Upclose with Rajesh ‘Kyoorius’ Kejriwal

27 Aug,2013


First a disclaimer. MxMIndia is an active trade partner of the Kyoorius Designyatra and Digiyatra. But that’s not the reason why we are carrying this extra looooong interview. Even if we say it ourselves, the interview with Rajesh Kejriwal is a must-read as there’s nothing written between the lines. Mr Kejriwal talks about why his awards are not called the Yellow Pencil even though there is a tie-up with D&AD, on Goafest and how it’s different from his event and what according to him the Goafest organizers should do… and how he doesn’t allow his event sponors to have a say in the speaker line-up of the twin conference (to be held in Goa from August 29 to 31)

Read on…


How’s Design Yatra 2013 going to be different from the previous years?

It’s not going to be very different from that of the previous years. As a format, we look at content and select an appropriate theme. Our theme defines who our speakers are going to be, what our content is going to be etc. So anything that is going to be different is the theme this year and that is: to create change. So everybody over there is going to be talking about how to create change… whether advertising can create change or can branding create a change or can digital create change…or if digital can create change then we will have some people who have created that changed by using the digital medium.


Design or re-design is generally about change or is there more to it?

Sometimes design in India is about change but mostly it is cosmetic. We are not talking about cosmetic changes here. One thing you’ll see is a lot of companies say that we have changed this logo to another one etc but in essence nothing much has changed. Change is more about what have you done internally; what have you done to connect or engage with your consumer or how transparent you have become with the digital age coming up etc. With the onset of digital, you could be saying you are the best but there are people out there who think you are not. What change can design help achieve or how can design help make a change in an organization should be the way forward.


One of things people tell us about the Designyatra is that it more of branding and graphics and less of stuff like product design or architecture etc. Justified comment?

When we started Design Yatra we were very clear that we are in the visual communication business where we look at branding, digital, packaging, graphic design etc. We were never what we call into product design or architecture or stuff like that. But over the years, it has been felt that one can’t be independent of the other. An architect can’t create a building and then call a designer and say hey, do the graphics. They have to work together because the times have changed today. Designyatra serves as a platform inspiration, innovation, ideas etc and for this we just can’t have visual communication designers. So we always have an installation designer. Most of the times we have an architect or one product designer. This year also we have a product designer but am I product heavy? No. I am still going to be visual heavy.


And will that change at all or is it a conscious decision?

It’s a conscious decision because the thing is that there is no infrastructure in India to give me space for more than 1300 people at a venue. I get that kind of crowd anywhere so am I going to add certain more things and get people from another segment and reduce the impact of the number of people coming from this segment? No. My thing has always been that we are essentially a platform. And I can’t say a platform and then deny an opportunity. We get a lot of enquiries from Italy, UK, Netherlands, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia etc but we don’t entertain them so much because I only have capacity for 1300 people and 80 percent of them are repeat audiences who come for that one particular thing. So I don’t want to get too much into it but if I find something is interesting for this community I would bring that in.


The other comment about Designyatra is that it is very rich in content. You’ve attended many other conferences. What is that you offer that others aren’t able to do?

I think we were in the same space where others were in 2006. We look and say hey, we are a conference…we need to have 12 speakers for say two days so let’s get eight big names and six good names. Today, we have moved away from that and we have said let’s look at people who have made something different. So one, we never call a speaker out of the blue. We first set a theme for the conference then we do research on the basis of that theme like who the speaker should be and this research takes almost of three four months. That is I think what a lot of conference guys don’t do. They say, hey, let’s call her or him… send out invites, get confirmations etc. That’s not what we do.


How much time in advance do you plan for this?

As we speak we have already started planning for next year. We have six speakers confirmed for 2014.


And are there any pulls and pressures? Are there any people who want to be there?

We get about 20 requests every year.


And how many do you accept?



Two out of twenty? Aren’t you being harsh?

Doesn’t fit the theme sometimes, sometimes people want to come… lot of them want to come because they want a free ticket…


Are there pressures from sponsors – people who are associated with them? Do you accept those?

No, because where there is pressure we don’t take them on as sponsors.


So you have that as a very clear part of your deal?

Yes a very clear part, in black-and-white that we will not give any speaker slot to any sponsor. For example, we have had situations where we had to have a speaker because he is a good speaker so that year we do not take him as a sponsor. We tell them to come on as a sponsor next year, but not this year. So we are very clear that sponsors and speakers won’t happen simultaneously.


While you have revived your awards this year, one of the worries is that awards take away from the conference. What’s your view on this?

Two ways of looking at it. One is whether an award adds an element to the conference or whether it takes the thunder away from the conference. We are not like Cannes or other such events that have a lot of glamour attached to it. We are more about prestige and credentials. We are very serious about the awards and that is why we tied up with D&AD and the process that D&AD follows is very strict. For us it is just that if we have this community of 1300 people and if the right audience is present then why not have an evening of awards? And the awards are happening in the evening; it’s not disturbing the content of the conference in anyway. It’s just a single evening of the three days!


The thing about awards is that while it makes a lot of people happy there are also many who are unhappy. Your views on awards being politicized or critiqued by an unhappy few?

I think the politics of awards happens when there is a politics of judging and I feel that if you don’t have politics in judging then there won’t be politics of awards. People will be unhappy but I think it’s time India grows up and people should realize that if you have good work you get awarded and if you don’t have good work  then you don’t get awarded. And it’s not that they don’t have good work, it’s just that someone else has done better.


You were also there at this year’s Goafest. How is Designyatra different from Goafest?

I will start from the beginning. If you look at Goafest and us, we have D&AD as partners who I think are one of the most prestigious and the credible awards institution today. Also they have been the people who been doing the entire process control for the awards. Secondly, a lot of these award shows don’t have judges that come and sit down, debate, talk and judge on ground… most of them are done online where people are sitting in different parts of the world, giving some point system and then you also have the leeway for, as you said, the politics of judging.


In our case we flew in international jury members and the D&AD people were there to monitor the entire judging session. Nobody else other than D&AD and jury were allowed…even I was kicked out of it from the first two days when the main thing happened. None of the Kyoorius team was allowed there and they sat, they nominated, they shortlisted first, they discussed the nominations… the D&AD people made sure that they discussed every entry in detail and that allows it to be very fair in its judging.


What other difference do you see between the two events?

I don’t think Goafest has a conference. It has 3000 people but only about 400 or 300 people attend the conference. I think that’s difference with us as we have more delegates at our conferences. I don’t think Goafest focuses so much on the tradition of conference as much as it does on the whole thing as a festival. And both have their own space. Goafest is about enjoying the festival and we are about serious content, innovation, inspiration, ideas… they are two different things. So should Goafest change completely and make its conference very serious, I am not sure because the fun element is also necessary. So it just depends on where you want to go.


So then why do it in Goa? You could have done it in Mumbai or someplace else…

In Mumbai you can’t have the fun element. I have tried it one year. But I think what was different was that when you tried it here, it didn’t work well on the networking front. I think the major part of the conference is about networking. People meet after a year, you meet so many of your friends, you meet new contacts, you have clients coming…we have 300 clients who are non-designers coming to the conference and this is a opportunity for networking. In Mumbai, the moment the conference ends everybody is like, ‘I have to go home’ or people go to meet up with friends. Once you come to Goa, you don’t have clients, you don’t have an office to badger you, you don’t have anywhere to go… so you are in the evening at the conference busy networking. In Goa, everybody is relaxed and stay concentrated on the conference and that I think is big. So that’s the reason we moved back to Goa.


How would you assess your association with D&AD given that they have their own style of judging and running an awards show?

I think they are great partners. There are two things to an award at a conference. First, I think over a period of time you either build yourself as very credible with good credentials…so if you win, for example, we have elephants as a trophy and if you win a blue elephant it means you have really done something worthwhile. We don’t have gold, bronze or silver. In some categories there has been no winner because the jury decided that none of the nominees qualified to reach the benchmark criteria that D&AD and Kyoorius together had set to be a winner. So in two categories there were no winners while in one category we have had four winners.


One of the other things that a couple of the jury members told me some of the better design works from India haven’t entered the competition. How do you ensure this is taken care of going forward?

I think this was the first year so there is always a learning curve when you do it the first time and lot of people especially design studios do not have faith in awards so they don’t necessarily participate. That is why I said D&AD and Kyoorius is about being credible is what will get these entries in…everybody wants to be recognized but everybody wants to be recognized as being credible and not being one among the many. And D&AD ensures that but I have met people who have said oh, I have won at Cannes and that’s it…they are happy that they have won in Cannes. And then they win a D&AD Pencil and they say wow, I won a Yellow Pencil and normally these people who take the Pencil home, leave the Cannes trophy in the agency. That’s the amount of pride one gets when winning a Yellow Pencil verses a Cannes…that’s where I think if you have something really credible along that good work will also come.


Why didn’t you give the Yellow Pencil as the award for the Kyoorius Awards?

We didn’t want to do that. You never know the partnership may not exist five years later, so we didn’t want to piggyback on them.


Ufff, you are saying it on so many words.

Why not be transparent?


What if they read this and decided to drop you?

They won’t because they know. They have come to us because we are transparent. I am not saying we are going to move away from the partnership but I also realized that they have a heritage, they have done so much good things…they have partnered with us and for us. That’s like an honour for me. This is the first partnership they have done globally. They have never partnered with anybody and that itself is good enough. Why would I want to piggyback on the Yellow Pencil and reduce it – I don’t want to do that; more for them than for us. I will be happy to have a Yellow Pencil; it automatically uplifts the whole experience…


In a sense, you could have done the same thing without D&AD?

We could have… we did it in 2007 where we had what we call Kyoorius Verdict. There is an experience then there is credibility and the whole process of jury selection etc which they have finetuned for 50 years. I would have to go through a 3-4 years learning curve to do it by myself…


Have you been hit by slowdown in terms of delegate participation?

Yes, we had about 430 entries whereas normally we would have expected about 800 entries. We were priced very reasonably even if we were compared to any other award. I think a single entry was Rs 4500 but if you had five entries the participation came down to Rs 3200 per entry. Again it comes back to the same thing: If I price it at Rs 7000 I still get entries but I get entries only from larger agencies but there is this small boutique design studios who do good work. The question is: can they afford Rs 7000? May be or may be not…may be for one entry then they would not be able to participate in two categories or three categories because they can’t afford it. So if I build a platform, I need to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to take part in it.


One more observation is that there are lot of designers across agencies and a sizeable or a small section of it are not English-literate. But at the Kyoorius Designyatra, English is the medium. Is that something that you are conscious about?

We are conscious but what can we do? India is a nation with so many different cultures and so many different languages and you are talking from perspective that there is a Marathi guy who could not converse well in English but there is a Bengali guy, a Tamilian, a Malayali…


How do you transcend that because if you have to take Kyoorius Designyatra to the next level, you have to get people who are not known, who may not be good in English. How do you get them in?

What we are planning to do at Kyoorius is that through this event, which happens once a year but we meet we talk to so many people during this one-and-half months of preparation and maybe three days at the conference but then nothing for the next one year. So we are launching what we call Kyoorius FI Day. FI stands for Foreign Information Day and it’s just an evening. We plan to do this across India on month-on-month basis. So we may do about 20-odd next year but this will happen maybe four in Mumbai, two in Chennai, one in Kolkata, one in Kochi, two in Pune, four in Delhi, three in Bengaluru, one in Hyderabad and across India. So this will be one particular subject and it could be editorial design, broadcast design, typography…it could be strategy within branding, it could be design within branding, it could be packaging just for the FMGC sector. So when we do it in Kochi we are expecting to have one international speaker and one speaker from that area in South India.


Will you at any point of time look at a design discussion happening in an Indian language – a non-English Indian language?

I don’t know because if you see the young generation, they don’t want it in a local language. So if you are talking about the difference between languages it is only in between generation of 35 and above .I have seen it as I travelled across private schools etc.


But the Mumbai scene could possibly be different from that of Kolkata…

No, I have been to Chitrakala Parisad in Bengaluru which is a very local school. DJMD in Coimbatore…they are all completely English-speaking institutes. Maybe some of them are a little bit here and there and all of them are on Facebook so it has changed…you know what I call the new India, if you ask me, I would be very happy to do a conference in Indian languages but content in multiple Indian languages are not available that much.


Getting back to Designyatra, what are the numbers you are expecting, since the confererence is a few days from now?

We expect to have about 1300 people. We had a good 1300 people earlier but as you know the capacity of the hall is a problem. We could even get 1600 people but there is no infrastructure in India that will allow me to host that big number. Also, we sponsor about 250 students – that does not change. We make sure we have participation from all the 18-20 design schools. We sponsor about 50 faculty members to the conference…so 300 would fall in that category, 100 would be special invitees, speakers, press etc. 900 are professionals. Out of it, this year I am very happy to say that there are 300 people who are coming that are non-designers and are from marketing and corporate teams – brand managers or product managers…for me that is like brilliant. We never had this before. Companies like  Himalaya, Godrej, Titan watches, TCS, Nestle, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble have been sending people…


You have more people than in Goafest…



I think Goafest should have you in the organizing committee?

(laughs) No, I think what Goafest needs to do and I am being a bit vocal about it, what it needs to do is over a period of three years curate the conference element much more. You cannot have a 2000 sq ft hall to fit in 2000 people; there is nothing that 2000 people could hear so it should be curated in such a way that every audience out there has something to look back to and take back from there. You have a lot of young crowd coming there, so maybe you can take 500 of those and do something in terms of a half-day session with three or four speakers. It should be so interesting that those 500 people will forget about going to the beach but attend the sessions. Also, I think the trick is that if you have beer on the beach with rain dance and conference happening side by side, you have to decide where the people will want to go.


You do have beer at Designyatra, don’t you?

Not during the conference time; between 10-6pm nothing but 6-10pm we are okay with. And that’s really because we want people to stay back and talk to each other, network with each other, get introduced, build a network etc.


Do you making money from the Designyatra?

Okay, I have a favourite line which I am going to quote here – a we are not-for-profit organization. Last year I said this and I saw there was a lot of glamour attached where I was going to people and saying not-for-profit and stuff but then I said, this has cost me a lot of money. So last year I made a mandate that we should be not-for-loss organization. Not-for-profit is nice but not-for-loss is better. We started working at every one of our initiatives and seeing if it is sustainable. We don’t care whether we make money or not but we do care whether we lose money or not. So we are making each of our initiatives sustainable and we are saying that not-for-profit does not mean you cannot make profit, you should make profit and then see if you can use that money for something else. This year we made some…last year we sustained ourselves. This year I think we will be having some profits and we will be using that profit to launch something called Kyoorius Grant, which we will be launching at Designyatra. I am not going to tell you any more about it now. But it is something which we are making as a Fund for the student community, which they are not able to get in India so far. We eventually expect more people to donate more money other than from what we generate from the event to build scholarships etc.


So Kyoorius is not for profit…

Not for loss now!


I see you spending all your time in Kyoorius. How do you make money? I do know about your paper business, but do you spend time on it?

Last three years I wasn’t and to be honest, the last three years we went through a huge turmoil in our paper business because we decided to launch our own paper brand rather than selling brands from overseas. Selling brands from overseas is always restricted by what they want to sell in India rather than what Indians wanted here and we were making foreign brands more famous in India than Indian brands in India. I think the time has changed where I think Indian brands need to do build themselves up and go global. So we misaligned from all the foreign brands which we were selling which took us two years of non-compete clause. So there wasn’t much of paper business happening. This year, we launched our own brand and we are spending more time on that now. And I hope that all this design-led activities that we do at Kyoorius, which is about building a platform for the design community, we will see an equal reciprocation on behalf of the design community.


Do you think there could be some conflict sometimes between the design unit and the paper brand and also the media and events division that you have under your umbrella?

No, both are two different companies actually. We are keeping Kyoorius neutral. If you see our magazine, I don’t know about this issue but one of the past issues we had the other paper merchants who are our competitors advertising in it. So we are neutral. Kyoorius is not-for-profit or not-for-loss and we are open to it. In fact this year at Kyoorius Design Yatra, we had two paper merchants asking for stall space and we gave them both.



I think we should see the larger picture and not be single-minded. One should look at growing the industry and then maybe look at how to get a larger part of the share. But if you are too narrow-minded and you don’t grow the industry then you yourself are the major loser. So you build a community then build the market expand the base and then see how your division can get a larger market share.


Will you ever be doing something for the packaging community, printers and all the others you target?

We are trying to do that; now the objective of Kyoorius has changed. We are going to be looking at building the platform. So it will be the print community, maybe packaging community… Also, the second step is to look at design as wholesome…we may do a separate activity for the design industry that we have not yet dealt with which is about architecture, interiors etc. This year we launched Digiyatra specifically for the digital community. Next year, we may add something else. At some point of time, I would be happy to go for a one-week-long festival at Goa where different streams come together and where some people could stay for one week or one day, four days, etc.


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