The 10 best Indian ads of 2021

It struck me recently that since I write about new ad campaigns so very frequently I could also make a Top 10 ads list to summarize a calendar year!

And since I meticulously make a note of every single ad I see (whether I write about it or not), I counted the exact number of Indian (video, on TV/digital; not including print ads) ads I have watched in 2021 – 754, to be precise! Add global ads, and the number goes to 2,221!

So, 754 seems like a good enough number to make a top 10 for the year 2021. But I thought about it further – what should a top 10 be based on?

After all, I already make annual top 10s (top 30, actually) for my music blog every year and have been doing that for 14 years! With music, I shunned the popular narratives around the top 10 since they are being done by enough people already – not based on supposed commercial success (usually based on radio play, if being made an FM station, or YouTube views, and so on) or the success of the movies they were featured in. Instead, I simply went with my perspective – which songs did I like the most?

That seems like a good approach to the top 10 ads too.

Ideally, they should be about effectiveness/impact if I was going to title it, ‘The 10 best Indian ads of 2021’. After all, the very point of advertising is not to create art, like movies – it is to sell a point of view/perception or a product or service. But then, the impact is also a function of the amount of money thrown at the ad by the brand (media budget) – the more, the better, for a good ad.

But who would have the data on effectiveness? The brands, and the agencies – not me 🙂 So, effectiveness, as criteria, is out.

Should it be about virality – or reach/engagement? This could be a function of media spends too.

So, like my music list, the top 10 Indian ads list too seemed best based on a perspective – my view on the insight behind the ad, the narrative/creative device used for specific purposes, and simply making something worth sitting through.

And so, since 754 Indian ads seem like a good enough universe to choose from, here are my top 10.

  1. Cadbury Dairy Milk #GoodLuckGirls (Agency: Ogilvy India)

Ogilvy’s Piyush Pandey called the new Cadbury Dairy Milk ad a ‘retake’ and not a ‘remake’. That sums up the most enjoyably topical ad of 2021 aptly. The simple twist was staring at all of us, but it took Ogilvy to get Cadbury to back the new version and launch it with the perfect context of India’s progressively successful women’s cricket team’s ongoing performance.

The ad works on two layers: for those who are aware of the original 1993 ad, it works on the power of nostalgia. And for those who do not have lived-in memory of the original, it works simply as an ad celebrating women in cricket and leads them to watch the older ad given the phenomenal attention the new ad garnered.

Of course, like everything else, this ad faced the ‘this is tokenism’ criticism too and found it pertinent enough to counter.

  1. Amazon Diwali #DeliverTheLove (Agency: Amazon in-house)

While brands of all kinds mined COVID-related ailments and suffering to sell their wares, few dared to use the horrendous tragedy that befell India at the peak of the second wave of 2021, during the months of March-April-May. Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale’s ‘Aayushi‘ told the story of a nurse who helped a COVID-affected pregnant woman deliver in a truly Indian sense – with emotions overflowing (well-intended). But this incident could have been situated even during 2020 when the fear of COVID was high.

But one brand truly dared to go where other brands feared going given the ‘negativity’ surrounding that period – directly into the peak second wave zone when there was a dire shortage of hospital beds and oxygen availability. Amazon’s Diwali ad addressed this time period beautifully, with so much grace.

  1. CRED Great for the good, ft. Rahul Dravid (Agency: DDB Mudra + Tanmay Bhat, Devaiah Bopanna, Puneet Chadha, Nupur Pai, and Vishal Dayama)

I had written about CRED’s 2020 campaign theme: ‘Not everyone gets it’. It did not work for me.

But CRED’s 2021 campaign was something else! It was almost like the company had completely given up on relevance and were literally trolling the audience by providing a meme-worthy material that you cannot afford to ignore or be indifferent to 🙂

If you think about it logically, the ad’s creative device is completely nuts! Jim Sarbh starts the ad by saying, ‘When you pay your credit card bills on CRED, you earn CRED coins. Use them to claim cashback and rewards’. In other words, he is simply stating the obvious. But then, he goes, ‘I know this sounds ridiculous, it’s like saying Rahul Dravid has anger issues!’. Shouldn’t the follow-up to something so obvious (as what CRED does) be about something equally obvious about Rahul Dravid (like his test scores or something)? Instead, countering normal logic, the follow-up is about something extraordinary (even though CRED’s basic pitch is anything but extraordinary)!

But that leap of logic helps mount the most enjoyable advertising moment of 2021, something that no one in India would have expected in their wildest dreams! 🙂

The worst that could happen to a brand’s advertisement is not that people may hate or dislike it – it is that people may be indifferent to it! CRED’s ad takes that very seriously and aims for just one thing – something that you cannot be indifferent to, at any cost.

  1. Kotak Karma – Girl Power is Gold Power (Agency: Enormous Brands)

Kotak launched this ad for the Olympics and the insight is absolutely fantastic! The way the narrative juxtaposes the Indian family obsession with buying gold as soon as a girl is born and piling on to that obsession with the girl’s marriage as the end goal… with our girls winning/earning their own gold at sports/Olympics was remarkably creative!

To add significant credibility, the ad features badminton doubles specialists, Ashwini Ponnappa, Gold Medal winner at the Commonwealth Games 2010, and N. Sikki Reddy, Gold medalist at the South Asian Games 2016, along with a collaboration with Gopichand Academy.

  1. Tanishq – Marriage Conversations (Agency: Dentsu Webchutney)

After being pilloried for no fault of theirs in 2020 (See: Tanishq’s Ekatvam, the oneness, broken) and in 2021 with even more bigoted minds finding fault with the missing bindi in some of their print ads, Tanishq came back strongly with a thought-provoking and conversation-inducing ad towards the end of the year.

Dentsu Webchutney’s narrative device, using conversations between people about to marry, dares to go in directions that are probably happening in real life but seldom shown in pop culture because of how ‘negative’ they may seem in the world of pop culture or advertising. But, the ad, that too for a ‘happy’ brand selling wedding jewelry, enters the human conversation and makes the brand strictly incidental in the narrative, but endears itself as the instigator of the much-needed ‘conversations’.

  1. Bhima – Pure as love (Agency: Animal)

The second jewelry brand on this list (and not the last!) that puts an interesting, topically relevant, and less spoken-about narrative idea above functional product selling, much like Tanishq’s wedding conversations. Though one could argue about ‘tokenism’ here considering there is nothing more than this ad from the brand on this theme, this effort comes across as a welcome break in the convention.

And that the brand and agency roped in a real trans woman to play the lead role makes it even better. The ad generated a lot of conversations for the choice of the lead and perhaps less about the brand itself, but that’s still a significant victory considering the hate, ignorance, and myopia around these topics.

I’m still trying to find out the name of the music composer of the ad and the singer of that simple melody. They add significant appeal to the narrative!

  1. Platinum Evara – Very Rare. Very You. (Agency: Famous Innovations)

The third, and last, jewelry brand on this list (from someone who personally has zero interest in both the category and its products, at that!). It’s heartening to see a brand ad unabashedly celebrate independent thought, action, and indulgence by women, and for an appropriate product category given the costs involved. Of course, all they are doing is selling their wares (literally), but given the paucity of brands that showcase independent women taking their own indulgent, impulsive decisions (a very common narrative for products targeted at men), this is immensely welcome.

The writing makes the ad totally worth it!
“No special occasion.
No big reason.
Just like that.
Didn’t ask for anyone’s approval. Didn’t feel like I had to.
Spent my entire salary. Asked no one’s permission.
Didn’t go with mom, didn’t ask the girls.
Me. And only me.
Did I wait for it to be gifted? Really? You think?
Didn’t do it for the likes.
I like it. And that’s enough for me.”

  1. Casio India – Celebrating 25th anniversary (Agency: conceived by Vishal Mittal, from a new agency called ‘A for Elephant’ and directed by Deepti Nagia of Momomoto Studios)

An ad film to celebrate a milestone like 25th anniversary of a brand is usually a very inward-looking exercise in large, old organizations that end up creating a very ‘corporate’ish’ output.

It’s not the most polished film, but it has the narrative heart placed perfectly. The idea to layer the brand’s legacy not just in random vignettes of people using it across the years, and layer them instead on continuing stories where we see the same people before and now, with Casio being the connecting link, is a fantastic narrative device.

So we have kids bonding over the same Casio calculator watch (which was an incredibly cool thing to own at one point in India), the same kids wearing Casio G-shock watches later in life as a couple, and then their kid wearing the calculator watch the way the dad wears it (facing inside). That use of ‘facing inside wearing style was a lovely touch based on the actual insight of how many people wear their watches like that.

Then the 2nd story, of college youth borrowing the calculator belonging to the canteen owner and returning to meet him again, connected by asking for his calculator again.

It was the 3rd story that features the keyboard that did not work as well as the first 2 story arcs for me (probably because I was primed by what to expect from the first 2 stories, and this became way too obvious).

But, despite the rough edges, this is a very competent film with a nice emotional core that builds towards making the viewer feel for their Casio purchases and ownership.

  1. Flite – Sar Utha Kadam Badha (Agency: L&K Saatchi & Saatchi)

Flite’s ad not only breaks the chappal category marketing code, but also seems real, believable, and most importantly, something that you can root for, no matter what socioeconomic category you/marketers think you belong to.

The simple story also makes a strong point that language is merely a mode of communication, not a marker for intelligence. She could eventually learn English, and unless she is applying for a position where she has to teach English, she could do perfectly well in her chosen area of expertise. The best part is that the ad not only showcases its target audience appropriately but also does it with a lot of respect and dignity.

Short, TV version:

Extended, director’s cut:

  1. ACKO – Don’t be like Murthi (Agency: Sideways Consulting)

Insurance is a tough category to advertise. Newer entrants like PhonePe are using ‘speed’ as a differentiator by promising ‘no inspection’ as the USP! ACKO continues to position its best value offer, but in this ad, uses slapstick humor to delightful effect. But all through that coating of humor, it is silently instilling the ‘Did I check the ACKO app?’ (or ACKO offer) in the audience even as we are laughing at Murthi’s antics.

That the ad gets the actors right is an added bonus to its advantage. The guy who plays Murthi is outstanding with his expressions. First, his nonchalant reaction to the congrats was so, so natural and fantastic, like a true Malayalee. He loves the attention but is too coy about showing it. So, that casual brushing-off expression as if it was nothing… the actor does it so, so well! But, when asked about ACKO, Murthi delivers a quizzical look that made me blurt out laughing. It’s a look that perfectly mixes disappointment, shock, and OMG! at the same time, but totally within Murthi’s shy character. And he lets out a feeble ‘ACKO?’ question 🙂