Influenced by the likes of Salvador Dali, Einstein and Walt Disney, it was difficult for Abhijit Avasthi to “continue doing what he was doing” as his curious and adventurous side grew more restless.
Influenced by the likes of Salvador Dali, Einstein and Walt Disney, it was difficult for Abhijit Avasthi to “continue doing what he was doing” as his curious and adventurous side grew more restless. We’re referring to his life after quitting Ogilvy in 2014, when he, along with Sonali Sehgal, started Sideways — a venture which aims to solve business problems rather than just concentrate on advertising. Back from a 10-day vacation, Avasthi speaks to Meghna Sharma of BrandWagon on how the agency aims to be different from others as it learns and unlearns with each passing phase.
It has been over a year since Sideways launched. How has the journey been?
We have been up and about, running for a year-and-a-half almost and I think it has been quite adventurous. We had a notion of how this will shape up, not an exact idea. We are trying an experiment to put together a unique organisation in India. We have been fortunate enough to get some very interesting projects — from advertising to product design. So it has been good so far.
What was the ‘aha’ moment which made you want to start an agency on your own? What are the pros and cons of doing that?
This is subjective and will always vary from individual to individual. Some start an agency because they miss the independence when in a large agency especially if it is part of a global network. Some people start because they have entrepreneurial instincts and they want to satisfy those. Others look at it from the point of being a financially rewarding opportunity. For me, none of these was the reason I always wanted to go beyond what I was doing. Even till my last day at Ogilvy, the journey was fabulous. But the thought that I could see my next 20 years unfold in exactly the same manner was a bit scary. I love to do different things; I’m quite curious. And therefore, I wanted to see what other skills I can adapt. Even when I quit Ogilvy I didn’t have an idea. So, Sonali and I dreamt up the idea — Sideways — together.
2015-16 saw several independent and ‘holistic’ ventures launched by advertising professionals. How are clients reacting to this?
In any industry, if the entrepreneurial spirit is infused like it has been in advertising in the last couple of years, it will always be beneficial, simply because it will create more organisations working on creativity. More individuals get a chance to express themselves. Clients also get many options. So, it is a win-win situation.
Earlier there was a fear that maybe small outfits cannot handle big brands. But over the years that has been proven wrong…that it is not about the size of an organisation, but the quality of work. Size does not matter.
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Sideways is a ‘creative problem-solving outfit’. Please elaborate.
It is quite strange but we are also discovering what we are good at with every passing phase. The way I see it today is that while we solve problems in a creative fashion, what sets us apart is that we have people with different skills that collaborate beautifully and can make connections and opportunities, solving problems like nobody else can. What we are fabulous at is making connections. We are also waiting to realise what it is that we are good at doing differently. For instance, the other day we were at a client’s office discussing a marketing problem but also present were my design researchers, product designers and strategy people who with the client came up with an idea of what can be a new revenue opportunity for them!
Was it difficult finding and retaining talent? How big is your team now?
It was difficult. Finding people with certain skills is one perspective but we are a creative-collaborative company so for those people, it was important to have a bent of mind and also enjoy collaborating with people having other skills. Striking that combination was tricky. Sometimes even I think how it will be for a tech guy to sit next to a writer and what will they even discuss because they come from totally different backgrounds. But people have been enjoying the fact that there is so much to learn from each other. Today we are a team of 25.
In the coming years, what message do you want to send to the industry as well as your existing and potential clients?
Many-a-times I wonder which industry I am in. It is not that I am in advertising or design or tech — I am part of all these. We have created a fabulous network of collaborators with different expertise because obviously, I cannot hire all kinds of people. For example, a project needed big data analytics so we partnered with a company that has expertise in it.
The one message I would like to tell people is that if they have a problem which they believe nobody else can solve, come to us!
We have 15 clients right now. But I am not trying to run behind numbers. We are chasing variety. Maybe, after three years or so, we will see how much we need to scale up or down.
Did you take anybody’s advice before launching Sideways? And what advice will you give to someone thinking about a start-up?
I took advice from a lot of people; I take advice every day. My father was in the Air Force and when he quit the service and started his own business, I saw him go through that phase. There are things which I noticed then which I think are helping me now.
One big advice that I can give anybody is that if you do not have the stomach to take twists and turns every single day of your life then you should not enter the start-up world. Just enjoy what you are currently doing if you do not want a googly thrown at you every day.
Lastly, Sideways has been keeping a low profile. Is it intentional?
Yes. Why do I need to go around the world talking about me and my work? I do not see the need to blow my own trumpet. What is nice is that a lot of people have already started noticing our work without us telling them and clients are talking to each other. So I would rather have what we put out speak about us.