With a career spanning over two decades in advertising, Meera Zachariah, Creative Director, Rubecon Communications, Chennai-based advertising agency, has literally been there, done that! In an exclusive interview with Akhila Krishnamurthy, dressed beautifully in a kanjivaram with a very modern look and feel, Meera talks about how the big, bad world of advertising really made her its own, instilling in her an abundance of learning, unfurling opportunities to create, strategize, write, and most importantly, discover, explore, unravel and attempt to capture insights in a bottle and infuse brands with those identities… Taking time off work, Meera logs on to kanakavalli to re-visit her love and adulation for the kanjivaram, curating a selection that is reflective of the two core values that she believes have been integral in her story of the creation of brand identities – truth and honesty….
That’s a gorgeous Kanakavalli sari you are wearing, Meera. Are you a sari person?
Not really but in a way, the sari for me is about the kanjivaram. I share a bond with it so precious and personal. In a way, it also instantly transports me back to my childhood and growing years where we begin our journey with kanjivaram first wearing it as a pattu pavadai and then blooming into women in our own right, wearing it as a mark of grace and identity…
I come from a fairly conservative, traditional background and money in those days was very precious. As a result, the sheer act of buying a kanjivaram became an event, an occasion in itself, one that we valued greatly and treasured. By virtue of that, the kanjivaram, for me, continues to command a great deal of respect. You know the thing they say about old habits that die hard; the kanjivaram habit is like that! There is something so sacrosanct about it…
That’s true. How did this conservative Brahmin girl foray into the big, bad world of advertising?
Honestly, I wanted to be a journalist or an IAS officer; but as is the case, that was not meant to be. After I finished my post-graduation in English Literature from Stella Maris College, way back in 1989, I casually walked into an agency called Goldwire Communications and met its founding director, Aubrey Sequiera. I was hooked, literally. I often think of Peggy, fictional character in the series, Mad Men, who starts her career as secretary to the creative director of the agency and is thereafter promoted to the role of a copywriter.
There was something so fascinating about working with a “writer”, a description that has almost fled from the world of advertising. Sequeira was instrumental in introducing me the world of copywriting, and thereon, I did the rounds of a few big agencies – Ogilvy & Mather, Mudra, JWT - in Chennai, before I joined Rubecon, as its Creative Director in 2000.
Do you remember the first copy you wrote?
Vaguely. I remember it was for MRF Tyres’ Nylogrip that had just launched in the market. I’m not even sure that product exists anymore. I wrote a series of two-liners on scarps of paper and I remember showing it to Sequiera, who went through it, making changes with his pen, and at the end of it saying, “Brilliant.”
What would you consider your strengths in advertising?
I was lucky I was part of what is considered the golden age of advertising. At Ogilvy, I had the good fortune of working in an environment that sparkled under the influence of David Ogilvy, its founder, and his school of advertising. From every agency, I gained some fascinating insights. But among the one thing that I’ve never forgotten is that in advertising, you don’t really sell the product but you sell the need.
Did that mean understanding consumer behavior?
Yes, a lot of that. Actually, Ogilvy dinned the idea of the consumer into my head. I learnt to understand the meaning of selling the idea of confidence while actually selling a soap. It helped that I enjoyed insight mining a great deal.
Do you remember a story or two from that time?
This was many years ago, honestly. It was at a time when Vijay TV was attempting to break into a market where Sun TV was literally the king. I was handling Vijay TV and with the client, we were figuring out the route to take to make a buzz. One day, after a few weeks of brainstorming, the client kicked off a research where we set off into people’s homes, attempting to spend quality time with them, getting to understand why they liked what they were seeing and what could we offer them to help them move to a new platform. I remember spending many many days in the homes of people who lived in areas like Vyasarpadi, Perambur, Washermanpet, etc. I spent endless hours chatting them up about what is it about the soap operas that they really liked. And almost unanimously, all of them echoed a similar sentiment – that somehow the suffering of the characters on the small screen overwhelmed, in a sense, their own suffering. That insight was very precious because slowly we began devising a strategy that did exactly the opposite of what they were, so far, used to seeing… “What if we gave them something that was so joyous and happy so they in turn, actually forget their own suffering?”
That insight to me was more exciting than merely writing a line or two…
You continue to be fascinated with people and their minds?
Absolutely. I think the moment you crack the mind of a consumer, you are actually getting to the truth of the matter. And believe me, to develop a campaign based on this truth, you’ve got to be utterly honest, and passionate. You’ve got to love your consumer – that dealer who perhaps buys the break leggings, that child who is going to bite into that ice-cream, that woman who will wear a kanjivaram sari. And that, I think makes all the difference…
- Meera Zachariah, in conversation with Akhila Krishnamurthy for Kanakavalli
EXPLORE MEERA'S KANAKAVALLI GUEST CURATION HERE