Ian Pullen

Precise copy

38 years ago David Ogilvy packed me off to India to help set up Ogilvy Direct.

He loved India, and I came to – largely because of Sridhar Ramanathan the boss of the new outfit.

A wonderful man, he took me (and my wife) up and down the country twice.

Here’s a story he told me that I bet you can learn from.

It teaches that your clients not only understand their business than you. They may understand marketing better too.

William Blake, the great poet, and painter, once said, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”

What he was saying in his vehement way was – be precise.

This story proves he was right.

I asked Sridhar how he married his wife Viji. Were marriages still arranged in India? Or was it a love match?

He said it was arranged and 70% of marriages were still arranged

Then he told me this.

Wanted. A Brahmin bridegroom for a girl under 23.

He had written an article in “Business India” on Direct Marketing – hoping to get more business.

The next day an elderly, distinguished person came to his door with his wife.

Sridhar saw he carried a copy of “Business India” and was intrigued. .

He invited the man in and said: “Can I help you?” Here’s how the conversation went.

“I have a daughter who is ready to get married. And last week I placed a matrimonial ad in the papers. I am very disappointed with the response.”

It’s very common in India to advertise for your bride. That’s how Sridhar found his wife.

The man continued: “Then I saw this article. You seem to have done something for a restaurant, a blood bank, and some computer. I wonder if you could raise responses for a matrimonial ad.”

He then gave Sridhar a fifteen-minute lecture on how hard it was to get girls married – and why as a last resort he had thought of advertising.

Sridhar asked for a copy of the advertisement.

It said:

Wanted: Brahmin bridegroom, for a well-accomplished South Indian girl under 23. Reply Box No.

Sridhar: “You said the response is poor.”

“Of course, it is bloody poor. I got three replies. One is from a widower. One is from a Kashmiri Brahmin. The third is from a boy who is just 23. Too young.”

“Look, my daughter is an MSc. first class. This chap should at least have a good degree. Of course, he must have a good job. And he must be the right age. She is 23.”

So they wrote the ad again:

Wanted: a well-educated, well-employed bridegroom around 27 for a 23-year-old South Indian Brahmin MSc. Reply…

This was rejected by the man’s wife because it didn’t say anything about horoscopes, which are important in India.

Also, it didn’t say if they were looking for an Iyer or an Iyengar bridegroom – two different types of Brahmins.

The girl was fairly slim and very fair. The more traditional Indians are very concerned about whether people are fair or dark (a common concern in many cultures, if you are politically correct.)

So they had to allow for this and that the girl was a very good Carnatic Music Singer. Thus, the son-in-law must appreciate music.

The girl was also an officer in the State bank with a good salary. And she was the only daughter of a well-to-do industrialist. On the other hand, she didn’t mind settling abroad.

So they rewrote it again:

Wanted: a well-educated, well employed, Iyengar bridegroom around 27, for a 23-year-old, 5’6″ very fair, slim, South Indian Brahmin MSc. Bank Officer. An accomplished Carnatic singer. The only daughter of a successful industrialist. The girl is willing to settle abroad. Reply with horoscope…

They showed the wife the draft again. This time Sridhar was hoping it would go through.

But she was a demanding client. She rejected it again. It didn’t say anything about lineage.

So there had to be another qualification – non-Bharadwaja – which means nothing to me, but meant a lot to them. This is how the ad then read:

Wanted: a well educated, well employed non-Bharadwaja Iyengar bridegroom around 27, for a 23-year-old South India very fair, slim, 5’6″ MSc Bank Officer. Well accomplished Carnatic singer. The only daughter of a successful industrialist. The girl is willing to settle abroad. Reply with horoscope…

Then the lady turned to choosing the media.

“Where did you place your last ad?”

“Times of India in Bombay,” said the husband.

“Quite wrong” said the lady. “You should have gone into the Hindu. Even in Bombay the type we are looking for will buy the Hindu every Sunday only for the matrimonial ads. Make sure you release it on a Sunday.”

So the media schedule was settled. But what about the timing?

“We can get it in next Sunday”, Sridhar said.

“No, no”, said the lady. “This is the month of Ashada. Nobody ever contemplates marriage this month. So you wouldn’t get any replies.

And another thing. Do you think you could get a Madras Box Number? Because I think you will get better replies.”

“How much would it cost?” asked her husband.

“About Rs. 390,” said Sridhar

“My God. If I only got three replies, each reply would cost me Rs. 130.”

His wife said “So what? Why are you bothered about numbers? If you get one worthwhile alliance, won’t that be enough?”

A few weeks later the gentleman called Sridhar and said:

“You know that ad you did for us. We released it in the Hindu two weeks ago and got nearly 40 replies. There are at least seven worthwhile. Thanks a lot.”

Sridhar confessed to having squirmed on getting this compliment.

He realised his clients had contributed most. They’d taught him quite a lesson about targeting and writing an ad that worked.

You should benefit from this story for three reasons.

First, it shows that no matter what country you are in, your clients can often teach you a lesson.

Second, it shows that the more precise your copy, the better you will do – that usually means making it longer.

And third – the quality of the reply often matters more than the cost.