The choice between being clever vs. being useful.

“I was terrible at it. There were 25 students in the class. I would be the 26th if there was a ranking for that. I used to be the butt of all the jokes in the class. And that broke me quite a bit,” Prem candidly reveals in our conversation about his journey. This was a snapshot of his experiences in entrance prep classes where students were jostling to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology, the holy grail for all aspiring Indian engineers.

How then did this small-town boy from Tirunelveli and Madurai become one of India’s most sought out advertising planners? What was the journey that made him? We were talking about these stories.

Prem’s journey begins, as does many stories of Indian middle-class kids who grew up in the 1980s. Middle-class parents who got their son the best education they could get.

His school was an unusual world from his family’s life. It was a British school built by the British for their people in the days of the Raj. Prem talks about the school with a swimming pool which was an unimaginable luxury even for city kids. And teachers who encouraged kids to not take what they learned in the books at face value. But to actually question things. A trait that even today, Indian kids don’t realize that much in schools. But something that has helped every thinker or strategist in his craft.

Then comes the entire engineering and entrance examination rat race. And this is where Prem meets the Chennai kids who are mass-preparing for the IIT exams as they are known. And he discovers that while he was a decent student in Madurai, in Chennai with these students with their relentless focus on making it to the IITs, he felt out of place in the class. And he felt a disconnect with that method of teaching as well.

Somehow, he gets selected in the Kerala Engineering entrance exam and gets into Engineering college, where he sees a world outside IIT. However, he soon realizes that he is not cut out to be an Engineer. After a crisis in his early semesters and wanting to quit, he comes back and takes a momentous decision which makes college life a thrill. Rather than focus on his studies, he makes friends, plays sports, makes drinking buddies, and enjoys the life of college itself. And strangely enough, he graduated engineering too.

An interest in advertising kindled by his uncle and an aversion to Engineering ensured that he joined the business school in Symbiosis, Pune. His first introduction to the world of advertising is in his summer internship at JWT. Enamored about a world where every day you get to put yourself in different consumers’ shoes, to empathize with them, Prem decides to go all-in with advertising.

He joins Mudra Chennai as an account management executive without a salary. And betting that he would show value and earn his salary in a few months. And he finds his joy in being part of the creative process.

To sit with a creative person or anyone in the agency trying to come up with an innovative idea is a messy process of not knowing but tinkering, conversing in meandering conversations, and someone hits upon an idea. Prem is a firm believer in being part of the team. While he doesn’t shy away from the evident joy that comes from his own idea rising to the top, he says that often just being part of that process still gives him pleasure.

He believes in a life mantra to choose to be helpful, to help the creative process. Rather than seek individual glory. And serendipitously, he has found himself in an environment that encourages creative development in this manner. Unlike the western world, where the planner can also be a star in the boardroom, people who present to impress, Prem’s natural approach is to look to connect. To establish what he calls a “joint vulnerability.” One that breaks down barriers and pretenses, and the truth can emerge.

He advocates enthusiasm as one of the core traits of a successful person, especially a strategic planner. That and a cultivated ability to empathize with others. It will get you a lot of the way to success.

He recollected when he realized that he could listen, bond with others, understand their motivations, and then retell these stories powerfully to others in such a way that others could be inspired. A day when he realizes that as a country, India may overemphasize the logical skills, and at least in his chosen domain, some of the human abilities like listening, empathy, and storytelling were more important.

Prem underlines this by saying that many of the logical tasks can be done better by machines in artificial intelligence. Still, human traits like empathy, connecting with people will be the areas where AI will find it hardest to emulate. Because inconsistency, fuzziness, and creating empathy, having a shared vulnerability are all human tendencies.

All of which Prem so beautifully embodies. Grab a cup of coffee, settle down on your favorite couch. This is one video you will want to watch again and again.

The Human Side Conversation with Prem Narayan, Chief Strategy Officer, Ogilvy India
Navin Narayanan is a partner at Centre of Gravity. He leads HumanWorks, the school of Centre of Gravity where we teach the philosophy and method of Human-Centered Thinking and its allied skills.

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