“Writing Humour Is No Different From Stand-Up Comedy”

Writer and Executive Creative Director and Vice President at JWT, Indu Balachandran is every bit as funny and energetic as she is with her writing, and you can’t help fall in love with both. She talks to Exec about her experience at JWT , admits to being a ‘Travoholic’ and shares a few funny anecdotes

Was writing always the plan?

Every copywriter wants to write a book one day. I got the idea for writing this book from Dilbert’s Joy Of Work. I wanted my first book to be like that.

Is the book primarily based on your experiences at JWT?

Yes, I spent a whole lifetime there. It was so much fun although there was a lot of nonsense happening around me. An ad agency has a lot of talented people and there’s never a dull moment while you are working there. While I am writing about the stories of others here, I am sure some agency is writing my life story. In the world of advertising, we never take ourselves seriously.

Do you find humour writing easy?

It comes more naturally than serious writing, as I was raised on an unhealthy diet of Mad magazines since age eight. Writing humour is no different from stand-up comedy: you have to get the timing just right. Pauses while reading are all important–and for this, it’s all about mastery over punctuation. They set a rhythm for making something deadpan, creating a chuckle or just a smile. A misplaced exclamation mark can ruin a great line. Usually, I have a killer of a last line in place, and then I work my way down to it.

Tell us about one of the funniest stories you remember at JWT?

Well a lot of JWT people remember this one! I was at an Annual JWT Meet in a Bangkok hotel, doing a dry run of my presentation in the conference room, when my Kodak carousal stopped working. A smiling Thai girl from the Hotel offered to help.

I requested her to quickly locate ‘Suresh’ somewhere in the hotel (Suresh from my office being a whiz with technology). “Ok, I bling to confelence loom”, she smiled, and set off. At doorway, she turned asked me an intriguing question: “What colour, Madam?”. Perhaps she wondered whether Suresh was Asian or not…so I said, “er…Brown.”

My helpful hostess soon returned, reverently holding something – a brown shoelace. I was mystified! “Here Madaam, I bling you blown colour shu-lace…” (To this day, Suresh is still called Shu-lace—by those who were at that conference!)

You are writing a travel book. Please tell us more about it.

I’ve got a working title for it: “I’m A Travaholic, But I’m Getting Help”. Travel has been such an addiction, that much as I loved Advertising, I quit to review eco friendly hotels all over India (that’s free travel, free stay, free food, and incredible adventures!). I visit and recommend socially responsible tourism destinations for traveltocare.com, (it’s headquartered in Copenhagen), largely for a European clientele. And have collected so many notes and anecdotes after reviewing 65 destinations. I have been in utterly posh palaces where a room boy has whispered to me “Madam, Madonna-ji was staying in this room only…”, got tips on steadying my trembling camera, shooting a glorious tiger just

25 feet away, at an upscale jungle resort in Kanha, learnt a trick for making softer methi-parathas at a cosy homestay in the Himalayas. I am overwhelmed with what each new trip brings me.

What’s one life philosophy you’ve learnt working in advertising?

I’ve learnt this brilliant writing philosophy to touch people with “Truth Well Told”. It serves as my guide for any piece of good writing. TRUTH is all about discovering an insight that rings true; a basic human quality that makes a consumer think: ‘hey, I feel that way too, I know exactly what you mean.’ The ‘WELL TOLD’ part requires wit—wit needn’t necessarily mean ‘funny’, it just means the ability to make great connections, avoid clichés, and turn out a finer turn of phrase. Combining insights with wit is how advertising works; and that’s superb training for all kinds of writing. Besides, Advertising has taught me to never ever, ever bore your reader.

What did you dislike about advertising?

It’s got to be the time wasted on inconsequential details at meetings; not to mention the jargon: “…the paradigm shift from declining gross projections minus our assumed budget-led configurations is 14 percent less than potential high growth markets, even if we try disaggregating the content from the promotion…” It used to drive me insane. But some meetings have been priceless. Like when a client said, at the end of the meeting, “That’s it from me. Now my balls are in your court…”

Any words of encouragement or advice for those slogging it in an ad agency?

1. Stay far away from Grumblers. Every agency has them and they could ruin your energy.

2. Remember the client is not a moron; he’s an oxymoron. He simply wants “hard-working creative”. That’s a very fair demand and is what great advertising is about — work hard at selling a specific benefit, BUT present it with a fresh creative expression.

3. For copywriters: Writing is easy. Re-writing is what you must be great at. Craft and re-craft everything. Be always dissatisfied. Read it again after a break. Check it for the wow factor. Throw it out. See some great work that won at Cannes. Start again.

4. Advertising is amazing for the astonishing exposure to different creative fields. Leading feature film actors, Top-notch music makers, a variety of brands, everyone wants to be a bestseller. Plus you will such a parade of talented, sassy, witty, eccentric people…you’ll miss this buzz if you ever quit.

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