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FCB Ulka’s CCO on Creative Campaigns for a Progressive India

Trends and Insight 232 Add to collection

Swati Bhattacharya, CCO at FCB Ulka speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about what it takes to create thought-provoking and unconventional campaigns for the Indian audience

FCB Ulka’s CCO on Creative Campaigns for a Progressive India

With a career she believes was “written in the stars” and the path to becoming CCO at FCB Ulka one she deems a “work fairytale”, Swati Bhattacharya is the ultimate dreamer and creative. From a young age she knew that the advertising industry was the place for her, having grown up with a PR-guru mother and father who worked for the Indian Newspaper Society, a group which acts as the ‘referee’ between advertising agencies and publications. “I have always met the funniest or the coolest people who came from advertising when they would come to visit my parents”, says Swati. She adds: “I was intrigued from day one and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I did my English honours and then I did mass communication and I went straight to Grey as a trainee while I was studying for the summer”.


After leaving her copy-related role at Grey, Swati was at JWT for 22 years in a job so comfortable she believed she was going to retire there. But as fate would have it, just as she decided to take a break from the advertising world and pursue her personal interests of directing her own film she met FCB’s global CCO Susan Credle. Thanks to a picture of the duo in Tenerife, she was offered the job as FCB Ulka’s first ever chief creative officer.


By becoming CCO off the network’s Indian office, Swati was elevated to a position of power and influence, but she wears it lightly. She says that “the creative business has a layer of insecurity”, but refuses to get sucked into the game of egos. Swati adds, “I might be very powerful but if there is a summer intern and on that day the summer intern’s half formed idea has more shine then mine then I have to bow to that. That is a very karma-cleansing thing”.

 

Over recent years Swati and her team have created some extremely thought-provoking – and in some instances life-changing piece of work. On such example is the work FCB Ulka did with The Times of India newspaper in which they sought to distort the stigmas surrounding unmarried women, divorcees, widows and those of the LGBTQ community. The campaign was centred around the Bengali tradition of ‘Sindoor Kehla’, a celebration where married women gather together to praise the goddess Durga – while their unmarried sister look on. For Swati, as a divorcee, she took inspiration from her own experiences of being outcast from society, which she calls a “real sting”. She explains, “I realised that this have not-ness is being perpetuated by something very holy like tradition. But it makes no sense because why would a god – or anything cosmic or spiritual – make a division between your civil statuses. Why does a widow in India carry that burden that she didn’t have good fortune to have her husband outlive her? They don’t have the same rules for men and these things are very simple.”


Citing her “own guilt” at possibly carrying the same archaic views in her own subconscious and the realisation that her widowed mother would also have been left out of the celebration, the No Conditions Apply campaign was created. The movement saw women of all status greet each other with ‘sindoor’ – or red power – but in a twist from tradition instead of a uniform of single red dots, they wore two on their forehead. The movement is now in its fourth year and in Swati’s view is a “very powerful thing”. She says: “the religious heads and all are men, but it became more about woman for woman because the patriarchy gene no longer lives just in men, it can come inside us. A permissive man is not a progressive man, whereas in India we think if you’re permissive that is good enough. Progressive is to really take it to the other level, so that’s why I feel it’s such a successful woman’s movement. It’s cultural, it has changed a 400-year old tradition but it has done it like a bloodless coup.”

 

This view of patriarchy and the male gaze is something that has played on Swati’s mind for a long time. When discussing what her favourite project to date is, she is quick to refer to the campaigns for juice brand Slice with Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif. Swati turned her eyes to the ‘female gaze’ and positioned Katrina as a female sex symbol with a drop of mango juice hovering provocatively on her lower lip. She explains: “It used to give me great joy because desire, aesthetics and frisson are also very important. I feel often we just follow the male gaze whereas the female gaze itself I find it deeply sexy.”

 

Swati took learnings from the Slice campaign with her when she worked on an anaemia awareness campaign called Project Streedhan for a CSR client. This particular project was premiered at the festival of Dhanteras – or gold – and urged viewers to “invest in iron”. Swati herself hails the final film as a sexy take on women eating fruit – something a campaign for good hadn’t seen before. “You put into Google ‘woman eating’ and you will see a woman holding a grape or a woman smiling at a salad, whereas for me I wanted to show this kind of eating like no-one is watching. Bring all of your desire and your satisfaction, I was thinking what is offending you about a woman eating her food?”. She set out to distort the view that CSR campaigns are talking to women, not celebrating women. The team credits their client, who trusted their instinct to portray women in this light. Swati adds, “You have to constantly break the mould and whenever I’ve managed to do that for a piece of work, it makes me very happy”.

 

 

Swati lives by the principle of doing what makes her happy. Recently she worked with seven of her closest female friends in a personal piece she directed about the seven deadly sins. The project was created from her desire to alleviate the pressure of perfection. She adds, “The fact that there was something perceived as negative but you could harness it to create amazing things for you and your life, whether it was your anger, sloth, gluttony, vanity – how they channelled it I found it very exciting. That’s a project I’m very proud of.”

 

Swati stays grounded by resisting the siren calls of perfection in her personal life too. She uses her boardroom experiences to inform her approach to rearing her children. She realises that her vision of motherhood growing up was one of fastidious perfection and realises in that, she herself was a ”victim of advertising”. Swati adds, “Your child is your client, the nanny is the brand manager, your mother or mother-in-law is the marketing head. But every time the child is crying, the CEO doesn’t have to come and attend.”

 

While Swati’s next projects are uncertain thanks to the global pandemic, she does want to explore the avenues of breaking down barriers further. “There’s a same sex love story brewing in my head. Only when I started to do work with LGBTQ like the Out and Proud campaign and then I did Sindoor Khela I got to know the trans community so well.” The desire to explore and support overlooked and marginalised communities is due to Swati’s belief that there is more activity, art and culture in the margins of society.

 

With such an incredible career and so many refreshing campaigns under her creative belt, what advice does Swati have for young creatives hoping to follow in her footsteps? “Fall in love with it. I still love it. I still love selling things, selling purpose. Whatever you do in your career, if you can have that intimate relationship with it and it can be either a relationship or a romance then there is more meaning in it.  Money alone doesn’t give things meaning. I use my experiences, I use my life, rejections and that is the pixie dust I throw on top of these brands and what comes out is not the brand but also me  - nobody needs to know about it but I know.”

 

 

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FCBUlka, Tue, 16 Jun 2020 15:30:55 GMT