Memories of ad agency life from the early 90s

‘Those were the days’. 

Every era sees folks of a certain vintage utter these words as they look back wistfully on days past. In the 90s, I am sure many of us who listened to nonsense lyrics in Hindi movies and would have gone  ‘those were the days’ about lyrics of the 80s or 70s. In 2017, we look back at the music of the 90s and go ‘those were the days’. It happens with advertising too. 

I was a rookie Account Executive in advertising in the early 90s. I don’t know if those days were ‘better’ compared to ad agency life of today (I have been out of it since 2012), but were certainly ‘different’. 

Herewith a few memories from that era:

There was some stellar print advertising in English: print advertising thrived in the early 90s not just in terms of numbers (it is still big accounting for nearly 30% of total ad spends) but in terms of quality of ads. It is rare to see a well-written, well-crafted, idea-driven print ad today. But in the 90s a lot of the agencies were known for their print work – Trikaya, Enterprise, Rediffusion, Ambience, Ogilvy (was it called OBM back then?) to name a few.  Part of the reason was that copywriters  were largely elite, convent educated and had distinct western sensibilities. Many of them were well-read and of course, could write very well. The copy test sheet of a leading agency asked for a certain situation to be re-written in the style of famous authors like PG Wodehouse and others – so one had to know stuff, not just have the ability to ‘wordsmith’ as it were. 

The Sunday Review (as the Sunday supplement of TOI was called back then) was the place for print advertising campaign launches – I remember ads from Mauritius Tourism, Sterling Holidays, Vadilal, National Egg Coordination Committee and more released over there. The common thread among many of the popular ads of that time were attention grabbing headline, well-written body copy (with the last line tying back to the headline in some manner),  a touch of humour, word play and puns.  Even the most unlikeliest of categories got lovingly crafted copy – including a campaign for Grindwell Norton, a grinding wheels manufacturer. 

See more ads from the Indian advertising scene of the 90s here.

There was a negative side to this too. Many of the copywriters were totally disconnected with ‘Bharat’ – the aspirations and the language of middle-class India were alien to them. It is not surprising that many creative folk from that era went on to the world stage in advertising and made a mark there – they were more ‘western’ than Indian in a way.  



Indian language writers were not ‘integrated’ into ideation: as an AE, one had to action translations of print ads in various Indian languages. So my routine included placing the English copy into pigeon-holes marked ‘Oriya’, ‘Tamil’ etc., for the language copywriter to come and pick it up. Typically, language writers used to freelance for many agencies so they would drop by – pick up the English text and translate. There was no scope to understand the brief, the business challenge, the audience or even the idea behind the original ad written in English. End result: a direct translation the English text, reducing the scope to capture the real flavour of the regional language and for original expressions. 

Even though ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ happened in the late 80s, Indian advertising didn’t really see original ‘thinking’ and writing in Indian languages till the late 90s and after. In the early 90s it wasn’t cool to think in Hindi and still be a copywriter in Indian advertising. 

Craft, especially print craft, was given a lot of importance: most of the print-ready stuff had to be crafted by hand as digital wasn’t a thing yet. So instead of Photoshop, artists used to spray brush and retouch images. The art work was typeset pasting bromides. Digital image re-touching was just about beginning to gain popularity with many hours spent on image re-coloring. 

More often than not, CEO from the client side was involved in advertising decisions: brands like Thumps Up, Ceasefire (home fire extinguishers) and Gujarat Ambuja created some memorable campaigns in the early 90s led by the CEOs on both client-side and agency. It was common for the CEO to be hands on (along with the CMO) on advertising & branding strategies. 

Account Directors and CSDs were respected, feared even: my seniors back then (the Account Directors & Client Service Directors) seemed to have a healthy relationship with the client-side CMO/CEO. Also, planning wasn’t a full-fledged common discipline in advertising and hence the Business Head was the de facto  strategy head. A lot of the ADs were fantastic planners and went beyond mere coordination of the account activities. Many of the good ones were not respected for their strategy skills, business acumen and relationship skills, they were feared too. I remember an AD ticking off a client side brand manager for being rude to the AE. 

Producing creative took time. Sometimes, way too long: the lead time required for a print ad was at least a week. Campaigns took much longer. In agencies which had a ‘creative’ reputation, clients were not presented multiple options. At best, there were two options, if forced. 

Integration was a thing: media planning wasn’t hived off into a separate division or company so Account folks had the scope to interact with bright minds in media on a daily basis on a client’s business challenges.  In fact, the average AE had an opportunity to interact with specialist disciplines from creative to print production to media thus increasing the chances of becoming an ‘all rounder’ in advertising.

The mid-90s brought a whole lot of changes which shaped the advertising industry of today:

  • Global agency networks & holding companies took over Indian agencies. That brought along a whole of process changes with planning tools and ‘proprietary’ ad creation frameworks
  • Mult-national clients became a part of advertising and they demanded a lot more in terms of turn around times and creative ‘options’
  • Indian language writers and Creative Directors became recognised and sought after as they could think and create original ideas for mass market India
  • Agencies began experimenting with specialist offerings in Direct Marketing, Financial advertising, media planning and so on

Do share your advertising memories and how things have changed over the years. 

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2 thoughts on “Memories of ad agency life from the early 90s”

  1. That opened the floodgates of nostalgia… Barring the fact that everything was thought out in English, everything about the 90s rocks. ‘People don’t read’ was yet to become a reason for bad advertising. Body copy was more than five words placed below the logo. The portfolios of a copywriter, an art director and a photographer looked quite different. Whenever the idea was not the king, copy/ art came in with reinforcements to make the ad stunning. (To be read with the instrumental version of ‘Koi lauta de mere beete hue din’ playing in the background.)
    Here are a few memories of mine – some that linger, some that haunt and others, that lead to the ‘dust in my eye’ syndrome…
    1. Scribble-Layout-Artwork: (“Seriously? You guys had sooooo much time on your hands?”) The 1-2-3 excerise was so important to evolve an idea to its final avatar. I accompanied an AE to a meeting where we had to assure the client that we (as an agency) do both layout and artwork.
    2. Bromides, TPs, halftones, quartertones, negatives and positives: In other words, the transition from layout to final artwork/ material for publication could sometimes take a week because of the technicalities and the gochees in between. (Remember a case where a full page ad in Oriya was made in a Chennai agency – the headline was upright, but the body copy was pasted upside down because no one could read Oriya. The material was sent. The ad was released. The agency had hell to pay for.)
    3. Lightboxes, carousels, projector: Key equipment in any agency. The most common mistake would be arranging the slides in a carousel in the ‘reverse’ order, not knowing which whether the carousel was going to move clockwise or anti-clockwise. The youngest AE would typically be assigned this role would typically mess it up. And the matter would come to ‘light’ only when the presentation begins.
    4. QuarkXpress: As a copywriter, one would spend precious time with the copy, playing with the bold, highlight, italics functions of Word and finally having to save it as a text file in a floppy and hand it over to the studio – because ‘MS Word wouldn’t talk to QuarkXpress’. (That was how it used to be explained to trainee writers.)
    5. A&M: While the fraternity created ads for magazines, here was a magazine created for the fraternity. It was followed by Agency FAQs. The former vanished. The latter turned digital. This was the only way to ‘connect’ with the industry. (Of course, the easier way was to step into the neighbourhood pub.) (Other notable mentions: Brand Equity and Brand Wagon – supplements by ET and The Hindu.)
    6. Guard books and long strips of paper: The two had a razor and blade, pen and refill kind of relationship. Art directors would start the day by using their long scale and neatly tearing strips of paper and storing it on one side of their desk. Once the manic hunt for relevant images began, these could come into play. Dozens of books, hundreds of paper strips. That was how it went, late into the night. Much later, post-it strips replaced the handmade book marks.

    Where does one stop…? Lakshmipathy Bhat, thanks for blogging on this topic. 🙂

  2. Thank *you* Suresh for the lovely comment – that triggered a flood of memories too. Guard books, carousel presentations, minutes of meetings were all part of growing up in advertising. A&M was my favourite magazine too:)

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