Abhijit Avasthi and Sonali Sehgal | Outlook Business
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Soumik Kar

Best Buddies 2017

Abhijit Avasthi and Sonali Sehgal
Hardcore foodies that they are, Sideways Consulting's founders have spiced up their friendship with trust, honesty and candour

Siddhi Nayak

The good times: Abhijit Avasthi and Sonali Sehgal, co-founders, Sideways Consulting

Abhijit Avasthi and Sonali Sehgal’s friendship is something that everyone would crave for. Be it trust, honesty or simply complementing each other’s personas, their 17-year-old friendship thrives on simple, yet powerful traits that both have weaved into their relationship. While Sehgal is inclined more towards the business side of things, Avasthi is the powerhouse of creativity. Hailing from an engineering background, Avasthi eventually decided to plunge into advertising owing to his creative inclinations and a strong lineage of his maternal uncles, Prasoon and Piyush Pandey. Avasthi and Sehgal started off their career at Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) and quit the agency together in 2014, with a desire to explore and learn. While Avasthi is quirky and eccentric with his ideas, it is Sehgal’s practical approach that comes in handy to hit the right balance. After quitting O&M in 2014, Avasthi and Sehgal started Sideways Consulting in 2015. With their common passion for art, museums and most importantly, food, both know to value each other’s virtues of honesty, candour and above all — respecting each other’s space.

When did the two of you meet?

Avasthi: We met for the first time at O&M in 1999. We got to know each other through common friends. 

Sehgal: We hit it off with each other when we started working on Cadbury’s account. Prior to that, we worked on brands like Limca, Kotak and Essar. We  had to put in long hours of work and the interactions gradually grew.

What were your first impressions of each other? 

Sehgal: Abhijit was a person who did not drink or party. In fact, he has a nickname from his Pandey KhandaanPadri, which means ‘priest’. He came across as boring because of this and his demeanour.

Avasthi: I had an exactly opposite notion about her. Sonali was the kind of person who was always laughing and would socialise easily with everyone. She was always seen with a stack of papers in her hand and was always running around with those.

After these many years, how would you describe each other?

Avasthi: Sonali is really frank and honest as a person. She is generally happy-go-lucky. But she has this remarkable ability to suddenly hit the high-voltage button with tremendous zeal and energy to do something interesting.

Sehgal: Kinu is a deep-thinker; he is also very enthusiastic. He is passionate about what he wants to do. He constantly absorbs a lot of information. For instance, when he enters a room, he will grasp every single detail of the room carefully and remember all of it for a long time.

What is your perception of an ideal business partner?

Sehgal: An ideal business partner is somebody who knows your strengths and weaknesses and supports you in those particular areas. It is important for him to provide a contrarian point of view because when both of us think alike, there is not much scope to move forward. 

Avasthi: You want a business partner who will act as a foil for you. Since we know each other so well, we have divided our responsibilities in such a way that we are able to cash in on each other’s strengths. When you have reached a stage in your career, there is a common perception that isne idea dia hai to achcha hi hoga. This is a trap for creative people like us. Sonali will tell me how an idea is like, the way it actually is. I need her to give me her honest and sound opinion.

How’s it to work with each other?

Sehgal: Kinu is a multi-tasker who likes to work on many things at the same time. So, the pressure is on us. But, he also tends to procrastinate. I have to push him to take certain decisions, because at the end of the day we are accountable to clients. 

Avasthi: This whole bit of how much to indulge or handle a client, how to prime up a client or how much to bring on board, she handles those things very well. 

Tell us about your love for food.

Sehgal: We are hardcore foodies and are obsessed with it. Few years back, we were going to a seafood restaurant called Fresh Catch in Mahim. There, the cook actually catches fish in the morning and serves it fresh. We used to relish it. I’m a vegetarian at home, but a Bengali at heart. 

Avasthi: On some evenings, when we have some time to spare, we prefer to hop in to Terttulia. 

So food joints must be your favourite hangout places…

Avasthi: Not just food joints, but also when we go out on shoots. We were shooting a commercial for Cadbury at Obertilliach in Austria. The ad was about a couple, who are enjoying the small joys of life, by hurling snow balls at each other and sharing a Cadbury at the end of it. I remember how our entire team had a lot of fun. 

Sehgal: At O&M, once we went on a picnic to Goa. Piyush was inside the pool and Kinu was standing outside. Kinu lured people into a conversation first, and then he would throw them inside the pool. Goa is full of memories.

Avasthi: We also did our first paragliding together in Goa. I am, in fact, looking
forward to my next skydive but definitely NOT with her!

Sehgal: It was my first time, and it was very scary. You are so used to sound on the ground but the moment you rise up, there is no sound. You suddenly feel you are in a vacuum, and that was scary. 

Can you both keep secrets?

Avasthi: By and large, she can keep secrets. There have also been times where I have told her something and asked her not to tell anyone, she has gone and told people anyways. She says that it was for fun. But she does maintain a balance between what needs to stay and what should go out in the form of light humour. When it comes to me, I am less gossipy. 

Sehgal: There is this joke between us that if he tells one person, I’ll tell two.

What is the one thing that you guys keep pulling each other’s leg about?

Sehgal: Kinu has a job-list for everything. The minute he wakes up, he has a mental job-list and then, you will find a piece of paper suddenly coming out of his pocket or some book reminding him to do something. 

Avasthi: For Sonali, everything revolves around the fear of turning forty. When I got to know her, she was probably thirty or thirty-one, and she was fretting about turning forty. Now that she has, you can hear her saying, “Oh my God! I have turned forty.”

What is the one thing that you keep talking about with each other?

Sehgal: Kinu is a voracious reader and if he gets his hand on a book, or if he has a new idea in mind, he will keep talking about it. 

Avasthi: Everyday she says, ‘I’m going to start exercising from tomorrow.’ And when tomorrow comes, she will crib and say, “Tomorrow pukka I will start exercising.” This has been her constant line for the past 17 years.

How have you influenced each other? 

Sehgal: Kinu, as a person, does not hold on to anything that is negative. He is also very empathetic. He knows how to look at things from someone else’s point of view. That bit of his personality, where he believes that we understand better if we are seeing a situation from someone else’s perspective, will stay with me.

Avasthi: Sonali’s sense of putting someone at ease is fantastic. She can make friends very soon, across ages — especially with youngsters. Since our business requires constant collaboration with youngsters, she has been a front-runner in keeping up to this requirement.  

Is there something you want to steal from each other?

Sehgal: I would definitely steal his metabolism. I remember having a ‘Back to School’ kind of an event at O&M and he wore his 12th grade belt and came to the event. He is very nostalgic about everything.

Avasthi: I think she has got this wonderful ability to do… (pauses) NOTHING at times. Her ability to relax, laze around and be horizontally bound is what I would want to ape from her.

What was your worst argument and how did you resolve it?

Avasthi: Once we had a strong debate on the timing and the launch of Sideways. We were planning to market Sideways as an offbeat outfit, and not as a regular advertising agency. I was of the notion that we should market this firm once the entire idea was put in place, with the whole team. Sonali’s point of view was to launch the agency and gauge the market sentiment. I finally agreed with what she said because she thought about the indecisiveness of the work that would be coming our way. We finally agreed that we could build the team as and when we got new clients on board. 

What is the one skill that you have learnt from each other?

Sehgal: Kinu doesn’t react quickly. He thinks through things and views from multiple perspectives before forming an opinion. 

Avasthi: She is very diligent. She will prepare for everything in advance, and that is fantastic. There have been times when we have had our Monday morning presentations and on Saturday, I try to fob it off saying, “I can manage somehow.” But Sonali asks me to meet on a Sunday, and makes sure we prepare well. 

Is there something you want to change about each other?

Sehgal: He procrastinates a lot. I have to constantly nag him to get on with it.

Avasthi: With Sonali, I think she should be a little thick skinned. She is a bit too over-sensitive on few things and gets hassled quite easily about a lot of people, of what they say and what they do.  

Sehgal: I am going to start working on this right after I start exercising. (laughs)

Is there something that one has hooked you onto and you are unable to forgo now? 

Avasthi: I am hooked on to Netflix, thanks to her. 

Sehgal: He has hooked me on to some delicious cuisines and food. He introduced me to the Vietnamese cuisine and it has turned into my favourite over the years. 

Avasthi: So much so that she has planned a holiday now with her husband to Vietnam. How impactful can a guy get! (laughs)

What role do you play in each other’s lives?

Sehgal: Kinu is a great friend and a partner. He is the wise old man in my life.

Avasthi: When you are with someone for such a long time, the only thing you expect from one another is not to break down during difficult times. Since we are fortunate enough to be connected not only at work, but also through our social circle, we are able to maintain a perfect balance between being good friends and business partners.

What is the most memorable milestone that you have achieved together in these years?

Avasthi: It has to be setting up Sideways. We both have taken a lot of effort here, we took a giant step by quitting O&M without a plan and eventually arrived at this idea.

What are your nicknames? 

Avasthi: Mataji! (clasps palms together)

Sehgal: (laughs) He has always been Kinu for me.

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