I don’t take credit for ‘Give Me Red’, I only picked the idea before it vanished: V Shantakumar

Celebrated adman V Shantakumar, the man behind Eveready’s famous ‘Give Me Red’ ad campaign, was the speaker at Rediffusion’s Red Talks, where he shared stories from his stint at Rediffusion and more

Team BrandSutraUpdated: Monday, October 17, 2022, 10:07 AM IST
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I don’t take credit for ‘Give Me Red’, I only picked the idea before it vanished: V Shantakumar |

As Rediffusion prepares to celebrate 50 years of its launch next year, it had in the house a celebrated alumnus of the agency - V Shantakumar - as the guest speaker at the latest edition of its Red Talks. Here are edited excerpts from his speech:

MY FAVOURITE STINT

“I celebrate 51 years of working in different companies and advertising agencies this year, having retired as Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi in 2008. But without a shadow of doubt, my most favourite stint remains my time at Rediffusion, thanks to the people who worked there and very importantly, an ethos which Diwan Arun Nanda and Ajit Balakrishnan had created so many years ago. Their credo was: The agency must know how to talk and interact with customers and consumers. People are the only experts. Not the client, not the market research agency, not the film-maker, but the agency’s people. The agency is not just a custodian of the customer and the consumer. It is their voice, and therefore, Rediffusion never took any business it did not like and even walked out of client meetings. That spirit is what I joined Rediffusion for. After I joined, for the first six months, all that I had to do was wander around the agency, figure out what is needed and come back and talk to Arun and Ajit. I was thinking about the bigger picture. One thing I realized was that every other function had a champion, but there was no champion for the Creatives. When pressurised by client servicing people, the creative people buckled. At a meeting with Conrad Saldanha, Ajit Balakrishnan, Arun Nanda, Ashok Bijapurkar, Ajit Chakraborty, etc., in the room, I made a presentation saying somebody has to stand up for the Creatives. I was given the job and thus I became Vice President, Creative Service. I decided to fight. I discovered the power of ideas and how a simple idea can work magic. I also discovered that nobody owns an idea.”

Learning the ropes

“One of the people I learnt advertising from was Kamlesh Pandey. He once told me that in advertising, you have to be encyclopaedic. You have to be interested in anything and everything, be it food or movies or travel or literature or poems or poetry, martial arts, entomology, etymology, anthropology or palaeontology, because you don't know where an idea will come from. Many years later, the HR head of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide visited its Bangalore office and asked the people, ‘How many of you are in Creative?’ About 20 out of 50 or 60 said they were on Creative. To which he replied that the balance 40 should leave the agency immediately. ‘Everybody in the agency should have stood up and said ‘I am in Creative’,’ he said. It's a very important lesson to learn.

I don’t take credit for ‘Give Me Red’, I only picked the idea before it vanished: V Shantakumar

I don’t take credit for ‘Give Me Red’, I only picked the idea before it vanished: V Shantakumar |

“The first campaign I got involved in at Rediff was TATA Tea. The client was going to sack us because we had created something called the famous ‘Gajar Mooley’ commercial –like you grow your own vegetables, we grow the tea that comes fresh to you! I was talking to people and suddenly, out of the blue, a very old friend of mine, Prahlad Kakkar landed up and told me that only two things sell: Sex and violence. Since I can't put violence into tea, I want to put sex. He alluded to a movie called Hum, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Kimi Katkar, with the song Jumma chumma de de and said he would take the tune and put a model holding a mug of tea in it. I initially wanted to run out of the room but when I listened to it and watched it again, I was convinced. We went and eventually sold the line ‘Anu tazgi de de’ to TATA.”

THE ‘GIVE ME RED’ SAGA

“Around that time at Rediffusion, we were not winning awards, we were not getting recognized. Talent was leaving. And then came this great opportunity when we were actually being sacked by one of the oldest clients that Rediff had - Union Carbide/Eveready. Arun Nanda asked for one last opportunity and got us one chance for one final pitch. So I got into a huddle with my creative team and came up with the usual banal stuff for a battery brand – ‘We are powerful. We last longer…’. I was smoking in the landing with SG, and we were desperate. Suddenly, he mentioned the old Queen song ‘Give me money, give me love, give me fame, give me sex…’ and sang it out and said our campaign should come from it: ‘We should end it by saying Give Me Red.’ I threw my cigarette to the floor and ran up the stairs to the conference room. There was this guy called Gavin Barrett, and I told him to write the campaign. ‘The story you will tell is the story of power. The brief is ‘Give Me Red. Nothing else. There's nothing in this battery which is different. It’s the same chloride battery with a metallic wrapper.’ Forty minutes later, Gavin presented the script. The same script became the first Eveready commercial. It wasn't even changed.

“Man rides into bar on a motorcycle, thumbs the table and says ‘Give Me Red’. The barman puts out a thing which is full of some red bubbling liquid. And some citizen says ‘Give Me Red’. This is exactly how the commercial was presented. We recorded the jingle by about 3 am in the morning. The next day, we left for Calcutta with only a script, no storyboard, no visuals. Bugs Bhargava Krishna, our creative director accompanied us to the banquet room at the Taj Bengal. There was a big projection screen and we realised they were expecting to see some visuals on that. So Bugs went back and walked out from behind the screen in a dhoti, with an old rolled-up umbrella, a steel tiffin carrier and a water jug. He said, ‘I am Eveready. The most powerful thing for young people like (in an old man’s voice) me.’ An old person trying to be attractive to young people was not going to work for the client in a million years. Bugs went back, came out and said, ‘I am Eveready, Give Me Red’ and the song played… Then we described the visuals. They bought it then and there, on the spot.

“It is important to choreograph sometimes, because this is also the business of choreography. You can't go in there, shivering in your boots, saying, ‘Please look at what I've got for you. Please buy’. You have to have that confidence and choreograph it.

“Eveready made history. For five decades in a row, it was voted the best commercial of all time. I have rarely ever talked about the story of how ‘Give Me Red’ was made. I do not take credit for it because the idea came bouncing across the wall. The only thing I did was pick it out of the air before it vanished.”

WHO IS V SHANTAKUMAR?

Celebrated adman V Shantakumar, who worked with companies like Madura Coats, Hindustan Unilever and Rediffusion, retired as the Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi India in 2008, and was an advisor to the worldwide Saatchi & Saatchi network till 2010. Earlier, he has to his credit the television serial Malgudi Days, which he conceived and produced for the first two seasons. His quest to find new solutions for old and new and yet undiscovered problems led him to create ‘Context Engineering’, focused on helping create sustainable business advantage using a proprietary process. He has just finished shooting for an independent movie, and offers his services as a certified personal executive coach.

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