twentythree – An Advertising Agency Run By Two 23-year-old Millennials

In an exclusive interview Karan Joshi and Chintan Thakker, co-founders of the year-old ad agency twentythree share about their work, why it is an ad agency and how they are trying to create good design led work

It was the Eid weekend. Mumbai had been drenched in rains as usual, roads were very much crowded. Half way down the Western Express Highway, I realized that the auto was heading in the wrong direction. I call up one of the co-founders and ask him to guide me. You can’t trust Google Maps with Mumbai roads, you need local help.

After spending 15 minutes figuring out where the agency is located, I finally landed up right before DDefinity complex in Goregaon East. It was a gloomy day and the sight of the complex wasn’t helping either. It was dark, the security guard was lost in his own world and the premises looked dead. The only good thing at that hour were the excited co-founders eager to meet me. It was a holiday for the rest of the staff, except the two twenty-three year olds.

At the stroke of 7 in the evening, I was standing right outside twentythree - a year young advertising agency that likes only yellow and pink with white.

The main door revealed a spacious hall playing soothing music. A bunch of desktops and laptops were placed on the parallel ends of the room. Before I could take my eyes off them, I see an Apple desktop shining at the corner. The walls, covered with lovely frames, still had the beauty of new paint. Lights were off but they made you feel as if you have walked into a bar after a hard day at work.

Meanwhile, I also see two guys busy working on their screens and one coming out from a meeting room, styled like the London phone booths. The agency also has a bicycle (inspired from The Intern movie), some antique work and a plant, all enhancing the look of the workplace. You are bound to fall in love!

“The entire office has been designed by us with the help of a local carpenter. Over the time we have added things that we felt cool. There isn’t much of a thought process. We like bright colors and we have kept the space refreshing so that people walk into the office and enjoy their rest of the working day,” shared Karan Joshi, who co-founded twentythree with his 23 year old college buddy Chintan Thakker.

But why an advertising agency, why not a digital agency or a social media agency?

Sitting on his yellow sofa, Karan told me that as an agency they don’t want to limit themselves by calling it a digital or social media agency.

“We can and want to do everything. When we say we are a production house, then it means that we can do videos. Similarly we can also design the outdoor ads. In a nutshell we just don’t want to limit ourselves with being a digital or social media agency.”

Chintan, who handles marketing at the agency, also chipped in at this point. “We are a design led agency. While we don’t want to do Twitter trending or run behind click baits, we want to help brands evolve and be a part of the bigger picture.”

L-R: Chintan & Karan

Hot tea was ordered, by now the formal conversation became a casual interaction between the three of us.

Karan went back to the days of 2009-2012, when he was pursuing Bachelor of Mass Media, Advertising in Mumbai with Chintan. Recollecting the good old college days, Chintan happened to be his first friend in college. “Our friendship grew from college and over the years has become stronger even if we were working for different agencies.”

After working for 4 years in various agencies, that clichéd night appeared when over a dinner both decided to startup with dreams of disrupting the industry. “We had been working for 4 years and we felt like we were dead already. It sounds very clichéd but that’s how the startup dream of doing on our own started. But nothing happened the next day as we went back again to work.”

But the good part was that conversations didn’t stop and the idea of doing something better, ahead of trends made the friends high. “We both don’t come from design background but we both love design. However the work we were doing at the agency was really not worth appreciating,” informed Chintan who believes that all human beings are creative. It is just that we need to push ourselves and keep doing it.

To elaborate more on what design means to them, I was given an example of a recent work the agency did for Discovery Channel India. To promote the show Belief and its various virtues, the agency did a conceptual photography shoot. The image at your right was part of the shoot, it is about sacrifice which involves laying down your beliefs for something bigger than yourself.

“We started twentythree for the simple reason that we wanted to change design and the entire approach towards it. We don’t want to do just content but create appealing and futuristic content,” added Karan.

The name twentythree also ties to the minimalist design sense both founders bring to the table. “We did a lot of brainstorming and nothing was happening. Ultimately we ended up naming it twentythree since that was our age when we started up.”

The first six to eight months, the office was in Chintan’s home. I am told that for a long time the agency didn’t pitch to clients for the simple reason that neither did they have resources nor previous work to show brands that they as a young startup can pull off things smoothly.

“We pitched to brands who were competing brands while we were working at different agencies. So in my earlier agency I worked very closely with Nat Geo so we decided to pitch to Discovery. It wasn’t a well thought decision but our previous work experiences and connections at least got us onto the meeting table. Thereafter it has been our work which made the difference and we won the pitch without even pitching it the industry way.”

At this point while we took a small break, I quizzed Karan whether work experience is required and does it help before you startup? Karan was quick in acknowledging the value of work experience, ‘it is required and has prepared us for the long journey that we have in front of us.’

“Running a startup is not just about doing good work but also running a healthy business. Thanks to Flying Cursor, I learnt the entire business dynamics at the agency from interacting with clients to understanding business needs. Small things like making reports, invoices, vouchers, among others all just help you as you will have to do this when you run your own startup.”

Today the agency has a bunch of interesting clients onboard, has some good work to showcase and now it is gearing up to go out in the market and pitch. “The first thing we did recently was to revamp our website. And with that up now we are going out in the market.”

With business scaling up and new people joining in, the small room at Chintan’s home became a problem. “We were based in Mulund and no one wants to come to that part of the city. We ourselves wouldn’t want to join an agency in Mulund. Hiring became a big challenge, that is when we took a call that we will have to move closer to the heart of the city,” informed Chintan.

Then began the journey of finding the ideal place that should be nice and shouldn’t create a big hole in the wallet. “After looking beyond 50 offices we were about to give up when we got a chance to see the present place. We liked it, got a local carpenter, we did a rough sketch and most of our office design inspiration came from Pinterest. We curated all the ideas and implemented the ones that appealed and looked good to us.”

Seeing the twentythree office, I am sure no one would question the design sense and aesthetics of both the co-founders. This is the meeting room.

Hiring remains another challenge, like it is for every other industry. Right now the median age of the agency is around 25 and both co-founders believe that they hire people for their love to work and the intent. “We are going one step at a time. We don’t want to scale like a mad man, we want to do good work, which will take time, and we are okay with it. We are in no rush. We want to be a boutique agency at heart, at least.”

Going forward the agency also wants to scale up in building internal projects. One of them is We Are Mumbai founded by Karan that has gone underground for sometime. The co-founders want to make it live again. The other project is Pets of Bombay that will also see a lot of work and hiring in the coming months. “We just don’t want to work for brands but also build our brand by creating these internal projects,” informed Karan who thinks that it is not just about making money but also satisfying the creative mind.

Post such a long conversation, it was time to order some good food and drinks. By the time I left it was already 11 in the night, both founders locked their office after another thirty minutes.

twentythree is just a year old in the business, both the co-founders are young and have a long way to go before one can gain bragging rights. But their thinking is clear and precise. More than that they have a fresh creative mindset, the industry badly needs it. Even more so when a majority of brands are targeting the youth.

Image credit: twentythree Facebook page