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Santosh Padhi

Santosh Padhi

Interview

Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer and cofounder of Taproot India, holds the record number of Cannes Lions and One Show Pencils. He started his advertising career 15 years ago with Mudra (DDB) Mumbai. After 10 years as executive creative director and national head of art, he branched out on his own to found Taproot India four years ago. Santosh has worked on brands such as McDonald’s, Johnnie Walker, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, and Fiat India. In the interview that follows, Michael Weinzettl talks to the creative avatar about a range of topics, including how his career evolved and his main influences.

L[A] Hi Santosh, how does someone coming from a military family background, and from the world of cricket, wind up in advertising? Where does the “art gene” come from?

SP I think it was the early nationalistic nature of Bollywood cinema that instilled a sense of patriotism in me – and brought out the need to someday give my all for my country. Besides, of course, the fact that my father was in the house department in the Indian Army. So, in a way, it ran in my blood. I, however, ended up running on a cricket field a little later for several reasons. For one, the army and sport connection. And mainly because of the religion that it is, in India. Also, my alma mater has had the honor of producing some of the finest cricketers that have graced many a stadium, broken many a record, won many a heart, including Sachin Tendulkar, who was a year senior to me in school. Back then, he followed his gut and game with complete backing from his family. And success follows him till date. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if some of us had had our parents supporting us the same way. Or if I had taken my childhood dream of joining the army seriously. That said, I believe advertising is no less a battlefield. Think about it: Clients shout out orders every day, ideas get bombed every hour, and deadlines point a gun in your face every minute. Once an adman, always an adman!

How did advertising happen? Well, let’s just say it began with a realization: that apart from the firm grip on the cricket ball (I still love bowling), I was gifted with a soft grip on the paintbrush. While everyone was busy spreading out on a field, I slowly drifted away and began smearing color on canvas. There was little competition (unlike the cricket in our school). Even littler pressure. And huge backing from my art and class teacher. Towards the end of my schooling, something magical happened. I was doing with my brush what Sachin was doing with his bat. Effortless strokes and masterful nudges came easily to me. And I managed to get into one of the best art colleges around. It was what I did in my break since I had kept the navy dream somewhat alive, trying my luck at it every 6 months for 2 years; finally, I had to give up, as it was not only talent and courage that mattered to some people in the system. Anyway, the ship sank. The paintbrush emerged a clear winner. And that is how the fortune cookie crumbled.

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Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer and cofounder of Taproot India, holds the record number of Cannes Lions and One Show Pencils. He started his advertising career 15 years ago with Mudra (DDB) Mumbai. After 10 years as executive creative director and national head of art, he branched out on his own to found Taproot India four years ago. Santosh has worked on brands such as McDonald’s, Johnnie Walker, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, and Fiat India. In the interview that follows, Michael Weinzettl talks to the creative avatar about a range of topics, including how his career evolved and his main influences.

L[A] Hi Santosh, how does someone coming from a military family background, and from the world of cricket, wind up in advertising? Where does the “art gene” come from?

SP I think it was the early nationalistic nature of Bollywood cinema that instilled a sense of patriotism in me – and brought out the need to someday give my all for my country. Besides, of course, the fact that my father was in the house department in the Indian Army. So, in a way, it ran in my blood. I, however, ended up running on a cricket field a little later for several reasons. For one, the army and sport connection. And mainly because of the religion that it is, in India. Also, my alma mater has had the honor of producing some of the finest cricketers that have graced many a stadium, broken many a record, won many a heart, including Sachin Tendulkar, who was a year senior to me in school. Back then, he followed his gut and game with complete backing from his family. And success follows him till date. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if some of us had had our parents supporting us the same way. Or if I had taken my childhood dream of joining the army seriously. That said, I believe advertising is no less a battlefield. Think about it: Clients shout out orders every day, ideas get bombed every hour, and deadlines point a gun in your face every minute. Once an adman, always an adman!

How did advertising happen? Well, let’s just say it began with a realization: that apart from the firm grip on the cricket ball (I still love bowling), I was gifted with a soft grip on the paintbrush. While everyone was busy spreading out on a field, I slowly drifted away and began smearing color on canvas. There was little competition (unlike the cricket in our school). Even littler pressure. And huge backing from my art and class teacher. Towards the end of my schooling, something magical happened. I was doing with my brush what Sachin was doing with his bat. Effortless strokes and masterful nudges came easily to me. And I managed to get into one of the best art colleges around. It was what I did in my break since I had kept the navy dream somewhat alive, trying my luck at it every 6 months for 2 years; finally, I had to give up, as it was not only talent and courage that mattered to some people in the system. Anyway, the ship sank. The paintbrush emerged a clear winner. And that is how the fortune cookie crumbled.

L[A] What is the state of print advertising today in India? Is it still considered an important medium? I know for a while the TVC became more of a priority (with excellent results in that field!). We at Archive do get a lot of print work from India. Along with Brazil, it’s among the top 5 countries submitting work to our magazine.

SP Excellent print is what we inherited. This is where I get to say, “Those were the days.” That was the story twenty-odd years ago. And although we were late beginners, we pretty much managed to stay ahead of the times – in India, at least. I would say we had advertising institutions. Not just agencies. And they had the best art directors and writers, who were masters of the page. The work that was produced back then would work even today – heck, even better. Remember those were the days of manual process: no computer, no technology. Some of that stuff would easily beat the crap out of most of the recent print work; in fact, some of the campaign formats are still being seen.

But then TV happened. As the prices of television sets dipped (along with the quality of print), television commercials came up in a big way. It was sad to see several creative directors jump the bandwagon to get a grip on this happening new medium. Needless to say, print suffered: the clever intelligent kid was treated as a stepchild as the layout was reduced to nothing more than the last frame of the commercial. Lately, it has been heartening to see the current crop of youngsters trying all they can to revive the medium and return its due.

Here, I want to say a big thanks to all the passionate art directors who go out of their way to make things look good. They play many roles at times: designer, typographer, illustrator, photographer, and even digital retoucher. Passion, after all, comes in handy when you have little or nothing at your disposal. And being a passionate bunch is what makes us compete with a powerhouse like Brazil.

L[A] How does your work at Taproot compare to the 10 years you spent at Leo Burnett, where you were ECD and National Head of Art? Do you have to do a lot of “different” things as opposed to back then? Do you ever regret becoming independent?

SP I was like a Swiss knife in Burnett in my tenure of 10 years. I joined as a senior art director in 1999 and gradually grew by doing various roles in the system. Then, one day, I found myself in the post of ECD and National Head of Art. That was like a dual-sided sword handed over to me, which I always felt I was not prepared for. In many ways, I benefited from the LB network more than I contributed to it (although I have heard the other way round from them).

Then again, this is exactly what happens when you marry the right partner. I was lucky it all happened at the right age, right time. And really luckier to get bosses like KV Sridhar (NCD, LB India) and Arvind Sharma (Chairman, LB India). They were more than a boss to me. They believed in me so much it helped me believe in myself every single day. When I started Taproot India, there was a totally different set of challenges. Things I never had to worry about at Burnett were some of my biggest problems all of a sudden – like being the head of all departments initially.

Three years on, the problems remain, only they are a different set now. Did I question myself regarding Taproot India? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. It was mainly once, in the tenth month of Taproot’s establishment. There I was, sitting outside a completely burnt office when it caught fire. Looking at the broken walls, floating computers and burnt books in a place I now called home wasn’t easy. Have I done the right thing? Was it too early? A little too late? Where do we go from here? Questions kept nagging at me from the back of my head. Things were back to normal within a few days, and it’s been smooth sailing thereafter – touch wood.

L[A] Are you still fluent in “Leo Burnett speak”?

SP Let me tell you a story. In the initial days at Taproot India, I was invited to be part of the Adfest jury. In the jury introduction party, I was a few pegs down and happy to say the least. On being introduced to another jury member, I returned the favor by pulling out my card and introducing myself as Santosh Padhi from Leo Burnett. Moral of the story? It’s impossible to get the Burnettness out of you, even if you are not drunk – especially when you’ve been a part of it for many years.

L[A] Who are some of your clients now?

SP We had a dream start with brands like The Times of India and Mumbai Mirror, followed by lots of projects on iconic brands like Nirma, ITC, Tata, UTV, etc. But soon after the success of the Pepsi 2011 World Cup (which, again, was a project), we added a few more PepsiCo businesses like Pepsi Cola, Mountain Dew, Bharti Airtel, which is India’s largest telecom player, as well as NGC Asia, DSP BlackRock Mutual Fund, among others. We believe in reserving 50 % of our time for projects, which works quite well for us as a business model.

L[A] Can you name us a campaign done at LB that you are most proud of, and what is the campaign you’re really proud of since you started Taproot?

SP The Johnnie Walker “Keep Walking Journeys” brand campaign. I clearly remember the mandate was simply to localize the international campaign done by BBH Worldwide. What I came up with, however, changed the interpretation of the journey. We just owned the words “Keep Walking” by showing a pair of legs in each and every piece of communication, capturing the stories and essence of various upcoming professions. It took about two months of exchanging mails, thanks to my brand partner and the local client; without these two gentlemen, the campaign wouldn’t have walked this far as everyone else had given it up except three of us. Rarely does one get to break away from the international format. I’m still proud of the fact that we pushed for something that was so relevant and powerful for the brand. If the idea is good, there will always be hope.

As for Taproot, I’d say the Pepsi campaign was quite a game-changer for us in many ways. When they approached us for one of their big projects in India – the 2011 Cricket World Cup brand campaign – we knew this was our chance. There were too many things at stake here. For one, JWT was their agency for the last two decades. Despite that, the client showed faith in us and briefed an agency 1/50th the size of JWT. We came up with an idea that not only cut across all barriers, but also one that got global approval in 8 days flat. The campaign was a huge success. India lifted the World Cup. And we lifted the Grand Effie trophy for the campaign. It was a shot in the arm unlike any other. It helped not only us but also several other startups believe that nothing was impossible. Indeed, It made one thing pretty clear: the single most important thing clients are looking for is great ideas. Everything else is secondary.

L[A] Where do you get your inspiration for your work from?

SP I’d like to believe I’m an observer, a listener. A student of life. Because there’s no better work of art than life itself. To tell you the truth, I’m not very tech-savvy. It’s man over machine for me any day. That just gives me more time to interact with real people and listen to real stories. And there are lots of them in a country like India.

L[A] Is there something particularly “Indian” about your work/art direction?

SP You know, there are many Indias within India itself. The sounds, sights and smells change every few kilometers. And although we’re one in spirit, we speak, eat, wear and behave quite differently from one another. So if something works for a set of people, it might just not work with another. It’s why we have so many regional campaigns rolling out week-in, week-out. The challenge is huge because such diversity is difficult to find anywhere else in the world. But if pulled off well, campaigns with cultural references and nuances can work like magic.

I am of the opinion that the execution should reflect what the idea or the brand needs, which may differ from brief to brief or, at times, who it’s targeted to. Never what you are or what you like to do. It’s not very good news if one can tell the name of the art director just by looking at a piece of work.

L[A] Does Taproot have an official or unofficial motto? In an interview, you said your favorite saying is “to not do different things but to do things differently.” Can you elaborate on this and how it pertains to your work in advertising? Also with regard to the many media an advertising creative has to work in today, which is surely “do different things,” don’t you think?

SP It’s a silent oath every person takes on their very first day in advertising. The promise to be different. It’s such a fundamental thing, no? But I honestly, really do believe in doing one thing differently than doing different things. It’s like this. If I have a million dollars for my campaign, I’d rather do a brilliant piece of work than extend it to 5 different mediums just for the heck of it. Or instead of a 3 ad print/poster campaign, let’s do just two or one single piece. But do that one thing so differently it makes up for everything else! As for a Taproot’s motto, honestly, we never had one. But as you have spotted, “Don’t only do different things, do it differently” is one I believe in, apart from a few other mantras like: “Everything coming your way is an opportunity.” “A good piece of work followed by a great,” and “Consistency is what will take you there.”

L[A] Where do you see the agency in ten years’ time?

SP I’d really love to see Taproot add a design and digital arm and then wing out in various parts of India, followed by the world. With more and more bigger brands coming to us for nothing else but for the need and greed of great creative work.

L[A] What does “cutting edge” mean in the context of Indian advertising? Is it a term that refers more to style than substance? And, if yes, how?


SP We are an army of 1.25 billion and here’s how we’ve fared in two of our biggest subjects. Our movie industry is almost 100 years old and second only to Hollywood. Team India lifted the Cricket World Cup last year despite all odds. And although both these fields may employ cutting-edge technology, there’s one thing at the heart of every shot, whether on a movie set or a cricket field:

Emotion. It’s what makes us Indian.

We’ve been brought up that way. Even in advertising, we make sure the essence of our communication is rooted in a human truth. The software, cameras, microphones, etc. come in much later. We’ve been told by several global ad gurus that we’re very strong on insights. On the execution front, we still have a long way to go but we’ll get there soon. Some of the brands that keep doing the best work here are very Indian in their approach, yet the execution has been second to none. The Times of India, Fevicol, Perfetti, Vodafone, to name but a few that have been doing so consistently for the last few years.


L[A] What are some of the projects you have lined up for Taproot?

SP Workwise: As I’m writing this, I’m parallelly working on a mega Mountain Dew campaign, which should be out before this interview gets published. Besides that, there are a few campaigns on Nirma that are still in the pre-prod stage. So, yeah, the coming few months look pretty busy. Structure-wise: Currently, we are a full-fledged creative mainline advertising agency, operating out of Mumbai. As I mentioned earlier, Taproot Design and Taproot Digital are some of the roots we need to grow. Also, we’ll be branching out in some other Indian cities as well.

L[A] What does digital mean to you and how is digital advertising in India in general?

SP Currently, digital is like this young kid in the family: full of energy and promise. Everyone’s excited and besotted by it but nobody can trust it completely. The moment it contributes to the family income, it would have grown up and earned its place. It’s just a matter of some big brand doing a big campaign taking digital as the lead medium. And I’m sure, if done well, apart from selling the brand it’ll sell the medium in a big, big way.

L[A] In 2008, your Luxor Highlighters campaign won more than 120 international awards, you’re the most awarded Indian creative in Cannes and at the One Show … How does it feel and how do you feel about the awards? Is there an inflated number of them around? And do clients care?

SP Fortunately or unfortunately, awards are the only yardstick creative people are measured against, whether it’s music, cinema or advertising. We have two kinds of awards, of course, like the ones for effectiveness and those for creativity. The Effies and the Emvies give more emphasis to numbers, whereas creativity is never ever about two plus two equals four; sometime it’s 3, 5 or even 8, hence that’s what I like about this field the most – that every time you have to come with something that’s not four! Awards are like a shot of Jager Bomb straight up to the head (you’re high but alert!). A must for creative agencies and creative people. As to what it does, it gives you intense confidence, courage, power, and makes you feel high.

Basically, it’s very important for a creative mind to feel high if it is to come out with something that every client is looking for. As for the clients, let’s just say which man in his right senses wouldn’t like to be a good husband as well a good boyfriend? If he’s smart enough, he won’t sacrifice one for the other. We live in a world where out of sight is out of mind.


Awards put clients bang in the middle of the spotlight. Surely, they help the brand in more ways than one. Also, gone are the days when judges only picked ideas that made them feel small. Now it’s about picking the ones that make other brands feel small.

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