The default man: Abhijit Avasthi, Ogilvy & Mather

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Published: November 18, 2014 1:30:36 AM

Avasthi last month resigned as the national creative director at O& M, and is now planning to launch his own venture.

WHAT is the one thing that creative maverick Abhijit Avasthi isn’t likely to miss about Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) when he finally bids adieu to the agencywhere he has worked for 15 years? Answer: Being woken up at 5 am by Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and national creative director, O&M, India & South Asia, gushing about “the next big idea”. Avasthi last month resigned as the national creative director at O& M, and is now planning to launch his own venture.

Pandey has been Avasthi’s mentor much before he joined O&M. Avasthi is Pandey’s nephew. In his own words, Pandey is mercurial and child-like, all at the same time. “His enthusiasm is contagious. When he gets a great idea or sees a spark somewhere, he needs to share that with someone. Even if it means calling up at odd hours. And I am the only person; he can do this with, without an iota of guilt. I have suffered early morning calls since the last 15 years,” laughs Avasthi, also known as Kinu in advertising circles.

What Avasthi will exactly set up is still a puzzle. “I think that hugely talented people—whether they are creative guys, planners, or sociologists—can come together and do some amazing things. The complexion of India is changing. I am going out to do something different, but I can’t articulate it right now. I am excited by the possibility of the unknown. I would look at partners in my venture at some point in time,” he says. “There is one dear friend who is already joining me on this journey.” Avasthi says that he is excited by the many possibilities. “Whether it is history, geography, science or design, I have an interest in everything. I have some thoughts on the state of affairs in the country. I would like to be able to address some of these affairs when I move out. And not in a public-service kind of way. I believe that there are opportunities out there which can serve the needs and problems of society, but these can also be financially rewarding.”

Pandey says that Avasthi has been a great asset for O&M. “He has built brands and instilled and grown our creative reputation. He has mentored youngsters. I do not want to let him go but it is his chance to experiment. It is immaterial as to whether I think it is the right decision. I think it’s unfair to force someone to not pursue their dreams.”

Avasthi started his advertising career in 1997 at Enterprise Nexus as a trainee writer. After working there for two years, he went on to join Ogilvy as creative supervisor. In 2002, he was made creative director and in 2005 was elevated as group creative director. He has been instrumental in the making of some memorable ad campaigns for brands such as Coca-Cola, Cadbury and Fevicol. “In these halls at Ogilvy, you’ll find the kind of buzz that rarely exists in other agencies. I have been associated with Cadbury Dairy Milk  chocolate since the 90’s. ‘Kuch Meetha Ho Jaaye’ has been quite a journey and it has gone a long way in establishing chocolate as a festival tradition in place of mithai. The incident of the worms in chocolate was a huge learning curve for us, and I am happy to say that we came out unscathed. I have had a lot of fun working on brands such as Perfetti, Center Shock and Mentos. We built Pulsar, when there was no such category as performance biking in India. With Fevicol, Piyush set the bar and made Fevicol a household name. The challenge was to go beyond it. I got my chance to revive a traditional sport like kabaddi, for the Pro Kabaddi League.”

There has been a lot of water-cooler conversations around Avasthi’s resignation. The most common belief is that he quit Ogilvy because it was impossible to grow beyond the towering Piyush Pandey. “I have never chased regional roles or designations and conspiracy theories are for insecure minds.” Avasthi says caustically, “The fact is that I am fortunate enough to have known Piyush, from the time I was born. I learned from him, way before I entered advertising and outside the walls of office. We have discussed my resignation for over a year, and it is an emotional and gut-wrenching decision for me. He has given me various options to follow my pursuits, while at Ogilvy. But unfortunately, agency life is hectic. Whatever I do, could be at the expense of the agency. The parting is bitter-sweet. Then again, that is life.”

As for Pandey, he says that any talk of a rift is absurd. Blood is thicker than water. “We are not just colleagues. We are family. And a close knit family at that. I am talking about nine siblings, their children and grand-children,” Pandey asserts.

The entrepreneurship bug
There is a wave of budding entrepreneurship in the country, and especially so in advertising. But how many of these Peter Pan maverick ventures are in the spirit of entrepreneurship? How many have germinated for the valuations by cash-rich multinational ad networks?
Avasthi says that everyone has their own reasons for walking out of an insulated set-up, and sailing off into the storm. Some creative ad men do it because they want to assert independence and free thinking. Others do it because they are saddled with managerial responsibilities and they want to be true to the craft. That said, Avasthi by his own admission cannot think of too many ventures by peers that have been dramatically different. “Creative ad men are known to be restless. I guess everyone is trying out their own philosophy at advertising.  But are many of these ventures unique? The answer is no. There are a lot of global companies, however, that have embraced innovative business models. Pixar or Kickstarter or Ideo. I have discovered a lovely website called, run by a Canadian lady who converts children’s drawings into stuffed toys.”

Globally and in India, many independents have chosen to sell. One of the world’s leading independents—Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) was acquired by Publicis Groupe in 2012. In India, Japanese holding company Dentsu acquired an ad agency set up by Agnello Dias and Santosh Padhi called Taproot. Creative independent Law & Kenneth was acquired by Publicis Groupe, and was merged with Saatchi & Saatchi. IPG Mediabrands acquired Interactive Avenues. The valuations only mount. Publicis Groupe just acquired digital company Sapient in a $ 3.7 billion all-cash deal.

Is everyone available at a price? Avasthi shrugs. “You will see a whole lot of entrepreneurship coming up, not because there are buyers out there. But because India is opening up— things are changing and there will be infinite opportunities,” he replies. “Will I consider selling? No one can say never. That said, my sense is that whatever I intend to do, it would never interest anyone else. It is such a personal thing. No one knows what shape my venture could take or what will be its final form. It would be too premature to envision a scenario like that.”

Fait accompli
Much of what Avasthi has done in life is by default. He says, “I wanted to join the Air Force, like my father. Before I could give my physical examination, I got spectacles. I wanted to do my masters in environmental engineering in the US. But my mother fell ill and I abandoned that plan. Later, she told me to work in a steel plant. I did, but I lost my mother during that time. I then wanted to be with my father, and I joined his business around the printing and dyeing of textiles. I got bored with that and came to Mumbai to look for a career in advertising. So you see —with me, nothing goes as per plan.”

Avasthi’s resignation dies not surprise everyone. There is something about creative ad men in their forties, says KV Sridhar, chief creative officer at SapientNitro. They are restless, eager to pursue their dreams and crave the adrenaline rush. They are not old enough to be content with plush jobs in agencies, ‘managing’ people and ‘mentoring’. ‘They have little patience for corporate culture or regimented schedules.

Creatively, they would like to break free. “They want to assert their independence in creative thinking. In short, they want to be masters of their own destiny,” says Sridhar adding that he is not surprised by Avasthi’s decision. It is the same sort of germ that was in Raj Kurup when he began Creativeland Asia. Or in Santosh Padhi and Agnello Dias when they began Taproot. Or Bhupal Ramnathkar when he began Umbrella Design. He expects Avasthi’s next venture to have significant social goals and not just financial ones. “Lynn de Souza quit her job at Lintas Media Group and began Social Access with Meenakshi Madhvani. That venture took off well. We can expect something interesting from Kinu,” he says.

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