The Colourful World Of Lilamani Dias Benson
The sound of a flute, rushing water and a melodious feminine hum… Clean water, a bar of soap, friends and family – this is what made up one of Sri Lanka’s most memorable and beloved commercials. Today, some 12 years after it was first aired, the same familiar tune will bring anyone running in front of the television, even if they have seen the same ad a dozen times. That is how you make an impression.
The Sunlight soap brand was launched in the UK in 1883 by Lever Brothers, a British-based soap manufacturer founded by brothers William and James Lever. It was the world’s first packaged, branded laundry soap. Lever Brothers grew and operated until 1930, when it merged with a Dutch margarine company Margarine Unie, and was renamed Unilever, the first modern multinational company. Sri Lanka is one of few markets where Sunlight soap has survived until today as a laundry detergent.
The mastermind behind the Sunlight media campaign in the country was Lilamani Dias Benson. With over four decades in the industry, ideas mean big business to the Executive Chairman of Lowe LDB (formerly known as Lintas). But the Sunlight series has a story of its own. How do you take a bar of soap and make it special among 100 others? One of the things that made the brand so big was the giant concept behind it. Among household chores, washing clothes – which was done by hand at the time – is one of the worst. While other chores such as cooking and looking after children are generally rewarding, washing clothes is nothing but a chore. What Lilamani and crew did was use water, getting to meet your friends, a trip to the river and sunshine to make the chore of washing clothes a pleasurable experience. But it was not an easy task. Lilamani’s obsession with detail and her love for filmmaking came into the limelight through the Sunlight ads. In an era when television was just breaking into the scene, Lilamani first took the concept of a TV commercial to Reggie Candappa, fondly known as the godfather of advertising in Sri Lanka and founder of Grant McCann Erickson, who agreed to send her to London to study the craft of film making. This marked the beginning of TV commercials ruling the air waves in Sri Lanka. At the time, if a 30-second commercial was aired on primetime television, 80% viewership would be guaranteed, compared with less than 10% today due to more channels and the barrage of advertisements usually avoided by viewers.
Following her move to JWT as its creative director, Lilamani continued to make commercials with the assistance of filming crews from India. It was at this time that she was challenged by the then chairman of the film corporation who was of the view that we could do everything on our own. But recognizing the importance of learning from the best, Lilamani obtained permission from the BOI and production houses, and invited others to watch, learn and grow their minds in the art of film-making. “Through this, we developed an industry of film-makers,” she exclaims.
She instilled her love for the art of film-making at Lowe as well, bolstered by its largest client, Unilever. The over 20 films made just for the Sunlight campaign are known for their cinematographically beautiful scenes and colours that pop. Although many years have passed since the films were made, she recalls how the scenes were conceptualized with extreme precision and utter devotion, to make each look more gorgeous than the other.
The music was equally enchanting. She reveals that the base tune came out of a South African commercial, but wasre-instrumented and completed with simple yet beautiful lyrics to achieve the final captivating jingle. And Lilamani stresses that one should never underestimate the power of words uttered at precisely the right time. Sunlight’s message to the public was that the brand was loved and trusted by mothers throughout the generations. According to Lilamani, building value around this brand meant portraying this message whether Sunlight was used as a bar by the well or as powder to wash under a tap.
The visual of the bright yellow washed cloth being flung in the air will forever be etched in people’s minds. “Those shots were art directed and re-directed, and the colour of the cloth was even examined against the sunlight before being selected,” Lilamani explained of the attention to detail that went into making the film, even down to the clothes line shown towards the end, which represented the whole family. In addition to complementing other colour values, the team spent hours ensuring that every detail was carefully crafted to a masterpiece. “This is what made this brand so big, and all this hard work showed in the film,” she says. Lilamani recalls spending several days on location. It was very tiring, but very very interesting, she says. However, Lilamani feels that the quality of commercials is deteriorating in the island. This industry needs to be shaken up, she says. “You can train people, but there is only so much you can teach,” she says, adding that some people have the passion and drive in them, while some do not. But she also commends the industry for doing a lot new things that she could not and did not do in years gone by.
She also talks about her love for movies, but says that her mind often wanders to the art of it. “Sometimes
when I’m watching a film, I’m thinking about how they shot it.” For Lilamani, film-making is yet another form of art, something she is passionate about. When you find something that you love, don’t second guess yourself. You never know what you can achieve when you follow your passion. This is Lilamani’s story. As a child, she recalls an interest in painting, which faded as she grew older. Throughout her formative years, however, she discovered a knack for writing, which she describes as her craft. “I still write poems for fun,” she says, advising that if you have a particular talent, you should nurture it. Do the things that give you joy.” These skills combined, she found her calling in advertising.
“When you love what you do, then you wake up in the morning with a fire in your stomach and dash off to work with passion,” she explains. When she first joined the world of advertising as an eager accounts executive, from copy writing to conceptualizing and art direction, she did everything in the agency. “My bosses loved it because they got 10 for the price of one,” she laughs. She is also one of those people who are not afraid to challenge the norms and step outside the box. This put her one notch above the rest.
She is one of those rare people whose work and personal lives flow together in perfect harmony, with no boundaries. And she likes it that way. Her artistic talents come together with her love for film-making, manifested in Lowe LDB, a company she founded in Sri Lanka together with her husband, Terry. After getting married, Lilamani had to quit her job due to a conflict of interest. (Her husband was her client). After his retirement, the adventurous duo moved to Singapore. It wasn’t until she was headhunted by Unilever to bring Lintas to Sri Lanka that she returned to the country.
Due to rapid expansion, by 1899, no single advertising agency could assist Unilever in every country in which it was doing business. This led brothers William and James to develop their own in-house advertising agency aptly named Lintas (Lever International Advertising Service), one of the largest advertising agencies in the world at the time. Today, Lintas Worldwide operates in 50 countries through more than 160 offices. Despite initially supporting two main clients – Johnson & Johnson and Unilever – Lintas became an independent advertising agency following the company being rebranded as Unilever. Lowe LDB is the Sri Lankan arm of Lintas Worldwide, which handles the largest share of Unilever brands (20 out of 25) in the country. Today, Lowe LDB has the case histories of three of their main brands – Sunlight, NSB and Elephant House soft drinks – chosen for the Colombo University’s MBA programme. This is testament to Lilamani’s commitment to her agency and her obsession with going after the great.
The success she enjoyed with Lowe LDB has now given Lilamani the time to sit back and do what she loves best – paint and travel with her husband. “Collecting art is something me and my husband love to do. When we travel to a new city, art galleries are at the top of our list,” she says, sitting at her home adorned with a number of pieces by several Sri Lankan artists. Even the house has been specifically designed with plenty of wall space to feature the duo’s art collection. Being an artist herself, Lilamani has an eye for tasteful and detailed pieces full of colour. Her walls are lined with paintings by Iromie Wijewardena and Anoma Wijewardene, and two eye-catching black and white paintings by a Dutch girl who lived in Sri Lanka when Lilamani met her. However, the centerpiece of the house is a large painting that is hung along the staircase, done by Lilamani’s stepdaughter Emma Benson Williams. The masterpiece bursts with colour and one can’t help but be in awe of it, as it sets a cheerful tone to the house. Lilamani’s own paintings are similarly captivating, with its colours and surprise designs amidst the abstract. “I’ve started painting for serious now,” she says, even looking at the option of hosting a small art show (due to popular demand). “My art is mostly abstract. And I give them names, which intrigues people.” A glass door-enclosed verandah that looks out into her garden becomes the studio when she is inspired to paint, sometimes throughout a whole weekend. She is exceptionally proud of a challenge she accepted from her son who asked her to paint a wall in his apartment. The 7-foot by 5-foot wall took 3 days to complete, with Lilamani being tempted to give up halfway. But the final life-size painting is tribute to her commitment to her craft.
Aside from the paintings, the house also features a number of interesting artifacts such as Balinese temple statues and brass items, most of which she says belong to her husband, who has lived in Pakistan and Indonesia. However, like Lilamani and Terry, the artifacts and paintings come together perfectly, complementing each other.
My favourite thing
My favourite thing is ideas. Did you know that you could make a business out of ideas? We are in the
ideas business. This is something I wrote for a souvenir Lowe LDB published for our 21st anniversary in 2014. “It’s the idea that tickles the toes, that fires the imagination, that challenges the mind, that clinches the sale, that drives share points and builds the brand to market dominance. It’s the idea that makes grown men sigh, teenagers vie and mothers cry. The best ideas linger long after the music stops or the image is out of sight. It makes you interrogate your choices, question your humdrum way of life. The best ideas are inherent to the drama of the brand. They are life, freedom, quality of time and self esteem. We partner with our valued clients, searching for consumer insights to seek and sharpen these ideas with commitment and enormous passion every single day.”