Lilamani Dias-Benson – A legacy of creative ‘infection’

On 11th July, we lost one of Sri Lanka’s premier creative spirits, my former boss and old friend Lilamani Dias-Benson.

There are so many facets of Lilamani, it would take a book to document her work and legacy.  But as many people remember her she infused indefatigable creative energy into advertising from the moment she stepped onto the scene. You could say she metaphorically dominated the room she entered, whether it was an uncomfortable client meeting, a photo-shoot, or a ‘plans-board meeting’ as we called it at JWT.  She would not initially say much but with a few words made everyone reconsider what was at stake. With a  few flourishes of a pencil she would coax you out of your comfort zone and revise the pathetic radio script you brought in on deadline.

I grew up as a cub copywriter at JWT when she took over the reigns in 1986, I believe. For whatever reason my art director friend Rhizvie Saldin and I came under her wing, attending high-powered client briefings, and strategic planning sessions that were above our heads at that time. I was just out of college, and had to bone up on ‘T-Plans’ (the Thompson planning document), and layout theory she made us imbibe late into the evenings. She would cite poetry,  refer to advertising legends such as George Lois, and challenge us to “come to the edge”.

That was a favorite poem of hers that she would quote, ad nauseam. It went:

“Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.”

(I am sure many of you in advertising who passed through her doors have heard her on this.)

I remember Lilamani recite this poem at a JWT creative workshop somewhere in Bentota, and then at a client meeting at John Keells.  She pushed, cajoled, inspired, and delighted everyone around her to recognize creativity, whether they approved of the idea or not.  Unilever meetings were bristly, but we came away with brand managers signing of on creative concepts they rejected a few minutes before! As a boss, she defended our work with a passion. (A perfectionist, if she spotted a tiny spelling error or a layout glitch, we would hear it on our way back to the office!) When I left JWT for studies in England, Lilamani invited me to an Unilever meeting in London, making sure the corporates met someone who worked on their brand. I couldn’t figure out why that was necessary, but in hindsight it was her way of giving me wings.

Lilamani was someone who spoke of something that is oddly relevant for our times – the idea of being ‘infectious‘ long before the tired phrase ‘going viral‘ came into vogue. You can hear her expound on it in that hilarious sitcom episode with Nimmi Harasgama (Aunty Netta)

“Infectious is different to infection,” she explains, because “what I do you catch,” especially something nice. And if I am to paraphrase what she was getting at, she was expounding on how creative ideas circulate, inspire, and return in ways you can never control. This is probably what many of her students experienced, and now continue to spread the Lilamani Dias-Benson brand of creativity whatever they touch.

How could we not. We came. She pushed. We flew.

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