Challenge is that brands and agencies want to play it safe: Sudish Balan, Tonic Worldwide

In today's edition of e4m Creative Zone, we speak to Sudish Balan, Chief Business Officer, Tonic Worldwide, on walking tall through the COVID crisis, the silver lining and more

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Aug 5, 2020 9:07 AM
Sudish Balan

The COVID-19 global lockdown has not just confined us to our homes but thrown at us challenges of various dimensions. From the ad industry’s perspective, organising and shooting an advertising campaign in these conditions proved to be the big test. However, despite these challenges, our creative leaders have continued to conceptualise work that inspires. In our series- e4m Creative Zone- we get to know how Creative heads have been surpassing the COVID hurdles.
In today's edition of e4m Creative Zone, we have creative and biz powerhouse- Sudish Balan, Chief Business Officer, Tonic Worldwide, for the Creative Zone. Balan spills the beans on walking tall through adversity and challenges caused by the COVID-led lockdown, silver lining and creating noteworthy work for digital.

Edited excerpts:

How has lockdown changed life for digital agencies?
We are going through tough times and it’s unfortunate, but as I like to put it, ‘never waste a good crisis’. That’s the mode that we have been in. As a digital agency, we are in a position to make the best out of it. Let me throw some numbers here; there has been a 4x growth in searches for a better internet plan. Time spent by Indians on smartphones increased by 24% to 4.3 hours. All this data clearly shows that we are online much more than before. Things may change in the future, case in point China where after the lockdown, the time spent has reduced. But for now, everyone has turned to digital for WFH, entertainment, shopping, education and much more. It’s the most optimal medium for brands to connect with their consumers in the current scenario.
As a digital agency, the expectations from us is to be ‘more’ agile and on our feet to turn things around in the volatile environment. Lockdown also has brought the teams together and broadened collaboration.
Silver lining - The nature of our business has always prepared us for the scenario mentioned above and puts digital agencies in a better position than ever before to perform. Maybe we don’t need large offices. Our teams have always had the option of remote working for a few days in a year, but the lockdown has validated that remote working works and it can be optimised as well. We could offer always-on option to teams who chose to work remotely and talent no longer needs to be bound by office locations.
But there has been a flip side to this too. Boundaries on work life balance are further blurring out. We have to balance our time better so that it doesn’t spill onto personal time. Working from home gives us ease, but we need to learn to ‘switch off’ from work so that we can ‘switch on’ and crack the next award winning campaign.
Fence sitters on digital are urged to transform their businesses digitally taking digital marketing ahead by a couple of years in the marketers black book.

How have clients approached the situation?
They have been walking the talk and setting benchmarks before expecting agencies to do so. Most of our clients like Kotak Mahindra Bank or Sony Entertainment Network were always believers in the medium of digital and themselves been driving the agenda. So we didn’t have to do any convincing to put more efforts on digital to connect with their consumers. And it is also inspiring to see how many large companies have transformed their business digitally, overnight (It is more difficult for larger companies to adapt change due to scale) and yet they have managed to do so. Some have also pivoted their business and gotten into newer product lines. Inspiring! Clients have also been pushed to reinvent, look at communication from new lens and be performance driven.

Take us through any campaign done by the agency during lockdown and how did it all come together despite the barriers to creation?
As they say, constraints bring innovation. We executed several innovative campaigns during the period. Found innovative ways of shooting and making video content and built deeper engagement for brands with consumers. Glucon-D is one such example.
While it’s one of the most iconic brands synonymous with the category, the task was to build relatability and a deeper bond with consumers on digital. We leveraged Mother’s Day as a platform to not only connect emotionally with our consumers but also build top of mind recall to fuel ecommerce. We launched Glucon-D salutes #EnergyGharKi.
The premise: Glucon-D believes that a mother is the epitome of infinite energy and is the only one who can match Glucon-D's energy.
For the first-time ever, the iconic brand replaced its name Glucon-D in its logo unit with the name of a mother because. The campaign saw an overwhelming response from consumers and the community. 3000+ virtual packs were generated in just over 2 days with people coming and adding their mothers name and picture on the pack virtually. Fuelled e-commerce growth by 204%. The campaign was the most talked about amongst consumers and generated buzz with over 3 million impressions.
Similarly, for WOW Skin Science, a home-grown skincare and wellness brand that is natural and eco-friendly, we created memorable experiences around the brand. We got the millennials to contribute to the environment from the confines of their homes ‘Lockdown Times’, with one simple step ‘TrashYourSpam’.
TrashYourSpam encouraged millennials to adopt a cleanliness drive to combat environment pollution by addressing digital pollution. Influencers started changing their bios with the number of spam mails deleted. How-to videos/posts did the rounds on social. Wow Skin Science then converted deleted spam mails into coupon codes for a month’s wow skin products for lucky winners. Who knew just deleting the spam mails from your mailbox could lead to contribution to the environment.
The brand saw an increase in interaction by 165% and increase in sales with the coupon codes generated.

Times have certainly been trying. Digital agencies anyway have been accustomed to being on their toes and thrive in this as it’s a constant in the profession. How are you managing to keep going and pulling off through everything going on?
Very much, digital agencies are accustomed to being on their toes and evolving rapidly as per situations and challenges. Most of us have managed to transform our way of functioning as well as thinking. Though the real challenge is that faced by our teams. We are only as good as our people, they are our biggest asset. As I mentioned earlier, it’s been tough on them. It’s been a shocking change in terms of work culture for them. Confined to a room, stuck to a laptop or phones and delivering 24/7. We identified this much early and considered it as our priority to support and guide them. We never had a time sheet system in our agency, because we believe its counter productive and kills motivation. Once the lockdown started though, we implemented a time sheet system equipped with machine learning to track and alert us of members who are putting in more hours than expected. It has helped us in curbing team members from getting fatigued and exhausted. I wouldn’t say we have been 100% successful but we are working our way towards it. We have been trying to keep them in better spirits by regular interactions apart from work. Thanks to our HR team, weekends are still fun for our people with Friday evening live performances and games.

What would be your message to brands and agencies on cutting through the clutter rather than being it?
The challenge is that brands and agencies want to play it safe. We are in uncertain times and we are even more worried and don’t want to take risks. We prefer to work on formulas which have been proven to be successful. That makes us part of the clutter. I could give cliched solutions like “be different”, “shelve an idea if it sound like ‘me too’etc.”, but if you really need to cut the clutter, the most important thing you need to do is BE BRAVE. You need to break the category code which might make you look different or be considered crazy, but then isn’t that the whole point? Break conventional perceptions and thinking.
Take the case of a brand which launched an MP3 player. It was better technology and people found it different and could easily identify it by the colour of its earphones. It was white in colour while all other earphones were typically in black colour. I don’t even have to mention the brand here, do I?
Do what you wouldn’t have done otherwise in advertising/communication. An idea that seems completely off is possibly off because we are used to doing it in a certain way. Be open to a different way. ‘Success cannot be duplicated… it needs to be created’.

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