Shreyas Kulkarni

JWT's Steve Priya on being a creative duo for two decades

They are moving on from the agency to write screenplay and dialogues for a feature film and open their creative agency.

Steve Priya has left the building that housed JWT after 16 years.

Often mistaken for one person like the above sentence and even the headline, Steve Mathias and Priya Pardiwalla are a creative duo, perhaps the last of the classic art and copy duos advertising agencies birthed several moons ago.

Their exit comes at a time when JWT breathes its last – it (renamed to Wunderman Thompson in 2018) is being merged with sibling agency VMLY&R to form VML, a creative company.

What they want you to know is their leaving JWT is not because of the merger – not that they are fans of mergers but more on that later – it is because they are working on the screenplay and dialogues of a feature film, and on their creative agency at the same time.

“It (the movie) was something we always wanted to do. For us, it was like whether we chase this dream now or never, and we decided to do it,” says Priya.

Working on such an opportunity while leading a team at an agency as VP and ECD is arduous, and so they decided to move on from JWT.

The first steps

Steve and Priya found their creative legs at JWT but it was at David, an agency (part of WPP and Ogilvy) that Josy Paul founded in India where they took their baby steps nearly two decades ago.

Both of them were working with other partners at the agency and it did not work out so Josy Paul decided to pair them with each other.

They worked together at David for five years before following their boss and mentor to JWT where he had joined as a national creative director.

Priya is art and Steve is copy. “As more years passed by, that division goes out of the window,” he remarks and remembers how Josy Paul “would not look at your work, it was as if he was looking into your soul” before hiring someone, including him. 

The two found their footing at David when working on the newspaper Mumbai Mirror account, and it only happened because then clients Priya Gupta and Rahul Kansal wanted Steve and Priya after seeing an outdoor campaign the duo had worked on for Radio One.

Mumbai Mirror had done a lot of hard-hitting work when it came to their campaigns, but somehow their journalism and the stories they told were different from it. Reveals Mathias, “They came to us and said ‘Bring a bit of your personality and what you’ve done with Radio One into our advertising.’”

"It helped us create a bit of our own mad space and attract clients who wanted a bit of that madness," he states.

David, in 2007, merged with Bates Enterprise to form Bates David Enterprise, the merger also saw the departure of chairman and national creative director Josy Paul.

“David was so close to all our hearts and when it was merged, a part of our system had left, so we don’t believe in mergers,” smirks Priya.

Steve recalls Josy casually asking them, “Hey guys I am moving to JWT. Wanna come?” These two and another colleague named Vishal followed their boss to the WPP-owned hot creative shop.

Staying together

16 years together as a team is easier said than done but Steve and Priya found it smooth sailing. Not once, he remarks, did JWT try and break them up or make them work on different projects. “We’ve also built ourselves as Steve Priya and the agency has respected that,” he states.

Priya says there were like a "two-person army" and the agency often used them to get a fresh perspective for a client’s problem or brief. “Our first five clients where those to whom we gave a fresh perspective,” he reveals.

They have worked on many brands such as Goodknight, Škoda, AMFI, Park Avenue, Sugar Fit.

The two tell the story of the campaigns they made for Sony Max when it was the broadcaster of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

11 other teams from the agency were working on the broadcaster’s pitch and Steve Priya was the last to present their idea.

Even their participation in the pitch was a last-minute thing only because Tista Sen (former regional creative director) asked them to work on an idea for it. 

Steve said no. Priya said yes. (She believes the glass is half-full while he belongs to the thought that the glass is empty and broken).

They cracked a campaign around Bharat Bandh – IPL causing India to shut down – and Steve reveals Sony clients “Sneha Rajani and Gaurav Seth fought really hard with their legal department so that we could put Bharat Bandh in the campaign.”

Another campaign they created was the Jumping Japang. Remo, Farah Khan, and Prabhudeva were the three choreographers chosen to be part of the campaign, it soon came to Khan and Prabhu Deva.

“Midway through the campaign, we felt it'd be better if there was one face. Now, Khan and Prabhu Deva have a different personality, so we wrote two sets of campaigns,” says Steve.

She, they say, knew Prabhu Deva was also part of the campaign and said something that made the client choose only her as the face of the campaign.

She, in the presence of the client, said, “Prabhu Deva is a fabulous dancer, look at his steps. But, can other people do them? I don't think so. My steps can be done by the whole world.”

Difficult choices

Growing as a team and as individuals did come with its challenges, but Steve and Priya made sure wherever they’d go, it would be both of them together.

Priya did not go through with the opportunity to lead content for Amazon Prime Video in India because it only wanted one person. “Two minds are better than one and we can see a challenge, a brief from different perspectives, and that is also our strength,” she states.

They are also one of the last few creative duos in an industry where personal brand-building is something on every second person’s mind.  “There is a lot of it happening, and there is human and financial aspect to it. Whether it is fame or anything else, there is a greed of going at it your own way, and seeing where it takes you,” remarks Steve.

Both of them have tried to teach what Josy had taught them about being together as a team. For instance, a duo working under them has been together for eight years.

They also reveal that the moniker 'Steve Priya' – their LinkedIn account bears the same name – was by design when they signed on for the feature film. “Since we are no longer working with Wunderman Thompson, we wanted to have one particular identity which is a creative duo,” he explains.

However, people have used it like it’s a common name in the JWT office but outsiders always end up getting confused like the film executive who saw Priya sitting in a cabin and asked Steve, “Is Steve Priya ma’am busy?”

This writer believes they revel in it. And while the two are keeping busy, they do chill. Steve loves to watch a lot of movies but admits he can’t take breaks, and Priya’s three dogs and cats make for amazing company.

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