Inquisitiveness, Intensity And Charisma Of One Of India’s Advertising Giants: Santosh Desai

If laurels and effusive praise were the only ways to explain a certain Santosh Desai, then perhaps they would find sufficient inspiration to be translated into a book, whose subject would be as interesting and curiously inspiring as its main highlight; Desai, himself. This simple, mid aged, pleasing and elegantly dressed gentleman is among the best advertising brains that India has produced. Currently serving as the CEO and Managing Director of Futurebrands, amongst the most well known and successful brand consulting firms of the country, Santosh led Futurebrands engages brands across a wide range of spectrum by delivering consultancy based on rich cultural insights.

Consultancy to many in a highly tech-savvy India refers mainly to the field of IT apart from Finance, bringing to mind perplexing formulaic ideations and services structured in the emerging world of technology. But, when one speaks of consulting in the branding and marketing space, one is ought to bridge the gap between consumers and brands in order to forge a lasting relationship. This relationship according to Mr. Desai makes for an intense and passionate chemistry- torrid in a brands’ failure to appeal to consumer psyche and vastly successful if one can make sparks fly between the consumer and a brand. And, in this tough but attainable, bittersweet symphony of guiding brands to build marketing campaigns from hardcore insights that breathe soul into the body structure of a brand lies Santosh Desai’s credible success.


The man belonging to one of the checkered marketing and advertising journey’s in India


Source: Team Trendmantra

Akin to making a perfect cocktail constituting the right concoction of aqua, liquor and other tantalizing additives, in order to carve a successful forte in the radical world of marketing, you need to be not just a great executioner of ideas but above all, an astute observer. You need to foray into areas that others leave unchartered.

Implicit in the world of marketing is the immense need for finding a new perspective of looking and assessing a situation, and those who can dive deeper into the cluttered mind-space of a consumer and emerge muddier, but with fresh ideas and new perspectives succeed in the end. Not willing to think of himself as a thought leader in the Ad and Marketing space while he is certainly one having been associated with some of the most enterprising and creative campaigns such as Coke, Happy Dent to quote just a few, and being this straight-talking and uncomplicated man who is forever shy of the praise that he so deserves, there stands a forever inquisitive Santosh Desai, examining the intricate world of brands through the prism of an India on the cusp of dramatic transformations.

“In Advertising, we are all experts without expertise”, quips Santosh explaining his arduous and enormously engaging journey in the creative industry.

Behind a versatile body of work in the domain of advertising and marketing, one that spanned over 2 decades, with rich stints with prominent advertising groups such as McCann-Erickson where he served as President for a decade, Santosh has held leadership positions with diverse creative powerhouses such as Mudra communications and FCB Ulka, where one of India’s brightest advertising specialists first cut his teeth way back in 1986. He completed his masters from the Institute one craves being part of, the eminent IIM-Ahmedabad, and one that is largely responsible for churning entrepreneurs today more than producing top executives in multinationals who have to their credit- a fat pay package.
Examining an India through its diversity and magnanimous divide.



Times, they are a changing and excited enough to be part of this change whose far reaching tides have resulted in transforming the world of brand marketing, Santosh Desai keenly presents his understanding of brands  he shapes with a mind that is receptive of the understanding, meaning and potency of the word called ‘Insights’. And, these core truths and findings in whose search he travels each year to the remotest parts of India’s hinterland for his professional work allow him to learn just what’s happening at the bottom of the pyramid. He then avidly navigates across a vast cultural, social and economic divide of the Indian society to emerge with a penetrating understanding of ideas, beliefs, trends and patterns that form the pivot’s of his endearing marketing and branding journey.

While it serves the direct professional purpose of his work with Futurebrands, with whom he remains deeply involved leading consulting efforts from the helm, it also goes on to satisfy the curious learner in him who wishes to understand India in its entirety.  The man who got great recognition through his 2003 Ad Asia talk on marketing, branding in the heartland of India from an audience outside of the immediate advertising fraternity, is not only a regular social commentator who writes with striking observations about the Indian society in the eminent Times of India, but has even penned a bestseller, “Mother, Pious lady”. His book, a nonfiction account of an India based on everyday Indian-ness, speaks of the startling and great transition that came upon the surface of the country and its “middle class”, emphasizing on the finding that a new India is emerging from the holds of its past. Encouraging in its witty assessment of India’s diversity and richly informative in its conformity to change, which is a constant, Mr. Desai took the tacit observer on an endearing transformative journey of the wonderland called India.


How an unpromising start to a career further propelled this intense thinker



In a world where one often wishes to stand tall on the pedestal of success with the very first opportunity, Santosh Desai has worked dedicatedly and steadily toward establishing his forte in the world of Advertising and Marketing consultancy. His first break right after finishing his Master’s from the illustrious IIM was a disappointing one, and one which would have surely done enough to derail his hope in finding promising work at a space he so loves being at; marketing.

At Niki Tasha, the hitherto less known company that manufactured kitchen aids and gas stoves, young and promising Desai hardly ever got exposed to the challenges that would have given him something to be happy about. It turned out, the promising young Desai’s very first taste of Marketing was anything but desirable.

From there on, he moved to the world of advertising against which his name would often come to be regarded in a manner akin to taking the name of a captain who is perhaps the most capable savior and champion of a ship, both, when its sinking and during the middle of a challenging voyage. Santosh joinedUlka(now Draft FCB Ulka) being coaxed by a fellow friend from IIM-Ahmedabad. It doesn’t happen often that a youngster is offered a job after just 30 seconds of being interviewed.

Within a year and a half at what he called the most defining initial moment of his successful career, Santosh soon found himself amidst plethora of challenging advertising work, something that propelled the thinker in him to wage long battles with understanding the creation, conceptualization of brand campaigns.

After a rather dismal albeit challenging assignment as a client servicing professional, Desai foray toward Strategic  Planning, as much an art as a science of understanding and studying brands from the perspective of constructing its long term communication strategy. Firmly amidst the challenges of Planning, perhaps one that can be regarded as the brain centre of an ad agency which lends itself to creation and execution of creative campaigns, Santosh never looked back.

He was deep into this paradoxical position that gave him both joy and threw him into a muddle of complex challenges that came to the surface whilst giving a brand its strategic planning shape and identity. During what he calls a defining moment while at Mudra (now Mudra DDB), Santosh gave an exciting consumer presentation to the brand Pepsi Foods.

It was to the first time ever that Desai sat back and took notice of the exciting world that permeates a brand’s real identity; the culture behind its creation and the consumer lens through which it comes to be perceived.

Up to this point, after playing a handsome role in developing many creative campaigns revered around India and hailed globally with fellow advertising icons like Prasoon Joshi, who came to McCann after Desai, Santosh has been a part of a long love affair between understanding brands and their cultures, a pivotal part of his bright and shining resume, one that boasts of challenges and exciting creative solutions in equal measure.


Contesting challenges, addressing the need to think differently whilst hailing contemporaries



In India, Marketing and Advertising, according to Santosh is amidst a wonderful transition. The spark ignited by timeless legends such as AlyquePadamsee, the Lintas legend and one further illuminating the checkered creative composite of the ad world by the likes of Prasoon Joshi, R. Balki and PiyushPandey has taken our enchanting creative world to global heights of reckoning. He reinstates that while manny of our campaigns may be devoid of that path-breaking insight, change is happening in an otherwise conservative industry.

He admirably summarizes the departure of advertising from its rather borrowed and heavily influenced foreign lens of the 80s, where even a cream biscuit was sermonized with a pounding undertone of English confectionary delight to the radicalization that the 90s brought in advertising. Advertising in this liberalized era was to embrace multiple rainbows of human expression, the cheerfulness and joy of creating value to brands and invoking emotions in its wake. This, according to Desai was the era where ideas leap-frogged ahead toward progressive statements. He quotes Aly’s successful Lyril soap commercial.  
While his own career boasts of solid branding and planning work, one whose illustrious insights have left an indelible mark on many youngsters who to this day remain curious in their surge to witness brands from a la “Santosh Desai-like discerning lens”, the humble man reserves his admiration for the giants of Indian advertising.


Santosh Desai’s India: a grand paradox of magnificent adjectives



None of us are strangers to the boon called YouTube, our daily pathway into understanding the trends going viral internationally. If you are ever interested in hearing him speak about an India he so loves in a manner that only a man of his seasoned charismatic excellence can deliver, I highly recommend hearing him talk about “The games that Language plays” (with us), a venerable talk delivered at the eminent TED forum (for ideas and discussions).

Hearing Mr. Desai speak of people who come to India not to discover India but to discover themselves, and us being a land that cannot not be described in “cosmological terms”, one where the land of “magnificent adjectives” is also a land of grand paradoxes, will surely open your mind to the sharp, witty and skillfully reflective mind of one of India’s best social commentators.

It is not often that we see an advertising professional of the merit and experience of Mr. Santosh Desai take as creatively in explaining his wonderland called India through a book as through the endearing essence of a beautiful talk that poignantly lifts the veil that masquerades an India, behind its commonality, anomalies and vexed cultural insights that make it so appealing and yet so complicated.



If you step into Santosh’s world, your understanding about the importance and the very fabric that governs the texture, emulsion and colorful canvass of Advertising and an India would never be the same.