Tuesday, January 18, 2005

It's lonely at the bottom too

As in life, in advertising the food chain is such that the strongest, most intelligent creatures are at the top. And as one moves further down the pyramid one encounters beings of varying strength and ability. As someone who has spent the better half of three years at the bottom of the food chain, I’d like to introduce you to the various individuals who had found a berth above me.

Now you’re probably wondering what exists at the bottom of an advertising food chain. Office peon? Canteen boy? Traffic controller? Wrong, wrong and wrong. I’m none of the above. For a year and a half I tried to get by the ignominy of being the agency’s junior copywriter.

That doesn’t sound so bad now does it? Everyone thinks copywriters have a great life. Lounging about on B&B Italia futons in minimalist “thinking” rooms, coming up with T.V commercials that Tarsem will make. As an idea strikes we furiously jab away at our I-books and then saunter off for a long cappuccino break. In reality, the JC is one step above the real dregs of advertising – interns. Beings that don’t even warrant an official ‘bottom of the food chain’ status. No, that wonderful title goes to the JC who bides time proofing battery care manuals and writing newsletters for The National Chicken Farmers Association. At least until the interns are promoted.

As a JC, the only people who know your name are other JCs. And the Canteen Boy. Created by Lucifer himself, canteen boys are usually village runaways who dream of making it big in the city. When their dreams don’t pan out they find themselves serving food to over-paid, failed literary geniuses and artists (copywriters and art directors). However they wield considerable power, and display this by deciding who gets tea last (usually the JC) and who is served what the stray dogs outside the agency refused to eat (ditto). This places them one step above the JC as everyone from the Chairman to the stray dogs outside the agency know the Canteen Boy’s name.


Managing Director

Administrative Head

Creative Director

Art Directors & Copy Supervisors


Canteen Boys

Junior Copywriters
Client Servicing and Interns
As you can see, Canteen Boys are preceded by the Peons. Men and women who are on Prozac for life thanks to the trauma of wearing a blue & blue uniform day in and day out. Unless smiled at or greeted on a daily basis, they’re likely to turn a deaf ear to cries for help when a rat has breathed its last in one’s desk drawer.

Next in line come those who were once at the bottom of the food chain, but managed to claw their way up. A ray of hope to every JC, Copy Sups have gotten ahead by sheer hard work, guts and the ability to forgive themselves for writing “Pickles that remind you of your mother”. Most Sups prefer to pretend they were born Sups as the trauma of remembering the past is too much. (The waiting list for lobotomies is littered with this breed)

Joining rank with the Copy Sup is the Art Director. Once a passionate painter or sculptor, the Art Director sold his/her soul to the Devil when they realised Commercial Artists didn’t need to wait for death to become famous. Art Directors get to have far more fun than their literary counterparts. While it is the writer that pens “Commercial opens on the palm fringed beaches of Hawaii”, it is the Art Director who gets to sip Pina Coladas in Waikiki and “supervise” the shoot. Bending over so that everyone gets a good look at their designer undies (and I’m talking about the men here), art directors can also be found snorting coke off agency briefs and telling clients that adding their logo to the layout would ruin its symmetry.

Apart from Sex Addicts Anonymous, an Art Director’s future lies in one place. The Creative Director’s Cabin. The CD is usually an Art Director / Copy Sup who has used up all his/her ideas and now gets paid a six figure salary to tell other people that their ideas are crap. The average CD spends this salary on expensive coffee table books (all on nude photography), overpriced watches that are hard to tell the time with and women (and sometimes men) who are magically transformed in to models after after-work “business meetings” in the conference room

While there are certain individuals in the agency who do not bow and scrape before the CD, it’s hard to find people who aren’t in awe of the Admin man. Ugly both on the outside and within, he can be found hovering near the late comers register (and you thought ad agencies were cool). With one eye on the door the other on the clock (being squint eyed is a must when applying for this post) they wait with malicious glee as one scrambles through the front door - breakfast in one hand, a pen in the other. And there they remain till the scraggler is .001 mm away from the register before snapping it shut and walking away with a sizeable portion of next months salary.

Sitting above this fiend of the netherworld, is a similar creature. The Managing Director. Advertising does it’s best to keep out the bad eggs, but every now and then one of them manages to get a foot through the front door. And once inside, they rise to the top by doing absolutely nothing. Unless chairing 3 hour meetings on cost cutting through reduced toilet paper purchase counts. Harbouring a secret desire to become a copywriter, the average MD can be as much a source of amusement as they are of anal pain. When one is spotted deep in thought (which is very rare) one can safely assume they’re either trying to come up with ideas or short-change everyone on their bonuses.

When in a non-pensive state of mind, MDs can be found not in their own cabin but in the Chairman’s, trying to sell the aforementioned ideas. Agency Chairmen were once idealistic creatives who promised themselves that good work would always come before money. In the pursuit of this dream, Chairmen think nothing of calling people at midnight wondering what poor woman had the misfortune of bearing such an untalented, useless writer as the one before him. As a JC one dreams of the day the Chairman will learn your name. One doesn’t dream of the string of expletives that are bound to follow it.

So there you have it - the agency food chain. Replete with carnivores, vegans and parasites, this ecosystem is as delicate as the egos that inhabit it. But unlike life, where algae and plankton have no way of making it to the top, in advertising the dregs are always given a chance. As someone who has gone from algae to a more redeemable life form, the transformation was one that took a considerable amount of time. But as you can see the company is anything but dull.


I haven’t mentioned anything about Client Servicing because the less said about the people who ask writers to make the line “Jump the queue” crisper, the better. They are perhaps the only class that even interns are allowed to sneer at.

Note 2

To all my client servicing friends who read this, get a sense of humour. If that’s not possible - tough!!

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


I’m sitting at my brand new laptop in my almost new home wondering where to start. (Dispel any desi Carrie Bradshaw notions from your head. The Manolos have yet to find their way to my feet and the closest I have to designer is a Chanel No 5.)

But this isn’t about my fashion fixations or an unhealthy shoe obsession, it’s about the problem I face when asked the question “What do you do?”

Now it’s not a very difficult question to answer. One usually says, “ I am a __________ (fill in the blank with neurosurgeon, spirit medium, free loading parasite,etc). But I can’t bring myself to tell people what I do. Let me see if typing it is easier on my fragile soul. I’m a temporary housewife. (Excuse me while I reach for the prozac)

Let me take you back 5 months. I had a successful career in advertising and had just accepted an offer from the best agency in town. I was all set to start a fabulous new chapter in my life. Enter husband. With a job offer in London in hand. And out went all notions of career, awards and my name in lights. Who cared about national TV commercials when Knightsbridge and Oxford Circus beckoned? And I could always get a job in London. (Abbot Mead Vickers Raman BBDO. Nice ring to it don’t you think?)

But I hadn’t bargained for the in-between months of doing nothing until David Abbott discovered my genius. At first I was too in love with city, the architecture and the men in Burberry to really notice. We soon moved in to the semi-detached dream. Kitchen, hall/dining, 2.5 bedrooms, one bathroom and a lovely garden. There was only one thing missing. A maid. A privilege only the privileged can afford. I then realised what it was I would be doing till that great job came along. I would be temping. As a housewife.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those crazed career women who think being a housewife is demeaning, it’s just not something I would choose for myself. But then God finds humour in the strangest things. And soon I became one of the ‘young, educated, SEC A housewives’ that I had not so long ago been trying to sell pickle to.

Now back to the burning question at hand. How does one in my position answer “And what do you do?”

There are some women who have perfected their answer. I give you the example of a gorgeous, B-school grad who had just quit L’Oreal Paris to spend more time with her daughter. Sitting next to her handsome French husband, she made it sound like she was being paid to sit on her Pilate-honed butt and make baby talk with her 1 year old. When she asked me what I did, I made a joke about being unpaid house help. During the uncomfortable silence that ensued, I waited for an earthquake or a talking raccoon to take the focus away from me and my failed attempt at self-deprecating humour.

The sad thing is that no on else can see what’s wrong with my situation. Friends and peers envy me and my so called break. Break? Since when did cleaning the toilet incite envy in others?

But then one day – realisation dawned. (And I wasn’t even sitting under a tree.) It was seven in the evening and I was chatting with a friend back home. She was still at work proof-reading a manual on health insurance (sample – “In the event of loss of / damage to one eye or both…”). It was close to one a.m India time and the poor girl was fated to an evening of gruesome limb mutilations and cold takeout. I on the other hand had run myself a bubble bath and was about to relax with a Cabernet and Cosmo’s ‘Are you a vixen or a violet?’ quiz. As I sank in to the tub I realised that 6 months ago I was doing the exact same thing. And hating every moment of it. Maybe being a temp wasn’t so bad. The hours were flexible, I worked out of home and the perks included bubble baths in the boss’s tub.

I looked across at the gleaming toilet bowl and felt a stab of pride. Perhaps my friends had something to be envious of after all.

Friday, January 07, 2005


We’ve all been there. You’re in a trial room at the mall, trying to slip in to a pair of superfine jeans. And you get stuck. Not it in the dressing room, but in the jeans. Mid-thigh, the denim clings to your cellulite in an anything but loving way, and refuses to budge. Before you know it, you can hear sirens and emergency services are doing their best to get you out.

Every time this has happened to me (pick a number between 1 and 100) I’ve vowed to do something about the extra pounds. And I’d like to think that I’ve tried. From drinking hot lime juice first thing in the morning (in the hope that it would burn my internal fat into oblivion), to humiliating experiences involving yellow tights and aerobics to the infamous Gestapo torture secret - Atkins.

Now I’m not overweight or anything. I’ve never been on Oprah telling the world how I use food as a substitute for my mother, been wait-listed for a gastric-bypass or considered stopping cheese as a dietary staple. I’m something much worse than that. I am pleasantly plump.

As a child, strangers would come up to me and pinch my cheeks (in an entirely appropriate way), I was cast as bunny rabbits in school plays and all was well. And when I hit puberty what was once cute caused an aunt to remark that my hair was getting thinner but I was getting fatter.

School was a nightmare with a uniform that on the best of days looked like a gunny bag used to transport organic produce. And college was a little better, where I received the ‘no shirts that end above your backside’ rule with a prayer of thanks.

I know what you’re all thinking. Why so much fuss over being plump. And why is it worse than being overweight. Because when you’re thin… do you really need to ask – life is made. And when you’re fat people just assume you have a thyroid problem. However the pleasantly plump are seen as fence sitters. And nobody likes fence sitters.

My current attempt at weight loss is the General Motors diet. It’s day four and I wonder how I’ve made it this far. After 3 days of eating raw fruits, vegetables and drinking enough water to count the 356 tiles in my bathroom, I had hoped that today would be easier. It is. But only if you’re a member of the simian race. Allow me to quote the diet sheet.

Day Four Bananas and milk. Today you will eat as many as eight bananas and drink three glasses of milk. This will be combined with the special soup which may be eaten in limited quantities.

Based on previous dalliances with the diet, I assure you the special soup is as special as a man with a hairy back.

So why am I putting myself through this torture? Because. I’m tired of walking down the street looking at thin women and hoping they fall in to a ditch. And of considering pregnancy as a good excuse to be fat. And most of all, it’s because all the fence sitting has given me a sore rear-end. It’s time to jump down, and I know which side I want to be on.