. We pressed "Print" and had no idea quite what a hit the image would be. It didn't stop the war, though.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about the various projects you embarked on after that – such as your columns for the Guardian, your work for TV and your involvement in Wolff Olins' heatedly debated London 2012 identity?
Naresh Ramchandani: Leaving Karmarama was incredibly difficult and painful but, in terms of clouds and silver linings, it gave me the time to do three big things which I would not have been able to do otherwise. The first was to write some sixty columns about advertising for The Guardian. It was a brilliant – if painful – experience. Unconsciously at first, and then more and more consciously, I used the columns as a chance to stop and think, to look at the world of communication, to notice how consumers were becoming more and more brand-literate and brand communication-immune, to spot the new models of communication that brands were trying in a desperate attempt to connect with them. The columns kind of amounted to a surrogate advertising PhD for me, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to make each one a really strong thoughtpiece on the state of the industry. One or two were appalling but some of them were pretty good. The second thing was to create "Do The Green Thing" with my friend and online marketing pal Andy Hobsbawm. We both had some time on our hands, both liked the idea of doing something together, both were (and still are) bleeding-heart liberal North Londoners looking to hitch our wagons to a greater good, and as we talked our thoughts turned to environmental behavior change. We wondered if some of our experience in inspiring people to do things in the interest of brands could be used to inspire people to do things in the interest of the environment. And so "Do The Green Thing" was born. We've created something that's so far reached 5 million people in 202 countries, saving an estimated 1 million tonnes of CO2, and I've learned a stack about digital comms in the process, so all good and a great learning experience. The third thing was getting the chance to work with design companies such as Wolff Olins and Pentagram. I've always loved design and been a bit envious of people who can do it. But more than that, I've always been interested by the related skills of design and advertising; one manifesting from a brand idea, the other articulating a brand idea, but in an ideal world working from the same brand idea. When design and advertising come together, it can be really clever. At Karmarama, we created a cute Japanese girl-in-nappies mascot as an advertising idea for Selfridges' Tokyo Life event, and it was our clients who saw the chance to also turn it into an brand identity idea that ran through the store, creating something incredibly buzzy and coherent for the event as whole. With that joined-up brand approach in mind, Wolff Olins asked me to help on the pitch for the London 2012 Olympic identity, which was a great experience even though my involvement was ultimately pretty minimal. And I'm not saying that because I don't like the logo.
L.A.: How did your move to Pentagram come about?
Naresh Ramchandani: It was that same joined-up design and advertising notion that pulled me westwards to Pentagram. John Rushworth and Angus Hyland were working on a couple of brand identities, one for Armani and one for Eat, and I was touted as someone who could help build a communications idea out of those identities. So I worked with John and worked with Angus and got to see what fantastic designers and intuitive brand thinkers they were. And they obviously liked me sufficiently to ask me back to do a couple of other projects, and those went well enough for them to start to wonder whether I could be more of a permanent fixture at Pentagram. And so started an elaborate and protracted courting period, but things were helped hugely by a happy accident. A couple of months before, I had casually pitched some ideas to John for Pentagram's next Christmas card. He thought two of my ideas were lousy (he was wrong) but there was one he really liked: a playful test that purported to analyze your personality and prescribe you a typeface. He asked me to help him make it as a digital idea and by Christmas 2010 we had built a microsite called "What Type Are You?" complete with an analyst with a bad German accent and sixteen funny typeface prescriptions. The site was a huge hit for Pentagram, with millions of hits and 250,000 people registering their type, and a few months later, after meeting all of the Pentagram partners, I was invited to be a part of it. I really have to take my hat off to Pentagram for being willing to try something interesting and unusual. I'm a writer who never went to art school, comes from advertising and can't draw, so I'm a long, long way from central Pentagram casting. But as well as the differences with the other partners, there are plenty of similarities too: a love of strong ideas, a love of craft, a love of making things. Of course they might throw me out in a few months but at the moment it feels very good. It feels like I have a found a home for what I love to do and found a group of partners who I can bring new things to, and who can push me to do new things too.
L.A.: Did your move to Pentagram mean that they will be extending their services to the area of creative advertising?
Naresh Ramchandani: Yes! Well, actually, they have always done a little, and now they can do a whole lot more. At least that's my plan. Pentagram can and should be creating joined-up branding and advertising ideas, and lots of them. I also hope that I can help Pentagram extend branding into areas that I have lots of experience in – you know, sound, music, animation, film, and that kind of thing. Oh, and I secretly want Pentagram to make a pop promo.
L.A.: How do you relax/unwind?
Naresh Ramchandani: I write. I lose to my kids at backgammon. I compose bad songs on my guitar. I watch series three of Father Ted over and over. I browse feeds from New Scientist and NME. And I go through a bimonthly Kafkaesque ritual that goes like a bit like this: I swear on my life to do my expenses at the end of every week; I do nothing of the sort; I accumulate mini receipt piles on various desks and in various drawers and bags; I get stressed by them; I sit down one evening and have a giant cathartic through-the-night expense-cleanse; I wake up feeling like I am on top of the world; I swear on my life to do my expenses at the end of every week; I do nothing of the sort, and so on.
L.A.: What advice would you give to a young copywriter starting out?
Naresh Ramchandani: Find a voice. Copy brilliant writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Graham Linehan until you develop a voice of your own. Understand what words do: how they carry the idea sometimes, how they get out of the way of the idea at other times. Learn where language is headed; learn how the digital world is changing language, creating a whole batch of new words and writing styles, and killing off a whole bunch of old ones. And when you've found, understood and done all of that, pop over to
Pentagram and enlighten me.