Hubert Burda Media

Ad Man

When NIRVIK SINGH isn't telling stories through ad campaigns, he's thinking of ways to give back to the community

Ad Man

IF ONE WERE to believe hit television series Mad Men, advertising professionals are all Don Drapers with sleek backcombs and sharp suits who knock back whiskeys in the office.
But of course, the show was set in the 1960s, and much of it is fiction. Present day ad men like Chairman and CEO of Grey Group Asia Pacific Nirvik Singh, hardly lead Draper-esque lives, save for the suit. When Singh, 52, isn't dreaming up “famously effective” campaigns — the firm's benchmark of excellence, he says — at Grey's Singapore office, he spends most of his time on aeroplanes, shuttling between cities for meetings and to give talks on everything from advertising to digital start-up businesses. In fact, when we meet on a Thursday afternoon, Singh is fresh off a flight from Tokyo. “What free time?” he jests, when I casually ask about his off-duty pursuits.
The advertising business has changed over the years, perhaps more so than any other industry, Singh observes. He likens the role of early advertisers to “the voice of God beaming down to the world”, a one-way form of communication. Today, it's more of a dialogue as consumers now have the ability to give feedback. “[The industry] will keep changing,” he says. “But change for the better is always good.”
No stranger to change himself, India-born Singh relocated to Singapore four years ago after nearly two decades at Grey's Kolkata and Mumbai offices. In the mid-2000s, he helped lift the world's perception of India with his much talked-about “Incredible India” campaign. Commissioned by India's Ministry of Tourism, the ad portrayed the country as a destination for yoga, spirituality and wildlife while showcasing its rich colours. Not only did it boost tourism figures, the advertisement also scooped up a much coveted Euro Effie Award and won silver at the Asian Travel & Tourism Creative Awards 2006. “[The campaign] really resonated with me,” Singh muses, seemingly lost in the memories. “Selling a country is different from selling a brand. It had a higher purpose, which I think was great.”
These days, Singh is working towards influencing a different sort of change: Social change. In 2014, he set up Grey for Good, the company's Singapore-based philanthropic arm. This year, the division launched the Life Saving Dot campaign in collaboration with an NGO, to help the women in rural India. “To help them lead a healthier life, yet be more accepting of the daily dose of iodine they needed, we had to think of something that is familiar and a part of their daily routine,” says Singh. The solution came in the form of an iodine patch, worn as a bindi, which dispenses the daily-required amount of iodine to the wearer. The idea has won worldwide acclaim and media attention for being simple yet effective. Another initiative is the Escalator Project, which recharges batteries using dynamos attached to the turbines found inside escalators. These batteries are then used in lamps to light up homes across numerous Indian villages.
It is clear that Grey for Good is more than just a show of corporate social responsibility — it is something he is wholly passionate about. “It's not about philanthropy,” he asserts. “I really believe that with our creativity and our understanding of technology, people need to go beyond advertising and communication and look at problems and how they can help the world.”
It is hard to imagine Singh in any other line of work. Advertising is his life's calling, I comment. With a laugh, he says the original plan was to play professional cricket (yes, he is that good), but he later decided to give advertising a shot because “the advertising guys seemed to be having all the fun”.
The sport, at least, helped him score his first advertising job 28 years ago at J Walter Thompson, in his hometown of Kolkata. “[The interviewer] asked me about cricket and a few other basic questions and that was it,” he says. It was only later that he learnt that he was hired because “his shoes were polished” and “he played cricket”. “True story!” he says with a grin. “I'll tell you an even funnier story. That night, I told my grandma that I got a job in advertising and she thought I was going to paint billboards. She didn't know what advertising was.”