Advertising & marketing industry will come out stronger from this crisis: Ashish Bhasin

In the second part of our series — Beating All Odds — Ashish Bhasin, CEO APAC & Chairman India, DAN spoke to Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor, exchange4media

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Apr 3, 2020 7:28 AM
Beating All Odds

COVID-19 has locked all of us down in our houses; offices are shut, factories are closed, houses are locked.

In these times of crisis, there are leaders who are still telling us how to run our businesses while working from home. They are trying to contain the damage that this outbreak has caused to our economy.

In the second part of exchange4media’s Beating All Odds series, we speak to Ashish Bhasin, CEO APAC & Chairman India, Dentsu Aegis Network.

Edited excerpts:

In these times of crisis, how should we ensure that our businesses, our agencies, our brands remain relevant, healthy and active?

I think we have to look at things step wise. Firstly, you have to look at the safety of your staff, all the people you deal with. Nothing is more important than human life and health. After that you have to put in place plans so that business continuity happens to the extent that it is possible. We had a business continuity plan which was well rehearsed, and leant from the fact that our China office went into a lockdown-kind of a scenario much earlier. And the unsung heroes at times like these are actually the IT guys, because you never have enough VPN licences, or enough bandwidth, and they are making sure we are able to operate in a secure environment as much as possible. So, these are the physical preparations that you have to make.

I equally believe that in times like these, the best thing is to communicate more than communicating less, particularly as a leader, because there is anxiety among people. There is also a great need to be transparent. When you are in a crisis, there is no sense looking at it through too 'rosy' a picture or too optimistically. But, at the same time there is no need to be excessively pessimistic. You have to accept the reality and share that with your team so that everybody knows what's to come and prepare for it. For example, we know that the next few quarters at least are going to be terrible for us in advertising and particularly for some parts for advertising and it's going to be a long time before things start coming back to normal.

So, first accept the facts, then accept that there is going to be light at the end of this tunnel. You've not hit a dead end, the world hasn't come to an end, this is a phase and it too shall pass. Then you have to make sure that you're gearing yourself up. These are times when you have to cut the fat, everybody is under pressure at this moment, but you mustn't cut the muscles because when it bounces back and things come back to normal — and they will come back to normal — you have to ensure that your company is in a good shape to take advantage of it as well. So it's a very fine balance and I would think it is the duty of the leaders to be positive and to communicate a lot with their teams and the teams in turn to communicate with their teams and so on. My daily mantra is while we are practising social distancing, we have to practise more of virtual proximity in times like these.

You are heading the entire APAC region and are managing many markets affected by this crisis. Where do you see India in this? How long do you think it will take for India to recover, or are we recovering faster? Or is there something we can learn from other markets?

We have been experiencing this from around mid-January. Our China offices were the first to go into a lockdown, before the Chinese New Year. We have been living with this in APAC for more than 2 months – in Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan (where we have an office with about 275-300 people) – so it's not new in that sense. Ironically, today as we speak the only offices that are somewhat functioning are in Beijing and Shanghai, in Wuhan it’s still work from home, but it is quite likely that in a week or so even that will reopen. So that has taken about 2 to 2 1/2 months to come to that. Different countries will react differently. Some like Singapore have tried to keep the basics going but with distancing. Some of these measures were taken in a very controlled way pretty early in the game. Some like Taiwan have managed very well inspite of the fact that there were a lot of cases initially - almost a few hundreds. Thus, this is remarkable. Korea is a great example where it just went out of control for a while but things started levelling out.

On the other hand, you're seeing some pretty alarming increases in South East Asia, like in Malaysia. So it is different in different markets. 

I think in India the next week or so is going to be very crucial because now everyone is doing a Ph.D in ‘WhatsAppology’ and everybody is an expert on flattening the curve and what's the trajectory in Italy and Spain and so on. So from information I have gathered from the experts – and I'm not relying on the ‘WhatsApp experts’ - it will largely depend on the next 7-10 days as to how much of containment we've been able to do and that will determine how badly India has been affected.

Have you started making recovery plans for your clients?

It depends on which market. In China and Taiwan yes, in Hong Kong and Sinapore, maybe a little bit, but in markets like India we are behind at the moment, because we are still in the lockdown. So recovery plans are still slightly far away at the moment. I think the most important thing you have to remember, which I keep sharing with my colleagues is that there is a finite period after which the infection will come under control. I don't know whether it will be in a 1, 2 or 3 months but they say with the heat etc, and if the government has gone the lockdown, it will hopefully come under control and let's hope that happens fast. But the mistaken impression that people have, particularly for a market like India which is so complex, is that it’s like a switch, which when put on will brings things back to normal. Because remember factories are shut, labourers have gone back home, the liquidity that keeps the economy greased and working has dried up completely. So even when the medical part of the emergency starts getting more under control, or gets over, the economy is going to take much longer to come back.

So the recovery plans are a distance away yet for India. We don't know how bad the medical emergency part of it will be, but I do hope the lockdown won’t get extended beyond what is necessary to flatten the curve. Beyond a point, it will have an impact on the economy that will be very long lasting. If we have a good monsoon - we always underestimate the impact of the monsoon - then we can start looking at recovery at around Diwali time.

With work-from-home and social distancing, our television and digital consumption have gone up but advertisers are still shying away from advertising. Do you think this is also the right time for certain brands to engage with people?

It will depend on whether there is a need to advertise. If your production is shut, if your outlet is shut, if there is no need for goods, other than essential ones, which is true for almost every industry, what are you going to advertise for? The other big concern is, everybody is running a business, and the biggest problem right now is going to be liquidity, everybody is going to conserve cash. Will you pay wages first, or will you want to spend on advertising first? Unfortunately, advertising is one of the easiest expenditures to cut down. It is right that from an efficiency perspective this is probably a great time to be buying media because television viewership has gone up, digital consumption has gone up, gaming is a great opportunity because gaming is just going through the roof, and we saw this throughout Asia Pacific at times like these. For some FMCG brands and cleaning products, this is a great opportunity because their products may still be selling but at some stage even they will want to conserve cash because it's still life as normal for anybody.

 The one thing you must remember is that this is very unique. So in my 32 years of working life, I've gone through 4 slowdowns/recessions. During the 2008 recession, most countries were hit - some more, some less. India was relatively sheltered because we weren't that globally aligned. But this is different. This is a medical emergency, the whole world has been hit and the impact is as severe as a total lockdown. This is unprecedented. It's the kind of stuff your parents or grandparents told you about. Like the days of war or Partition when people were looking for food and survival was an issue and so on.

So this is unprecedented. I don't think any managers of this generation, or maybe even one or two generations before have had the experience to rely upon to see how this will be tackled and therefore anyone who is trying to take this as business as usual is making a big mistake.

What are some unthinkable takeaways you will have from this experience?

One is, you can be locked down in your house and you can still do work. I've never worked from home ever in my life for a single day. I hardly ever take leaves, unless I go out for a holiday. The fact that you can work from home if forced to is in itself a big learning for me. On the positive side, you get to spend a fair amount of time with your family. And it does give you time to catch up on your reading and for reflection and so on. But strangely I find myself working for longer hours now than during normal times as I handle APAC and the time zones are very different.

As leaders, it is our job to be positive. You cannot let your team lose hope because these are very difficult times. And I keep telling them - yes it is very difficult and you must be transparent about it. But there is hope at the end of this tunnel. So one of the pressures you have to put on yourself is that you have to remain positive. Positivity is infectious in the good sense, so your enthusiasm cannot wane.

Also, there is a need to over communicate because these are times of anxiety and people are worried – ‘Will I have a job?’ ‘What's going to happen?’ ‘Will my client pay?’ ‘Will businesses fold?’ And these are all genuine concerns. All of us have anxieties at this time and I think the more we talk to each other and the more we support each other, the better it is at times like these.

Any advice for the young people in the industry?

I think the first thing is to accept the reality. If anyone tells you it's going to be business as usual and life will be back to normal in 15 days or 1 month — either the person doesn’t know the reality or they are lying. So accept the reality that this is a difficult time and this will leave an impact for some time. At the same time, there is absolutely no need to be despondent, for the middle and the long term. India is in the best position possible, our economy will do well and advertising is very responsive to economy, and just how when it's going down, advertising goes down much faster; when it goes up, advertising will go up much faster.

Use this time to upgrade yourselves. Look at the amount of courses that are available online today, not just digital courses, but hobby courses too. So use this time to upgrade yourself, it’s a reset opportunity, but be positive because there will be light at end of this tunnel. Advertising and marketing will come out stronger from this than ever before, but be prepared so that you are in for the long haul and the winter is coming so you have to be prepared.  The more you prepare yourself and the more positive you remain, the stronger you're going to come out of it

For more updates, be socially connected with us on
WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook & Youtube