Contrary to the expectation that my retirement years would stretch lazily before me, Time hanging heavy, teasing me with endless opportunities to luxuriate in the delight of doing the things one missed doing in one’s working days, at a pace of one’s own choosing, with no deadlines to stress over (except this magazine’s chief editor’s), I find every succeeding year passing at a speed faster than the previous one, bringing with each changeover the inescapable realization that one’s memory bank is almost full and not many more can be created and stored unless some of the earlier ones are relived one last time and then permanently erased, like, for example, my memories of the frenzied partying that used to accompany the three months of genuine winter Calcutta once had.
In the days before they lost their free spirit and engaging unpredictability to become client lackeys, advertising agencies were differentiated as much by their creative output as their ability to throw parties, all their misdemeanours forgiven on the day of reckoning (and contract renewal), except if they had handled a party ineptly, particularly in a city like Calcutta that had a reputation to uphold for uninhibited and exhibitionist hedonism dating back to the Swinging ‘Sixties, albeit an esteem irredeemably tarnished by decades of local non-governance and the perennial power cuts that had become a damper for even the city’s irrepressible, party-throwing, party-going elite.
In those days, ad agencies worth their salt did not just throw a party, they organized an event, the venue usually the ballroom of a five-star hotel, which, with the limited options that Calcutta provided at the time, was almost always The Grand Hotel on Chowringhee, the sprawling lawns of Calcutta’s historical clubs – the normal venue for winter parties – diplomatically steered clear of since they were the preserve and prerogative of corporate houses and it was not politic to compete with one’s clients on their own turf, not if one were likely to out-do them in terms of extravagance and ostentation and certainly not if one wished to continue to get one’s exorbitant artwork production estimates passed without embarrassing questions or penetrative investigation.
The larger the ad agency – in perception, if not in real terms – the bigger the party, even if the agency were neck-deep in financial woes (which most in Calcutta were) because, in advertising, perception is the reality. So, the bigger your debt, the more frequent your parties: to welcome a new chief or bid farewell to an outgoing one, to laud a new campaign that had yet to prove its worthiness or bury an old one that had outlived its usefulness, to introduce an overseas visitor on a busman’s holiday or a local rewarded an overseas junket in the guise of training, to celebrate a new client acquisition or commiserate an old client loss, to congratulate itself on winning an advertising award or a client for having had the good sense to run the campaign that won it, to extol the virtues of one’s own planning techniques or critique the findings of someone else’s marketing research – there was never a shortage of reasons for an advertising agency to party.
The primary objective of an ad agency party was to be memorable – memorable defined as what you think you remember rather than what you actually remember, which, two hours into any ad agency party is virtually nothing – and, to this end, parties, in Bombay, could be elaborate, theme-based stage productions and grand masquerades or, in Delhi, all pomp and pageantry, with bhangra dancers, Shah Rukh Khan, elephants carrying palanquins, performing bears, parrot astrologers, et al or, in Calcutta, just running on high spirits – a lethal concoction of an unlimited supply of 100 proof ethanol and a live band belting out Rock favourites till the wee hours of the morning.
Often times, pondering the irrepressible need of ad agencies to outdo each other in their capacity to throw unforgettable parties, I found myself battling a conundrum: if the endgame of a party is not to remember, then how can it be memorable or, if no one recalls it, how does it pass into an agency’s folklore? By my third agency party, I had the answer: just like you have a designated driver when you go out on a premeditated binge, so does an ad agency have a designated chronicler, whose job it is to retain sobriety against all odds and recall for posterity the relevant bits and pieces of the party that will buttress the image of the agency as number one in the party stakes, which achievement alone is, often, enough for it to be perceived as number 1 in the revenue stakes, too, because, by advertising’s unbeatable and unique brand of logic, an agency’s ability to spend is directly proportional to its capacity to earn.
On such simple premises are the best-laid plans of advertising agencies founded.