‘It will get tough for big agencies to handle start-ups’
Since its launch in 2015, Sideways Consulting has added several start-ups to its clientele. Its co-founder Abhijit Avasthi talks to Venkata Susmita Biswas about being a ‘creative problem-solving agency’ that offers more than advertising solutions, the potential impact of the second wave of the pandemic on the business, and what stops established brands from hiring independent agencies for big campaigns.
As compared to April 2020, what does the business outlook for 2021 look like?
In April, when we went into a lockdown, we were all clueless. Because of this, we saw businesses pausing campaigns and shelving projects in the months of April, May and June. Over the past one year, as a community, we have understood some aspects of the pandemic and how to cope with it. Therefore, economically speaking, this time around there is less fear; the sense of uncertainty is not reflecting in the economic activity at large. Most brands (current and prospective) want to take a long-term view about their projects. At the moment, it does feel like we can navigate 2021 better than 2020. We are still shooting films that will be put out during IPL. None of our clients have put projects on hold yet.
Over the past year, how much of your work has been pure play advertising, as against tech consulting and the other services you offer?
We are a creative problem-solving company, and branding and communication solutions is just half of our business. A large chunk of our business is about delivering tech solutions, developing products, designing business models, etc. So, our business has not seen a massive shift. However, we have noticed that more clients who parked their advertising communication business with us are looking for innovative solutions not limited to communication. Earlier, the assumption was that advertising or brand communication was the best solution for a business problem. Now, brands are increasingly realising that solutions could lie in a different business model or a tech platform that achieves the same objectives differently.
For example, we are helping a financial products company build new products, and an offline fashion brand venture into the D2C model. This year, we are also launching our own IP product in collaboration with Reliance Brands. We are designing toys and games for the company.
It is believed that large brands rope in independent agencies for small projects, and prefer legacy networks for large campaigns. What has been your experience?
On the one hand, it is very encouraging that some of India’s biggest brands have worked with us on projects. When they taste success, they do try to find ways to do more innovative work with us even though the agency on record could be a large network agency. On the other hand, there are clients who have benefitted from the work we have done for them, but are under pressure from their agencies to not work with other agencies. Global deals also restrict the freedom of clients in this respect. Some legacy companies, whether MNCs or Indian firms, seek comfort in safety, and are lethargic about leaving agencies with whom they have worked for decades. Occasions of these kinds are frustrating.
You work with several start-up brands. Do you worry that they will move on when they grow in size?
The start-up ecosystem flourishes on innovative ideas, and we have been able to build a strong start-up vertical. Some of our start-up clients have been with us for more than two years, and that’s because they have received more than what they would have from legacy agencies. In fact, it will get tough for big agencies to handle start-up clients because of their hunger and desire to do things differently.
Sideways Consulting completes six years this year. What are some of the areas you want to focus on going ahead?
We are a 40-member team comprising people who fulfil traditional advertising agency roles, technologists, product designers and engineers. About 35% of our team is made of people who do not come from a traditional advertising background. The first five years were a learning phase when we worked with marquee start-ups like cure.fit and Nykaa, and large brands like Pidilite, Marico and P&G. We are getting a lot of opportunities with new-age brands. Given my past experience with brands like Pulsar, Cadbury’s and Asian Paints, I would like to do more work on those categories. I would like to reimagine those brands.