Be on the transformation treadmill and keep running really fast: Venkatagiri Rao, VMLY&R

In today’s edition of e4m Creative Zone, we speak to Venkatagiri Rao, Chief Creative Officer, SEA and India, VMLY&R on digital transformation, woke-washing and more

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Jul 17, 2020 6:52 PM
e4m Creative Zone Venkatagiri Rao

The COVID-19 global lockdown has not only confined us to our homes but also thrown at us challenges of various dimensions. From the ad industry’s perspective, organising and shooting an advertising campaign in these conditions has proven to be the big test. However, despite these challenges, our creative leaders have continued to create work that inspires all. In our series – e4m Creative Zone – where we get to know how Creative heads have been surpassing the COVID hurdles.

In today’s edition, we speak to someone who loves the challenge of balancing the strategic needs of his clients with the creative expression of their brands. We caught up with Venkatagiri Rao, Chief Creative Officer, SEA and India, VMLY&R who has been on the creative side of the business for over 17 years now. Working at Ogilvy, Publicis Ambience and DDB, he has handled both global and Indian brands like Emirates, Volkswagen, TopGear, Lonely Planet, Economic Times, Tata Motors, Amaron and Marico. Rao speaks of the larger changes that the industry and world have gone through during the pandemic. He also shares insights on how brands have been forced to respond to the various upheavals.

Edited excerpts below:

How has been your experience of creativity amidst remote captivity been and how working post lockdown has changed?

At an agency level, things have never been better. In fact, we've been on our best streak in the last three-four months, which kind of surprised us as well. Because the moment we got into the work from home system, stuff started moving faster. In fact, there have been a lot of campaigns that went really big for us and a lot of client appreciation mails. It’s been quite incredible actually. It’s also because I think we got into the lockdown and we've been onboarding a lot of new clients, right from Colgate to Pepsi to Cipla, among others. And these are all huge clients so the opportunities are huge. And they also push you. So it’s just that we entered this particular lockdown with momentum like never before. And we've also managed to convert a lot of these opportunities into very interesting campaigns.

And I can tell you, personally, for me, I've been thriving and enjoying the lockdown/ work from home because firstly I'm a homebody. That's a personal thing. While working from home, you can now block off time between meetings and there are no interruptions in that sense. So, you tend to be more productive and there are fewer disruptions in that sense. Your thinking is purer and your output is a lot better. 

How have clients approached the situation?

It's been very interesting. When we got into the lockdown, nobody expected it to be so long. And I think the one learning is that things are changing. So like us, I think even clients have been kind of trying to cope with this. From a work from home perspective, you have a lot of calls where you see your work and personal life colliding. Be it a kid crying or a spouse coming in. But what surprises us is how productive we have become through it all. I would say clients have adapted well to the situation.

The situation has brought in a great deal of upheaval in the way we work. What are green shoots of opportunity that you see here?

I think one of the things is also there's a bit of a reprioritization happening. Because what happens is marketing behaviour changes customer behaviour in that sense. So we're just kind of trying to figure out, basis this lockdown because of this work from home because of the fear, how customer behaviour is changing. So suddenly there are some categories that have suddenly unexpectedly kind of shot up in terms of people wanting to buy and engage with. A lot of different categories have suddenly become very hyperactive. At the same time, there are some categories that are kind of taking the backseat. So it is a matter of reordering priorities.

Moreover, it’s almost like three years of digital transformation got enacted in three months, literally. So it's been great for digital. For us also at VMLY&R, we have a CX practice, e-comm practice, etc. Suddenly there's so much traction happening and we are able to give solutions to clients. A lot of brands that have been doing work, not to sell their stuff, but also to get into good books of people. But I think brands have been building a lot of love from customers.

Also, I would say that smaller budgets are actually a good opportunity because it forces everybody to focus on. Whereas, when you don't have the discipline of smaller budgets, you want to chase everything. Smaller budgets force the client to be much sharper and focused. It forces us to be far more creative in that sense, saying that okay this is our one shot, we’re not going to get a second and a third shot at this quarter or the first half of the year.  It fundamentally is a function of which side of the opportunity you're on or your agency is on. 

What has it taught us about brands and how they should navigate this volatile landscape and what to say and how much to say stays as a question?

I think it's a bit of a reckoning actually for brands if you ask me. There’s an interesting quote by Warren Buffett which says,"It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked." So the tide has gone down and you can see brands being exposed for who they are.

In the landscape, the key point is that a lot of brands and organizations stepped up and became good corporate citizens, and that was kind of the first step which was really cool. It was an opportunity to step up and do good. They donated money or helped in another way.

A lot of brands did that, and it was pretty good. 

There was a website that came up called You could go there and enter any celebrity's name, any brand name, and it would surface whether they helped during Covid or not. So the world is keeping track, and I'm sure that a lot of guys who did the genuine thing checked out, and without hesitation went out and did the stuff they want to. These guys will be remembered by people. I think there's a lot of woke-washing happening. It is becoming a fad almost as a lot of brands are jumping onto the bandwagon. The key point is that now you're really reconsidering what are the brands that are really serious about this and what are the brands that are just playing.

As businesses go through trying times and ad spends remain the first to be affected, how should agencies ensure they stay relevant?

I think, three years back, spends on digital were bigger than the spends on TV globally. The money goes where the attention goes and the attention has been shifting to digital for the last few years. Brands and agencies have been slow to acknowledge that. They have been given a bit of a wake-up call in that sense. So it's a bit of a rude awakening. At this time, if you're a learning organization, then that's the best way you can cope because there are no set ways. You just need to learn to respond fast and respond well. For example, we did this huge Tik Tok campaign for Parachute Advanced and said that we cracked this platform, let’s spread the learnings to the entire agency, to clients. And the next thing we know is that TikTok is off the air. And that's how brutal and fast change is right now.

 So you have to be on the transformation treadmill and have to keep running really fast. The very notion of what a campaign is or how a brand can be built has changed. You need to look at how fast you can keep learning as learning is only the way out. 

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