If there exists a tune in today’s era that can take a late 90’s kid back to their childhood then it’s the Airtel tune that AR Rahman composed and played on his harmonica at an airport. The joy in that age to make this melody a ringtone by pressing the asterisk on the keypad is still unmatched.
Hemant Sachdev, the then chief marketing officer and director of Airtel, shares, “When there’s integrity in any creative product, it creates a life of its own and you don’t have to sell it.”
Rediffusion DY&R had conceptualized this campaign. Gullu Sen, who played an instrumental role in the making, shares how tough it was to convince AR Rahman to appear on the screen.
“AR Rahman had never done an ad before. The feedback we got after approaching him was he wasn’t interested in featuring in a commercial because he was too shy. This became a major roadblock for us.”
Sen and team further decided to talk to him but another obstacle came into being. Rahman was working with Andrew Lloyd Webber for Bombay Dreams in London which was extremely critical for his career.
Sachdev and Sen flew to Webber’s studio in London to convince him to be a part of this commercial. The two assured the singer he wouldn’t have to be someone else but himself.
“Rahman met us and said ‘So why do you want me for an ad film? I’m so ugly’. That was his innocence of him. I told him Rahman we’re not choosing you. We’re choosing music,” says Sachdev.
Rahman suggested using a celebrity’s face and letting him stick to the composition of the tune only. The brand did not agree to the same and persisted on their idea of featuring the singer himself
Sen says, “For weeks we didn’t hear back from him. Later we were told he had been to Mecca and when he was back he magically agreed to do it.”
Sen jokingly remarks, “Probably he got the permission from the universe above.”
Further, Rajiv Menon produced the ad and the ad was all set to be shot in London. Even Rahman wanted to work with someone he was comfortable with, considering this was his first appearance on screen.
Coverage and voice clarity are the two main aspects a network brand looks for in order to communicate with its consumers. Sandeep Goyal, managing director, Rediffusion shares, “Airtel specifically wanted to take the high ground on voice clarity. That is how the thought of roping in Rahman was brought. His voice from him was such that it could be heard and felt across borders.
“Rahman was a genius and not in one but in many ways. He took technology and he made it the soul of music,” adds Sachdev.
A brand owns an IPR either through visual images or audio. Sen says, “We decided we needed to create something in the audio space this time. The brand wanted to be associated via sound with its users and have a Pan-India reach.”
Sachdev shares, “The tagline was ‘Live every moment’. So the whole concept was if you have a mobile phone, you’re actually living every moment.”
When it comes to the music composition, Sen shares one good quality of Rahman is he presents a couple of tunes and whatever feedback one gives, whether it works or doesn’t, he will patiently listen to it and go back to reworking on it. He will never try to defend his work from him.
The shoot too wasn’t a piece of cake. Sen shares how there was unexpected pelting rain on the day of shooting at the London airport and Rahman had a tough schedule due to his ongoing work for Saathiya, Rajnikanth’s movie and Mani Ratnam’s movie.
Sen shares, “Finally, due to paucity of time the DOP did a commendable job and shot the ad amidst the rain at such an angle that you can never notice the rain in the background.”
In the last scene, when the kid who was seen crying in the beginning appears again in the park, Rahman thanks him. This improvisation was added later. Sachdev recalls, “I said Rahman we must come across as a humble brand. So when the kid re-appears in the park, say a quiet thank you to him.”
Sachdev remembers the brand wanted to convey confidence along with humility and that’s why the back shot comes ’16 states. 600 million customers’. “We were also showing that we are very large. But we didn’t want to be seen as large and arrogant.”
Once the ad was out, not only did a certain section of Indians adore this tune but they also made it the most downloaded ringtone across the globe back then. The ROI went up by two times and not only the revenue share but the market share too shot up.
Sachdev recalls, “Someone called me up to tell me a driver’s reverse tune of his Maruti in Kufri was this airtel tune. Can you imagine!”
“With this tune not only did the mobile phone cut across demographics, but Airtel became loved by all demographics,” adds Sen.
“On this film, we spent only five crores and there was no digital media like YouTube carrying it. Just in five crores itself it created such a buzz,” Sachdev adds.
Lastly, if there is something that could be changed about the ad, Sen says he would do things very differently. “There were a lot of things I didn’t want but they happened. I think we could have done a better job because the forces of nature weren’t on our side but the time was restricted. In retrospect, every job can be done better but what matters is that the main purpose was served.”
“We wanted to register the tune in everyone’ mind and that happened very well,” Sen concludes.
Watch the ad here: