Before she began churning out Cannes-nominated designs from a corner space in a stock Mumbai mall—packed between a travel agency and a clothes store— 30-year-old Neha Shah worked as an account director in Ogilvy and Mather.
The 2006 Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, graduate has had stints at Ogilvy, Lowe, and award-winning copywriter Pushpinder Singh’s advertising start-up Saints and Warriors (where she was the first employee). But that was to learn the ropes. The intention was never to go up the corporate ladder. “I never wanted to be a CEO of any other company but my own,” she says.
Calling card: Designing business cards for a backpacking company was Shah’s big break. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mumbai
Shah comes from an advertising bloodline. Her grandfather set up Mercantile—one of India’s oldest ad agencies—around 55 years ago. When she quit Ogilvy in 2008, it was to try her hand at what she calls the family business. But Mercantile worked with financial clients (“That’s where the money is,” she sighs), which offered her scant creative opportunities.
Shah tried to develop her own design operations while at Mercantile till she was asked to leave. “My uncle told me that I couldn’t go on using the office space for my start-up,” says Shah.
Sitting on one of the quirky angular shelves designed in-house are three tokens of design excellence that Karigari Design Inc., launched in early 2009, has already bagged—a Cannes Lions Design Finalist (2009), a One Show Design Bronze (2010) and a D&AD in-book nomination (2010). They’re all for a set of visiting cards that Karigari created for its third client—The Backpacker Co., a company that “guides” backpacking trips around the world. Karigari printed their visiting cards on easy-to-carry-and-use soap strips!
“Being in the business of ideas, I have one every day,” says Shah. While she’s long had goals to set up her own design space, seeing the landmark New York Times signage—a 110ft-long logo constructed at the paper’s New York’s headquarters in 2007—brought her up to speed.
Shah set up shop with her personal savings of about Rs 3 lakh. She had no major material expenses and assumed that the modest seed money would cover rent and salaries.
She struck gold with a small assignment for the Union ministry of tourism. Shah’s team proactively pitched the idea for a paper bag for the Incredible India campaign. The folks at the tourism ministry liked it enough to print 100,000 bags for internal consumption.
The exposure led to more work, bigger in scale. Karigari has designed the logo and merchandise for the Indian contingent of the Commonwealth Games 2010. The Backpacker & Co. came soon after.
Traditionally, advertising agencies took a 15% cut of their clients’ total advertising budgets. This is as low as 5% now. In this scenario, securing a stable financial future is a big challenge for Shah. “I’m not selling detergent, I’m selling ideas and the cost value is subjective,” says Shah, who recalls a local jeweller who gave her Rs 10,000 in cash for a store design campaign and a lot of blessings in lieu of the full payment.
“I put all my savings into this so there really was no Plan B,” says Shah.
Self-belief. “It really burns your heart when you have to write two cheques every day while you’re still not making any money...the only thing that keeps one going is a ridiculous degree of self-confidence,” says Shah.