The Toast Masters

How Amul’s hard-working admen turn headlines into hoardings

An Amul billboard in Worli, Mumbai, from April 2012 riffs on the Indian Premier League cheerleaders. COURTESY GLOBAL ADVERTISER
01 August, 2012

ALL DAY LONG, Rahul daCunha has been fretting over Oscar Pistorius and the Higgs Boson. He was fretting over them at home in the morning; he fretted over them on the way to his office, in a Colaba bylane near the Taj Mahal hotel; he is fretting over them now, in his compact cabin at daCunha Communications, with its The Subject Was Roses poster and its iPad hooked up to a keyboard and mid-afternoon light filtering through the window blinds in a shade that can only be called butter yellow.

But the Higgs Boson, discovered just yesterday, has particularly flummoxed daCunha. “It stuns me. It has become such a big deal! It’s all over Twitter, all over Facebook,” he says. “It’s even in Bombay Times. Even the idiot brigade wants to read about the God particle!” This satisfies daCunha no end. “We long for this kind of thing. Otherwise, we run so much with Bollywood or sports or politics. It’s nice to have this as a change of pace.”

DaCunha is a square man—not in the sense of being uncool, but in the sense of having a square head and square shoulders, set atop a solid square torso. As the creative head of daCunha Communications, it does not frequently fall upon him to pay attention to cutting-edge particle physics. But what India pays attention to, daCunha pays attention to. Along with Manish Jhaveri and Jayant Rane—copywriter and artist respectively—daCunha creates and runs the advertising campaign for Amul butter, now in its 46th year of punning upon the daily news, of siphoning the piss right out of the Indian zeitgeist. During this week in early July, that zeitgeist happens to revolve around a mass-imparting elementary particle and a disabled South African athlete who qualified to run in the Olympics.

“So, right now, we’re thinking of the Amul girl being the scientist, and the tagline having something to do with God’s particles,” daCunha says. He is wearing a powder-blue shirt, olive slacks and sandals; a small gold stud glints in his right ear. He doesn’t sit down; he merely leans against the back of his chair and thinks out loud. There’s no one else in the room but me. “And then with Pistorius, we’re in the Bread Runner zone, taking off on Blade Runner. I see him taking off in a relay race, taking the baton from the Amul girl. Except that the baton is really a pack of butter.”

Today is a fun day, by daCunha’s standards: “This morning, there were three topics screaming out at us.” The third one—Akhilesh Yadav, who had promised Uttar Pradesh’s legislators that they could use state funds to buy cars—lost its shine when Yadav recanted. (“If he hadn’t taken back his decision, we may have done it. What a wimp!”) The preliminary conversation between daCunha and Jhaveri, about the topics du jour, has already happened. “We talked at 8 am in our respective homes, sitting on the pot,” daCunha says. “In the mornings, he’s trying to get his kid to school, poor chap. He says, ‘I’ll call you back at 9:02.’ Every day this happens.” Jhaveri has now, at 2 pm, emailed in a longlist of possible taglines for both campaigns. Just outside daCunha’s cabin, Rane has begun art mock-ups: rough sketches in mechanical pencil on A4 sheets, aided by a Mid Day photograph of Pistorius and Shutterstock printouts of relay races. If there is a midpoint to the genesis of an Amul campaign, this is it.

DaCunha’s father Sylvester—Sylvie to friends—first bagged the Amul account in 1966, 10 years after the butter hit the market. At the time, as Sylvester daCunha recounts in a new book titled Amul’s India, the company’s drab promotional material was “like a lantern lecture to an indifferent audience”. Amul’s old slogan, “Purely the Best”, was first overhauled by his wife Nisha, who suggested “Utterly Amul”, and then embellished by Sylvester, who sandwiched an ungrammatical “Butterly” in between. An art director named Eustace Fernandes then came up with the Amul girl, with her polka-spotted frock and ribbon, her agate-blue hair and her shocked-open eyes. In the first-ever hoarding, the tyke kneels in prayer, wearing a nightgown, one eye shut and her tongue licking her lips: “Give us this day our daily bread: with Amul Butter.” In Amul’s India, the advertising maven Alyque Padamsee recalls that “the first butter we ate in Bombay was Polson butter, and we all loved it.” Six months after the daCunha hoardings began to hover over the city, “Amul became a major brand in Bombay and the Polson family quietly faded away!” Roughly nine out of every 10 packs of butter sold in India feature the Amul girl, coquettishly offering up a golden piece of toast.

Amul’s advertising started reacting to the news early on. During one Bombay horse-racing season in the late 1960s, a jockey on a horse brandished a slice of buttered toast, under the tagline “Thoroughbread”. Other billboards took digs at hartals in Calcutta and at the Hare Krishna movement. When Sylvester daCunha realised that this could be a permanent vein of advertising, he asked Amul for permission to run campaigns without getting its approval for every individual billboard. Verghese Kurien, then the head of Amul, acceded, although he added one rider: “If you get into trouble because of your ads, be prepared to face the music by yourself.” That liberal mandate has not dissipated over time. “I have gotten spoiled by my client,” Rahul daCunha says. “All they say is, ‘Do what you need to do. Don’t get us into trouble, and don’t get thrown into jail.’”


What has changed, and dramatically, is the pace of work. In Sylvester daCunha’s time, a new hoarding went up every two weeks. Today, Rahul daCunha and his colleagues find themselves thinking up five new taglines a week, exchanging all their ideas over phone calls, text messages and email. (The three are rarely in the same room at the same time; in seeking a Mad Men-style creative meeting, fuelled by bourbon and testosterone, I was sorely disappointed.) The Friday before I visited daCunha—“the day Mehdi Hassan died”—Amul had released four fresh campaigns, targeted at different parts of India. Last year, daCunha and Jhaveri thought up 120 billboard ideas; as of this July, he has already completed 80. Partly, as is true of so much else, this frenetic pace is Facebook’s fault. “We can release a new campaign almost every day on Facebook and have it go viral,” daCunha says. Partly, it is that vinyl hoardings—in nearly 100 sites around India—can be printed up and mounted far more quickly today, compared to “sending a banda [fellow] up a ladder with a pot of paint”.

But there is also a new arrhythmia to India’s pulse that daCunha has detected over the past year or two: an acceleration of sentiment, a heightened sensitivity. “Small things snowball very fast now, don’t you think? Things are coming to a head. We’re getting angrier faster,” he says. “We’re paying taxes and they’re not going anywhere. Corruption is at unheard-of levels. Four chief ministers are involved in this Adarsh scam! I mean, what the fuck? You can see it every day. Everything is a controversy.” Having been cast as social commentator, the Amul moppet now finds herself imprisoned by the need to respond to everything around her. “A quarrel between Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi would never have mattered ten years ago. Why so much now?”

These days, daCunha must decide on his taglines and sort out his art by mid-evening, so that the final creative can be emailed out to contractors—and uploaded simultaneously on Facebook—by 7 pm. The next day, the cycle will begin anew. DaCunha Communications works with some other clients—NDB Bearings and Camlin, for instance—but Amul, whose products account for roughly 35-40 percent of the agency’s billings, is its biggest client. “Some 60 percent of my time every day is now spent just on Amul hoardings. It’s tiring, because your mind is constantly working at this,” daCunha says. “You know, I try and write plays and do other things. There were days when I could kick off and go home, write a play, drink some Scotch. Not anymore. My life is fucked, yaar.”

This week has been especially manic. On Monday, there was Spider-Man, a rather enervated idea bearing the tagline “Amazing Spidermakhan!” and the baseline “Amul Spreads its web”; nonetheless, on Facebook, 3,774 people liked this. On Tuesday, in tribute to Spain’s victory in the Euro Cup, there was “La Roja jaaneman”—recalling an AR Rahman song from 1992—and the nifty “Spanish Buttermada” below. Yesterday, riffing on the myriad corruptions of the Adarsh housing society scam, was “Dosh Dosh na raha?”—a tweak of the 1964 song title ‘Dost Dost Na Raha’ from Sangam—along with “Adarsh butter”. Then came this double-barrelled Thursday.

Manish Jhaveri spent the first half of Thursday mulling over tagline candidates. “Not concentrated time, you understand. But the topic will be at the back of my head as I do other things—as I drop my daughter at school, listen to music, things like that,” he says when I meet him the following week. Outside our café, which adjoins Shivaji Park, the rain tumbles out of the skies with gusto. “If I have a particularly severe case of writer’s block, I’ll put on some Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Suddenly you hear a torrent of beautiful words, and something clicks.”

He first toyed with the idea of substituting “bhojan”—or “meal”—for “boson”, but then figured that the phrase “God particle” was better-known than “Higgs Boson”. “Good particle? Food particle?” he says, reconstructing his chain of thought. “Maybe a particle of Amul?” For Oscar Pistorius, Jhaveri saw “Bread Runner” instantly, but daCunha called him late in the day to suggest: “Maybe we should assume that not everyone will know he’s called Blade Runner? Maybe we should move that to the baseline.” Another choice, “Maska Pistorius”, was dropped because Jhaveri and daCunha had already substituted “Maska” for “Oscar” in an Academy Awards billboard in 2005. “Sometimes even we forget what we have already done,” Jhaveri says. “Sometimes we feel a strong sense of déjà vu.”

It happened once that, during a morning of ideation, Jhaveri asked daCunha, “Haven’t we done this line before?” DaCunha thought not. Then, later that evening, when the art had been completed and the image was nearly ready to be sent out, daCunha called Jhaveri back and said, “I think you’re right. I think we’re repeating the line.” The campaign was pulled at the very last minute.

“Which campaign was that?” I ask.

An awkward pause ensues. “You know,” Jhaveri says, “I don’t even remember that now.”

Jhaveri, a genial man with a thick shag of hair, joined daCunha Communications in 1994 and began working on Amul in 1995, two years after Rahul daCunha and seven years after Rane. “The first one I did was when Mike Tyson was released from prison, after that rape charge. So the line was ‘A Bout Time, Mike’,” Jhaveri says. Then he chuckles. “That got a lot of protest from women’s groups, who claimed we were supporting Tyson.” At different points in the 1990s, both Jhaveri and Rane quit daCunha Communications to freelance, but they continued to work on the Amul account.

Almost from the very beginning, Amul’s taglines struck upon its signature tone of gentle mischief, their satire always stripped of real bite. “She’s not edgy. She’s more Bill Cosby than Chris Rock,” Jhaveri says. He relies almost exclusively on the pun as the engine of his campaigns because, as he points out, it is the most accessible form of humour. “I mean look, there isn’t a hope in hell that all of these millions of people will understand a particular tagline. But as long as most of them get it, that’s good enough.”

Every hoarding, daCunha says, is a navigation—an exercise in determining where in the anatomy of this country its funny bone lies. “As Indians, we really don’t have a sense of humour anymore,” he says. “So we won’t take on the Shiv Sena or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or any right-wingers. Nothing good, nothing bad—we just won’t say anything about them. When Mamata Banerjee had that guy arrested for forwarding a cartoon, we were all ready to put up our ‘Kolkatoon’ hoarding in Kolkata. Then we were advised, ‘Don’t do it. She’s mad enough to ban Amul products in the state entirely.’ So it went everywhere else in India but not in Kolkata. That’s where the brand kicks in and our social commentary must take a back seat.”


The potential to provoke unhappy reactions, as daCunha and his team have discovered, is vast and often unexpected. Last July, well after Suresh Kalmadi was sent to prison and when he was diagnosed with dementia, Amul released a campaign showing him in prison, tattooed and confused like the hero in Ghajini. (“Hmmm... maine kya khaya?” the tagline read: “What did I eat?”) “I mean, here he is being ostracised by his own party. The dude is already in jail!” daCunha says. “In Pune, though, some of his guys filed a police complaint. The police refused to take it down. So these guys climbed on each other’s shoulders and ripped the vinyl off.”

This hair-trigger balance of political sensitivity is further complicated by the calculus of geographical specificity; Amul owns the Guinness record for the longest-running outdoor advertising campaign, but it is also the most nimble and fine-grained campaign running in this country. Nominally, daCunha divides India up into the north, the east, the south and Mumbai, frequently creating campaigns unique to each zone. (“Not Delhi, though. Ten years ago, they banned hoardings in Delhi, and now we only have a damn unipole somewhere in Noida.”) The quest to find a single topic that can strike a chord across India is, daCunha says, increasingly a quixotic one. “I’m not sure there are too many pan-national issues anymore,” he says. “A dig about the BMC’s [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s] potholes can be more relevant to people here than anything about the God particle.”

With Amul’s 10 hoarding sites in Mumbai, daCunha gets even more persnickety. “Adarsh went up yesterday, so we need to give that a day and a half to sink in,” he says. “So the God particle campaign will go out to most of India tonight, but it’ll go up in Bombay only after Adarsh comes down.” Once he knows his final taglines—“Every Particle’s God Sent!” and “Pistorius makes Historius!”—he will slice and dice Mumbai by suburb. In Andheri, he reasons, Oscar Pistorius may not be too relevant; but there are many science coaching centres there, which will bump up the appeal of the Higgs Boson hoarding. In Khar and Bandra, sports-themed billboards seem to work better, so daCunha will send the Pistorius creative to these localities. In Dadar, the heart of Marathi political thought, “I may actually leave Adarsh up for a couple of days more.”


Perhaps uniquely in the history of advertising, these decisions are left to the discretion of the agency. “We handle a few of their other products—cheese, dahi, things like that—so with those we go up to Amul once a month or so,” daCunha says. “And with the butter, there’s constant chat about marketing strategy and so on.” But on the creative front, Amul leaves daCunha Communications entirely alone. “That’s a big thing! So when some other client comes in, going, ‘Change this line, change that line’—I mean, I don’t need that, yaar,” daCunha says. “Which is why we can do so many campaigns so fast. The good thing and the bad thing about this moment in history is, people have all now got the attention span of a fly. Which is terrible, in a way. But it’s so great for us.”