Nargis Wadia and Indian advertising’s “Mad Men” years

Women were an important part of the ‘60s change. Nargis Wadia didn’t want to be an air-hostess or secretary, and her mother refused to let her become a teacher or doctor. “So she sent me to JJ College to do commercial art, and from there I got into advertising” says Wadia. In 1955 she joined Shilpi, an agency managed by the poet Nissim Ezekiel. But then Air India, the most dynamic Indian client of the period, advertised for creatives for their in-house department, and she got in – the attraction being, she says, “that after a year you got free tickets!”

15219475_10154270801429220_3070678896641139490_nWadia went to London and worked in agencies there for a while before returning, to face the same problem that Sylvester had of finding a job. “I felt I deserved a salary of Rs1,000, and I had to settle for Rs750 from Lintas.” But the agency bored her. It was mostly Levers work, at its least imaginative, and not even much of that. As Alyque Padamsee, who worked with her, recalled in his biography, “Ads ran unchanged for many many years. In a campaign you might have two or three ads maximum. Six was unheard of…”

Like innumerable Lintas employees down the years, Wadia found most of her time going in making Levers presentations. “It was all just lettering, which I hated, but the good thing was that by doing it I read the presentations, and learned about marketing!” On the basis of this unorthodox training, Wadia quit to set up a design studio that, rather to her surprise, morphed into an agency. Interpub was the first agency run by a woman, and which employed a lot of women, and it was an instant hit, especially with Indian clients.

Wadia admits that some of them were, “well, yucky… they wanted me to introduce them to models.” There was no question of this, of course (and, for good measure, Wadia says all models those days were accompanied by their mothers!), but Wadia had to deflect them politely: “I had to remember that I had 20 people in the agency depending on such billings.” This is just the sort of game that Mad Men shows women having to play, asserting themselves, but never confrontationally, since it was still so much of a man’s world.

But the good thing was, for all the problems, the opportunities were there for those who hadn’t had them before. If the ‘60s gave bosses like Wadia a chance, she was also able to give others a chance too, even if they didn’t have the connections the foreign agencies needed. Wadia prides herself on the many who trained with Interpub, like erstwhile JWT creative director Ivan Arthur, and a more recent one, Agnello Dias. “I was so moved when he called me from Cannes, just after he won a Golden Lion,” she says.

Beyond the opportunities though the presence of women had a symbolic importance. In the ‘60s it was perhaps the only industry where they worked alongside men in anything like equality, and this gave it a cosmopolitan allure. Adding to this was the lifestyle – at the clubs, for example, that were part of Gerson’s covenant, with previously British only establishments like the Bombay Gymkhana now admitting Indians. There were less formal options too. Just like the jazz clubs of Mad Men, the Bombay of that era had some which Gerson remembers fondly: “Volga, Ali Baba, The Other Room at the Ambassador Hotel and The Little Hut at the Ritz…. For a meal too there were excellent places like Gourdon’s, but the real ad hangout was Bombellis.”

The above excerpt is part of a larger article. You can read the entire piece on Times of India