Advertising in Sri Lanka: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

It was somewhere in the early ’90s, and we were hiring graphic designers. There was this young lad who had come all the way from Kandy for an interview. The grey-blue cardboard file rolled in his hands had begun to peel off where his sweaty palms had held his credentials tight, in the hot and sticky climes of Colombo. He looked tired, but had a wonderfully pleasant smile that decorated his little face. A trademark smile that is so uniquely Sri Lankan.

He was just over 18. He has lost his brother to the nationalist insurgency (JVP), and was desperate to get out of Udugampola’s reign of Police brutality and terror.

I wanted to hire him. Mostly because I saw his potential. Then there was this little voice in my head that wanted to help the poor chap. I made my recommendations, and he was hired. I, instantly became his hero.

That was a time when we used to “order typesetting” from Uni-typographers and get “bromides” done from Lazerprint. Petrol, and cow-gum were two essential ingredients in running a studio; Letraset sheets, photocopies and stacks of old magazines never ran out of the studio inventory – they were there for the odd correction in any final artwork. “If you want 12pt Times Roman, look in the other magazine..!” was the norm; “cut&paste” was the order of the day. Advertising, at that time, was a true craft. It required, and demanded, craftsmanship and attention to detail. The airbrush artist was the king, the airbrush was a lot noisier than the one we find in Photoshop. With the compressor that powered the spray and with equipment such as repro cameras, the studio looked more like a garage, in the good old days.

“Align Center” was not a key-stroke – it was an arduous physical task that involved drawing tables, T-rulers, dividers, scalpels and among other things, lots of cow-gum. “Undo” simply didn’t exist. It was “Re-do” all that time.

The little “malli” (young brother, as we fondly call them youngsters in paradise – even if they are not related) was alien to such physical labour and intricate techniques, he had no formal training in design or advertising. But he possessed a wonderful sense of colour and flair for design. Educating “malli” was my pet project. I took him under my wings and began to groom him. From basics in typography to understanding colour, to design and printing, the little fella from the mountains grasped everything quickly and it was just a matter of time before he knew how to survive without any help.

I trained him to think, I got him to question the briefs. I got him to use his brains, as we much as he used his hands.

Barely a year later, he resigned and wanted to work on his own – he wanted to form his own outfit. He was confident that he could run his own business – perhaps his popularity would have given him a bit of over-confidence too early in life.

I felt sorry for the guy, he has not even mastered the craft yet. He didn’t know advertising, communication or the art of story telling. Advertising is very different from designing a logo or a pamphlet. He was in for the long haul, he had the substance to run the full marathon. Instead, he succumbed to the typical Sri Lankan “now-I-know-it-all” syndrome, too early in his life. His shoulder was too small to carry his inflated head.

As usual, we had our last session of hoppers, katta-sambal (chili-paste) and plain tea at the Muslim restaurant in upper Chatham Street, and walked to the bus-stop near Ceylinco and watched Airlanka girls give us a bit of taste of Paradise at the end of yet another long working day.

I bade him a fond farewell and wished him luck, and watched him get in to a 133 bus that drove away in to the Galle Face sunset.

A good 10 years later, I met him in Colpetty, by accident, by pure chance. He still wore the same pleasant smile – and he was still freelancing and canvassing for work.

In 1992, there were closer to 400 advertising “companies” registered in Colombo; most of them formed by the ex-agency creatives.

Today, this number must be astronomical, considering that Photoshop is a common man’s tool, and that everyone who does a crash-course in software training (Desktop Publishing – as they call it) thinks he is capable of opening an advertising company.

There is a huge difference between an “ad agency” and an “advertising company” that even some of the agency owners fail to understand. I’m not referring to the definition of the word agency, or the affiliation; I’m not referring to the unique agency culture either.

A good ad agency sells knowledge. A good ad agency sells ideas that sell goods – and builds brands, while advertising “companies” sell work. Just work, without any intelligent contribution from the creatives or the suits. Such advertising “companies” are mere suppliers whose work is strictly dictated by the client. They don’t build brands, they cannot.

They are nothing more than suppliers on the street, fighting the price-war – in a dog-fight, fighting for the bone.

Knowledge, is the primary differentiator.

Creative people who had no formal education in advertising wouldn’t know the difference between producing mediocre work and great advertising. When the majority is “uneducated” in advertising, and ignorant, the agencies have a bigger issue at their hands. Training, mentoring and guidance becomes even more so important in the Sri Lankan advertising context.

The agencies have a mammoth task in converting these raw talents in to outstanding creatives that bring them glory at the awards, and smiles at client meetings. But there is a slight snag: the current home-grown creative regime also had no formal education in advertising.

Asking the crab to get its babies to walk straight is indeed a big ask, a monumental task.

Knowledge is the differentiator. When it doesn’t exist within the agency, what do we do?

We import the Indians.

...to be continued.


  1. Interesting article! I actually worked as a paste-up artist for four years (without a college degree). Sometimes we could even go back further than Letraset and draw type or illustrations right on paper that was part of an advertisement that would then be pasted together with the rest of the paper to be photographed for the printer.

    Everyone said that knowing about computers was more important, so I gradually got quite far away from any kind of hands-on work, and eventually felt my eyes had been so strained from many years of detail work, that I could no longer safely compete in the graphics job market.

    Though I am secretary now, I still find some skills I learned in the old business valuable. It was nice to have an opportunity to be creative, and it was a source of pride to be able to put things together manually. Sometimes, I feel sad now, as if something has been lost when the computers took over: People may know all about how to do things on computers, but they may not know how to put so much together with their hands, so quickly. The downside of the pre-computer era was that your hands would get very tired.

  2. Hi Wijitha
    As close as 2004 I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly.
    A lot of the qualified creative left the industry in the 90's to start up their own businesses, not in advertising other creative fields. Two of the very best in architecture!
    But from 2004 a couple of home grown ad agencies started up with properly qualified intelligent creative. One that stands out to me is 'heen siruwe'.
    A new bunch of creative exist in Sri Lanka. All now in their 30's and our properly qualified.
    I do honestly think that it's not the Sri Lankan creative product and it's people.
    It's more about having properly qualified Client Service who can sit with a senior client and hold their end of the relationship. We sadly lack this to a great degree in Colombo and this has become a problem.
    And on the flip side, we have equally bad clients at Brand Manager levels who know nothing.
    So bullshit's spread all round in Colombo's marketing and communication meetings!
    sadly anywhere in the world, having a short skirt to carry your art work holds true. But any international successful set up will have proper suits to back their name up at senior relationships.
    That is what we really lack.
    And therefore have people recruited constantly out of India, where the market is big enough to always have a suit free to enjoy a bit of Paradise in our Motherland.

  3. @Jerry, thanks. But I’ll be away for the big match. Sorry!

    @Anonymous, thank you for sharing your story.

    @DD, Thank you. In fact D.K. (Heen Seraya) and I are from the same generation – even though we went to different schools in Colombo, we both shared some common friends and “tuition” classes. We were not buddies, but I remember him well, because he chose to wear all-white, all the time from the day his famous father passed away.

    Well, that’s on a different note.

  4. Worked with him both at Phoenix and LDB for almost five years. One of the best human beings I have met in my life!

  5. Hi,

    Just a small note to say i have read part 1 & 2. Shall blog in detail with my feedback to this. In the midst of relocating... Cheers :-)