The last six months have been extremely challenging for all of us, and most of us have done a fabulous job surviving through the pandemic. Agencies have seen it all in the lockdown from creating campaigns to launching new brands, and as Tarun Rai has rightly said, “The worst is behind us”. All of us hope for a great festive season and a sharp recovery of the economy.
In this conversation with Industry Captain and Advertising Veteran, Tarun Rai, Chairman and Group CEO, Wunderman Thompson, South Asia, we dive deep into how the agency championed its way through the lockdown, recommendations to its clients and a lot more.
How has Wunderman Thompson adapted to and championed the new normal?
To get over a thousand people, across 8 cities and three countries, to start working from home within 48 hours, seamlessly and without any serious disruption, was proof of how agile our organisation is.
Our people responded admirably. Once it was clear that WFH would be the norm for some time they quickly got into the groove and despite all the anxieties and the difficulties of the lockdown, they didn’t let their creativity and commitment flag. So, I am impressed both by our agility as an organisation and the responsibility, commitment and resourcefulness of our employees through the crisis.
Do you think the teams are able to deliver better creative ideas by working solo at home? I mean there are the Zoom/Team calls but you know the brainstorming sessions where one jumps out of a chair at the thought of an idea! The Eureka! Moment seems to be evading us… Certainly can’t happen on a video call… I mean all people can do is unmute themselves and talk! So…How eager are you personally and the teams to come back to the office? Or you plan to take the WFH model for much longer than the pandemic forces it to be?
Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages of working from home. It saves on unnecessary travel time but loses out on the energy a group generates in a physical meeting room. But there’s one aspect that has certainly improved, and that is collaboration. Since geography has been made completely redundant during the lockdown, our people are finding collaborating with each other easier. Almost effortless. I have always encouraged collaboration between our offices in various cities as well as our many companies. “Geography is History” is my favourite expression that I use frequently with my leadership team. Why should our talent be limited to a particular geography? Now, suddenly, geography is totally redundant.
I have always, also, believed that we should be output focussed and not be bothered whether people are ‘reporting’ to work on time or at all. So, our organisation, has had a, rather, flexible approach to office hours. What this pandemic and the resultant lockdown has done is to reinforce my belief that an output focussed approach is the right approach. Leave the time management to employees. I certainly want to carry forward this learning into the post-pandemic world and try and institutionalise a 50-50 solution, that on any given day only 50% of our people are in the office while the remaining 50% are working remotely. Needs some planning and effort, including relooking at our HR policies and appraisals, but it can be done.
We are surviving a pandemic and we have so many stories to tell our future generations! I mean the year, 2020, could not be a more dreadful year than it already has been… so what would be some learnings you would want to talk about (from the business perspective and personal perspective, of course
There are some learnings that we can internalise. Clearly, tech adoption is one. I believe two years of tech adoption have been compressed into two months. And this is both at an organizational level as well as personal. The last six months have also taught us that things can change very fast and we need to be agile and flexible when it comes to our business plans and our organisation structure. And it has also reminded us that we need to upgrade our skills quickly because the timelines can collapse at a rapid pace and make us redundant. But the most important learning, or rather a reminder, has been that our people are resilient, innovative and resourceful. There are also many learning for us as a society. The biggest one being, that it is beyond doubt, an interconnected world, and our survival as a species depends on close collaboration and cooperation.
Well, in the long and exhaustive lockdown a lot of people have sort of picked up some new talents/learned a couple of new things… so what new have you learned and how has the agency made sure that the teams also pick up on some new talents/digital knowledge etcetera.
We used the opportunity of people being at home, with a little bit more time, to upskill them. We have run more than 90 on-line training programs for our people including ones on mental health and managing anxiety. I am very happy to report that the participation levels have been amazing with most of these programs recording more than 80% participation levels. You are right, these months have been exhausting.
Our people need motivation. So, besides, training and communicating with them regularly, we decided to form our own band. We have an immense amount of talent in the company. And what’s an agency without its own band? Our band – Wunderband- was formed with talent from four cities and across three companies. And their debut song, a song of hope and motivation, was dedicated to our people. It has been wildly popular, not just in South Asia but also in the wider, Wunderman Thompson world. It features now on our website – https://www.wundermanthompson.com/india
This is the most important question! How has the business been? How have your targets for the last 2 quarters been and how do you see this quarter? Any positives to derive from these past couple of quarters?
It has, no doubt, been a very challenging time. We are a derivative business. If our clients businesses are not doing well, one of the first cutbacks are in the marketing and advertising budgets. We have been lucky that digital revenues were not impacted as much. And since almost 40% of our revenues are from non-traditional avenues we have been in a better position that many other traditional agencies. Any positives? Well, the fact that the worst is behind us and things are looking up. Cricket is back, the festive season is upon us and the pent-up demand is still not satiated.
What are your thoughts on one of the most awaited festive seasons? Do you see enough spending/consumption from the end consumer to enable businesses to come back to normality? As a brand custodian and one of the most respected thought leaders in the industry… What are your recommendations to brands?
Even during the worst period of the crisis we were advising our clients that their brands should not disappear from their consumers’ minds. That brands should not abandon the consumers. Now, with the economy opening up, with the festive season starting, it is time to loosen the purse strings, and invest. There are enough reports to prove that brands that spend as a recession recedes, recover up to 9 times faster than other brands. That a higher spend results in a larger market share. This is not the time to pull punches. There’s a lot of talk about the shape of economic recovery. A lot of alphabets are being used to give projections – L, U, V… even W. That remains to be seen. However, within a category brands do have the opportunity to decide on their own recovery shape. And our advice to our clients is that they can aim for a V-shaped recovery and gain market share at the cost of their competitors in a category by putting in the right investments as we come out of the recession.
What has been the impact of the lockdown on agency-client relationship… and how has it evolved? For the better or worse? Is there an anecdote you’d like to share with us?
A crisis is a true test of any relationship. And during this crisis, I am happy, to say that our existing relationships with our clients has only strengthened. From offering them advice during the early stages of the lockdown not to go totally silent, to urging them to invest more to capture the pent-up consumer demand during the festive season, to producing work despite all the odds, we have done our best to help our clients to bounce-back quickly from this crisis.
With so much changed in the past few months what are some new roles you expect to be created/demanded/required at Wunderman Thompson going forward?
It is clear that trends that were developing already have been fast-tracked by the crisis. And this includes our clients’ focus on digital and e-commerce. With Wunderman Thompson’s strengths in both these areas and in data and technology, we are, increasingly, being called in by our existing clients to help them on their digital transformation journey. Clients are also eager to consolidate and work with fewer partners. It is better in terms of consistent messaging as also more cost efficient. An integrated, end-to-end solution provider is what clients are going to continue to demand going forward. And Wunderman Thompson is in a sweet spot to deliver it.