It is in bad times that the really good people come to the fore: Ajay Gahlaut

Ajay Gahlaut, CCO and MD, Publicis Worldwide India, believes agencies will have to take their services up a notch in the game of survival as they transform into flatter organizations

e4m by Srabana Lahiri
Updated: Jun 26, 2020 9:06 AM
Ajay Gehlaut

Until lockdown was mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ajay Gahlaut, CCO and MD, Publicis Worldwide India, did not believe in the concept of work from home. Now, he realizes that he works harder than earlier, and longer hours too, and gets everything from meetings to pitches to ad campaigns done to his satisfaction virtually.

 He still believes advertising is a human business and needs human contact, but is quick to point out the positives that have come out of this period, especially the potential to cut down on time, money, carbon footprint… et al.

 Here, Gahlaut takes us through his experience of the last few weeks, and regales us with stories such as the COVID-19 campaign that he thought of but never made, where prisoners would share lock-up survival tips with people.

 What has been your own experience of the lockdown? From you, our expectation is to hear some amazing stories…

This is the biggest story that humanity has seen. Neither our generation nor possibly the generation before that has seen something like this lockdown. Work From Home (WFH) has been a totally new experience because until now, when people said WFH, it meant that basically you're at home but you're not working. However, now we realise that we are working much harder than we used to during normal times. Actually, you work right from the morning up to late at night. Just on the day of the lockdown announcement or perhaps the day before, we had a huge pitch in the office and the entire atmosphere was of total uncertainty. We didn't know what was going to happen. There were a few of us in the office from the morning, and then we had the pitch at 2pm. None of us had masks and we were all sitting there and joking, not realizing the seriousness of the thing. When we finished it at 2.30 pm and everyone went back home, that was the last I remember of the office. Since then, I haven’t shaken hands with anyone and haven’t met anyone even face-to-face. So, there's just me and my wife at home and it's a totally different experience. Some interesting things have happened. An ex-colleague sent me an audio clipping of a video call and there was one gentleman from the client side who was snoring very loudly. You could actually hear the snores and his boss was trying to ignore it, and it was obviously difficult to do because of the volume of the snores. But I can imagine that happening to anyone, because just imagine, you've just had a heavy lunch and then you're in a meeting that goes on and on. I don't blame someone for going off to sleep. But my tip to people is, at least put yourself on mute, so that at least your boss doesn't hear it.

 How important is it for you as a person to sit and have that beer with a friend or colleague to get your creative juices flowing?

Actually, beer has nothing to do with creative juices flowing. It's a lot of fun, but what really gets the creative juices flowing is company and when you sit face to face with people - there is no substitute for that. From the time it started to now, we've learnt techniques and tricks and everyone's found their way of working. But before the lockdown, nobody would sit in a silo and work. Everyone sits together, there's laughter and jokes, and you talk about the problem at hand. That’s how solutions emerge, because it's still a human business and it needs human contact. Of course, I miss that a lot. And I think a lot of people do that as well. But it's not as if no positives have come out of this. Now, for instance, we realize that good work can happen while you're sitting remotely somewhere else. I do see future pitches happening, just the way they are happening now. I just finished a pitch before having this chat with you. The client was in another city and we were here; but there was no lag, no issue with communication, and it was easy. There is huge potential to cut down so much of time, money, carbon footprint, everything… It just saves so much of everything, and now people agree that it is a valid way of functioning. That is a huge positive to come out of this lockdown.

 Tell us about the work emerging out of Publicis Worldwide during this period… you have done quite a few campaigns for Zee TV, then World Environment Day ASMR Radio Spots, Zoom TV Social Distancing Posts and that industry-wide campaign for Free Press Journal as well…

We’ve done a lot of work for Zee TV. Doing work for Zee TV is interesting because Zee has its own in-house production capability. So if we do the scripting, after the strategy and the scripts of the campaign, they have the capability to shoot it themselves. So that really takes a lot of load off the agency’s shoulders. A lot of the work was created by using existing footage from their shows, from the film properties that they own on their cinema channels. So, there was a plethora of content that we could dip into in order to create work for Zee TV. We've done work for other clients as well. One was, of course what the Free Press Journal asked the entire industry to create. All the creative teams got really amped, and that was something that we were very happy with. We've done work for Mercedes and for Skoda. Actually we've had workshops with clients, with the client teams and agency teams sitting together. So, work has gone on and hopefully it will only become better now as we open up.

 How do you see the post-COVID workplace evolving after this lockdown period?

There are a lot of people talking about the post-COVID scenario and the new normal, as they say, and saying things will never be the same again. Well, I believe in it to a certain extent, but not entirely. The world will never be the same again, but it would be different in a good way. So, this whole WFH has now become a legitimate way of working. There are companies which are saying that from now, they will continue this, even after lockdown is lifted and even after things are completely normal because it makes a lot of financial sense to work like this.

 Certainly, the debate has started whether an office is necessary at all. The other change is taking great care of one's health and one's family's health. Sooner or later, people will come to their senses and there will be a lot more accent on health and hygiene. Therefore, companies which are part of this industry of healthcare will obviously do very well because people have suddenly understood that if you don't have your health, you don't have anything at all. Whatever position you have, your possessions are all worth nothing if you don't have your health. So, mindsets will change majorly more than anything else. Once the virus is eliminated in the country, and across the world, things will come back to the way they used to be, but what is the time-frame of that happening? In the short to medium term, there will be a different world, and a new normal.

 You just spoke of health. You are the man behind the iconic Pulse Polio Immunization campaign lines. Though another agency is officially working with the government, did it strike you at any point to come up with a campaign against COVID-19? For public service, if you will…

Yes, I was part of the Pulse Polio Immunization campaign, I wrote the line, but the thought and the idea was Piyush Pandey’s, and between the two of us, we worked on it and it was quite a journey. When finally polio was eliminated, there was such a feeling of euphoria and thrill that I can't even begin to express it, because it was something where advertising did contribute in a fairly significant way. Of course, it was the people on ground, the government, it was the NGOs, it was the workers who used to go door to door… they were the people who were really instrumental, but communication and that campaign that I was part of really, really worked very well in the elimination of polio. And yes, communication does work.

 There is a need for a strong campaign to communicate, because people are not fully cognizant of the seriousness of the pandemic. There are very important things to be communicated. In a fragmented manner, state governments are doing it. I don't see a campaign of the scale of the ‘Do boond zindagi ke’ pulse polio campaign, maybe there is a requirement for it.

 Have you given it a thought? Did an idea come to your mind?

I haven't come up with a campaign idea. But there was a thought for Mumbai city or any city… though it's too late to use it. The thought was, if the police could get hold of certain prisoners who've been in jail for petty misdemeanors - locked up, say for six months or so - and if they were to come and say on camera that “I have done something wrong, you haven't…. but maybe it is time for me to give something back to society. Maybe I can give you certain tips on how to stay enclosed in a space and still survive and thrive...” It would have been interesting to see insights coming from these people who've been incarcerated for a while, and it could have been something very disruptive and different. Unfortunately, there are certain negatives attached to it, and the sentiment was such that, I thought perhaps it might not be appropriate. Still, had it been handled well, it could have been a very interesting campaign. It could have taken a serious or a slightly light tone. People were depressed, they needed a smile, and yet they needed good advice. But now things are opening up and I hope the virus goes away and things turn positive and good for everyone.

 Tell us about one new thing you might have learnt in the past few weeks.

There are so many insights and there are so many things that you realise that you never valued earlier that you value now - for example, family time. On a philosophical level, there was a lot of learning. On a practical level, I've been doing some writing of my own. While there is work, there is no commute or travel and no social engagements; so it gives you time to do other things as well. Apart from that, obviously, I’ve watched a lot of interesting shows on OTT platforms which we would never have got a chance to see otherwise. And of course - earlier, I couldn't even boil an egg and now I can cook fairly decently, so that's another learning that has happened!

 Talking of the advertising industry, what will it take for the industry to get back to normal? What are the steps that you would suggest that we take as a community, or as an industry, to get back to normal?

There is no doubt that the economy has taken a huge hit worldwide, and things are not extremely rosy, neither is the prediction for the next few months very positive. So it is a storm that all of us are in and we have to ride it out. Agencies have to look at various other ways of engaging with clients, always making sure that we think pro-actively for clients, and partner them in every way possible. While we work with them, revenue opportunities will come. But frankly, as service providers we have to make sure that we step up our service a notch, because clients need it as much as we do. So it's incumbent upon the agencies to give them fresh ideas, support them with any kind of work that they need.

We need to become even more nimble than earlier. There is no time for the three-hour beer lunches that used to be there in the heyday of advertising. Everything is quick with Digital playing such a large role and requiring such a quick turnaround time. There is no longer the luxury to wait, and come back with the campaign. The people who are the heavy-hitters, who actually roll up their sleeves and do the work, will command a premium. It is in bad times that the really good people come to the fore. Mediocrity can hide in the good times, but when there is a crisis, when there are just a few hand-picked people who have to do the work, good talent will be rewarded. They will go up through the ranks quicker because agencies will need to do that. There cannot be too many layers; we need flatter organizations, flatter structures. Agencies will transform quicker now, because it's simply a matter of economics - a matter of necessity.

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