This edition of the column takes me to perhaps my most unexpected workplace yet. It is located on the lower ground floor of a stone and concrete Delhi Development Authority office block in Sheikh Sarai. The neighbours include public sector stalwarts such as Punjab National Bank and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, the local telephone service provider—neither of which appear to have inspiring workplaces.
One glance at the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy’s entrance, however, and I appreciate the power of superior interior design. This workplace is radical and dramatic—entirely disconnected from the building’s pedestrian exterior. An installation of nearly 30,000 pencils has been mounted behind the front desk, spelling “Work is Worship”. Right next to it is a large, red wooden rocking horse.
Inside, the office is both cavernous and open, with a dark floor and ceiling, low ambient light and open-plan desks with sharp task lights, overlooking a garden. The company’s two senior managers sit facing each other in adjacent cabins, separated by a glass wall.
I’m here to meet the duo who run the global agency’s India business—executive creative director V. Sunil and managing director Mohit Dhar Jayal, best known as the partnership responsible for low-cost airline IndiGo’s cohesive, irreverent branding. I hope to find answers to two questions: I’m curious to know if their views on branding are captured in their physical environment and I wonder if, and how, Sunil and Jayal’s working partnership is reflected in the design of their spaces?
First, the office space itself—a former banquet hall for weddings—has been entirely revamped into an edgy, creative boutique, in collaboration with architect Saurabh Dakshini, by completely renovating the interiors, leveraging the garden views, and adding theatrical flourishes, such as the horse, and compact meeting rooms with high-backed seating, dubbed “kissing rooms” by the agency.
“We wanted it to feel like our place, and not some clever agency place, and be comfortable,” says Sunil. The office is less casual, and more work-oriented than might first appear; the “kissing rooms” are better suited for quick catch-ups rather than lingering conversations. Limited ambient light and focused task lighting seems aimed at encouraging individuals to spend more time at their desks. The workplace is distinctive, stylish, yet quite severe, and supports my perception of the duo as hands-on brand evangelists, dedicated to detail.
“Our point of view means you need to hire new kind of people. People who finish things well. Otherwise we’ll just keep screaming at you,” Sunil declares, adding, “We want intelligence, we want sensibility, we want small town, we want big town, we want a mix of all”.
Office paraphernalia illustrates the duo’s lack of modesty in witty fashion. In Sunil’s office, a small placard with “Chairman Mao” written on it rests on a shelf behind his desk, a gift from colleagues alluding to his “autocratic nature”, Jayal laughs. Posted on Jayal’s wall, there’s an equally blunt request to “Please be brief”, and the announcement that “We’re here to f*ck sh*t up”. Select memorabilia of other clients, including Heineken, Coca-Cola Co. and Nokia, is scattered on the shelves of both offices.
The perfectionist approach is not a personality trait, more the result of the duo’s shared conviction that Indian brands need to forge a new identity and rediscover their character, avoiding cliché stereotypes of “aspirational Indians” or “street-led kitsch”. Sunil and Jayal’s personal spaces reflect their ongoing quest for visual expressions of “modern India”.
CEO furniture is usually custom-designed to look silently impressive, but in this case the furniture speaks for itself. Sunil and Jayal’s chairs are upholstered with Madras check fabric, and the desks are painted red and blue, respectively. Sunil bought the desks from Sharma Farm, a furniture shop in Delhi. Visiting carpenters is a favourite pastime, he says. This was an innovative attempt to incorporate Indian fabric, colour, pattern and craftsmanship into an urban, professional environment.
The duo’s seating arrangement, with a clear line of sight between, also speaks volumes about their working partnership. “We just shout at each other through the glass. The joke is we think we’re completely soundproofed here, but we’re not,” laughs Jayal. It reflects another old-fashioned concept—despite technological mobility, sometimes it’s just best to be seated within shouting distance of one’s work colleagues.
For in-depth problem-solving on campaigns or pitches, the duo prefers breakfast meetings at coffee shops, such as 360 at The Oberoi, New Delhi. “It has great energy. You go there, 8-8.30am, by 9.30am you’re sorted. If not, then it’s not happening, then it’s a struggle. Then you go back after two days,” says Sunil. This also captures another long-standing truth of office life: Sometimes, to get any work done at all, one just needs to head out of the office itself.
In theory, Sunil leads the creative function and Jayal heads account management. In reality the roles are less divisible. “For us, brand strategy is formed around a creative point of view or a brand voice or an editorial voice. So we always discuss where we think the brand is going to go between us. Because it’s us talking, often the creative just tumbles straight out and it’s perfect,” says Jayal. Business decisions, on issues such as expansion, are also taken jointly.
Consistently delivering the brand promise involves tremendous attention to detail, by both the client and the marketing agency. It also calls for a much closer relationship between both parties than is normally the case, with the client allowing the creative agency a much wider remit than just communication.
For example, in the case of IndiGo, Sunil, Jayal and their team got involved with the operational aspects of the brand, such as food tastings and airline interior design. “Not everybody’s equipped to handle (this level of proximity)”, admits Jayal. “I think we’re strongly opinionated about it and it takes someone who really connects with you to smoothly take that on board and then make it a part of their process.”
Clearly, clever strategy and holistic design are both needed to transform anything—whether a generic office space or a potentially mundane low-cost airline.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
Write to Aparna at firstname.lastname@example.org