MY Journey – Amit Shahi, Co-founder and CEO, The Idea Works.

Amit Shahi, interacting with students at IWSB
Amit Shahi, interacting with students at IWSB

Amit Shahi, Co-Founder, The Idea Works, ( was at IWSB campus interacting with the budding young entrepreneurial leaders. The session evoked a lot of interest and slew of questions towards the end. Thanks Amit for sharing your journey


I was born and brought up in Ranchi.  Went to St. Xavier’s.  Father tried really hard to get me into IIT, but I was never interested.  So landed in Delhi for graduation.  Finally ended at Kirorimal



  • Intermediate – 86%, graduation was in Economics – 58%
  • DSE – delhi school of economics
    • Paper, debates
    • Only CED paper I liked. Rest hated.

Civil Services
Like a true Bihari, I wanted to get into civil services – sociology (also MA in sociology)

  • IAS – cleared mains and into the interview
  • Got into an argument with a panelist, who made sure I never made it.
  • Missed the merit list

Career and Job
So went looking out for a job

  • Nov 88, NIIT – marketing
    • 2.5 years – till 92 may
    • Not having an MBA was impeding the growth
    • Discovered that I am not a great marketing guy

Entrepreneur Born and initial struggle

Started Able communications private limited – early 1993

  • Data management company
  • Bank Of America allowed us to manage their database of non-account holders
    § NRI account holders too
  • Within two months a couple of my colleagues left

Sept 1993 – was riding a two wheeler…

  • Four weeks on the road, Met with an Accident…
  • For 9 months paralyzed and was bedridden.. left side
  • Business closed down
    • As data-entry operators were the army, I was the only front-end

 Mid 1994 – Revival

  • Old boys network came to help
  • Picking up copy righting assignments
  • Apollo Tyres gave some work
  • Slowly the communication agency took shape

Bouncing Back

  • Summer of 1996
    • Decent work
    • CII break came into existence
    • American express was launching – cards
      • Ogilvy was the competitor
      • Strong pitch won us the account
  • The business started moving, though systems was poor
  • Dream Bigger – Showing off would get more business?!!
    • 22 people – 14 creative, 6 in client servicing
    • Façade – business will come
    • Pitches was not converted
  • After seven years, we found ourselves to be in 1.5 crores in red
  • We had a lot of goodwill, but not business. My partner moved out…

 Big Break and Merger

  • At this point CII had to manage India Brand Equity fund – 100 Crore
    • Building equity for India in global market
    • Person whom we had a great relationship with became CEO
    • So we got that assignment
  • A friend suggested that you need to look for a firm that has systems and process to meet that kind of volumes
  • You bring all business, get a fat salary, pay off your loans from your earnings

 Ambiance Publicis advertising happened – Able was disabled

IBE fund –   ‘I am India’ campaign.. India story to the world

  • 2005 – asking right questions will have answers too
  •  Sudhir John Horo joined me to head creatives

Summer 2005, British campaign in India to be launched

  • 19 agencies were called for the presentation, Ogilvy, contract and publicis
  • Nov 2005 – UK creating tomorrow campaign

o       2005 – Brand India at Davos – World Economic Forum

  •  India brand equity to launch brand INDIA
    • JWT, Lintas, Ogilvy…were competitors
    • We fought hard
    • Go and get the pitch, on the strength of logo that we created
    • Watershed moment for us
    • 3 crores in 1.5 months
    • More than what we gave in more than three years
    • Once we won it, we knew that our agency will not take us to Davos. So we told CII – you will have to take us to Davos
    • 2006 – First overseas trip by both partners; 10 days
  • We decided that will leverage this place for all our endeavours
    • India everywhere campaign
    • It has become HBR and Stanford cases
    • No other nation has done it before
    • 2007 brazil, 2008 (another country) did it
    • We could not match our 2006 campaign ever
  • My entrepreneurial instincts were smothered at Publicis, so again took a plunge into entrepreneurship

 March 7, 2006 – The Idea Works was born

  • SMS to my boss
    • I Quit. OK was the answer
  • All business is going with us – I told
  • Started the Proprietary concern

 2009 Another fair Hanover tech fair in Germany

    • We became partner company
    • 90% of the work is done by two people
  • Create jobs than seek jobs… sharing all
    • IBEF CEO traveling with
    • Hanover campaign 12th of April
      • Client paid quickly
    • 1.86 cr cheque
  • Working like mad, not even opened bank account; it was foolish
    • Wanted to open the account in a multinational bank – Citibank to project our image
      • CEO and Proprietary – the banker wondering
    • Formal documents given
      • You cannot open an account post the cheque date; you will not be able to bank this cheque!!
      • Citibank to State Bank of Patiala… finally managed to open
  • We traveled, in no time, all over the world

2009 – India campaign – 60 years

    • UN General Assembly
    • Min Tourism and IBEF came together
    • Incredible India @ 60 campaign in Manhattan
    • Six crores of billing in 2-4 weeks
    • Partner went to NY and parked
    • Came back with whole idea and proposed the idea
    • 2 weeks every street saw Incredible India @ 60
      • Time Square, NASDAQ, Reuters bldg
    • All big names lost out to us for this campaign
    • We had understood what Brand India is…
    • 25% of Incredible India campaign came to us

 Incredible India campaign? How we got into it?

  • IBEF gone slow, Ogilvy was in charge of Incredible India
  • Tourism offices around the world were actively engaged
  • We wanted a break. How? We thought of engaging one Tourism office.
  • We went and pitched in at 2008 night grand prix in Singapore
    • July 2008, invested in Spore – Markets in Asean
    • Campaign outside this grand prix to connect India with the event
    • Discover diff formulas
      • Camel, Donkey, Bullock, buffalo races, showing the contrast with the grand prix
    • Take risks and win awards
      • Straights times advertisement
      • Half a page, premium
      • Different bull run, discover formula run
    • News paper report about India campaign appeared all over..
    • Every one claimed credit
    • Two months later we won Singapore advertising awards for outdoor and a few more awards
    • When we won awards and we were now invited to the campaign. The door opened
      • Are you empanelled?
      • Empanelling through backdoor
      • They empanelled 15 agencies – brief give to all
      • All will submit
        • Technical packet – 70% marks
        • Financial packet – 30% marks
        • We lost 6 pitches
    • Change of guard happened and we gained
      • Feb 2009-mid 2010
      • 90% of all tourism work
        • Creative agency does only design
        • 5 campaigns in 15 months
          • CWG
          • 26/11 campaign
          • Visit India year 2009

Davos and the Hungama

    • We were getting bored of same thing again and again
      • Do 10 pitches and get at least 10 – standard thought
      • 2009 went to Davos
        • Spoke to property owners
        • 7 days earning
        • convinced five owners to put ads on the building
        • Biggest property dealers in Davos – idea works
        • We booked
          • Bldgs for holdings
          • Cafes and museums for events
      • 2010 January
          • 400000 francs we spent
          • Sold spaces for only 200000 francs
          • 92 Lakhs lost
        • But we managed to show the people in Davos that there is spaces
      • Come 2011 Brand India Campaign was huge success
          • Museam – JP Morgan, Oracle,…
          • All sights sold
          • Nation branding specialist

 India Future of Change

  • Another Idea we should take up, substantial; engage the young audience
    • We thought, if we have to engage youngsters, we will need to do through competitions
    • Went to IIM Ahmedabad and pitched
    • Thankfully they agreed
      • IIMA Knowledge partner – Business plan competition
      • Partner – Design competition
          • IIT Mumbai agreed
      • Global competition
        • Wrote to 70 B-schools and 40 –Design schools
          • 75% B-schools, 65% Design schools responded
    • We INDIA FUTURE OF CHANGE campaign started
      • We got no sponsors
        • Posters, essay, photo, design, business plan
      • Participation from around the world
      • All earnings from elsewhere were pumped in
      • We should do campus events across the world – spent hugely
        • INSEAD Singapore – 16 Lakhs
        • LBS – 12 Lakhs
        • Univ Berlin, Hamburg –
        • Total burnt 44 lakhs
      • Now that we are here just go ahead
      • We headed to DAVOS, since we had slots and museum at Davos
      • Cracked WEF database and sent mails…
        • We got 10 odd panelists; booked Place of 80 people
        • How will India grow faster than China – What India has to do?
          • Martin Wolf of FT; Montek singh Ahluwalia
          • SBI; General Electric; Walmart
          • Raghuram Rajan; Prashant Ruia
          • 98 people inside, closed the doors
          • Our own client CII, not too happy about it, their HBS event did not go off well.
        • Design Innovation
          • Tim brown – IDEO
          • Shibulal Wilfred,
          • Paul, Museum of New York
        • We came back from Davos as masters; not just of real estate but also of event holder
          • Fairy tale run ended…
          • Arithmatic does not fall in place
          • Great brand great programming going

We were looking for someone who can run the business for us.

    • We are in discussions with 2 sets
      • Large network of ad agencies
      • Investors from Switzerland
  • Idea works evolved from proprietary to private Ltd works
  • Idea Works design and strategy
    • We managed Bank account before
    • The company got registered
    • Two months now
  • Billed 3.5 crore.. related 2012 of Davos
    • Events and Spaces
    • Design assignment of Apollo tyres
      • Largest design assignment today
      • Half baked identity – realized –
      • Acquired Brussles based tyre company
        • To-and-fro travel
      • Would you do it…
      • 30 min in just a couple of days
      • We had a rough figure of X lakhs from Swiss company
      • 10 Lakhs more than that company, finally settle for 2 lakhs less
      • 60 percent of the work is done

 India future of change – India Africa, A shared future

  • AIESEC – Nairobi world
    • India Africa, a shared future
    • Students from Africa and India together through the competitions
      • Fellowship program
      • GOI funding for next three years
    • Also have the mandate from the govt – to generate partnerships and sponsorships
    • Plan is to bring private sector players to bring into the fold
      • AIRTEL, TATAs, Essar and others
  • In most cases whatever we are doing DAVOS is the big campaign
  • In Milan world-expo, we would have base of executable of business plans, manufacturable design, India Future of Change large show
  • November 18-20, Valedictory of IFOC in Delhi
    • Producing a book
    • Contest winners
    • 28 overseas students, total 60
    • A journalist on yatra, IFOC
    • Film crew on Jagriti yatra

We are now trying to do things the way smarter entrepreneurs do. We would like to keep majority control. The plan is that in five years will exit… and relax…

The idea of an enterprise is great. Idea should be workable. Should not be Eutopian. We were lucky.

 Arithmatic is the key, along with great ideas…When you start an enterprise, one of them has to be a finance guy…

One year ago, I attended a session by Narayan Murthy… for any enterprise to be successful

  1. Idea
  2. Money
  3. Supportive family
  4. Foolhardiness

We had all the three in abundance except the second

We have overseas centers of excellence…. NID / Copenhagen institute of design

  • Audi – Business strategy contest – for Audi to be India’s Luxury car by 2015 – execute assistant to the CEO
  • Design – Submit design Audi for Indian metro – 6 month in the design studio in Germany

Q & A

What are the Challenges in the first 3 years?

  • I will do my calculations with the calculator, not tech savvy
  • I have not done much right that I did
  • In 2006 when Idea Works started, cash flows keep happening… but always kangal (paupers), since we overspend
    • Best guys hired at twice the market price
  • We were not able delegate, blessed knit pickers… brickbats from the client
    • Knee jerk responses
  • Got creative strategy

Nation Branding Specialist – how different or similar is it?

  • Similar in the sence is that we are fighting for same mindspace and physical space
  • Selecting catch phrase or a picture was a challenge
    1. It does not be a true story of the place
    2. But it should be liked by the minister, client head and sponsors
  • Many niceties to be considered
  • We are trying to make Brand India campaign in Canada
    1. Apparently they feel what they see of Sikhs in ‘tronto’
    2. Positive light and reality

Indian Tourism growth and decline – reasons?

  • Numbers of India is growing
  • 2 mn visitors by 2015… we are not geared for it
  • We do not have infra to support larger arrives
  • India tourism …. High income traveler. Not enough hotel rooms in delhi
  • Everybody goes to Taj Mahal, we have not developed
  • Lack of vision à lack of infra
  • People will come to varanasi
  • They do not go back with happy experience
  • Do we get repeat travelers?
  • The way Ministry promotes? –
    1. India is an all year around destination
    2. We advertise only for 4 months…
    3. We do not aim to get travelers right through the year

As an entrepreneur when you were in losses what kept you going?

  • I would have never got a job I wanted. My liabilities can be cleared only through enterprise than employment
  • I had to work for myself. I value my freedom, hence I kept on going..

Early days when you had to compete with Ogilvy, how did you go?

  • We always did what we wanted to do, and did not see what they did
  • We had advantage of managing costs, their overheads are usually high
  • Nimble footed
  • We have understood nation branding business
  • India Inclusive campaign…. We had a pitch based on last 20 years of growth…ogilvy made a campaign with 6 year old girl telling stories…
  • Ours was direct communication against metaphors

Your real estate business did not pay well…DAVOS experience

  • We could not do was sell
  • Before committing ourselves we should have got the players..
  • Two months is too early to sell
  • We got late and had hardly any time..
  • Now we do

As you are running business for the 20 years, not able to run is psychological?

  • The comment you made is what my wife says all the time
    • Why don’t you learn from the mistakes
    • Must be a DNA issue
    • I cannot comprehend… you get into the hole and come back and fall in again
  • The key thing is to maintain accounts and finances…

World Expo in Milan in 2015

  • Architects
  • Showcase in World expo
  • Compete, collaborate and co-create
  • Identify ideas, put in touch with mentor
  • Large number of these ideas are coming from Indians, that showcases

2008 – World went through economic down turn, how did you manage?

  • A couple of clients were spending, so we went about as usual and not got affected

Backdoor practices? Is it unethical?

  • It is not corrupt a practice – Singapore
    • Ogilvy guarding, we had to find a way to show our capability
  • We had to do in Singapore to show here
  • At WEF…. Delegate shared the access to database
  • It is a Business strategy of trying to find a way to showcase us

What do you want to say to MBA students like us?

Had I been an MBA, I would have become an entrepreneur? Not sure

  • Comforts of life
  • What I see of my friends who became an MBA
  • Starting entrepreneur was because I did not have an MBA

Once you are entrepreneur, you are entrepreneur for life

  • I joined, had accident, and got out of the course at FMS

You promote India as a brand. What change do you see in India, five years down the line?

  • There is a lot of emphasis on innovations, ideas
  • Manufacturing practices
  • Embrace new things going
  • A lot of new dynamism

At the same time we have challenges

  • Government indecisive
  • Corporate are not doing in CSR
  • US, Germany, UK… all have gone through it
    • All of them are centuries old
    • This is a social evolution
    • Citizen action and self-realization …

We love what we do, yes the reality is ….what keeps us going?

    • 75% is bread and better – this is what we have been doing
    • 25% I believe in what I am doing…


  1. Great having gone thru the contents. Count me in anytime for anything; intellectual, organisational help/ assistance/ mentoring. Cannot provide any financial support. Rest of my details, only in person.


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