Indian advertising and design professional Malvika Mehra believes in the power of experimenting, instinct and detailing to make her work stand out.
Malvika studied Applied Art at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai, and went on to join Ogilvy India where she stayed on for 16 years while working out of its offices in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. She then joined another advertising giant, Grey, for five years as one of its two national creative directors to overhaul the agency’s operations in the country. She has been awarded by the likes of Cannes Lions and D&AD, among other award platforms, for her work. She has also served as a juror at Cannes Lions and Clio Awards. Some of the brands she has worked for include ITC’s Bingo!, Vodafone (previously Hutch), Britannia, State Bank of India, Gillette, Reliance Telecom, Titan, Dell, Fiat, Honda, Duracell, Killer jeans, Indian Army, etc.
After a year’s sabbatical, she announced her foray into entrepreneurship in November last year. She is now the founder and creative director of Tomorrow Creative Lab. Tomorrow provides brand communication services, while particularly focusing on design craft and technology in their work.
We met Malvika at her charming studio in Bandra, Mumbai to have a long conversation about her life and work. Read on:
Could you tell us about your childhood?
My father was in the army. I was born in Shillong. Because of my dad’s postings, we were lucky to stay in a lot of places across India while I was growing up, like Firozepur, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Tezpur, Agra, etc. After changing countless schools, I finally went to a boarding school in Mussoorie (CJM Waverley) from Class 6th to 10th.
Studying in the hills was a beautiful experience. We were lucky to see the snow-capped Himalayas from the comfort of our classrooms! It was probably at Waverley that I first picked up my love for storytelling and drama. To my utter embarrassment, I won the ‘Best Actor’ trophy in a school play and I guess that’s what cracked open my dormant ‘filmy’ side (laughs).
While I was supposed to finish my schooling in Mussoorie, there was an unfortunate incident. I had just finished my 10th exams when I lost my elder brother, who was in the Merchant Navy, to a freak accident on the ship. It was a big shock for us, and my parents and I were pretty broken. They wanted me to move closer to them, so I went to Delhi to finish my schooling as my dad was posted in Agra at that time. I ended up joining Delhi Public School (RK Puram), but after Waverley, which was a girls’ convent school with nuns, DPS was a complete culture shock (laughs).
That one year was extremely difficult as there was just too much change to handle, and Delhi as a city can be fairly aggressive. Looking back, I think that I could have become the cliché rebel teenager – sex, drugs and rock & roll (smiles)! But fortunately for my parents, I channelized all my confusion, pain and energy into academics. That year I ended up topping my class. Imagine coming first in class in a co-ed school though! It pretty much nailed my nerd-first bencher-boring chick status, and any chances of a school romance was gone.
In hindsight, that one year turned out to be crucial as it kind of set a pattern of reaction to pain, loss and grief that remains true till today. Anytime things are going a little off on the personal front, my focus is wholeheartedly on work, attention to craft and other details. I’m not entirely sure if that’s good or bad, but I guess it is what it is.
What were some of the early creative influences?
My parents had a huge influence on me. My mom would make these lovely candles in her makeshift studio in our garage. She also made some very interesting wines and liqueurs. My parents’ house always had the best garden in all of the army colonies we were posted in. In fact, my father and I had this morning routine for many years where he would teach me the names of all the flowers in the garden while having his cup of tea. I think the keeda (urge) to create came from these two wonderful people.
I grew up surrounded by music and dance in the house. My brother and my folks had a collection of LPs and cassettes ranging from Jagjit Singh to RD Burman to Lata Mangeshkar to Eagles to Fleetwood Mac to ABBA to Boney M to Paul Anka to Shakti… the works.
Also, we used to take a lot of long train journeys because of my dad’s postings. And I remember always carrying a sketchpad with me during these journeys so I could write random short stories and poems and sketch.
When did you decide to go to Sophia Polytechnic?
After class 11. I took a call to save a year and in fact did my 12th through IGNOU (The Indira Gandhi National Open University) via correspondence along with my first year at Sophia. It wasn’t an easy decision as my school was upset that a potential ‘rank holder’ was leaving before the 12th exams (laughs).
But I think art was my calling and I was encouraged to follow that passion by my mother. She realized that I was pretty good at sketching, concepts and stuff. She probably recognized that I had a decent balance of left and right brain, where I was focused, disciplined and academically inclined on one hand, and had a creative streak that allowed for magic to happen on the other hand. Personally, I think I gave in to the latter and decided to put my energies early enough into what I knew would be a fairly long Applied Art course at Sophia.
As I am speaking to you, another pattern I am noticing here, much to my surprise honestly, is perhaps my need to get out of my comfort zone and experiment or quit while being at the top of my game. This seems to have followed me throughout my career. I think I probably thrive on challenges, and a little bit of discomfort and chaos (smiles).
Looking back, I think that I could have become the cliché rebel teenager – sex, drugs and rock & roll! But fortunately for my parents, I channelized all my confusion, pain and energy into academics.
How was the experience at Sophia?
Well, I was back with the nuns and to an all girls’ college! Nevertheless, those were great five years, interacting with talented batch mates and some good teachers. The first year was a ‘try it all’ foundation year, post which we got to choose an art elective. There was no graphic design course in Sophia at that time so I decided to study Applied Art. I was inclined towards the ‘brand’ space right from the beginning.
Every March end, Sophia would host a student portfolio exhibition where advertising agencies would be invited for art intern placements. As luck would have it, ours was the batch of 1993 which was the year of the shocking bomb blasts in Mumbai. We knew that nobody would risk coming to a college exhibition while Mumbai was literally up in flames. Much to our surprise though, a girl called Maithili Kenneth (in hindsight, my angel in disguise) from Ogilvy did. That was serendipitous. I really believe that a lot of things have happened in my life because of serendipity. Before the exhibition, I had gone with my portfolio to a few creative agencies in Mumbai barring Ogilvy as I never thought I would have a chance in hell of getting in there! And ironically, right after the exhibition, the first call I got was from Ogilvy.
The next day, I remember borrowing a pair of clean jeans from a hostel mate and carrying my large clunky portfolio in a packed local train to the Ogilvy office in Churchgate, where I was supposed to meet the already famous Sonal Dabral. As I was waiting for him, I remember talking to this guy with blondish hair in a bright yellow t-shirt. He saw my portfolio and kept asking me questions about my final year campaign – the fonts, the style of photography etc. and I kept responding with cocky answers, till I finally lost patience and asked when I could meet with ‘the’ Sonal. Imagine my horror when he looked at me, smiled, and said ‘I AM Sonal’. Despite my bad behavior, I think he appreciated my work (and the cockiness), and I got hired in Ogilvy. The rest, I guess, is history.
How were the early years in Ogilvy?
I think I was a trainee for all of my 16 years in Ogilvy as I was constantly learning and reinventing myself. That’s the kind of place it is. It was also home. And I think our generation had this deep allegiance to it.
In my initial days, I learnt a lot of my craft and detailing from Sonal Dabral. There were also a lot of great writers I was fortunate to work with — Bobby Pawar, Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Manoj Shetty, to name a few. Those were really happy, simple days. I also met my future husband (Ramanuj Shastry) at work. We fell in love and decided to get married. Those days folks married to each other were not allowed to work at Ogilvy together, and I remember our super boss Piyush Pandey getting the company rules changed just so that we both could continue at Ogilvy.
Unfortunately though, our marriage didn’t quite work out as planned. We thought it might be a good idea to work in different agencies so we moved to Delhi as Ramanuj got a job with McCann and I got a transfer to Ogilvy Delhi. While our marriage still didn’t work out after about a year there, I ended up diving deeper into my work. I think for some of us work can have a cathartic effect; it surely did for me. So while I was going through a divorce, my work was strangely shining. I was working under the supremely talented (and equally difficult) V. Sunil at that time. My second learning curve in craft came from this man. Under him, I art directed a campaign for Lafarge Cement which was greatly appreciated by the likes of Neil French (another bordering on obnoxious, but talented gentleman that some of us love to hate).
Another pattern I am noticing here, much to my surprise honestly, is perhaps my need to get out of my comfort zone and experiment or quit while being at the top of my game. This seems to have followed me throughout my career. I think I probably thrive on challenges, and a little bit of discomfort and chaos
You then moved back to Mumbai?
Yes, my parents – who by now had settled in Pune – and Piyush (Pandey) didn’t want me to live alone in Delhi after my separation. I was a little hesitant to move back to Ogilvy Mumbai but Piyush would hear nothing of it, and till today I owe so much to that man. And to Ogilvy.
I finally came back to Mumbai, got my life back on track, and rented a new place. That year again was a tough year. All these big changes were happening – I had moved cities, got my divorce and lost my father, all in the same year. Somehow, I realized that life’s a roller coaster and you’ve got to ride it. I was a little knocked down but I kept reinventing myself at work.
When did you meet Amit Akali who became your copy partner for many years?
While I enjoyed working on brands like Hutch, Dove, Kodak, Cadbury’s and picked up some awards for campaigns like ‘Meera Wala Blue’ for Asian Paints, Asahi Float Glass etc., I was missing a certain momentum. After 10 years at Ogilvy, I felt I was ready for bigger challenges and responsibilities. It was at that time that my colleague Abhijit Avasthi suggested that I meet up with this guy called Amit Akali who could be my potential ‘permanent’ copy partner. Till then I had worked with different writers. I ended up meeting Amit for coffee and the first thing I noticed was that he talks too much (laughs). Somehow though, we really hit it off as a team and did some interesting work for a decade after that including one of my favorites – the ‘Surprisingly SBI’ campaign.
Is that when the move to Ogilvy’s Bangalore office happened?
Yes. At that time, Rajiv Rao and V Mahesh were heading the Bangalore office and working on Hutch from there. Unfortunately, one day Mahesh had a sudden heart attack and he passed away. That was a huge shock for everyone, and Piyush wanted Rajiv to come back to Mumbai.
One afternoon, Piyush asked me and Amit if we wanted to head the Bangalore office. I burst out laughing, thinking he could not be serious. Well, he was! Before we left his room, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said ‘it’s time to grow up’. That’s it, he had hit a raw nerve and I was like ‘I’m so doing this!’ Being single, and by now having developed the ‘accommodating to new places and people’ muscle, I was ready to embrace Bangalore in a heartbeat. Amit also agreed to move with his family. I’m sure a lot of senior folks in the system were offered this opportunity before Piyush called us, but hey, nobody took it. I’m so glad that we did.
How was the initial experience there?
Bangalore was very tough initially. We were filling the large shoes of two people we respected immensely. Mahesh and Rajiv had this aura over there, and we were the new (slightly brash) kids on the block. Also, there was an undercurrent and an unsaid feeling in the office that we ‘landed’ this role due to an unfortunate incident and not because we ‘deserved’ it perhaps. I remember this strange incident on day one, when we were moving into the cabin that had previously been shared by Rajiv and Mahesh. Mahesh’s jacket was still hanging on his chair. I was in tears, and couldn’t fathom how I could be graceful and yet ask someone to remove it. Finally, I realized that I can’t be so emotional. God knows I have a big, kind heart, but what’s got to be done has got to be done.
So, while the Bangalore move looked rosy from the outside, it wasn’t a cakewalk. We didn’t get Ogilvy Bangalore on a platter; we had to ‘make’ it. While the Bangalore office was doing alright before us, there was so much dormant talent in the office and great accounts like Titan, Allen Solly, IBM, Hutch, ITC Bingo, etc. We were sitting on a gold mine. Initial times were tough as some people moved out of the system and some people didn’t like the aggressive approach we had towards work. But the work had to be done, and we did it.
Our first big success came in the first 5-6 months, when we created the Hutch Ranga Shankara piece (an activation for which we created skits for Arundhati Nag’s theatre) with our teams there. Given that it was ‘an odd piece’, I remember being a tad nervous presenting it at the Ogilvy Global Creative Council where Tham Khai Meng was the super boss, but he absolutely loved it. It also swept ‘Campaign of the year’ at the Abbys that year. For the first time in many years, an agency from Bangalore had swept this from right under Mumbai’s nose and boy, did our Bangalore teams come around after that.
That’s another thing I’ve learnt. You’ve got to stick your neck out to make something happen. A lot of us are so fearful of failure that we don’t take chances. The irony is that success is often on the other side of the risk.
The ITC’s Bingo! launch campaign, that happened while you were in Bangalore, has been a huge highlight of your career. Tell us about that campaign.
Bingo! was a result of great people and great things coming together at the right place and time. It was a magical mix of great clients (Hemant Malik and Ravi Desai of ITC), a crazy team (Sendil Kumar, Ramesh Kumar, Tithi Ghosh, Simi Sabhaney, Prateek Srivastava, Kawal Shoor, Amit Akali, me and some minions), hard work, and of course luck. The mad Rajesh Krishnan directed the films and we had a lot of fun creating that work. Piyush couldn’t believe we sold this quirky campaign to the fairly play-it-safe ITC.
However, after we made those films, there were some hiccups. The sales team at ITC didn’t like the campaign. It bombed in research and we were asked to go back to the drawing board. But given that the Indian Premier League (IPL) spots were bought, the very gutsy Hemant Malik decided to take a punt and air the campaign nevertheless. The phones didn’t stop ringing after that first airing. And the rest is history.
I am a big believer in instincts, especially about creatives. They can’t be replaced with research or over analysis. Bingo! was a turnaround moment for all of us. And it will always be my favorite baby.
When did you decide to leave Ogilvy?
I keep thinking I want comfort and security, yet there is something in me which is contrary to that. After nearly four years of creating some decent work at Ogilvy Bangalore, I think I was headed to cruise on an auto-pilot mode. That’s when I started missing the spikes and challenges. Coincidentally, that’s when I got a call from Grey to join them as National Creative Director. Being ‘a true-blue Ogilvy girl’, I was reluctant to consider it and I also told Grey that I wouldn’t join without my partner, Amit.
Amit and I met Tim Mellors (then Chief Creative Officer of Grey) just for a lark, only because he was in ‘The Copy Book’. Tim of course threw an open challenge at me saying that I would probably die an old frog in the Ogilvy well and was it not time to cut the umbilical cord after 16 years? Once again, I bit the bait. Grey was gutsy enough (and probably rich enough) to hire an ‘NCD team’, pretty unheard of till then. A move I think they did not regret.
But it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Ogilvy. It was an extremely emotional moment when I told Piyush. He eventually understood though that I needed to move on.
That’s another thing I’ve learnt. You’ve got to stick your neck out to make something happen. A lot of us are so fearful of failure that we don’t take chances. The irony is that success is often on the other side of the risk.
How was Grey?
Grey was awesome. It offered me the fastest learning curve in my career (until now, when I am running my own shop). It provided me with opportunities on a national scale and global exposure as part of the Grey Global Creative Council and some real hard life lessons!
We had great support from Tim, later from Tor Myhren (who replaced Tim), from Jishnu Sen, our partner and CEO, and our fantastic teams. We knew it was going to take us time to materialize Tim’s brief of a ‘creative turnaround’, but we did it. In the first 90 days, we, along with our energized teams, won the Reliance Telecom business despite Grey being the supposed ‘underdog’. That brought in fresh energy to the Grey brand and the deserving folks there.
Slowly, we won other accounts like Dell in Bangalore, Honda in Delhi, etc. Then came some good work on Britannia, Killer jeans, P&G’s Gillette, the two Cannes Lions Golds on Duracell, jury duties at Cannes, and finally a befitting farewell campaign from a fauji (army man’s) daughter – the campaign for the Indian Army.
Summing it up, Grey was a great teacher and it was good while it lasted. But I couldn’t see myself there longer than the five years I had put in there. It was time to move on to my next challenge, and I am happy I did.
It must have been a very tough decision to leave such a secure and high profile job and take a break?
Yes, I took a big chance when I jumped out of the system. I left because I simply needed a break. A lot of people thought it was a foolhardy move because nobody leaves without a plan. I left on a note though where I was completely done with structures and processes. I needed a certain amount of freedom that was lacking in Grey India, with due respect to the agency. It gave me a lot and I will always be indebted to it. Towards the end though, I was claustrophobic. We were pitching non-stop, the teams were tired and we were constantly expected to keep churning out ‘award-winning’ work. It just didn’t stop. I don’t blame anyone; there were pressures from heaven above. And this situation is perhaps ubiquitous with most agencies today, but it takes a lot out of you, especially if you are totally invested in your work and are emotional about it. I was, but I realized I had proved myself enough. I was no longer keen on answering with a ‘how high?’ every time someone said ‘jump’.
When I did move out of the system, all I really wanted was a sabbatical. I wanted to purge. I wanted to explore spiritually what I really wanted to do. I had been sensible with my money – and I am usually very happy with just the basics, thanks to my middle class and army background – so I could afford that break. Also being single and not having too many financial responsibilities, no kids to send to Harvard for example, helped (laughs)!
The irony, however, was that I was 43 when I quit and I realized my life had been going perhaps a bit topsy-turvy as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (laughs). I had achieved stuff professionally, but my personal life was not the most ideal. I wanted a sense of belonging to someone/somewhere stronger than just work. So I decided to cruise for a while and see where life takes me.
Tell us a bit more about the sabbatical phase. What all did you do?
The first few months were flooded with ‘NCD offers’ (smiles). And I did very reluctantly get onto Skype calls and meeting with some top notch Chief Creative Officers across the globe. Two of the most interesting offers (and admittedly tempting) were from Facebook and Wieden & Kennedy. As flattering as they were, they unfortunately came at a time when I was not ready to give more of myself to another organization. And both the places were very gracious in understanding that. I have booked myself a spot as ‘Chief Janitor’ at both places though, incase I fail at Tomorrow (laughs).
As I pulled out a bit from the matrix, I ended up doing some simple, non-earth shattering stuff during my break. Like NOT climbing Machu Picchu (laughs). I attended contemporary film and art festivals, travelled and stayed in forest camps, explored spirituality, meditation, and yoga. I also learnt tennis, read some, and discovered little joys like Instagram where I enjoyed writing and taking random pictures. I brushed up on design thinking and studied the local and global design landscape. I also spent a lot of time with my mother, and with friends and family. Made some new friends and lost some old ones.
When did you decide on Tomorrow?
During my sabbatical, I got a call from Manisha Lath Gupta (ex-Axis bank) who wanted to rebrand this art portal she was running (which finally got bought over by NDTV). I renamed it Mojarto and along with Jayesh Raut, a graphic designer, worked on their brand identity. During this time I also helped with the brand identity and space design for a friend’s café called Desi Deli.
While doing these projects, I felt the tug of ‘design’. I felt that while the ‘idea’ will always be king, there was scope for more love, care and craft while building a brand. More detail and also a genuine incorporation of technology wherever relevant. In a sense I was excited about designing a ‘brand’s personality’ from inception till communication. That meant specialized talent, and that’s what propelled me to go solo with a collaborative model which is how ‘Friends of Tomorrow’ happened. I got in touch with people from different specialties and countries, and decided to keep the talent pool open to avoid crazy overheads and to be able to do selective projects.
My dream for Tomorrow is not to necessarily get ‘bigger’ than my past (although that’s not a bad thing), but to get better, fresher and more relevant for today’s business needs. Also, I didn’t start Tomorrow to sell it eventually. This is going to be my baby and I want to enjoy it. I want the work to nurture me and the folks at Tomorrow, and I want to do meaningful work for clients I like and respect.
When I did move out of the system, all I really wanted was a sabbatical. I wanted to purge. I wanted to explore spiritually what I really wanted to do.
How is it going so far?
It’s been only six months, so early days really. But a roller coaster is probably one good way to describe it. Each day is new. One day you are up and one day you are down. And the three golden words I keep hearing from fellow entrepreneur friends is ‘Hang in there!’ (laughs).
The freedom is awesome. I am fortunate to work with top class creative talent and brand strategists and I love exploring new avenues for a brand’s creative expression.
While the clients are lapping up the model, meaningful conversions do take some time. Ironically a lot of the times, I have had to say ‘no’ to a lot of clients who are happy to give fat retainers (without a pitch, mind you) but are eventually looking for a “sweat shop”. That’s definitely not the kind of work I want to do. This decision is leaving me infinitely poorer but I am sticking to my ideals for now (smiles).
The past few months, we have done some interesting projects with a few big brands like Hotstar and Arvind Mills. We are currently working on this Haveli project in Old Delhi whose completion would easily take a year. We are also on the verge of closing a conversation with a snack brand who wants to launch by the end of the year. That’s something we are hoping to work on from scratch and I am really looking forward to it. That’s the kind of work I want to do.
What are some of the things that really inspire you?
There is a big design movement happening right now and I am constantly discovering new and exciting stuff, whether on Instagram or by visiting interesting art shows like the Kochi Biennale. I follow some global and Indian design houses and am excited about the new business and creative possibilities that brands like Airbnb, Uber, Google, Pantone etc. offer.
Apart from that, I get inspired by the basics. By observing and feeling the everyday ordinariness of things and people. The way sunlight hits a cobalt blue tile for example, or how someone tucks their hair behind their ear, how a soft pebble feels in one’s hand…simple things like that. I get inspired by nature, new places, new food, new music, new visual anything: a film, a dress in a shop-window, a dish. But mostly by one-on-one conversations, which could be with a friend, a photographer or even a complete stranger on a flight. Often these observations make their way onto my Instagram page as personal creative expressions.
A little bit of daydreaming is also a very fertile space for me. There is something that comes out of nothingness I feel. I know a lot of creative people devour a lot of content by reading and constantly watching stuff on their phones. While I am a big fan of a few series on Netflix and Amazon, I do need my space away from all that as well.
When I first left the system, my first instinct was to do something tactile, like say pottery or gardening. I will always be drawn to the physical world I feel. I am an earth child. I love my office space here in Bandra because it’s on the ground floor, and whenever I need a breather, I can just walk out in the sun and sip on my tea. Those five minutes are precious, that’s where the magic happens, and sometimes inspiration strikes, before the routine everyday madness hits you again.
What’s on your mind right now?
Business (laughs)! I guess this is where the left brain – right brain thing kicks in when creative folks start their own shop. While I have an idealistic dream, I have my feet firmly on the ground. The last six months have taught me a lot. I made some mistakes, but also took some fantastic calls.
Currently I am focused on getting some more like-minded clients and doing some delightful work for them. Also, so far most clients have been approaching me but it’s time I start making my calls. I am finally ready and I know exactly what Tomorrow has to offer.
A little bit of daydreaming is also a very fertile space for me. There is something that comes out of nothingness I feel.
You can read the rest of the issue three here.