Neeraj Bassi

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The Laughing Buddha

My innings at Ogilvy started with getting Neeraj into trouble! He was interviewing me for a position based out of Ogilvy, Mumbai. But ended up hiring me in his team in Delhi. Mumbai wasn’t happy!

But I was.

I was quite excited about moving to Ogilvy – the kingdom of creativity and the holy grail for all advertising professionals. Ask any young advertising professional and they will tell you that Ogilvy is not just any agency; it’s a cult that they desperately seek an entry into, a league of gifted superheroes and supewomen who you get to rub shoulders with, a place where you seek to ‘be changed’ more than changing it.
I walked into Ogilvy with a hint of trepidation and intimidation, considering I had to write briefs for the ‘Gods of Creativity’ who had created some of the most iconic campaigns – stuff that I had read as case studies in my college.

The strategic planning team at Ogilvy, at that point in time, was an all men’s team and while I took that with some sense of pride, it also took me some time to break into this ‘Boys’ Club.

One of the first labels that I came up with, for Neeraj, which actually helped me break ice with the Mad Men of my team, was that of a ‘mother in law’. Sarcasm, albeit witty, used to be Neeraj’s default tone of response and he never spared any opportunity of pulling anyone’s leg with a comment or two.

Initially, I took it as a signal to bother him with any questions only if absolutely necessary but post christening him as the ‘mother in law’, a label he took very sportingly, I started enjoying his sarcasm, often layered with advice and solutions to the problems we took to him.
After this ‘baptism by sarcasm’, it was a delight to work with ‘Neeraj Sir’, as I always addressed him.

The creatives’ favourite

Neeraj was the most amazing listener, one of the most important qualities which a creative partner expects out of a planner. The creative ilk used to flock to Neeraj’s cabin, narrating stories, anecdotes, incidents and he used to keenly listen and oblige with encouraging responses and reactions ranging from broad smiles to roaring laughter, leaving them content and happy. No wonder he was always given utmost attention when he put forth his point of view in any meetings with the creatives. ‘Learning to be a Great Listener’, thus, was one of the most important lessons that I learnt from Neeraj and has held me in good stead.

He also encouraged us to shun formality, jargon and superfluous vocabulary while interacting with creatives. In fact, the more thorough and detailed he was with strategic planning, deep diving into research, competition etc., he used to encourage precision, frugality and brevity while briefing creatives and that too, in their own language. I clearly remember this one time when we were working on an insurance brand and Neeraj’s brief was the narration of a tiff between his parents that morning.

While the creatives were anticipating some jargon-laden brief with all the morbidity involved in a life insurance product, Neeraj surprised them with this fun conversation that he witnessed, exciting them enough and more to write some excellent films for the brand.

In fact, Neeraj used to very diligently work on what he said was the most important cog of creating powerful advertising for any brand – ‘defining the problem’. This brought in tremendous clarity and hence always helped him write the most evocative briefs.

Going in for the kill

‘Think like no one else must be thinking’, a very unsettling and yet, one of the most powerful tips that I received from Sri Sri Bassi. Unsettling because this involves knowing what the hell are other people thinking and powerful because it made us send a lot of ideas to the bin, knowing that they were predictable enough to be thought of by other agencies as well. It always helped us push the envelope and come up new and fresh ideas.

When it comes to pitching for new business, Ogilvy really goes in for the kill. And it’s not just about creative ideas. The thinking is much bigger and broader – something that totally takes the client by surprise! We were once pitching for a hair oil brand and I had spent long hours sifting through competition, category, consumer research and happily walked into Neeraj’s room with five ideas written on a sheet of paper. He looked at the ideas and responded with his classic “Hmm” – a response he usually reserved for times when he wasn’t fully convinced. The very next moment, he asked the servicing team to get him the existing bottle of the brand. He surveyed it from all angles concluding, “The bottle is very male looking. The consumer is female. Brief the creative to change the packaging. That is what will win us the pitch.”

I looked at my servicing partner and both of us looked at Neeraj sir with awe and walked out. This incident really taught me the difference between an ‘account planner’ and a ‘brand strategist’, urging me to broaden my thinking horizon when writing brand strategies.
Neeraj also encouraged us to not get intimidated with data and strategy and always encouraged us to break a problem into ‘smaller parts’. This is one advice which has come in handy not just in my professional life but also while dealing with personal issues.

Saying tough things with a smile

I never ever saw Neeraj losing his cool or temper with ANYONE – asinine clients, bothersome servicing colleagues, people who always used to cancel meetings in the last moment, people who always used to fix meetings in the last moment, creatives who rejected every idea with “kuch aur karte hain”, fake researches, long meetings, time sheets, leave deductions – nothing, just nothing, ever got his goat! But it wasn’t that Neeraj didn’t express his displeasure on issues. He just did with a smile, and sometimes with a roar of laughter. But calm never left him in the most trying situations leading us to rechristen him as ‘The Laughing Buddha’. 

The Laughing Buddha or ‘Budai’, in Chinese folklore is admired for his jovial attitude, plenitude, and wisdom of contentment – you will instantly endow Neeraj with all these qualities when you meet him.

In one of his avatars, The Laughing Buddha also carries with him a sack or a bag symbolizing abundance of wealth. Neeraj’s bag was always full of ideas, references and case studies that never failed to delight and surprise the clients or creatives.

One version of the forklore also says that the Laughing Buddha collects people's sadness and woes and puts them in his sack. Neeraj didn’t go around collecting anyone’s woes but his laughter definitely took away the blues!

Someone once said that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. With Neeraj’s trademark laughter ringing in my ears as I write this, I can surely say – True that!

Deputy Director, Marketing
UPES, Laureate International Universities
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