Enriching five years. Abhijit Avasthi on the Sideways journey (Text & Video)

03 Aug,2020

 

The interview you read was done via email, and the one you see is via Zoom. But having interviewed with the Sideways founder twice in his previous avatar at Ogilvy and chatted with him a few dozen times, we know how he thinks and speaks. So it’s easier to plan the flow of questions. Abhijit Avasthi’s journey is interesting as Sideways is not just a creative agency. It believes in creative thinking and innovation. And hence has no tagline. Why, 40-odd people who constitute it do not hold any titles. The agency is doing well, which is very good news. Good because times are awfully tough. But also the success of the ‘experiment’ (our words) will surely spur many others to follow suit.

 

As part of the MxMIndia Live series, we interview Avasthi (referred to as Kinu by the fraternity). Some of the questions are also in the video, but not all of the video questions are in the text. So you must consume both.

 

Here goes the conversation Abhijit Avasthi had with Pradyuman Maheshwari. Enjoy.

 

 

Five years already. And it looked like just yesterday, when I came to your office at Ogilvy doing what could be described as an ‘exit’ interview. So how has the journey been?

Yes, time flies superfast indeed. Five years back, I doubt I could have predicted the journey that will unfold for Sideways. It’s been an adventure in the truest sense – unpredictable and exhilarating. The last five years have been a massive learning curve for me. And extremely satisfying. We have managed to build an awesome team with diverse talents, done a variety of great work and had tons of fun along the way. What started out as an experiment has turned into something hugely impactful for businesses of all kinds.

 

You continued with your association with Ogilvy for a while even after leaving. Was it tough breaking the umbilical chord?

More than the issue of breaking the umbilical chord, it’s the emotional bond with Ogilvy is which is unbreakable. That is like being stuck with Fevicol. But yes what was difficult was not succumbing to my default way of approaching a brief…what I had learnt and practised for 15 yrs in Ogilvy. It took a fair bit of effort, an open mind and discipline to evolve our own way of going about solving problems in a set-up like Sideways where writers, techies, product designers, strat folks all sit on the same table attacking the issue. How to orchestrate this diverse gathering of talents and get them to complement each other’s strengths has not been an easy task to say the least.

 

So you did some work with Ogilvy for a while after that, right? Are you still doing?

Yes, when I left Ogilvy, a few clients wanted a smooth transition so I helped do that for a year. Not doing so anymore.

 

As you look back, was it the right decision to move on? Given that Rajiv Rao and Sonal Dabral have moved on.

I don’t look at it as a right or a wrong decision. It was a time in my life when I was up for newer challenges and a different journey – an adventure in every sense of the word. Which is why I left Ogilvy without any plan for the future. The idea of Sideways developed in the ensuing months during brainstorming sessions with Sonali. I am sure Rajiv Rao and Sonal moved on for their reasons.

 

Any regrets?

No regrets. None whatsoever. While I was at Ogilvy, I served it and its clients selflessly with all my heart. I managed to build an amazing team of rockstars there which is carrying on the Ogilvy legacy.

 

Was getting client easy? Did any move with you – from Ogilvy to Sideways?

There were clients and people who were keen to move with me but I had decided that I will not be taking any Ogilvy people or clients with me. It’s basic courtesy towards an organisation which is hugely responsible for shaping me.

 

When thinking of our Biz Dev processes we were clear that we will not take part in the full monty pitches. So that stacked things up against us – an offbeat set-up not willing to pitch. It takes a leap of faith to park your business based only on someone’s past credentials and a promise. But we were fortunate that from day one we had client partners who were willing to give us a shot. I am grateful to them for placing faith in us and giving us the interesting projects we were looking for.

 

Today after 5 years, things are very different. We still do not pitch but now our case studies do all the talking. We have worked with over 50 clients: traditional national ones like Pidilite and Borosil. Regional players like Suhana Masala. New age tech companies like Google and Flipkart. Start-ups like Curefit, Urban Company and Great Learning. From helping build tech platforms for digital payment companies, to designing service journeys to reimagining legacy brands to building products to, of course, advertising we have done it all. So there is a solid body of work across disciplines, across categories and different size businesses.

 

Between Rajiv and you, you were always the one who was more business-minded (in a good way) and would interact with the media, etc… so did that help in the transition?

I have never thought about it that way. I know I have always enjoyed all aspects of a business: the creative side of it and the business side of it and all that it entails.

 

But what has surely helped in building Sideways is my personal interest across spheres. Story-telling, Product Design, Science & Technology, Economics, History – everything interests me. A friend recently introduced me to a word from psychology – multipotentialite – someone with intellectual and creative curiosity across various areas. I think I am that – and that has helped make the transition from a traditional agency to what Sideways is. And the Sideways journey has helped me actualize that aspect of myself.

 

What part of the business makes you say: shucks, it’s better to work for someone than do your own thing?

Nothing really. Everything is a part of the challenge I signed up for.

 

And what part makes you say: heck, why didn’t I think of it before?

It’s interesting you ask that: so much of what we are doing at Sideways now is what I wanted to do in Ogilvy 11 years back when Rajiv and I became NCDs. But the agency’s priorities and focus were more mainline advertising at that time, and maybe rightly so for a place like Ogilvy then.

 

Moving to some propah questions on Sideways. So tell us in specific terms on the business. How have you achieved what you wanted to?

The idea of Sideways was straightforward – how to apply lateral thinking to every aspect of a business using a team of people with different skill sets. Around the world, all business partners are trying to reach that fine balance of right and left brain, as well as exploit the potential of a multidisciplinary approach. Which is why you have the McKinsey/Accenture varieties buying into creative firms. Design and tech firms are merging in the Valley. Legacy advertising agencies are bringing on folks from the consulting world in leadership positions. They are all trying to manoeuvre an existing ship for newer, trickier waters. For us, we are born and raised for that. So from day one the team structures we have built and the processes we have evolved are conducive to delivering on those needs for companies.

 

High points? And low points?

I won’t talk in absolutes. But every now and then, after a creds presentation, when the CEO remarks that our approach and work is so refreshing, it’s a high. When we get new biz calls and applications from talent to join based on our reputation out there, it’s a high. When we see the impact of our efforts in the social sector, that’s a huge high. When our work goes viral and we see memes, it’s a high. Showcasing our own toys at the Nuremberg Toy Fair was a high. So fortunately many joy peaks do come our way.

 

And I won’t say a low, but it is disappointing when certain potential clients fail to see the value we bring to the table because they are still stuck in time and using existing old school ways of evaluating partners. And yes, when some really outstanding pieces of work don’t see the light of day for reasons beyond anyone’s control.

 

Work that you are extremely proud of? In traditional advertising? And non-traditional advertising?

There are so many. The Kia Motors Brand launch, the work on Borosil to help move it from being a primarily industrial company to a kitchenware consumer brand, solving a complex business issue for Fevicol, partnering Google Pay on the product/strat side, designing collectibles for Disney to disrupt traditional toy retailing, imagining Big Bazaar’s offering as a service brand, designing the 3D training model for Paani Foundation, the ‘Lunar Dome’ tribute to ISRO, digital activations for Imagica…there is just so much that I can go on and on.

 

Tell us about your alliance with Reliance? What are the specifics in terms of work?

Metaphorically speaking, at Sideways we are a bunch of kids who have come together. And so it follows that we love building toys and games. We were very keen to develop exciting new ones and take them to kids out there. Reliance Brands, because of Hamleys, has great expertise, knowledge and interest in that space too. So our JV is a meeting of strengths: our creativity, and their retail and manufacturing/ supply chain prowess. We showcased our first products at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany in Jan 2020.

 

These are tough times for A&M. How have you been doing in this period (post-Lockdown)?

It’s been tricky of course. Though, not being reliant solely on advertising has been a kind of a boon. So many of the product design/ tech/ business strategy projects have been on. Shortly after the lockdown, we launched our Smart Recovery Lab (SRL). In a time where linear thinking will be inadequate, SRL helps businesses look at lateral solves. We are currently partnering companies in the Travel and F&B space by evolving newer ways to tackle the situation.

 

What next for Sideways? For you?

I am excited and enthusiastic about what the future holds for Sideways. We have now built the foundation from which we can leap big. It’s like reaching the Everest Base Camp. And now we are all set to climb to the peak.

 

We are always on the look-out to partner clients who want to do things differently, not follow the beaten track – the brave ones who are smart enough to realise that old tricks won’t work in the new world.

 

For me, Sideways is a journey wherein I get to learn more and grow more each day. And make some amazing friends on the way – those who join us and partner us.

 

Thought of getting acquired?

There are no plans to get acquired. We are thoroughly enjoying what we are doing. We have just built the foundations of a unique firm with a lot of passion, so we intend to enjoy the fruits of our labour ourselves. We will grow with our own might.

 

Second-last question: If you have a Sanjeev Mehta (Hindustan Unilever) or some biggie advertiser in the elevator, and have an opportunity to make a pitch, what would it be… an elevator pitch, in say a hundred-odd words?

Sideways is a one-of its-kind-company in India. It’s a curious mix of a consulting firm, an advertising firm, a tech solutions company, a product design studio and a circus maybe. We can solve problems and explode opportunities in surprisingly impactful ways. If you’re willing to let go of old legacy methods and be a tad imaginative and brave in approaching issues, then give us a call.

 

This is a very sensitive question, and I am glad I am not doing this interview face-to-face as you would’ve thrown me out. Ha ha. But the elephant in the room should be addressed. It’s perhaps an exceedingly uncharitable remark – when some people said you were a Mama’s Boy. With obvious reference to the fact that Mr Piyush Pandey is your Mama, and that you owed your presence (and ascent) at Ogilvy to him… your uncle. Would you say that this five-year journey has in a sense now helped you develop an identity of your own? Grow out of Piyush Pandey’s shadows? Or does all of this not really matter to you?

Ha ha ha ha…I have lived with this question for so long and have many answers for it. Firstly, I am extremely proud and fortunate to be Piyush’s nephew. I have learnt so much from him, mostly outside the office – so that learning is definitely the advantage I have had over others. And those who pass such comments are the insecure ones who would not amount to anything even if their Mama actually helped them.

 

I was always mindful of my relationship with Piyush, which is why when I entered advertising in 1997, I chose not to apply to Ogilvy. I wanted to earn my stripes elsewhere. I joined Enterprise Nexus, did a whole of lot good work, won many international and national accolades (including India’s first ever D & AD in-book) and then was invited to join Ogilvy by Bobby Pawar and Anil Bathwal in 1999. I am thankful to them for giving me that chance to prove myself in Ogilvy. After that over the years, I would like to believe that my work spoke for itself. And I think I did manage to move out of Piyush’s shadows very soon in Ogilvy itself.

 

The Sideways journey has enriched me and developed me in many other ways. I have learnt a lot, grown a lot, and along with a bunch of crazy talented folks who believed in our vision, managed to create something amazing from scratch. And that has helped me reinvent my identity in a way I would say.

 

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