Josy Paul – ad guru and mysterious zen-like figure

Chances are when you ask anyone about the calmest soul in advertising, a whole lot of people will name this man. Talk to him for a while, and you will agree that his persona is something to get inspired by. But then, it is also true that this is the same man who once tried to yank off a board from a client’s office, and whose former agency was designed to mislead people into non-existent second floors. Josy Paul is the eternal Yin and Yang, the calm and the aggressive, the serious and the prankster of Indian advertising.

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The Chairman & Chief Creative Officer of BBDO sits comfortably donning his trademark Nepali or Gorkha cap. But then calling him Chairman might not do justice to the man he is. Josy feels that designations do not matter in the creative field. He recalls, “Someone once told me, ‘the mountains don’t know that you are the CEO’. And it is true, it brings things into perspective. But just because designations do not matter to me, it is unfair to expect others to follow that as well.”

Fiery beginning: Josy has been a part of the industry for a long time (he mystifies it further by saying, “Oh, I joined the industry before time was invested”). After losing the first two jobs he held, in the late 80s he joined Ogilvy where he met Ogilvy’s Suresh Malik, the man behind the all-time classic ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’. He met Malik without a proper portfolio, but impressed him with his quick wit. When questioned about his trembling hands, Josy recalls telling Malik, “This is not nervousness, it is creative vibrancy. He fell back laughing and gave me a job.”

Josy’s journeys have often been because of chance encounters and being at the right place at the right time. In one corporate party where he accompanied a friend, a drunken Josy stood on a table and delivered a monologue on creativity. As it would happen – much like a movie – the host of the party, instead of being angry or offended, invited Josy a few days later to judge an advertising contest!

“Two people in two completely different situations thought I was worth it and took a risk, when I quite honestly did not think I was good enough,” he admits.

Getting David Ogilvy right: But he was obviously good, as he moved from Ogilvy to create RMG David in 2000. Josy firmly believed that the eponymous David Ogilvy chose to use the wrong part of his name in the industry. And thus, David was created to symbolise the fighter spirit, the going against norms and younger – much younger – advertising.

David was the challenger brand. According to Paul, for every number one that Ogilvy already handled there would be at least nine challenger brands that David could have. So, in essence, the potential client list was already there. It was therefore not just an ideology but a well-thought of business perspective.

“People around that time were scared to play, to break from the past. So David was set up as a playschool and not as an ad agency. We had toys and bears and snakes to play with. I would sit on a toilet seat which was green in colour while guests in my room would have to perch themselves on a florescent blue bathtub. That was the act of breaking down people and their past. We wanted to say don’t expect anything that makes you comfortable. Even when you joined the agency you did not get an appointment letter but a resignation letter instead. You would have to then resign from adulthood and sign a contract which had all wild things in it. That’s what David was about,” he remembers fondly.

Many inspirations: Josy’s inspiration comes from an unrestricted living space that he wished to return to. Born in Kerala, his family moved to Mumbai when he was three. He remembers that often he would walk out of his house and head to the station nearby in the hope of finding himself in Kerala the next day.

He soon found an institution that let him free his mind, and question all that was to be questioned. Joining St Xavier’s College for his higher studies, Josy was surprised and impressed on the first day itself.

“Four years I spent at Xavier’s and then I did XiC as well. I believe that my biggest influence was the college. It was like a counter culture. It was everything that I was not, everything my society was not. It was like a window to another world. It was about having a point of view, it was about rebellion. It was about expressing yourself and about creative energy – things that no one had taught me about in school,” he reminisces.

Something Josy learnt in Lowe Lintas has stood with him through time. Paul was probably the youngest Creative Director around that time – all of 26 when he and Neville D’Souza got an offer from Alyque Padamsee and Kersy Katrak. Katrak hired them with just one advice: “I give you the freedom to fail.” To this day Josy thinks that those words pushed them both to achieve a lot of things they would have otherwise not tried to.

The Ashram: The Ashram is a by-product of Josy’s visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Having just started off, Josy and his partner wanted to meet prospective clients in their offices. After one such meeting they had a lot of time to kill. As luck or destiny would have it, they landed up at the Ashram and were completely blown away by its beauty and peace. What was never a planned trip quickly became a part of their future as they returned to Mumbai to design their office with the Sabarmati Ashram in mind. The BBDO Ashram is the only one which has a Gandhi Charkha in the lobby and the entire corridor is lit with lamps and flowers every morning and evening.

“When I speak to you maybe it comes across as spiritual. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it is madness that comes across as spirituality so that the world does not get scared,” he jokes.

Awards were never in their scheme of things. Having never entered awards officially, when they finally began winning, Josy and Neville would often just stand in the shadows – shying away from the attention. But he has surely come a long way as he sits at the BBDO Ashram and beams at the many Cannes Lions trophies kept on the mantle.

“We don’t create work for awards because there is much more to life than that. But it is great when you win such awards like that Black Lion (he points to one shiny lion holding pride of place at the centre of the display). Nobody in Asia has that award, not a single agency. It is the Creative Effectiveness Lion,” he proudly says.

From entering awards, now judging and chairing international award juries, Josy is still humble as ever. He has been selected to chair the Direct and Promo & Activation category at Spikes 2014. He is excited and also nervous.

“I am hoping that I can get along. Sometimes I get a bit rebellious and I hope that I don’t fight with them. It’s great that no one is alike. If everyone was alike, then soon the world would become boring.”

But the creative world is never boring. Life cannot be boring when these people are around. So, be it a wacky unpredictable Josy Paul or the serene and calm man in front of me – Josy Paul is surely worth all the admiration he gets. And he made me understand one thing as I walked out of the BBDO Ashram: achievements need not take away a person’s innate humility.

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This is my bio-piece on Josy Paul, the man behind India’s brilliant creative agency – BBDO and also the man who gave birth to the concept of David ( as opposed the the Ogilvy & Mather we all know about). This is about the man, the experiences, the worldview and the awe-inspiring calmness that cocoons his creative self. The article was published last week on Best Media Info.

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