How a paper merchant turned curiosity into a movement – The Kyoorius story

An engineer by education, entrepreneur by profession and a design evangelist by passion – Rajesh Kejriwal, Founder CEO of Kyoorius Group, has turned this passion of his into a full-fledged industry initiative. 

Armed with a Mechanical Engineering degree from Bangalore University, Kejriwal started his career in 1987 with a tea production company in Bangalore. He quit his job and turned an entrepreneur in the year 1989. From one company and a turnover of $50,000 in the same year, Kejriwal diversified into paper, tree plantations, live events and communication agencies. He now heads a group of niche businesses with a turnover of $35 million cumulatively over 17 offices across the globe. 

In 2002, Kejriwal became the first in the industry to form an organised paper merchanting business, including a joint venture with the world’s largest fine paper company – Arjo Wiggins. In 2006, he went on to become the first paper merchant to acquire fine paper businesses in Singapore and Malaysia. 

In 2004, the group consolidated all activities under the banner – Kyoorius Group. In 2005, Kejriwal started a platform to fuel a design movement in India – Kyoorius Designyatra. The platform today has evolved to become India’s largest and the world’s second largest design conference and has been rated as the best curated annual conference in the world since 2013. Under Kejriwal’s leadership, expansion of the Kyoorius brand into live events continued with the launch of three other unique and innovative platforms – Kyoorius Design Awards in 2013, Kyoorius Creative Awards in 2014 and MELT in 2015. Earlier this year, Kyoorius signed up as the official representative of The One Club for Creativity in India. 

Apart from these, Kejriwal is a significant investor and global director at Saffron Brand Consultants, a brand consultancy founded by Wally Olins and Jacob Benbunan. He is a global partner at Addikt, a design boutique dedicated to motion and digital design, specializing in storytelling and consumer engagement in this age of connectivity.  

He has worked actively with the Government of Netherlands to help build Indo-Dutch design collaborations and with The British Council as well as the Design Council of UK in similar endeavours. He has been on the managing committee of industry forums, speaker and jury at various festivals and awards. He continues to work tirelessly to represent India on the international stage and build strong and enduring country relationships in the domain of design and creativity. 

In a detailed interaction with Adgully, Rajesh Kejriwal shares the interesting story behind the creation of Kyoorius, the upcoming 2018 edition of the Kyoorius Awards, creativity in Indian advertising, spam ads and much more. Excerpts: 

How did Kyoorius as an idea come to you? Why the name Kyoorius?

I’ll start with the second question first. Creativity is synonymous with the word curious, so I wanted to have something to do with the word curious. “Kyoon” in Hindi means curious and I just mixed the two – Kyoon + Curious – to form the word Kyoorius, which phonetically still echoes ‘curious’. 

I was in the business of producing fine papers. For example, you see all these wedding cards, metallic papers. We introduced it to India in 1999. We moved away from it in 2006 when everybody else started doing it. We’ve been at the forefront of bringing good quality, exclusive fine papers to India and that’s my core business. I also realized early on that the best way to grow this business would be to target the influencers on the choice of paper - which meant that I had to go and influence, the designer, to design around the paper rather than finish the design and then choose the paper. This also meant that the designer could use textures and coloured papers better because it was built in the design from the beginning. 

The core community was designers and for them I was a vendor or at the end of the day, a ‘paperwala’ even if I was a sophisticated ‘paperwala’. At some point in time I thought what can a boring paper merchant do to influence an influencer? I could give them a calendar, a designer piece, or a notebook but after four years what else could I give them? Then I looked at this community of designers and creative people in India and saw that they are not getting exposed to the trends that are happening globally and are not getting inspired to deliver better and more inspiring work. 

We are talking about an era - 2003-04 - when digital was not what it is today. They were not getting inspired by the heroes of their industry because they are not able to meet them or understand from these heroes what went beyond an excellent piece of work. I said let me try and see if I can change my relation with my influencers, from being a vendor to being a friend. I realised if I want to be their friend I have to do something that helps them in their professional lives to grow, get recognition, and get exposure. I have to make them proud of their profession. Back in 2003-04, design was this very small ‘second cousin’ to the more glamourous advertising world. I had to make them realise that they were a significant community and a big industry, and the future of the world is in design. It was an effort to bring the design community together that spawned the idea of Kyoorius. 

How has the award business been this year – with the budget cuts and globally a slump in finances?

We are actually at a tipping point this year. We have gotten far better revenues on both sponsorships and entries. In sponsorships we have grown by 40 per cent and on entries the revenue has gone up by 20 per cent. It’s been a good year for us. The question is not about whether there is a slump. I think agencies today have decided that they would rather put more money into three pies rather than into 10 pies. 

How has the selection of jury been? What are the criteria for jury selection for an award like this?

An award is only as good as the jury and this means that they must be very credible. First, there must be a representation across the industry – network agencies and independents. Second, you have to make sure that the people whom you select as the jury have themselves, in the recent past, put in work that has been well appreciated and that their integrity in being a jury cannot be questioned. Thirdly, we have a mix of international and national juries, helps having juries who have no biases at all. We also try and ensure there is a good gender mix in every jury. We are also clear that juries are selected on the basis of their credibility and our juries also include from agencies that are not participating in our awards. 

Among the plethora of awards dotting the industry today, how do you maintain the differentiation and relevance?

There are a few principles that make our awards work. First, we ensure that we, as organisers, do not interfere in the jury process at all. Second, and I believe, globally, we are the only ones who have an open jury system. Throughout the two days, any visitor can walk in and hear the jury members discuss the work. It doesn’t get more transparent than that – anyone from the industry can view the entries and listen to the jury debates. 

Respect goes a long way in the industry. We listen to what creative people are saying and we modify accordingly. We are sensitive to their needs and feelings. We don’t believe that we know everything as organisers, we consider ourselves as facilitators. 

A great step that we have taken – and again we are the only ones globally to have done this – we are 100 per cent carbon positive. We have audited all the carbon emissions that come into play at every stage of the Kyoorius Awards and then we have planted 11,000 trees to ensure that we are 100 per cent carbon positive. This year we have partnered with National Geographic to ensure that both ZeeMELT and Kyoorius Awards are 100 per cent carbon positive. We also ensure that the food that is left over at Kyoorius Awards is recycled. All the plastic bottles are shredded and sent to Pune to be converted to biofuel. 

I believe these little things all add up to make our awards show successful. 

Do you see a shift in the Indian creative scene today as compared to the past?

The entire global enterprise has changed in the last one decade because of this new animal – digital. The fact is that half of the industry still does not understand that word and half is way ahead. Technology is playing a very large role – the mediums have got multiplied. 

I also think that marketers will start realising that if they want great work, they have to allocate bigger budgets. I personally think that it’s better to have three great films with good budgets rather than six mediocre films. The three great films will drive more effectiveness for the brand/product. This awakening, I believe, has started coming slowly, fingers crossed. I’m really happy with the Star Reimagine Awards. Such initiatives will drive both marketers and creatives to plan earlier, budget better and eventually do great work. 

Do you think brands need to look at advertising on digital more as compared to the current 20 per cent spends?

There was a time when people said spending in digital would go up to 50 per cent and suddenly they realised it may not be as effective as it should be. Some of the bigger agencies have completely moved away from digital. 

In my personal view, you have to see digital as another medium. Then depending on the idea you have and the audience you want to target you utilise the most appropriate medium. One cannot just put in a budget and say I want to spend 20 per cent or 30 per cent on digital. That’s a wrong notion to have. You look at a campaign and think of the primary medium and then the supporting mediums. In some case the primary could be TV and Digital and outdoor become supportive. If an idea is strong, the primary could be a combination of Outdoor and Digital and TV becomes the supporting. One should allocate budgets depending on the needs of the brand/product and the campaign’s target audience. The use of data and insights and measurements to help define your target audience is slowly gaining significance and even creative people should start looking at these. 

Kyoorius has the creative awards and the design awards. What’s next on the agenda?

Kyoorius in many ways is a platform – we have DesignYatra, Creative Awards, MELT and we have the Design Awards. Between all of this, we address a certain need in the industry. 

But what I think is missing in this industry, and is going to become the bane of this industry in the future, is not addressing the youngsters of today. Nobody is doing anything for the young people in the industry. This is a serious lack that exists in India. Unless and until you bring back youth into this industry, the talent is likely to go to Google or Facebook, and we’ll keep beating around the bush and complain about not getting good people. 

What is Kyoorius doing to get good people on board?

Kyoorius recently formed an alliance with One Club of Creativity, more famously known as One Show. We are going to do a creative boot camp at the end of this month for about 70-80 youngsters from the industry. We are flying in four mentors from abroad and will have four mentors from India. If this is successful and gets good reviews, we may do another one at Designyatra. Next year, we wish to do a huge exercise on Portfolio Night that will be conducted in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. 

I also think training on soft skills is very important for this industry including mid-management. We’ll be doing some training for the creative people on soft skills. We are flying in a foreigner to do a 3-day workshop on presentation skills and body language. I think these are the areas where we must give back to society so that this industry starts looking better. For me the next 1-2 years is just doing this. 

Is there a way that can be devised to weed out fake entries or spam entries from awards shows?

One of things that we as organizers cannot avoid is what is entered into our awards show. No organiser can address it, but what we can do is try and build in processes and systems to try and weed out as many of them as you can. We ask the jury members to be more judicious and ask them to immediately flag an entry they think is not correct. The audience that comes here, they can flag entries and inform the Kyoorius team. 

We also have a criteria wherein a jury member must look at an entry or brief, and judge whether that entry was relevant to its context or not. Having intense debates on every shortlist also helps in the long run to weed out ‘fake’ entries. But more and more, I am hoping that the creative industry itself takes cognizance of this fact and spends more time in working on client briefs rather and creating works that work.


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