‘Face facts, acknowledge fears, but also build credible hope’

In this edition of ‘Beating All Odds’, Jyoti Bansal, Chief Executive Officer of PHD India, speaks to exchange4media Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Apr 23, 2020 9:16 AM
Beating All Odds: Jyoti Bansal, CEO, PHD India, speaks to Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor, exchange4media

As the COVID-19 crisis has locked us in our houses, we are speaking to leaders who have been putting their best efforts into keeping their businesses going. 

In today's edition of 'Beating All Odds', we speak to Jyoti Bansal, Chief Executive Officer of PHD India, on how she is managing her business, clients and employees in these times of crisis.  

What kind of initiatives have you taken to keep the morale of your employees high during this time?

It is a very different way of working that we are all exploring and grappling with and after almost four weeks we have come to terms with the situation in many ways. As a leader, it is a challenge to keep people motivated; everybody is working remotely. We've done it before in bits and pieces with people occasionally working from home, but I don't think anybody has ever done it at this scale. We had put ourselves on a 2-3 day trial much before the government announced the lockdown, which really helped us to iron out some of the concerns which our employees had about how it would work. There are strange challenges which crop up once in a while.

One of the things, which I really believe, is that in different times, you need to think differently and get creative about how we do our business in times that are so unusual. We have tried to put a little more discipline in how we operate and how we connect with each other. I connect with my teams, first thing in the morning, so have put a cadence to that; I think the consistency and rhythm really help everybody because when you work from home, the boundaries between work and home tend to blur.

In the first week, we were all working from first thing in the morning to very late at night, but then we thought we need to put a method to this madness. So we connect in the morning and I catch up with all our business leads and take stock of any developments that have happened on the client front or anything we want to discuss, any new opportunity or challenges, which we want to share with each other.

We are working on a very big project right now, so we end the day with an everyday catch up on that. This also helps us to schedule our day better and we've also put in place some rules, for example, we wouldn't do any calls between 1-2 pm because it's lunchtime and everyone needs to take a break. We try not to schedule any calls on public holidays and weekends. At a group level, we have started a half hour de-stress time, where we schedule a programme where people in the team can bring their non-work talents to the fore. We've also done virtual hangout where we just relax and not talk about etc. So we're doing a mix of work-related discipline as well as time to chill with each other. I think some of us still want a break because it's difficult just staying at home.

 How are you handling your clients at this time?

I must say that our teams have really risen to the challenge of staying connected to their clients in these times quite well, and they are ensuring that we converse with them every day, we are discussing their challenges and how they are preparing for the post-lockdown phase. Now that we've been in lockdown for more than three weeks, eyes are on what will happen once the lockdown is over. We are also connecting with our clients on a senior level to understand how they are connecting to their businesses right now and over the next 3-6 months and then, of course, the mid-term horizon because we all need to be prepared for that. So from that perspective, our teams have been doing a good job. 

The one thing I think is very important is that PHD has always been a true and very future-facing partner by all our clients. We are trying to keep an eye on that by working not only with our global teams but also with our research partners who can mount online consumer sentiment and how our consumers are thinking about the future with researches and thought leadership pieces for us. As we get out of it, we can be well prepared to take this forward in a sensible manner which ties into what our business requirements are like to be. Partnership, empathy and the understanding that we are all in this together and that is it all just a phase that we will get over as we go by. We have all seen ups and downs in business, none of us has ever seen anything like this before and I hope we don't ever have to see it again, but it is a phase and as it is with all tough phases, the key is to hold our nerve and work together.

We are also working closely with our publisher partners and television channels, etc, to ensure that we can manage the situation now and then start working in a practical manner as we start going out of it.

 One of your clients ByteDance has seen a spike in consumption during the lockdown, what is your strategy for a client like this whose consumption has gone up during this time?

 Yes, their consumption has gone up and they have been seeing a huge surge in demand and download at this point. We are working very closely to see how we can work with them through this phase, which is like a build phase for them and what will happen once we get out of it. We have to balance out what the consumer is doing right now and what they need to do therefore, with what will happen once the lockdown is over. So we're having those kinds of conversations with them to ensure we can give them the right recommendations.

 As an expert who has been in the industry for so long, what advice would you give to marketers during this time?  

I think this is a good time to take a small step back and relook at our businesses from the lens which the day to day runnings does not allow us to so. It is also a time for us to look at what we would like to be as a business in the next 2-3 years. The lockdown happened quite suddenly, but when we get out of it, it would not happen overnight and consumers will also not go back to their old ways of thinking, spending and behaving like they were four weeks ago.

Neither will businesses go back to exactly what they were a few weeks ago. We all need to do a bit of future-gazing and rethinking about what kind of business models and new consumer behaviour patterns that will emerge after we get out of this phase. It is a great time to be preparing for that and that is exactly what we are trying to do with all our clients and ensure that we are not caught going back to the old ways of working because that is not going to happen. All of us will have to unlearn a few things, refocus our priorities on a few different things. Of course, some things will also continue the way they were because human beings are also creatures of habit. But there will be new ways of thinking, behaving and conducting our businesses. This is a great time for us to be having these conversations with our clients, with ourselves as an agency team. We are really looking at what we can do to prepare ourselves for going forward, what are the kinds of offerings that will be more useful for our clients, for the relatively difficult times that we will all go through over the next 6-10 months depending on how the economy rebounds.

How have you evolved as a person and professional during this time? 

For me, this has been a phase of both unlearning and relearning. Firstly, professionally, I think at these times people really look to us as leaders even more than they do at normal times. They want their leaders to be courageous, feeling like they are in charge of a situation, although many times we are not since we do not have control over a lot of things. I think practical leadership at this time is something I think my people expect from me and one of the things I am trying to focus on is to be as honest, candid and empathetic as I can be with our people, clients and in all the never-before-dealt-with situations that we are getting thrown into.

I had heard a very prominent Harvard professor talk about leadership, and one thing that really stuck with me is: face the facts, acknowledge the fears, but also build credible hope and that is what our people really expect from us. We understand the challenges many of our colleagues are facing working from home and managing the housework, there are children to be taken care of, some colleagues have aged parents, some of our younger team members are stuck alone away from their families due to travel restrictions of the lockdown. So we are trying to stay connected and I'm to give them a mix of the fact that we can get through this while acknowledging there is fear, anxiety and maybe an uncertain future right now head of us for many months.

On the personal front, I think this has been a lesson in understanding how school teachers manage to handle these bundles of energy - our children for - such long hours! I don't think I've ever spent so much time with my children as I'm doing now. It makes you relook at your own priorities in life and your own style of dealing with situations and people. Some of the things I'm learning are tough, but I think it's good to learn them while we have the time,

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