Summer 2004
Frankly Speaking
by Anjana Basu
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Frank Unedited. The Best of Frank Simoes
Roli Books. Rs 395

Copywriters are an underrated breed – journalists turn their noses up at them and declare that the only thing advertising writers are capable of is copycatting ideas from abroad. There is no reason why this should be the case – several  copywriters have made it to the ranks of the litterati, the most notable of them being Salman Rushdie who wrote ‘Go to work on an egg’ before he wiped  advertising off his feet and headed for the Booker. In India there is Anita Nair who evolved from a copywriter to a writer of significant fiction. At least, this is what I console myself by thinking, hoping that I will never be caught by the deliberate twist of the slogan. That great ad man David Ogilvy, when he evolved from writing copy to writing autobiographies discovered that he was handicapped by short snappy sentences that chopped up his thoughts.

I read that and vowed, “I will not let that happen to me!” and pursued that wish with foolhardy recklessness, dodging meetings declaring that I had a poem beating in my brain which had to be set down. That was dangerous because, as a copywriter, I definitely did not have IT. In fact on several assessment occasions I was ordered to revise my writing style and make it as lively as my newspaper pieces. My boss hinted that if I was able to do that, there was nowhere that I wouldn’t go.

Easier said than done – I set my teeth deliberately against the slogan and let my career hang round my neck like an albatross. I was only an advertising copywriter by accident, forced into it by the lack of a more lucrative choice.  Who on earth thought that advertising was an art, Marshall McLuhan, not- withstanding? My more intellectual friends told me that I had sold my soul to the world’s second oldest profession and was as a result quite beyond the pale.

Frank Simoes, on the other hand, had it very different. Born into an aristo- cratic Goan family, he turned to advertising to give his fallen family fortunes a boost and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He lived between two continents and several cities, writing advertising lines that made him a legend. ‘Only Vimal’, the campaign he devised for Dhirubhai Ambani of Reliance, is written up in the annals of Indian advertising. 

Of course, somewhere or the other, every copywriter dreams of making it as a serious writer and it was Frank Simoes’ dream too. In the foreword Dom Moraes writes of 49 articles sent to his father at The Statesman and refused, until the desperate 50th,  which was on the subject of being rejected 49 times, found its way into print. That speaks volumes about Frank’s determination and willingness to face challenges in the face of daunting odds. 

When Frank Simoes came into Indian advertising, it was a print-based medium. TV was young and audiovisuals clumsy. Calcutta was still some- where at the top of the advertising world and was populated by intellectuals who took time off to act in Satyajit Ray films – when Ray himself was moon- lighting from art directorship.  The advertising copywriter had more of a chance to display his vocabulary and display it in impeccable English. You could sit down and write copy about shirts to drool over instead of reducing it to, “I am too sexy for my shirt.”

Today, copywriting in India is a fusion of a language that straddles Hindi and English in an attempt to capture the rhythms of authentic Indian speech, and most copywriters find themselves nose-to-the-grindstone till the wee  hours of the morning with nothing in their minds except the formulation of ‘the big idea’. They used to be three-bottle men who thought drinking and smoking were the best ways to display your Bohemian nature – something they appro- priated from the artistic lifestyle of the Impressionists, the rock musicians and the romantic poets. While the bottles have lessened and smoking has suddenly become uncool, they celebrate their glamorous lifestyles, flaunt fashion models on their arms and rejoice in an artistic lack of grammar. The grammar, of course, is my own sad observation, many copy tests later.

Simoes’ language amazes by its breadth and variety. He wrote essays, tried his hand at the short story and at poetry. He carries the story through, main- taining its suspense. But then, Simoes belonged to a group of admen who made names for themselves in fields beyond advertising. Men of the likes of Kersy Katrak and Alyque Padamsee, who were noted for their contribution to theatre and poetry, as well as for whatever they brought to advertising. The breed, sadly, is dying out in a frantic 9-to-9 rat race with no space to breathe. Catch up with your job, stay in office till the other side of midnight, if required, to prove your integrity and never, never go home. 

Adding spice to this book is a song by Remo Fernandes, Goa’s Mick Jagger. One of Moraes’ poems which has been set to music and which soars as a fitting background through my speakers, defying the lower skies of deadlines.

As for the rest, one will sit and moan and consider a fast shrinking world where the writers grow younger by the day and bring nothing but freshness, crew cuts and a deadly intense idea of fun to the conference room table. Then look forward to retirement by a river bank somewhere out of reach of dead- lines and out of a city which has no advertising business to speak of in any case, and let the deadlines and the Hinglish vanish into some filing cabinet somewhere, if not onto a virused hard disk.

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. She is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)