Abhishek Karnani, Director, Free Press Journal, and Santosh ‘Paddy’ Padhi, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Taproot Dentsu, tells Creative Brands about how they embarked on one of the longest running print campaigns ever, in turn redefining branding, messaging, and social responsibility, especially during a global pandemic. A highly evolved and consistent sense of commitment to one vision is what bound the two protagonists together in the project.

Welcome to The Future’s Here special series hosted by Creative Brands. The Future’s Here showcases leaders, thinkers, and trend setters from the creative industry, namely advertising, media, communication, and branding.

My name is K.G. Sreenivas and I am Editor-in-Chief of Creative Brands, a portal that covers the global creative industry and economy.

Today, we have with us Abhishek Karnani, Director, Free Press Journal, under whose leadership, the Journal continues to uphold the public cause. We also have Santosh Paddy, Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of Taproot Dentsu. Paddy, a highly decorated creative leader, acclaimed globally, needs no introduction. Together, Abhishek and Paddy have gently ushered in new frontiers of publishing and advertising.

At 90, The Free Press Journal is one of the most vibrant daily newspapers of India, published from Mumbai. In 1928, when Swaminathan Sadanand, a 30-year-old idealist from Madras, first published a newspaper it was as unorthodox and innovative as it could get. For Sadanand, who went on to become a legend in Indian journalism, the Free Press Journal was not so much a business venture as a cause — something which continues to be the very reason of its existence. Free Press stood at the forefront of the freedom struggle against the British and continues to live up to its name — as a practitioner of fearless journalism. Among the paper’s founders was Independence activist Stalin Srinivasan, who founded Manikodi in 1932. Bal Thackeray was a cartoonist at the newspaper. The legendary R. K. Laxman also doodled for The Free Press Journal. T.J.S. George, the founder-editor of Asiaweek, worked with Sadanand himself. A long list of illustrious journalists cut their teeth at The Free Press Journal. Among them are M. V. Kamath, M. J. Akbar, S. A. Sabavala, Shankar, Dom Moraes, Edathatta Narayanan, M. V. Mathhew, and many others.

Abhishek and Paddy, welcome to show:

K.G. Sreenivas: We begin with Abhishek. We live in extraordinary times — when every aspect of life — material, the day-to-day, and the philosophical stand challenged. No assumption can today be taken for granted. At Free Press Journal, how have you gone about both seeking and lending perspective?

AK: Sreeni, inevitably it’s been the most hectic time that we have lived so far — the new normal  — so, there have been a lot of things we have done, brought in a lot of innovations with the help of Taproot. So we have run one of the longest print campaigns ever — we are talking about 67 advertisements (at the time of the interview) continuously on a daily basis that we ran. It’s actually in a touched a chord with our readers. There were so many issues that we were unaware of and we needed awareness, so we used simple creatives but very very impactful. The response we got made us think of continuing it on a long-term basis whenever there was a cause or there was an issue that we needed to highlight. And that we would use the creatives that Paddy (Santosh Padhi) and his team have done.

So apart from that, also at a time, when all publishers have gone behind the paywall we wanted to make sure that the newspaper was the most trusted medium. We were the only publishers who clarified that we were perfectly fine with people downloading and sharing PDF versions of our newspaper. We are almost on all platforms, so people are sharing, in fact, we got a couple of million views on our e-paper! So, it’s been a heartening experience. We have been doing a lot of work and all for a cause for which we stand.

KGS: Has it translated into higher readership for the print version of Free Press Journal?

AK: Yes indeed! In fact, at a time when probably people are so used to your morning newspaper with your tea and somehow you don’t get it and then publishers stopped allowing people to probably share them… So, in terms of reach and in terms of reaching out to people we are probably ten times our physical numbers. And you know Bombay is very unique in that Maharashtra is the only state, where the government came up and said that no door to door delivery! So, most of the people in other parts of the country have almost reached 70% of circulation numbers and we are still struggling between 40-50% in Bombay. So, if you look at our additional numbers, I can easily say that our digital readership has gone up ten times.

KGS: Given the times, that’s an accomplishment where most newspapers are probably struggling to make ends meet, have you retained people or have you had to make such tough decisions of letting go off people at this time?

AK: So Sreeni, we have had probably only about 10% retrenchment and we did take a pay cut in the last two months, but we are inching back and I think so by this month everyone will get back to their normal salaries that they were getting pre-Covid.

KGS: Paddy, you said earlier that Abhishek gave you a free hand in running this campaign. How did you go about interpreting the brief of the freedom that Abhishek gave you?

Paddy: I think most creatives crib that the brief isn’t clear, or that it’s a complicated brief, or that there are too many things being asked in the brief! So, how do I narrow down the brief into one single thing which can be blown up in a nice, exciting way — that is the question. But sometimes when the client gives you an open brief, it’s equally a challenge because you don’t know which way to head to. So I always prefer the latter because after spending so many years in the industry you know the pulse of consumer, you know what the brand needs, and Abhishek and I go a long way; in fact, we have done many campaigns together, so I exactly know what we need to communicate as a brand. But we never thought that this would become the longest print campaign ever — something that started as the standard 3-4 or at best 5-7 ad campaign.

But as we dove deeper, we discovered newer issues were cropping up in relation to Covid-19, we realised that the consumer needed to be messaged in a fresh, engaging, and interesting manner about precautionary measures they needed to take. So, the initial phase of this campaign was all about its precautionary measure but as we passed 10-12 days, we realised that there were many issues that the consumer needed to be told through this simple medium, which is print, and through a simple execution of creativity. Slowly, but surely, the campaign kept rolling like an organic thing and when I look back and survey this series of ads, I feel we did something unbelievable.

KGS: This question is to both of you. Abhishek, in terms of journalism, creativity and so on you have ushered in a certain sort of radical journalism the most striking example of which appeared on your front page in response to people taking the danger of corona virus lightly — you struck out words such as pandemic, corona, virus and so on. Abhishek and Paddy, how did you strike upon this idea and how did this come to you and how did you go about executing it?

Paddy: As I said we really jammed very well and after handling Times of India for many years we knew the category very well. I am a big fan of print — print was the medium that allowed me to unleash my creativity in my initial days. So, I have huge respect for the medium not only because it has done good to me but also to the country and to brands. We always make it a point to tell the world that print is not dead and that there is an intense amount of innovation that you can do especially in today’s era. So, whenever an idea comes to our minds, we bounce it off each other and explore how can we deliver it. In fact, as soon as the lockdown was lifted, people started behaving as though corona had gone out of our lives! So when we observed this behaviour on the first day itself, I quickly called Abhishek the next day and asked him if had observed something weird. He said, ‘yes look at the ridiculous way people are behaving… we should send them a message’. I said why can’t we just send this message to the consumer in an interesting and engaging way where we don’t create an ad but the product becomes an ad — a medium to speak to them directly.

So, we cancel out every single word that is related to this unwanted pandemic whether its quarantine, Corona, Covid everything and tell them if you really want to get rid of it we really have to follow certain protocols, certain precautionary measures. The whole intent of the innovative campaign was to persuade please to follow those precautionary measures and that only by doing that would we all be able to cancel out corona from our lives. So, it was a great reminder.

So, we cancel out every single word
that is related to this unwanted pandemic whether its quarantine, Corona, Covid everything and tell them if you really want to get rid of it we really have to follow certain protocols, certain precautionary measures. The whole intent of the innovative campaign was to persuade please to follow those precautionary measures and that only by doing that would we all be able to cancel out corona from our lives. So, it was a great reminder.

Though it looked very simple, I think I should say hats off to Abhishek’s team because the edition needs to go out by 12 o’clock and you have to invest many many hours to cancel out words because the current software which they use doesn’t allow you to do that. So, between their team and our team, we somehow managed it pull it off between 11 PM and 1.30 AM. As I just said it looked very simple, but it’s one of the most critical things because you have to ensure the page is readable. At the same time, you have to carry your idea across effectively. The entire exercise meant a lot of innovation, and we got some fabulous feedback from our readers. People just loved the simplicity because even as it appealed to the middle class guy, it appealed to guys staying on Peddar Road! So it was a campaign that hit a wider range of target audience to make that one simple little point in a very interesting way.

KGS: Abhishek, two quick things: one, what was the reader response you got, and two, how did you carry the editorial along, how did the news editor, the resident editor, and the editors on the desk react to this and how did you pull this off?

AK: So Sreeni, we have been working with Paddy’s team for almost a year and a half and you know his passion for print is amazing. Everything we know he has come up with is among the simplest of things and that simplicity, I believe, has always been most the most effective. So, there was just a small note which came from Paddy saying what they wanted to do and I just forwarded that to our editor and he just said “wow”! He understood and could probably envision readers’ reaction. Good ideas have a viral effect! The idea was very simple but as Paddy mentioned to you it took a lot of training, a lot of nights, you know, probably for my production guys to go through so that we actually delivered on time without any error in the product. We started by thinking we would just do it on Page 1, but then ended up doing it for the whole paper, so that was probably the best thing that could have happened to do from Page 1 to the last page.

Good ideas have a viral effect! The idea
was very simple but as Paddy mentioned to you it took a lot of training, a lot of nights, you know, probably for my production guys to go through so that we actually delivered on time without any error in the product. We started by thinking we would just do it on Page 1, but then ended up doing it for the whole paper, so that was probably the best thing that could have happened to do from
Page 1 to the last page.

On the other hand, we are trying to bring down the Chinese wall between print and web in our organisation. Because of the era we are living in, Sreeni, the print guys also understand the importance of probably having a cohesive presence on physical and digital. Digital helps amplification. So, we are trying to probably have one team which looks at both the things together and it should work beautifully.

KGS: So, this probably should be a first globally. I don’t think we have had any newspaper doing this act of deletion on every single page!

AK: It’s probably true. I haven’t come across any editor letting anyone get in the way of journalism! But you know, Sreeni, something which I would like to talk about is we have been lucky in terms of integrating digital and print as I had mentioned. The print guys are going digital and thinking digital,  so we are able to work together and interact together. The mindset is also changing in print. For example, during the lockdown as we sought to influence policy, we tied up with IIM Indore and did a webinar series with senior corporate leaders at the end of which we had planned to come out with a report on the fate of the industry which needs changes in policy response from the government. So, what we do in print amplified through digital.

KGS: Paddy this one is for you. No newspaperman on earth will let his creative tamper  with the masthead which is absolutely sacrosanct. But you dared to do it. Yes, in the past, newspapers have worked around the masthead but purely from a commercial perspective. You ushered in what you called ‘Free Water’, ‘Free Education’ and so on while playing on the paper’s masthead depending on themes of the day… How did you persuade Abhishek to do that?

PADDY: I think we started off a year and a half back with that campaign because I always feel that a brand like Free Press which has so much of legacy. But, in today’s brand world, I always keep telling Abhishek that we need to be a little more aggressive and have our presence felt a lot more compared to some of the more visible brands like Times of India or Hindustan Times. Lately, I have had a lot of comments and messages commending me on the “fantastic idea” and as to why I didn’t propose it to a bigger brand. I said ‘why do you feel a smaller brand can’t do cutting-edge work and why only the big brother can do it’! All the more reason why a Free Press Journal ought to do cutting-edge work because the entire system they have, led by Abhishek and teams, allows us to do more cutting-edge whereas bigger brands have more hierarchy and a more problematic system to let creativity flow freely.

So, a year and half back we thought of this idea something which Abhishek has always been open to. I remember, six months ahead of the elections, he had said ‘if you have a fantastic campaign, please come up with it, I don’t want to do a cliché thing of telling people go and vote’. Unfortunately, I think  we couldn’t crack anything that was very different but the brand was always on my mind and whenever I would have some time on my hands, I used to think over it. It was then then that the masthead idea struck me — the Journal has the ‘Free’ word in it that triggered this idea. As a society, we need many things that should be freely available and here is a newspaper that has been talking about such things for many years — about people’s rights and what they should be getting as citizens of India. Question was so why can’t we change our masthead on a particular thematic day and write articles around that issue, be it water, school, food, or sport. We did around 7 or 8 of them and we had the first two pages dedicated to the cause. We were more positive in terms of the tonality of what we should be doing to solve the problem rather than just ranting about the problem.

As a society, we need many things that should be freely available and here is a newspaper that has been talking about such things for many years — about people’s rights and what they should be getting as citizens of India. Question was so why can’t we change our masthead on a particular thematic day and write articles around that issue, be it water, school, food, or sport. We did around 7 or 8 of them and we had the first two pages dedicated to the cause.

So, I clearly remember Abhishek telling me that it’d be a task for him to convince his board to drop the masthead. It’s a 90 year old brand and I don’t think too many brands in the world would dare do that ever because of many technical issues. But I think Abhishek is more aggressive than me and gives me that kind of freedom. It’s because of him that we were pull it all off — be the ‘Free’ initiative, or the ‘cancel Corona’ campaign, or this kind of long-running print campaign. It has given me an edge in terms of pushing other clients them harder! I must thank Abhishek for inculcating this mindset in me!

KGS: Abhishek, but how did you manage to run this past the Board of Directors as well as the Registrar of Newspapers of India — I mean changing the masthead altogether, even if it was for a day?

AK: So, I had to mull over it for long before actually proposing it to the board. But, you know, I told the board this was what we wanted to do and in a way they were pretty okay with it because we are living in an era where you know brands like Amazon or Flipkart change their mastheads more often than not — something that was unthinkable 10 years or 15 years ago. For us, it was indeed a challenge, but I think probably because the whole idea revolved around a cause it made it easier. When we needed to make an impact and the only way we could have done so was to be a little different,  and the way to be different was to make sure people around you turn around and look at you in a different way.

KGS: Abhishek, now to the question of commerce. You have run these ads for free. But there are so many challenges — you need cash, hard cash to run a newspaper. How have you sustained yourself, have you had more ads come to the newspaper or enquiries from potential advertisers?

AK: So Sreeni, probably in the month of April, obviously, it was the most disastrous while in May we did pick up a bit. June, I believe, was good for everyone because there was plenty of demand. Besides, a lot of government campaigns also came in during the month so we are seeing that people are getting prepared with their creatives, probably ready to start their campaigns and are looking for the right time — as you know we are going through unpredictable times. But we do see a buzz and people are talking and ready to spend but, of course, that is yet to happen in a realistic manner.

KGS: Paddy what are you further dreams for Free Press Journal?

PADDY: We have already started inspiring many other brands in the last one and a half years. I think we are living in an era of short memory where you have to keep on creating work for the brand or the agency, because you are only as good as what you have done in your last work. So, advertising is something that creates a ‘stickiness’ in the consumer’s mind — it creates a bond with the consumer’s mind. So, it’s very important for us purely from the brand point of view to keep on upping our communication and innovation. We need to keep on pushing the boundaries every single time and I don’t think we have done something out of the world which the world will feel ashamed of. So if you ask me, we want to create campaigns that will make the world think what the hell are we doing… if it’s coming from a brand like Free Press, I want to create really authentic work that will move many big brands and I always believe when two people are clear about the brand and the agency are clear about where they want to head I think everything falls in place and I am glad that Abhishek and me are on same wavelength when it comes to taking the brand to another level.

KGS: Abhishek, a final question to you: What is a future of print? I mean there has been so many debates around the subject. We have great institutions like the Washington Post shutting down print. The challenges are too many to withstand, you need money to run the newspaper, you need money to pay people. Abhishek, can we hold print and run?

In India, I think for another 10 to 15 years people would still want the physical copy. In fact, there was a big demand during the Covid time also. People are still either looking or waiting for the physical copy! Our distribution system also allows us to probably manage things more beautifully compared to other countries. Again, you know, the idea is we should not have the Chinese wall within the system, so that good stories get amplified on digital.

AK: Sreeni, India is a little different story compared to when we look at the print industry across the globe. In India, I think for another 10 to 15 years people would still want the physical copy. In fact, there was a big demand during the Covid time also. People are still either looking or waiting for the physical copy! Our distribution system also allows us to probably manage things more beautifully compared to other countries. Again, you know, the idea is we should not have the Chinese wall within the system, so that good stories get amplified on digital. So, it works beautifully when we don’t keep print, digital, or anything separate. Together, I think it’s a wonderful thing we are seeing probably in our organization happening.

KGS: Paddy, just one quick question to you. You spoke about innovating. You have had the opportunity to interact with the younger demography, say for example, college going students, some of whom have responded to your campaigns in interesting ways. What has been the feedback from that demography?

Paddy:  If you look at all the initiatives, Sreeni, one of the purposes of the Covid campaign that we did was to bring down the age of the brand. It was a brand campaign although it was obviously a public-service brand campaign. But the rendering was simple, minimal, and very Instragrammish although it was not by default but by design. That’s how we as a brand become younger although we have a legacy of 92 years behind us. But if we were to talk to a youngster, how could our tonality be ‘young’? Hence each of this 67 ads that we carried in a logo form bore a colour palette, sensibility, design, and minimalism that would appeal to the young. I don’t think youngsters have the time to go through even a 30-odd word copy! So, we made sure that none of our headline would be more than 10 to 12 words, and that the graphic would appeal to youngsters. Because once it’s young it will also appeal to people like you and me who also believe that we also young at heart. That way, it was purposely designed to appeal to the young. I think youngsters today stand for many causes and that’s what made us realise that as a brand we should also stand for something. That was a conscious decision, so that without losing our existing customers, we could also add some of these youngsters too to our palette!