Advertising is for young people. I personally believe the older folks – I don’t want to name names – should take a backseat and let the young people work without overly interfering; better yet, stop acting like they own the industry. I’ll be retiring myself in a while because the older you get the less relevant you become in this industry

Subhash Pinnapola has been in the advertising industry for longer than the writer has been in existence. Easily one of Sri Lanka’s most decorated admen, Subhash was recently selected to be one of the judges at the prestigious ADFEST – one of advertising’s biggest events – in Pattaya, Thailand.
The Nation sat down with this dreamer extraordinaire  to talk about his journey so far, the industry and his opinion on everybody with a keyboard having an opinion on everything nowadays and how that has affected the ad industry – if it has, at all.

His  notable work include the controversial Maliban White Chocolate Puff ad that was withdrawn following the backlash on Social Media as most deemed it offensive as it was perceived as discriminatory towards dark-skinned people.

“Even today, if you take a newspaper and see, in the matrimonial ads, grooms still seek fair brides. I wasn’t creating an issue here. I was merely holding a looking glass to the society through my craft,” he quipped.

He continued: “Besides, I am glad the ad attracted that much criticism. So as far as I am concerned, it (the ad) did its job.”

Subhash said he stands by the ad and it is one of his favourite projects to date.

Q: When did you get into advertising? How did that happen?

I had a relative who was in advertising.  I joined the industry in 1991, about 26 years ago, straight after school.

Q: What qualifications should one have to join advertising as a creative?

One has to be young and passionate. If you look at my team, the majority of them are fresh out of school; amazingly talented and producing very creative, good stuff. I like to take onboard people who don’t know the first thing about advertising and to mould them, build them up from scratch.

I almost always hire people who’re young, ideally school leavers, and without any prior experience in advertising. The less you know, the easier it is to train.

Q: Are you happy about where the local ad industry is headed? Are you happy with the quality of ads that are being produced at the moment?

Not at all. Recently I was at a theatre watching a movie and the advertisements that appeared on the large screen shocked me to say the least. I am honestly worried that the ads are getting more and more unimaginative and boring by the day and if it goes on like this, likely clients will stop coming to us, creatives, altogether.

Can’t blame the clients if it ever comes to that because we creatives need to deliver something extraordinary and do justice to the client and the money they are spending. What is the point in merely making ‘pretty ads’? We need to make ads that sell; compelling pieces of communication that are more than merely ‘pretty ads’, I repeat.

Q: How was your experience at Adfest?

The industry standards are going up and Sri Lanka is lagging behind in terms of both ideas and use of technology.

Q: How do you approach an ad? Do you have a mantra of some sort that you work by?  

Yes, I prefer to make the ad as relatable as possible to the local audience. I take insights and ideas that hit close to home. The sort of ads that people make an instant connection with! If Sri Lanka wants to strike metal globally, one way of doing that is showing them what the country is all about – capitalize on culture, values etc. That is one tried, tested and proven effective way to get noticed. That’s what I always do.

Q: You said Sri Lanka is lagging behind in terms of ideas and technology. Hasn’t the industry realized this yet and isn’t anything being done to fix the matter?

Our industry locally has some fundamental problems to begin with. We are not focused on what we want to achieve and where we want to get as an industry. If we set goals as an industry that we want to win this many golds, this many silvers etc, we might be able to get somewhere and get some recognition.

Advertising is for young people. I personally believe the older folks – I don’t want to name names – should take a backseat and let the young people work without overly interfering; better yet, stop acting like they own the industry. I’ll be retiring myself in a while because the older you get the less relevant you become in this industry.

I hear the only local advertising awards ‘Chilies’ has also been scrapped for some reason. That’s sad, actually.

As for clients, I have had the pleasure of working with some genuine clients who understand creativity but an issue that the industry is seemingly having is that creatives are too afraid to argue with clients because they are afraid for their jobs. The result of this is the mediocre and mundane ads you see everywhere today.

Q: Back when you started, people didn’t engage so much with advertisements. Now with the emergence of social media – and what is termed as Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) in internet lingo – creatives are forced to water down ads not to offend anybody? Do you have pressure from clients to make ads that get the message across without hurting anybody’s feelings? We see this problem internationally also. An example would be the recent Pepsi ad. Thought?

Yes, when I started out, people would see the ad on TV, hear it on radio or read it in the newspapers and forget it. Now since there is a platform to discuss ads, people seem to be getting offended by things for the sake of getting offended, sometimes merely for attention. Like in the case of the White Chocolate Puff ad for example, I thought it was a good idea at the point of execution, I still believe it is. The client believed it was a good idea or they wouldn’t have given us the go-ahead to begin with.

There were people who were offended by it. There were also people who thought it was funny. Creativity is subjective and you can’t simply please everybody. You still remember the ad, remember the name of the product, the ad is still spoken about, started a dialogue, of course sat well with some, sold biscuits – I’ve done my job.

That said, I appreciate feedback because it helps understand the consumers’ psyche better.

  • Agree on all points except the part about offensive content. True, there are easily offended people (or “triggered” SJWs) but am talking about the genuinely offensive content. Ad men and women need to be socially ethical, responsible and aware for the creativity they produce. After all, the ads do make a significant impact on our youth and public. If you show ads that downgrade our culture and humanity then your audience will think it’s normal and justified to do so. That Maliban ad showing offence to dark-skinned people justifies that it’s ok, but it’s not. It may have garnered attention coz of the controversy but to what consequence and damage of future generations?

  • Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

    This is why you understand the people you’re selling to before you sell something.