His was perhaps the most awaited comeback plan. The name itself said this was something different. So when Abhijit Avasthi, former national creative director at India’s foremost advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, after nearly seven months of silence, said he was naming his new venture ‘Sideways’ many in the industry wondered what he was up to.
But as Avasthi says, Sideways is the first of its kind in India. A creative problem solving outfit, the venture is expected to span the worlds of human resource, product design, innovation or service design and beyond to find the perfect solution. In this interview with FE Brandwagon’s Anushree Chandran, Avasthi speaks about his turning entrepreneur, Sideways’ business model, and how at times he wonders whether he is being too over-ambitious.
What made you name your new outfit ‘Sideways’?
The name had to give a cue to what the agency is about. I did not want to venture around right brained thinking, lateral thinking, data or ideas, though perhaps it is a combination of all of these. The name needed to have a bend in it. There is a beautiful book called The Art of Looking Sideways by legendary designer Alan Fletcher. It is a lovely documentation of all that mankind has been able to achieve when it has looked sideways. All the big jumps in the fields of art, geography, literature, physics and cinema have happened when people looked at things differently. I also love the movie Sideways which is about friendship; two men in their forties take a road trip to Santa Barbara County Wine Country. I took some time off to think about what I wanted to do. I mulled over business ideas and product ideas. I realised that what I enjoyed the most was coming up with a business idea, rather than just the execution side of it. There is a certain kind of creativity in that. This is why Sideways is not as much an ad agency as a creative problem solving outfit. Creativity can be in any sphere.
Could you elaborate on your business model?
Everybody leads such manic lives and businesses are so hectic that executives don’t have the time to step back and study the problem adequately. The solution to your business problem can lie anywhere — human resource, product design, innovation or service design. The environment today is such that there is so much interface with technology. The solution can come from anywhere. The thing is that the person or the business that faces the problem has already decided on the solution without giving it adequate thought. He thinks: “For this particular problem, I should call an ad agency; or for this problem I should check with a consultancy”. But the fact is that the answer could lie anywhere, someplace where you would never imagine it to be. It could be an IT related solution which could be impactful and elegant. That is where we come in. That kind of an analysis of a problem and approaching it using a multidisciplinary creative outfit or force can yield spectacular solutions.
A model like this relies on collaboration. I cannot obviously hire everybody in the world since I am starting with such a broad canvas. I am looking for partners and collaboration. We could collaborate with international companies and hire overseas talent. Our team could have engineers, those from a mobile telephony background, designers, design thinkers, writers and art directors. We will figure out which skill sets we use the most and keep them in-house.
Initially we will have ten people. Luckily, our sort of business is not capital intensive.
Has this sort of business model been tried before?
To my mind, it’s the first of its kind. Something that comes close to it is IDEO, an innovation and design firm based out of the US that uses a multi disciplinary approach to help organisations in the corporate sphere, government, education, etc.
But theirs is more of a design based approach. They designed the Apple mouse in the 80’s. I come from the communications background and specialise in consumer insights and bringing in emotional triggers in people. Our offering will have that in a large part. There is only so much that left brained thinking can help you with. Everyone has data. But how do you use that data intelligently? How do you put the right spin on it? How does your creative offering differ from the next guy’s?
There are various theories about your venture. Is it true that Ogilvy & Mather executive chairman Piyush Pandey is behind this venture, and may be looking at it post his retirement?
He will always be my guide and mentor. But he is not part of this venture. Piyush Pandey has different ambitions for himself. He is in another orbit. At this stage, there are so many other things that matter more to him personally.
What is nice about him is that he recognises that different people need to do things differently. I have been discussing with him my venture for more than a year. My only partner in this venture is Sonali Sehgal, former Ogilvy senior VP (client service) who is also the business head of Sideways.
You’ve obviously built a lot of advertiser relationships while at Ogilvy& Mather and a lasting rapport with many of its employees. How much of your plans will include Ogilvy’s clients and employees?
I’ve been a part of the Ogilvy fabric for so long and have had a role in it being where it is. I just wouldn’t want to take from Ogilvy what it has. My focus is non-Ogilvy clients and non-Ogilvy professionals. They are not on my radar at all.
The nature of opportunities is so vast that there is room for everyone.
What are the various assignments that Sideways has already got?
We are working with Aamir Khan to help in the Maharashtra government’s Jalyukta Shivaar Abhiyaan where the actor is a brand ambassador. We will be up and running only in July and the formalisation of a lot of the client contracts will happen by then. But we have a range of businesses interested in us, whether it is fast moving consumer goods, consumer durables or e-commerce. We have an e-commerce company looking for differentiation. The problem that they face is this. There are a number of competing e-commerce sites. What can an e-commerce company do in order to ensure that consumers buy products only from there? Then there is a company with an HR problem—the gentleman wants to communicate better with his fairly large outfit. There is a multinational that wants to Indianise its products.
Do you ever worry whether your project is over-ambitious?
Yes, I do wonder sometimes. But I know that if this is executed right, we will be successful at this. I am not hiring everyone. I am building a lot of partnerships. There are times when we may fail, but we will surely learn from our mistakes. India is standing mid-way—somewhere between developed markets such as the US and rudimentary markets such as Africa. There is more than enough room for all kinds of talent and the canvas is large for independents. We are also standing at a juncture where technology is opening up possibilities like never before —like Google’s new chip that can detect hand and finger movements and can give devices gesture control. We are living in an age where if you imagine something, it can be made possible. There has never been a better time to look at business problems differently and get creative with solutions.
Is most of entrepreneurship and independent spirit a bid to get greater valuations?
People leave organisations for different reasons. Some people leave because they are not given the freedom to do the kind of work they want to do and it makes them feel claustrophobic. Others are not fond of the responsibility that seniority inevitably brings—such as managing people, salaries and processes. A lot of people, especially in advertising, want to work in a small way and they are there because of the passion for the job. Others leave because they use advertising as a stepping stone to get into Bollywood. They may want to focus on films or literary ventures.
These are all personal and very individual centric decisions.
I left, despite a very conducive work place at Ogilvy & Mather, in order to start off a company that is very different in its business model. I felt that it was time to do something of my own. There are a lot of ad agencies and other entrepreneurial ventures coming up. Some of them are there for valuations — they will perhaps cash out in five or ten years. But some want to build their own brand, do their thing in their own way — albeit in a small way.