Niranjan Natarajan - Rated by Economic Times Brand Equity as One of the Twenty Hottest Creative Directors (Creative Director From India)


Instagram validates our love for stories. More seriously, we form relationships based on stories – in real life, in the fictional world. Which character do you like? The answer will be a story. 

1. Share your background and journey with us.

Most people stray into advertising. I’m no exception. I had written the UPSC exams, cleared the prelims twice, got admission into MBA courses, and attended CA classes – actually, I did everything I shouldn’t have been doing.

It took a while to see the obvious. Writing, and specifically copywriting, dawned a little slowly. I joined an advertising agency for a few months in the gap to the UPSC finals. My first boss was kind enough to give me a break though I mentioned it is only till the UPSC main exams. I’ve stayed in the industry.

After my stints at Ogilvy, Grey, JWT, and other agencies, I started Why Axis in 2005. This happened accidentally. My MBA friends started with neat, grid-like, color-coded Excel sheets. I’m intimidated by Excel sheets.

Why Axis started from the dining table. An account management friend from Ogilvy (Chander!) gave me guidelines and inputs. I kept wondering if the mobile would ring at all. The first call came from a large IT firm we had worked with before. I was overwhelmed.

When people talk about being in business, I still don’t think it refers to me. I think they are talking about somebody else. I see myself working at Why Axis just like I worked at any other agency. Why Axis is a 20-member team. We work across India, the UK, Africa, Middle East. I’m grateful for the opportunities we’ve been blessed with. The dots connect in hindsight not when you are going through life.

There’s a funny anecdote while trying to come up with the name for the agency, I was at a CafĂ© Coffee Day like most people who were trying to start something at that time. I was talking to a helpful IP firm (Deppening) who asked me if I wanted to discuss the name registration proposal with the board of directors. I told them I’d ask my coffee for an opinion!


2. How do you ensure client satisfaction throughout a project, especially when balancing their expectations with creative vision?

There is a common, collaborative goal between the client and the agency. The Client comes to you to fill the blank screen they haven’t seen yet but can sense the opportunity it offers. Strategy is creative and the ownership rests with both stakeholders. It isn’t about ‘Vs’, it is about ‘and.’

The issue comes up only when the equation is not built on mutual respect. Either the client comes from a different space (‘I’m paying you, so do what I tell you’ or ‘ I am the smartest one in the room’ variation) or the agency isn’t willing to see the common ground.

My challenge is a little different. I am not the advertising stereotype – no ponytail, no pub hopping or back-slapping, life of the party. I can be most happy with myself. Star sign folks, trivia alert, read Scorpio. How does this persona reach out to clients, markets, colleagues, and people? I’m learning to do this every day.


3. What was the inspiration behind creating Why Axis?

I had the opportunity and privilege of working in network agencies, on large brands with people I like, trust, and respect. There was no sudden light nudging me to start Why Axis. There were styles of functioning I liked and styles I didn’t agree with. I was wondering if one could have a continuum – take the best of processes that I saw, and people I admire, and try to bring like-minded people together. These could be clients and creative folk without being tied down by the constraints of the large agency. Focussing on ideas, learning, being kind, being fair, not having politics or hierarchies interfering, try and have enough laughs along the way. We’ve formed our core values around this.

Specifically, I’ve always been drawn to the ‘Why.’ That is, being curious. When you look at it in a wider frame it is about life. Perhaps a bit Buddhist. I am quite drawn to the journey of Siddhartha to Gautama. We ask ourselves why are we here? In an everyday advertising context – we ask ourselves why is the brand here?

4. What role do you believe storytelling plays in effective advertising/branding?

Instagram validates our love for stories. More seriously, we form relationships based on stories – in real life, in the fictional world. Which character do you like? The answer will be a story. Take, for instance, Loki and Tom Hiddleston’s dance steps. That’s a story many of us like. Our childhood memories are made of stories - some narrated to us, some that we live through - the movies we watch, the songs we like on loop, the people we love – each tells a story.

Here’s an exercise that’s warm and has a purpose. Do you know the name of the gynecologist who delivered you to this world? Ask your folks. Find out and say hi. There’s a part of your personal story waiting to be told. LinkedIn will love the ‘humbled and honored’ story you can tell afterward. For a brand, it is no different. From screen or shelf to consumer’s table or wardrobe. What’s the story from birth to delighting a consumer?

5. What advice would you give to people aspiring to enter the field of advertising?

Monetize your passion. That is the simplest and luckiest thing you can do. After that, you won’t be caught discussing if a four-day week is better. The hours will be long no matter what you do, from being an influencer who works hard to make life look effortless, or a Dr who works with emotions and life – relentlessly trying to bridge healthcare with hope and love.

When you are entering the field of advertising look for where you can learn more, where you get guidance, and where you can be mentored. I’m always amused by fresh entrants who know it all and negotiate a higher salary while joining. This is followed up by ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘it is a learning for me’ soon after they join.

Despite the pressures of the day – of being stressed, and stretched – I try to keep in mind that everything is fleeting. This too shall pass. It is a short step from Instagram to a cardiogram.

6. What is a book you love and would recommend our readers to give it a try?

Two books. One, the Bhagvad Gita. I started a habit of reading one shlok from the Bhagavad Gita every morning. I try. I can’t tell you I understand it. Yet I came back the next day to read one more. I just get a feeling of the immense power of the story being narrated by Krishna. What is the Bhagavad Gita about? Can one try and summarise it? The first two words of the Bhagavad Gita gives the answer. I urge you to check the first two words. I discovered this when I walked into a discourse at a temple as I waited for a friend’s wedding to start. I am a wee bit embarrassed to admit that it was a foreigner who was speaking and taught me this.

Now, the second book. For those into writing – The Copy Book is a good guide to forming your own style. It lets you peep into the minds of some of the finest advertising writers. You’ll get all the inputs you seek to form your own thinking and writing style. I read a lot of crime fiction. Maybe it is my latent desire to bump off a few people.

BIO:

Rated by Economic Times Brand Equity as one of the twenty hottest Creative Directors. Won over 45 international and national awards. Worked with Ogilvy, Grey Worldwide, and JWT (Last post held - VP and Executive Creative Director) on brands like Ford, Arrow, Levi’s, Titan, Britannia, and MTR.


Started Why Axis in 2005. Jury member at New York Festivals, Jury at Ad Club award shows, and former Secretary of the Advertising Club of Bangalore. Guest faculty and speaker at PG institutes and communication seminars. Why Axis is a 20-member team and works across India, the Middle East, the UK, and Africa on diverse categories.


Additional courses and certifications include the Columbia Business School Emeritus online program on Digital Marketing and Strategy, Wharton Sticky Communication online certification course, Stukent certified in social media and keyword research, content, simulation, Midjourney certification  


Interviewed by- Shreya 

Edited By- Pragya Lamba