Creative Licence

A crisis of confidence hits the Indian advertising industry

India’s advertising talent partying at Goafest’s annual rain dance, which is only slightly less anticipated than the award show itself. ROHIT CHAWLA
01 May, 2013

JUST AS LARGE PARTS OF HUMANITY organise their lives around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, men and women in the Indian advertising business are guided by their own celestial events: Cannes Lions, The One Show, The CLIO Awards, the Design and Art Direction Awards, and, closer to home, Goafest. These are advertising’s most anticipated award ceremonies, at which creatives—the people who dream up advertisements—compete for career-defining recognition; to have a winning campaign at one of these shows is not only to have your ingenuity recognised, but also to raise yourself, and your advertising agency, above the fray.

The domestic festival, Goafest, gives Indian creatives their greatest chance at leaving with metal. There are fewer competing agencies and fewer campaigns, and the awards are not fought over by the world’s brightest advertising minds, but merely by this region’s. Still, the competition can be formidable, and repeated failure can leave a man sour. During an awards show at a suburban Mumbai hotel some years ago, I watched an art director on an impressive losing streak drown his sorrows at the bar, and then stand by the side of the dance floor, shaking his fist at the winners.

At this year’s Goafest, held in early April at a resort on the state’s southern coast, all the talk was about one man. “I’ve heard Bobby Pawar is here,” an executive from Carat, a media agency, said at his breakfast table. Behind him, the grounds of the Zuri White Sands hotel were splattered with logos and promotions for Disney, UTV and Colors—the industry’s advertisers were being advertised to. “Someone told me he was here,” a creative director said conspiratorially between bites of his breakfast. “I heard from someone that he’s attending the festival,” a third man added. The executive shrugged. “We might have heard it from the same person,” he said. Then he glanced over my shoulder to the top of a staircase that descended into the dining area, and quickly lowered his gaze. “He’s here.” The talk of the advertising industry for the previous few weeks was sauntering down the stairs to the buffet. He walked a vacation walk in vacation clothes—ironed blue shorts, a ruffled blue shirt, glistening blue loafers—and didn’t acknowledge the stares.

Bobby Pawar, sporting a cheetah print shirt, takes in this year’s Goafest award show from the front row. ROHIT CHAWLA

On 26 March, two weeks before the award show and only 14 months after his appointment, Pawar was abruptly forced to resign his post as chief creative officer for India at JWT, one of the world’s largest, and oldest, advertising agencies. In the year or so that he had been in charge of advertising content at the agency, Pawar had overseen the creation of campaigns for some of JWT’s most important clients, including Nike, Nokia and Pepsi. In mid March, however, three soon-to-be infamous advertisements for a Ford hatchback called the Figo were uploaded to the online showcase Ads of the World. They were produced by Blue Hive, a relatively small advertising agency, created to serve the Indian portion of JWT’s $2 billion global Ford account, that worked out of JWT’s offices. (JWT and Blue Hive are two of the 333 companies owned by the global advertising and public relations conglomerate WPP, the annual revenues of which touched Rs 85,700 crore [Rs 857 billion] last year.) The print advertisements boasted about the small car’s generous boot space by depicting three shackled hostages sprawled in the trunk, a happy driver in the front seat, and, opposite the Ford logo, the tagline “Leave your worries behind.” In one ad, three bound and gagged Kardashian sisters were in the custody of Paris Hilton. In another, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi smiled and flashed a two-fingered V-for-victory sign from the driver’s seat of a candy-apple red Figo, while three comically exposed bunga-bunga party participants with ball gags in their mouths—one, dressed in a skimpy schoolgirl uniform, sheds a single milk-white tear—lay bound hand-and-foot at the back. The third advertisement had an all-male cast. Who uploaded the creative campaign remains unknown.

Every so often, a creative director’s wish is fulfilled, and an ad goes viral; sometimes, however, an ad goes viral, and a creative director’s nightmare comes true. At 7.40 on the evening of 20 March, Ads of the World posted links to the Figo advertisements in three short tweets. Sixty-five minutes later, an advertising consultant who saw them wrote on Twitter, “Given India’s problem with rape culture, maybe JWT New Delhi should have re-thought this.” The next day, the American website Business Insider reported: “India is known for its politically incorrect advertising—Hitler shows up in ads there on a regular basis. It is possible that JWT India was trying to make a joke about Western culture rather than the role of women in society—although either way it’s tasteless.” The piece concluded with a lament: “What were they thinking?”

A day later, another piece published by Business Insider linked the ads to the December gang rape in Delhi: “The ads came during a period in which the country was rocked by several gang rapes, sparking women’s rights protests.” Four hours and 16 minutes after that second story went online, the advertisements appeared on the popular meme-harvesting website Buzzfeed, where they have since been viewed almost 200,000 times. The Associated Press then published a story about the advertisements that was carried in local papers as far away as Spokane, a small city in Washington, USA. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times all followed suit.

The response to the advertisements was largely an angry one. “I am also always ready for a good laugh; safe and boring work pisses me off,” the columnist Anil Thakraney wrote on MxM India, a media and marketing news website. “But to create a campaign where women are projected as ‘mobile commodity’ is being totally insensitive to the gruesome rapes that keep happening every other day in India, often inside moving vehicles, AND THAT IS NOT FUNNY.” The journalist Namita Bhandare wrote in the Hindustan Times, “What we need are more instances of slap-downs to silly men and their idea of ‘creative license’.” Online, a boycott of Ford cars was urged—an idea that found immediate support.

THE CREATORS OF THE FIGO advertisements hadn’t anticipated this outcry; in fact, they may not have expected much of a public response at all. The ads were not made to sell cars or catch consumers’ attention. They were never meant to appear on billboards or in magazines. Instead, they were what industry insiders call scam ads—work produced for the sole purpose of garnering plaudits from colleagues and competitors, and winning awards at events such as Goafest, for which these advertisements were specifically created.

In order to be eligible for awards, advertisements must have appeared in the public domain, but agencies often get around this by placing advertisements in obscure magazines with pitiful circulations, or on late-night local television and radio shows. They also need sign-off from the client, as was the case with the Figo advertisements: Ford had not commissioned the work, but they had approved its submission to Goafest. Vijay Simha Vellanki, the creative director at Blue Hive who signed off on the ads, was described by the Carat executive, his former colleague, as a man whose “primary purpose is to get recognised”. It wasn’t meant as a slight.

When word of the advertisements spread, so did the damage. “Not only did we see complaints from owners on our Facebook pages and directed to us on Twitter, indicating that they would not be buying a Ford vehicle again, we also fielded calls in our customer service unit from disgruntled customers expressing dismay in Ford, expressing their disgust and indicating they had bought their last Ford,” Scott Monty, the head of the automaker’s social media division, later wrote. Individual investors also emailed Ford to say they intended to sell their company shares. On 22 March, two days after links to the advertisements were first posted on Twitter, Ford issued a formal apology: “We deeply regret this incident and agree with our agency partners that it should have never happened. The posters are contrary to the standards of professionalism and decency within Ford and our agency partners.” (On the same day, WPP issued an apology to similar effect.) “As one person who was on the front lines for this, I can tell you that Ford’s reputation was damaged over the course of the last couple of weeks,” Monty said.

As the news unfolded, there were calls in the advertising business for an industry-wide introspection over the blight of scam advertisements. Thakraney lobbied for a Rs 25 lakh [Rs 2.5 million] fine. “The world’s second oldest profession isn’t generally respected by the masses,” he wrote. “And that can be corrected a bit by passing on the amount collected as fines to charity organizations. The ad world gets a positive name, and the threat of monetary loss will deter many potential scamsters.” Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, a media columnist for the Mumbai daily Mid Day, later wrote, “It seems funny at one level. These are grown up men and women, professionals in a creative field who are so desperate for the Abby or Gold Lion, that they don’t mind winning it for something they haven’t done. This is no different from athletes who take drugs to win a game they would not otherwise have won.”

The reaction outside the walls of marketing and advertising raised more alarming questions, about the extent to which agencies were out of touch with their audiences and with society at large. “Marketing used to lead the behavioural trends of people,” Ravi Kiran, the former CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group, a media buying agency, told me. “Now they follow.” (Kiran had left advertising to become an investor in early-stage start-ups. “If I don’t learn something new every 15 minutes, I get paranoid,” he said.) Bhandare went further: stereotype-perpetuating ads, she wrote, were “indicative of a mind out of sync with social realities in India”.

Although the Figo ads’ misogyny was the most worrying sign of this disconnect, it was compounded by a failure to grasp the power of the internet and social media. The Blue Hive creatives made advertisements that were not for public consumption and, unmindful of the larger issues at stake, made them public anyway. As soon as the advertisements were put on the internet, they were no longer restricted to the scrutiny of peers behind closed doors. They were just that: on the internet. “Sometimes we’re so close to our work and so blinded by it, that we don’t think it will be taken so seriously,” a creative director at one of India’s largest branding agencies told me. “I think, as creators, we get caught in our own head space.” Another Goafest attendee took a somewhat dimmer view of the creators who make ads: “They’re like babies.”

The Figo incident also highlighted how quickly a global brand could be affected by an unsolicited idea bearing its name. In eras past, the lure of many brands had largely been a trick of advertising agencies’ creative legerdemain; the qualities that differentiated one product from another were often clever fictions created by admen. Now, perceptions of those brands were no longer solely controlled by advertisers or their agencies. “A brand is an experience today,” the branding agency creative director told me. “We can put a brand out there, but it has become very democratic. Of course, the brands realise how susceptible they are to negative feedback. They’re petrified of it.” When the Figo trouble erupted, Pawar reportedly withdrew the advertisements, which bore his and Vellanki’s names, from contention at Goafest. JWT asked Ads of the World to take the advertisements down, and they complied. But the work was already in the public domain, and had been seen across the world. It didn’t matter that the Ford Figo was, by most accounts, an attractive purchase. Its name, for a brief while, became synonymous with kidnappings and misogyny—not the most appealing selling points to Ford’s target audience. Within days, Pawar and Vellanki, the campaign’s official creative directors, were forced to resign, along with an employee from Ford. Business Standard reported that the advertisements’ copywriter, Binoy S Sarkar, and their art director, Supriya Berry, had also departed.

Almost as rapidly as the Figo advertisements circled the globe, damaged Ford’s reputation, and led to Pawar’s ouster, another narrative emerged within the advertising industry: Pawar had been unfairly treated. The business heads of JWT, it was said within the industry, were also to blame. “The suits”—as non-creatives at advertising agencies, including company heads and client-facing account executives, are widely known—“are beneficiaries of successful scam ads,” Anant Rangaswami, the former editor of trade magazine Campaign India, and now editor of the CNBC-TV18 show Storyboard, told me. The cost of admission at award shows, which charge competitors per entry, is large enough to have its own heading (let alone line item) in many companies’ budgets. At Goafest, the minimum price for each entry was Rs 5,618. At Cannes, the cost of submission to the least expensive category is approximately Rs 30,000. The exorbitant entry fees mean that scam ads are “a rich man’s game”, Rangaswami said. “It’s a cost that travels to the head office.” The ads, he added, aren’t simply the products of creative aspiration; they play an important part in agencies’ larger strategic endeavours, helping them to differentiate themselves from competitors and win business.

This was the case at JWT. “Responsibility can’t lie with one department alone,” a former high-ranking JWT employee told me. “Bobby was hired to get awards.”

OVER BREAKFAST AT THE ZURI WHITE SANDS, Pawar talked to a riveted audience about the purported merits of the as yet non-existent iPhone 6. “It has got a screen on both sides, and there will be no buttons at all,” he said with utter certainty. At one point, his recent boss, Colvyn Harris, the CEO of JWT South Asia, walked over from the next table and stood by Pawar’s shoulder, munching banana bread. (Many people thought Harris had failed to stand up for Pawar during the Figo controversy.) Pawar didn’t say anything. Harris walked away, chewing his last bite of banana bread 30 times before swallowing it.

Young creatives lounge on the grounds of the Zuri White Sands resort during a break in festivities. Goafest can be a career-defining experience for young creatives, and is their best chance to bring home a trophy. ROHIT CHAWLA

Talk at the table then turned to the Figo campaign. “I got so many calls,” Pawar said to a man sitting at his table. “It was done by a separate agency called Blue Hive. They don’t report to me.” Another man, across from Pawar, replied: “I didn’t think it was going to cause the kind of problems it did.”

The controversy created by the Figo campaign had, however, brought intense scrutiny to the advertising industry at a moment when creatives and suits alike were concerned about the future of their business. Not only were many agencies unable to keep pace with the social mores and technological trends that had fuelled the controversy, but the industry as a whole was also facing something of a crisis of confidence in the value of its creative work.

This insecurity was in many ways the result of a period of dramatic change within the Indian advertising industry, a period in which Pawar’s career also unfolded. Pawar first joined the Tara Sinha McCann Erickson agency as a copywriter in 1992, a year after economic liberalisation kick-started what would become over a decade of rapid growth in the Indian economy. It was a prosperous time for agencies, which then operated as full-service companies that helped clients decide where and how to advertise their products, along with creating the advertisements themselves. They earned a healthy chunk of clients’ advertising budgets—about 15 percent—for their work. “We used to joke that it was a rate set by god,” a former senior writer at agency Trikaya Grey told me. With total spend by advertisers in 1995 at around Rs 4500 crore [Rs 45 billion], the agencies’ cut quickly added up.

Generous fees, coupled with a steady stream of work from companies thriving in the new economy, meant that the relatively small number of agencies operating at the time were free to create work that they believed in and enjoyed; the culture at the very best agencies ensured that an advertising job, especially on the creative side, didn’t feel like work. “Agencies were far more fun then because they were home-grown businesses with charismatic leaders,” a senior creative director, who had recently resigned from a large agency, told me.

At the same time as the creative culture was flourishing at domestic agencies, the burgeoning economy meant that competition between businesses, and the companies creating their advertisements, was ramping up. Multinational media and advertising conglomerates seized on the Indian opportunity, and started acquiring home-grown agencies and assimilating them into their massive networks. (Today, eight of the top 10 Indian agencies by billings are owned by international conglomerates such as WPP and Omnicom.)

In 1995, Pawar joined the Mumbai offices of the New York-headquartered WPP agency Ogilvy. Here, his work came to the attention of Neil French, a former matador and sometime manager for Judas Priest, who was then a high-ranking writer within the agency. French began to mentor Pawar, who soon became creative director. Then, in 2000, Pawar left India to join Ogilvy in New York. (The employee handbook there, according to the advertising industry website afaqs!, contained “30-odd pages on sexual harassment”.)

While Pawar was in the US, advertising firms at home began to undergo a structural transformation. Between 1995 and 2001, the industry’s revenues nearly doubled, to Rs 9000 crore [Rs 90 billion]. To better manage the complexities of this growing market, the people who made and sold advertisements were separated from the people who bought the space in various media channels—television, print, radio, etc.—into which those advertisements were placed. Creative advertising and media buying became sequestered in separate companies, with media buyers taking the lion’s share of clients’ advertising budgets. Nitin Jain, a former high-ranking executive at JWT, likened the split to finding yourself without an arm. “When we were integrated, we used to sit and discuss a client from various points of view,” he told me. “But in a network there are many divisions. Creatives and non-creatives work in separate silos.”

Part of the logic for this shift was the proliferation of media channels that followed liberalisation. Whereas there was a single national television station before 1991, for example, by 2006, there were over 50. “Earlier, the client servicing person was in control,” Jain said. “They had to execute two strategies: creative and planning”, while the creatives just got on with making ads. With the multiplication of channels, Jain said, “the stakes increased. Client servicing couldn’t comprehend it. They didn’t have an in-depth point of view.” Before this, creatives “didn’t have the scourge of media planners, and research was something you did as an add-on for advertising, not a substitute,” French told The Hindu in 2011. Now, he said, suits “think they’re the client.”

THE TREMENDOUS SIGNIFICANCE Indian creatives ascribe to award shows such as Goafest, and the scam ads they produce for awards, are in many ways a product of this intensifying competition between agencies, and the segregation of business functions within large advertising networks, that took hold in India around the new millennium. “Somewhere around 2000, advertising went through a really bad time,” the former senior writer told me. “A whole bunch of agencies started bargaining, and the 15 percent commission became smaller.” Those dwindling commissions were now split between media-buying agencies that handled strategy and planning, and creative agencies. This made the urgency of differentiating one’s agency from its competitors, and thereby winning more business, even more acute. “A herd mentality to be bigger than the next guy” took hold among creative agencies, Jain said. All that creative agencies could be judged by, however, was the quality of their output. “Since it’s the only proof that one agency is better than the other, every multinational wants to prove they’re the best,” Amit Akali, the national creative director at Grey, told me. “Creativity is so subjective that awards are the only benchmark.”

A Goafest reveler in full regalia. ROHIT CHAWLA

Brand managers from client companies also began demanding award-winning advertising. This was a view I heard frequently. “I know a lot of brand managers who would die for the brand,” Jain said, in all seriousness. “They would die of thirst, but not drink from a competing brand.” It sounded like a sad way to go. “But now it’s about self-glory,” Jain continued. “It’s about ‘look at how many awards I’ve won for the brand.’”

The work that differentiated agencies and won awards, however, was not necessarily the same work that clients eventually bought; when it came to paying for a campaign, as opposed to engaging an agency, advertisers tended to be far more conservative in their tastes, and client services teams within agencies pushed creatives to produce what creatives saw as relatively boring, client-friendly ads. “Clients rarely let them express their creativity,” the senior creative director said.

“There are more people now, and more people creates further hierarchies,” he added, reflecting on the changing structure of the industry. “So there are more people to please. It’s hard for good work to survive.”

All this made the acclaim on offer at award shows highly alluring for creatives. But the tepid ads that clients buy garner few trophies. “How it works is while you’re doing the drudgery of the client day in and day out, at the same time you want to be in the limelight,” Vidhu Sagar, the executive vice president at Carat, told me. “So you want to do something bizarre, something outstanding, something extraordinary. People come to advertising to do exciting things.” Karan Rawat, the executive creative director of Umbrella Design told me that “suits don’t know how to sell” good work to clients, and that the lack of satisfying work produced during the year meant that, as a creative, “you need to do your own masturbation.” (Rawat won Goafest’s highest creative award this year for a campaign that he had done at Grey, on behalf of jeans brand Killer Denims. The client had been persuaded to dye the inside of their pants green in the hopes that consumers would roll up the cuffs as a sign they had “gone green”.) Artists, after all, needed an outlet for their frustrations, and scam ads were simply a way of showing people what they were capable of.

“It started with a visit by French [the former matador],” Rangaswami told me. “He told Ogilvy and Piyush”—Piyush Pandey, now the executive chairman of Ogilvy & Mather India—“that this was the kind of stuff you needed to do to win awards internationally. And Piyush created this ad that won gold for the cancer patients association, the one with the Marlboro man standing over the dead horse. It was the first Indian scam win. Depending on who you talk to, they will call it a scam—or they’ll call it proactive.”

While the culture of scam ads took hold in India, Pawar rose to prominence at Ogilvy in New York. Then, in 2007, after a three-year stint at another US agency headquartered in Chicago, where he became senior creative director, Pawar returned to India to become the national creative head at the advertising agency Mudra. The agency had failed to win a single trophy at the Ad Club Awards earlier that year, but Pawar’s appointment galvanised it: he and his team won 13 awards at the same festival the following year, and won twice that number in 2009. Eventually, he was brought on to have a similar effect at JWT.

“NO BRANDS, people or personalities were harmed in the making of these ads,” a senior copywriter wrote on Facebook four days after Pawar resigned. “Some animals however, were offended. And a top-notch creative mind paid the price. Well done Ford, well done WPP and well done JWT. What a crock of shit!” The response was typical of those given by many creatives, who were angry about Pawar’s dismissal. Yes, one of the finest communicators in the communication business had let through a questionable piece of work, they admitted, but the blame really belonged with the suits, or with society at large. Niranjan Kaushik, the founder of Acid Brand Communications, wrote: “Who goes to bed hungry because someone did a scam ad? How is that harmful to the world?”

“Everybody has their 15 minutes of fame 24/7 thanks to social media,” one creative director said, referring to people who had publicly objected to the Figo advertisements. “Instead of filling the internet with more garbage, why don’t you do something constructive?”

“It’s a little strange to me,” Rawat, the Umbrella Design creative director, told me. “We’re not showing people raping people, no? How did people connect that rape to this chindi [runty] ad?”

The people I spoke to in the industry saw the Ford Figo advertisements through the prism of scam ads and agency dynamics, and some attributed the controversy to cultural differences. “What we found funny, other people found offensive,” the senior creative director said. “How is it different from what we’re really like? We crack these jokes, no? If they heard north Indian jokes, they would be disgusted.” Not a single industry insider I spoke with took moral issue with the advertisements.

I asked creatives if advertising had adapted to the new public feedback mechanisms, especially social media, that had torpedoed the Figo ads. “Only two percent of people are online,” the branding agency creative director told me, ignoring the fact that, in a connected world, distant cultures outrage on behalf of one another. Trouble could come from anywhere. “The internet caught up with us,” the senior creative director said. “It shows how powerful digital is,” Rawat told me. “The controversy arose in the West and came here. You can’t take it for granted. This is going to change things.”

“This part they’ve not been able to reconcile,” Kiran, the former CEO of Starcom MediaVest, told me at a hotel near his home in central Mumbai. “What matters more? Peer recognition? Or real-world recognition? The notion of peer recognition is something that needs to be looked at.”

Real-world recognition, as Kiran defined it, was driven by new technology. Responses to work came immediately. I asked Kiran how important Indian advertising agencies thought it was to adapt to this fact. Not very, he replied. “There was a time when advertising was pop culture. Now Google understands human behaviour far better than Ogilvy does.” The creative director said, “Agencies have remained the same. Nobody’s tried to change it. If you look at agencies in the West, they’re bringing in activation guys, content people as part of the solutions team. Not here.”

“The days of creating in an ivory tower are gone,” the branding agency creative director told me. “Agencies are so caught up with awards that they’re not thinking about the brand.”

In their focus on awards, agencies are in danger of losing their grip on the lucrative, and still relatively young, Indian advertising market. (Advertising accounts in the country are now estimated to be worth about Rs 36,200 crore [Rs 362 billion]—only slightly more than all advertising spends in the US in 1949.) Technology companies were getting into advertising, Kiran told me. So why weren’t advertising agencies thinking like technology companies? He mentioned a tech startup, in which he was considering investing, that had a product that he thought could potentially revolutionise television ads. (He likened it to the music-discovery application Shazam.) Advertisers, he believed, were going to love it. “It makes television advertising interactive,” he said. “An advertising agency should have thought of that.”

But the industry has simply not kept up. “It’s in transition,” Manish Bhatt, the founder of advertising agency Scarecrow Communications, told me. “The talent’s not ready yet.”

AFTER BREAKFAST AT THE RESORT IN GOA, there was a talk by Swami Sukhabodhananda, a stand-up comic spiritual man known as “Corporate Guru”, whose books are titled Oh, Mind Relax Please! and Oh, Life Relax Please! For nearly an hour, Corporate Guru urged advertisers to think outside the box: “The box is what you know. You are trapped in your own box. Thought has a place, but don’t over-place thought.” Snapping his fingers at the rapt audience, he said, “If you keep your mind calm, you can intuit.” Later still: “Listen to the message uncertainty is telling you.” He also delivered an extended gag about fish and homosexuals, which advertising’s finest minds found extraordinarily funny. They laughed with him, and he praised them because they laughed. At the end of his talk, he received a standing ovation.

Raver-ballerinas in gold-sequined outfits get the party started near the rain-dance platform at this year’s Goafest. ROHIT CHAWLA

Soon matters of the mind were put aside for physical pleasures. A short walk up from the talk was the rain dance arena, where three rows of elevated bathroom showerheads drenched the spiky-haired, Honey Singh-loving future of advertising. Like all empty dance floors, this one filled slowly at first, and then so quickly that, within half an hour, the wet crowd threatened to spill off the platform’s edges. Two lithe dancers who looked eastern European, and were dressed in sequined bikini tops and skirts, appeared with golden pompoms to perform a rave-ballet. Men whipped out their mobile phones. The rain dance, an annual feature only slightly less significant than the awards themselves, was like MTV Grind, except with gentlemen wearing Mickey Mouse hats and doing the bhangra. The air tasted of beer.

Later, when the withering heat had dissipated and night fell, the festival guests strode past the tents and the showerheads and all the other distractions to the business end of the resort, where there loomed a giant stage on which the award show was about to begin. This year, two large agencies, Ogilvy and Lowe, weren’t competing. Lowe had often declined to compete; Ogilvy, for its part, decided not to participate citing a lack of worthy competition. (For the three years before this one, Ogilvy had collected 124 awards at Goafest. Mudra, with 95, had the next highest tally.) There was word that at least one agency would turn up in all black uniforms as Ogilvy had done for years.

The agency turned out to be Scarecrow, which swept the first part of the radio category so thoroughly that they sat on the stage steps between announcements. Its radio commercials for musical doorbells were takes on popular Hindi film songs. A dapper marketing executive for the Birla Group, who had earlier chastised a reporter from Business Standard for breaking a news embargo, sat in the front row slapping his thigh enthusiastically as the jingles played.

The advertisements at the festival were better than anything I had recently seen in the papers or heard on the radio. This was as good as it got. Many were so unusual, and so funny, that they came with a faint whiff of scam. (Two of the Goafest judges told me that scams happened in practically every category besides film. A jury member for radio commercials said that the lengthiest ads were the most suspect: “Who pays for ads that long?”) Some of the biggest cheers of the night came for a commercial that addressed social issues while advertising the quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati.

Pawar sat in the front row, smoking profusely and waving at people. During the awards for the prestigious television category, young creatives—they seemed like kids, really—from his former agency sat before the stage with brass trumpets and horns, hoping that JWT’s name would be called. When it was, the group rose, hooting and hollering, and watched with their mouths agape as a Nike commercial they had created played on a large screen. They stared at it in wonder, as if seeing it for the first time.

As his work of the previous year played above him, Pawar seemed to remain detached. But when his victorious one-time charges looked down at him from the stage and smiled, holding aloft their trophies, his face lit up. (In the end, JWT took home 12 awards.) As they descended from the platform, Pawar stood up to embrace them. Things seemed good just then, for that moment—but tomorrow would once again be uncertain.