Ashwini Gangal

"My design gene has woken up": Malvika Mehra on her new venture

It's called Tomorrow Creative Lab, and she's ready to go to market with it.

When a former NCD gets a scribe her pre-interview cup of tea herself instead of buzzing it in from behind a desk, you know she's gone the... start-up way. When Malvika Mehra, former national creative director, Grey, spoke to me about her exit from Grey in April last year , she alluded to, and famously so, investing in a villa in Greece. A cozy office nestled in a quiet little Christian lane in Bandra proper was where we met for this interview, however.

"My design gene has woken up": Malvika Mehra on her new venture

Her firm is called 'Tomorrow Creative Lab' and she is designated as 'Founder and Creative Director', a distilled version of her core skills. It was incorporated around five months back. There's no investor on board. It's not a design agency or an advertising agency, she insists. To explain, she air paints a Venn diagram, and says the overlapping zone between ideas, design and technology is the sweet spot she's got her sights on.

"My design gene has woken up": Malvika Mehra on her new venture
After spending 22 years in the advertising industry, during which time she worked at Ogilvy, and then Grey, she took a sabbatical – "In India, the concept of just taking a break is still a strange one for most people," Mehra notes with a smile.

"I wanted to breathe. While the NCD's job is an awesome one – it gives you a lot of fame, glory, and learning – after a point it's just about doing more and more of the same stuff – running from office to office, in and out of pitches, chasing awards... How many times will you go to Cannes and have Rosé at gutter bar? There was a sense of been there-done that... And I was missing the detailing, the craft and the love that you put into the work," she admits.

Among the brands Mehra has worked on in her career so far are names like ITC's Bingo, Vodafone, Britannia, Indian Army, State Bank of India, Reliance Telecom, Asian Paints, Honda, Titan, Gillette, Dell, Fiat, Duracell and Killer Jeans.

We spoke about how 'Tomorrow' happened. While on a break, she did a couple of design projects. She renamed IndianArtCollectors, Manisha Lath Gupta's art discovery platform; now called Mojarto, it belongs to NDTV. She worked on the identity and spatial design/retail design (among other things, it involves deciding where on the table the flowers go) for a Mumbai-based café called Desi Deli.

At present, she's helping a client, Vivaana Hospitality, restore a couple of havelis in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, post which she'll work out the brand identity and communication. Communication for a haveli? Like local, catchment advertising? "No. It might be a digital campaign with viral films..." she says, going on to respond to my frown with, "See, I've worked on chips, I've worked on banks, now I'm working on a haveli. I am getting a historian on board for this project, for a short while."

Similarly, she will collaborate with specialists from different fields (spatial designers, planners, fragrance experts!), depending on the need of the hour; she calls them 'Friends of Tomorrow'. One of them is Rajeev Raja of Brandmusiq, for instance. So, I surmise, creative entrepreneurs like Satbir Singh (Thinkstr), Ashish Khazanchi (Enormous), Kawal Shoor (The Womb), Abhijit Avasthi (Sideways) and her long time creative co-brain Amit Akali (What's Your Problem?) are both competition and potential collaborators.

"I'm free to pull in talent from wherever – I have a graphic designer in Singapore, a writer sitting in Qatar," she says, about the ex-advertising folks she is collaborating with on a project-to-project basis. "I don't want to go crazy with overheads... what's the point of stepping out of the agency system and creating the same stressful cycle again?" shrugs Mehra, going on to explain her just-outsource-the-talent-as-and-when-you-need-it model.

As for her full time employees, Mehra is currently in the process of hiring graphic designers and writers.

While she is keen to work on brands of all ages and sizes, the part she's most excited about is helping start-ups figure out the product, branding, identity, nomenclature and communication.

"I needed to see what else I could do and expand my creative expression beyond just pure play advertising – film, print and all that. My design gene or aesthetic gene woke up," she says, wrapping up our hour-long chat.

Typically, when senior creative folks quit their jobs, and waltz out of 'the system' to go solo, they do so with a certain philosophy in mind; often, the intent is to right an industry wrong, as it were. What's the funda at play in Mehra's world?

"Design agencies are focused on the aesthetics, advertising agencies are focused on idea-driven communication, film and print... but a lot of the craft gets lost in-between. While there's some great writing coming out of ad agencies today, there's not much emphasis on design. The only person who did it was Wieden's V Sunil for Indigo..." she answers. (Sunil has moved out of the system, though).

Sipping her now cold tea, she clarifies, lest I report otherwise, "I'm definitely not leaving advertising behind – I've lived it for 22 years. But I am clear that I want to open up the expression for brands beyond typical film-print. A lot of agencies are not utilising all the touch-points available today... I mean, who would've thought that Unilever would open a lovely café (Taj Mahal Tea House, a stone's throw away from her new office)? Tomorrow, Facebook could have a café."

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