Up, Close & Personal with Abhijit ‘Kinu’ Avasthi

10 Nov,2014

 

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

 

He is a metallurgy graduate, has done various odd jobs before getting into advertising in 1997. Two years later, he joined Ogilvy and hasn’t look back ever since. Winning several Indian and international awards, on the jury of most big award shows and having done some superlative creative work. Last week, Ogilvy South Asia Executive Chairman & Creative Director Piyush Pandey , sent a mail out to employees that National Creative Director Abhijit Avasthi was moving on. November 30 will be his last day at work. The news sent shockwaves in the ad frat, because, one never thought he would quit. Excerpts from an interview…

 

So what happened? How? Why?  The lyrics of a song from the 1972 Rajesh Khanna-starrer Amar Prem would possibly best capture my question: Yeh Kya Hua, Kaise Hua…

Kyun Hua… Kuch toh log kahenge (laughs). While it may seem sudden, it’s something I’ve been mulling for a long, long time, and discussing with Piyush (Pandey) too. As I have maintained, there are many things I’ve enjoyed doing over and above advertising. There are certain products or opportunities outside that I would love to think about. There are problems that I would like to solve which need a totally different mind and head space to work on.

 

Like?

I enjoy absolutely everything.  While I like advertising , being from an engineering background, I love technology, design, history, music and maths. I love music to death. There are many things which I keep thinking about.

 

So you want to wander?

I want to wander and think about things a bit. I’ve always wanted to contribute in some way to society. There is a new government, there is an air of optimism, some change can genuinely happen. I would love to participate in a change like that and do whatever I can.

 

Do you think it is the right thing to do when you are at the peak of your career? Just chuck your job to take a break?

My heart tells me, so I think it’s right. I’ve never chased a career. I’ve never chased a designation. Even my entry into advertising was purely by chance. I am an engineer by training. I used to work in a steel plant. I used to sell sarees, I would work in a factory that made dyes for textile. I came to Mumbai in 1997 to figure what to do in life. Someone suggested advertising, so I got into it. I’ve loved advertising as it allows me to do lots of things. One day I will figure what I want to do and may be today is the time. I have the sense of this is really what my skills are, this is what I enjoy doing. This is where the opportunities are. This is a new age in India. May be the time has come to take a step back and say, ok, let’s pursue this, this seems like a good option.

 

But look at it from the Ogilvy point of view. Here is a guy they’ve nurtured, believed in for 15 years. Now suddenly he wants to quit and go. From the agency’s point of view, it’s a huge loss.

It’s a bit of both. Yes, it’s a loss, there’s no doubt. But that’s how all companies go. That’s how all individuals go. While I’ve been here, I’ve been nurturing a whole team and there are many Piyushs, Kinus and Rajivs waiting in Ogilvy. I think my exit may be a great opportunity for them to shine and come out. While I was here, I’ve served Ogilvy and its clients and its people with all my heart and mind. Every second of the day for the last 15 years. So I have received much and I have given whatever I have. And I think that’s the cycle of life.

 

You and Ogilvy were like bonded with Fevicol.

I thought so too. There’s still a Fevicol jod binding us. Just because I am moving out of Ogilvy does not mean I am not attached to the agency, or I don’t have an association with it or we won’t find some way of working together. Like I said, I am rolling so many things in my mind, may be I might stumble upon something whereby I need to collaborate with different disciplines or people in Ogilvy and move ahead. So it’s such a wide canvas.

 

The clients who’ve trusted you much will now feel orphaned?

No, I think that’s the amazing thing about Ogilvy. While I was the face, and yes I was the significant contributor to what they were doing. But I used to always work along a team. So they also know that when team makes a contribution and there is this Ogilvy culture and things will come to place and life will move on. And you know what, brand managers, managers, marketing heads change on the client side every 2-3 years. So here’s a guy who is leaving after 15 years.

 

So are you getting into films? There are many adpersons out there.

Unlikely. I think it is too much of work. Too much hard work.

 

Advertising is also hard work!

 I am hoping to try out something really different.

 

You wandered into advertising in 1997.  Did the fact that your uncle Piyush Pandey was in advertising influence you to join advertising?

I’ve been very close to Piyush and Prasoon. They are more friends than anything else. So I would always love hanging around with them. I would see them come up with ideas, and would discuss with them. But in 1997 when I was in Mumbai and people said give advertising a shot and I also thought of the fact that I used to enjoy those moments with Piyush and Prasoon. I would just brainstorm with them and throw in my random idea and they’d say it was very cool. So it gave me a sense of confidence that maybe I should give it a shot.

 

Why didn’t you join Ogilvy then?

I was quite clear I wanted to earn my stripes elsewhere.

 

And how did the transition to Ogilvy happen?

I had a great time for the two years I was at Enterprise. I met my first art part Raj Kamble. But as I spent time there, I realised that my interest lay more in big brand stuff, in television than print. Then I had a chat with Mohammed Khan and said “Look, I need to move on”. There were friends at Ogilvy who were asking me to join, but I wasn’t ready.

 

What was working with Mohammed Khan like?

Absolutely fantastic. I had a great time working with him. His best quality is that he’ll never make you lose your passion for anything. Even if you’ve done something really crappy, he would never kill your enthusiasm, Of course he would be strong and strict and shout about at times. But I think he managed it in such a way that he would never kill one’s enthusiasm. I am quite grateful to him for that.

 

And with Piyush… did the personal relationship impact your professional life? Or vice versa?

Bobby Pawar and Anil Batwal hired me in 1999. But I have to admit, it was a little odd. I was always conscious of the fact that what will people would feel he is Piyush’s nephew… so what is he doing here? Is my work good enough or are people just being polite? What could they be saying behind my back? Those things use to bother me a lot. Initially things like what should I address Piyush as? I can’t call him Piyush, he is my uncle, my mama. It was very odd. Till date I don’t think I have ever addressed him in front of anybody because I refused to call him Piyush and I don’t think it’s right to call him mama in front of everybody in the office.

 

You’ve haven’t been calling him anything for 15 years?

I can’t call him Piyush, My values don’t allow me to call him by first name. It’s not possible. And I can’t call him mama in front of everybody. It’s an office, it’s a corporate setup. It’s just not done.

 

And when you meet him one-on-one?

Then of course I do refer to him as Mama.

 

What do you do if you have to call his attention in a meeting?

I find a way of addressing him.

 

Like what?

I have some tricks. I get his attention.

 

He knows that?

I’ve never mentioned it, but he must have figured it out.

 

As you look back at the work you’ve done at Ogilvy, what can we say is a typical Abhijit Avasthi piece of work? Your signature style?

I am hoping that nobody can say that this is an Abhijit Avasthi ad. If everything is going to have my style, then it’s not fair on the brand of the company. That’s my belief. Which is why my attempt is, and I don’t know how far I am successful, is to give varied flavour to different things. So I would be very happy if people say “are you saying that guy who did Fevicol bus ad is the same guy who did the Centre Shot ad?” I’d like to hear stuff like that. Rather than, oh this is also a Kinu ad, this is also a Kinu ad, this is also Kinu ad.

 

How do you and Rajiv work along with each other…

Yes, it’s all amazing that how Rajiv and I are working together. Till the time we became NCDs we’ve never worked with each other. So Piyush had put the two of us together. It’s just that we’ve been along for so long, we’ve put so much time together. We’ve joined in the same year, 1999, just a few months apart. We’ve always admired each other’s work. We’ve always been honest with each other. So when the NCD announcement came in, we never ever sat down to formally divide this is what you will do, this is how I will do. These disciplines you will look after, or these cities you will look after. Everything was natural and organic and it just happened instinctively. Both of us know our strengths and we know we are the persons can contribute so I seek pretty much every work he…

 

And how is your work divided?

It’s natural, it happened. The legacy business which I was involved in I continued on them, the legacy business he was involved in, Vodafone primarily, he continued. I am intelligent enough not to put my two bits in Vodafone and destroy it, because he has done something phenomenal. He has headed the Bengaluru office. So typically the most of the Bengaluru accounts he would look into. Some I would look into. And historically I’ve always been closer to the Delhi office, so everything was organic, we never sat and formally did anything, we had enough respect for each other.

 

Do you critique each other’s work?

 

So when I show him some stuff and what’s nice about Rajiv is he has no sense of diplomacy. So he’ll say Kinu this is rubbish. Which is very nice. There is no emotion.

 

What about you?

I try and cushion the blow!

 

How much have you embraced the digital media yourself?

I am very aware of what happens, what’s happening, what are the possibilities, but am I immersed in it myself? No I am not. I wish I was, but I think life is too busy.

 

One thing which is said is that the reason why digital media hasn’t entirely grown  is because biggies like yourself are not doing too much digital advertising

It’s a bit of both. I don’t agree with it entirely. Some great digital work is happening. See, everything our industry does is compared to what’s happening in the west. One must not forget that the societies there are much advanced and developed and digital is a way of life for people. So when you do something in the west, the man on the street gets it. Do I believe ad folk in India are capable of doing great digital work? Yes, they are. But the reality is that the person on the street is not digitally evolved. There is no point in doing a really creative digital innovation which the man on street doesn’t get.

 

Any advertising from competition that you would have liked to do?

Yes there are plenty. I think I enjoyed, rather than pick individual pieces, I would rather say the whole thought of ‘Daag ache hai’. It is a lovely campaign, I would loved to have done it. Some of the early Pepsi stuff, I would have loved if I’d done that. I think some of the work happening on Tanishq is fantastic.

 

People whom you liked to work with? People who moved out of Ogilvy, whom you miss very much?

Lots of them. I think one thing that keeps it going is more and more amazing people keep coming even though some amazing people leave. Yes, there are many, there use to be this guy called Avinash Baliga. I think he is one of those guys who understands my sense. He is the guy I genuinely believe who is way ahead of what India is now. He works in a hot shop in Argentina now. I think he is found his place over there. He is one guy, many a times I do think, if he had stuck on then things would have been really great.

 

So effective December 1, we see you wander?

Absolutely . , I won’t sit, I have some thoughts. I won’t lie that I don’t have thoughts. I have a sense on what is it that I should do next. I am not chasing money or some kind of crazy fame. Now is the time to put things down and evaluate, okay this could be some interesting place to go. For example, if I could use words, I would like to do some thing which is original, meaningful. Some thing where I could use all my skillsets over and above advertising.

 

A shorter version of this appeared in ‘dna of brands’ dated November 3, 2014

 

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