Ramdas Shenoy tries to crack a conversation with the ‘English Nut’- Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Ex Executive Creative Director, South Asia @ Ogilvy and Ex Chairman & Chief Creative Officer at 82point5 Communications.
Actor, model, creative writer… who is Sumanto?
In the ad industry, someone who works in the creative department is referred to as a ‘creative person’. But I have always liked to think of myself as a creative person in a wider sense. Which is why I am all of the above and more. I act, model, create content (as The English Nut), write ad campaigns, columns, short stories and books (WIP), mentor creatives, do photography, do up my interiors…. Living life creatively is what fulfils me.
If you could run through your journey in the advertising domain (in Response, Ogilvy and 82.5 to now as an independent professional)?
After doing an MBA at McGill University, Canada, and an MS in mathematics at Clemson University, South Carolina, I came back to my hometown Kolkata and joined Response, a boutique advertising agency. I remember especially enjoying my work there on Concern for Calcutta, an initiative to improve the city on many fronts. My boss and agency founder Ram Ray gave me a more or less free hand on this—which was exhilarating for a rookie.
Ram Ray was particular about the crafting of copy. He gave me simple but useful tips that stood me in good stead throughout my writing career. One of these was to cut down the number of words till it wasn’t possible to reduce them further without losing information. Sounds elementary, but it’s one of the best ways of improving your copy.
After a couple of years at Response, I joined Ogilvy Kolkata. It was exciting to be a part of a network agency. I worked on Asian Paints and North Star, a Bata brand. At that time, I also did some interesting freelance print work for a jewellery brand called A. Sirkar. It was quite different from the formulaic work that was done for this category and got a bit of attention in the city.
Coming back to North Star, I wrote a TV ad for it—and this took me to Mumbai for the first time (as that’s where we shot it). I took the opportunity to meet Piyush Pandey and request him for a transfer to the Mumbai office.
The first brand I worked on at Ogilvy Mumbai was Philips. It was exciting and scary—I was now in India’s advertising capital competing with the industry’s best talents. I worked really hard—often all night—to be ready for a presentation the next day. There was a lot of partying as well. Sleep suffered. But work, camaraderie and fun more than compensated for it.
In Mumbai I grew a lot. The Ogilvy office also grew—moving from Churchgate to Lower Parel to Goregaon to Andheri—though in terms of physical space the Andheri move was a reduction in size, an ‘open’ office on the WPP campus. After coming to this city as ‘copy supervisor’ I moved up the rungs to ‘executive creative director, South Asia’.
During this period, I spent six months in Ogilvy’s Colombo office too—helping them win the agency of the year recognition at the Sri Lankan awards. Of course, I won many awards—Indian and international—for Ogilvy India as well. Going to Cannes every year and getting recognition there was a thrill.
My next move was as chairman and chief creative officer of Soho Square and Bates which I helped relaunch as 82.5 Communications. It was a tough job—being in charge over all, not just creative—managing the transformation, building a culture and getting the motley crew from Soho, Bates and Ogilvy who made up the team to unify. At Ogilvy, business came to us because we were Ogilvy. At 82.5—even though we were a part of the Ogilvy Group—we did not have that dazzling brand image yet that would bring in the clients. We had to work hard for it.
Now I am on my own. I was apprehensive about how I would feel to cut loose from Ogilvy, my anchor of so many years. I was so used to going to a big office and being a part of a huge, talented team and all the excitement that went with it. I had so many friends at work—not being around them would be the most difficult thing, I felt. But after a few months I adjusted to this new life and new pace. The good thing is, I’m still connected to my old friends.
As an independent creative professional, I have been doing advertising projects, theatre workshops, writing a book based on The English Nut. And of course I have been going strong with The English Nut itself. I am enjoying this life.
What according to you was the high point of your career?
I don’t like to think of a single high point. My take is a little different. For me it’s the relationships that I forged. The people that I guided. Whenever I saw a team member shine and I felt I had contributed to their success, it was a high point for me.
How will AI disrupt the creative world– is it boon or bane?
I think it’s still early days to appreciate the full impact of AI on the creative world. What ChatGPT and Midjourney can do today is only the beginning. In the next couple of years the AI applications to creativity are going to be far more sophisticated and widespread.
Some people will become redundant. But others, who know how best to take advantage of AI, will become one-man creative powerhouses. So, while in some cases human creativity will be lost, in others it will be greatly amplified.
Over all, not just the creative industry but the world of work is going to look very different in the next decade. What that’s going to mean for people’s employability and earning power is a big question mark at this point. But there are definitely big upheavals ahead.
How did the idea of English Nut germinate?
I love language, particularly the English language. At Ogilvy I was the go-to guy for anything to do with English. One of my colleagues had been urging me to do something with my language skills as a side hustle. I started by writing blog posts on English—in fact I still have a blog hosted by the Times of India called Polish Yourself Until You Shine. Later I realised that video content on social media was ‘the thing’ and started The English Nut. Creating my own brand has been a learning and rewarding experience.
What will be your advice to Gen Z – with regards to Advertising as a profession?
‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ This is what President John F. Kennedy had said. I think there is an interpretation of this quote for Gen Z-ers in advertising. A number of them are preoccupied with working only the stipulated hours, not working weekends, not being called or messaged on work after office hours and so on.
But what is getting lost in their demands for more cushy working conditions is the other side of the equation—what are they contributing? And answering this question is as important for the company as it is for the individual. Have you come up with those brilliant campaigns that will make a name for you? The reality is that you have to burn the midnight oil to do that. That’s the nature of advertising. Establish yourself with great work. Then demand better pay, better hours and so on. So, ask not what your company can do for you—ask what you can do for your company.
To be clear, I’m not trying to be insensitive about the need to improve working conditions. I’m saying that your priority should be to work hard to produce the campaigns that will be a calling card to a better future. Without that, saying, ‘I don’t take my boss’s calls after 6pm’ isn’t going to get you anywhere.
Also, I shouldn’t generalise. There are plenty of driven, responsible, talented people in Generation Z.
What is the future of the advertising industry and your new initiatives?
The recent death of the JWT brand tells us where the industry is headed. The old world order is finished. Tech and digital have already transformed advertising. And now AI is rewriting the rules. The rate of change is faster now than anything we’ve experienced in history. Tomorrow the ad industry is not going to look anything like it does today. Only the adaptable will survive.
As far as my own initiatives are concerned, I am taking it one day at a time. What I do know is that I want to do work that gives me pleasure. After working for so many years, I think I’ve earned that privilege.