Hoping for a new & sustainable normal post COVID-19 - Ajit Varghese

Guest Column: Ajit Varghese, Global Media Leader, writes why the COVID-19 pandemic would be the single-biggest differentiator that will lead to a better and more sustainable future

e4m by Ajit Varghese
Updated: Apr 27, 2020 12:34 PM

Another life-changing moment in our era which not only shakes our behaviors and attitude, but also will soon shake up our thinking, beliefs, and maybe culture as the situation prolongs more. Let's look at the magnitude of the crisis at present. The virus has spread to over 200+ countries, more than half the world's population in some form or lockdown or other, declared infections of around 2.8m+ people with 200K+ dead (officially!! we can easily assume this is only 50% of the actual cases as lots still undeclared or many asymptomatic cases). Global GDP contraction of 5%+ (India and China could be an outlier to this), global unemployment levels moving towards the “Great Depression” levels, cramping global trade and supply chain disruptions. So far..

All this is assuming the virus impact is short term and will ease out by Q2. If not, there is more disaster waiting. I am not a big predictor of what’s going to happen as frankly nobody knows when, where, and how things turn out eventually. But it is always good to read people's thoughts, articles, and news exchanges in various chats (steering clear of stupidity, jingoism, and one-upmanship).

Having pondered over much of what I have read and heard on this, I thought it would be good to share what's going on in my mind. No hardcore predictions but just directional trends for the mid and long term:

  1. Business disruption: We have already seen the new trends in certain sectors and industries like Ecommerce, Streaming, Payments, Education, Health and wellness, Video conferencing, etc.. This is going to continue to emerge as the length of this crisis gets elongated. Everybody is hoping to have “V” shaped recovery but the reality like this will have a “WWWW” (volatile) kind of recovery as there is no clear cut remedy to the virus or the injuries it's going to leave behind on every part of the industry, market, and the population. So a lot will depend on how leaders lead from the front, keep cash in the business, and engage/ protect the human capital in the medium term. Strongly believe crises will forge new partnerships, new business models and structures, mergers and acquisitions in the next 1-2 years either to survive or be sustainable long term
  1. Digital disruption: Most of us have been brought up or are still learning to evolve from the need of the physical world of things we experience, use, or access vs. the virtual world version which provides an alternative access point or point of convenience. Like watching Netflix at home (streaming) vs watching movies in Cinema halls. Or like Ecommerce vs Retail stores, Cash vs digital payments, online vs offline Education, f2f meetings vs video meetings and the list can go. Think this will drastically leap forward and the longer the crisis goes on, the definition and order of priority will drastically change and the pace of change will be like never seen before. Technology, AI, Automation, Deep learning, etc. will become the backbone of our existence. I know it already started 7-10yrs back, maybe this is the time it would become a strategic and scalable wave to make a meaningful difference to the larger population rather than just being a largely engagement or entertainment option. In our business, at our home and in our experience, everybody is going to enable themselves with tech solutions to their everyday needs to make sure they are ready and suit their lifestyles rather than just be a backend BlackBox. I am not saying experiences out-of-home will no longer be important or relevant but both the quality and metrics of what it means for the consumer will change drastically. The things of the internet and the internet of things will fast track like never before.
  1. Social Disruption: The temporary convenience of work-from-home (WFH) or video conferencing may stay or go, or a new balance could emerge, am sure. But what will be more stark will be the existential crisis. Humans, I feel, will search for new values, purpose, meanings to life. The thinking and values will change from outside-in (extrinsic oriented) to inside-out (intrinsic oriented). This could be the moment of truth as a society we would face which was other running ahead at a certain speed, wealth accumulation as the only metric of success and leveraging nature and health multiple times for short term success. Would it make us look at our metric of success differently, teach us to co-exist and collaborate more, question the inequalities of society and nature. Time for introspection as may be, the long-lasting crises' may be a blessing in disguise
  1. Habit Disruption: It’s believed that anything we do for 40days continuously can become a habit. Well, directionally true. The intention, dedication, and motivation still count a lot whether we want to do it. The question is would COVID-19 give us an option? I am not sure why I would go to Cinema halls anymore and watch big screenings of content (movies) with strangers. Wouldn't it be better if I could make a studio experience possible at home and call close friends/ colleagues for an evening together or simply great family time? Sure sure, most will say it is an argument of privilege. Is it? Most of the real income that movie theatres earn is from the top 12-15% of the population who can pay around 10$ for a ticket and spend another 30$ on snacks or 100$ on lunch/dinner. Retail outlets vs Ecommerce? Cash vs digital payments? Home vs office while? West vs Asia?
  1. Trust disruption: Related to the point of existential thinking, increasingly people will question the “quality” metrics and the premium it is willing to pay for it. Quality in terms of safety, in terms of sustainability, harm to nature, convenience, and well being. Will the time for “cheap-cheaper-cheapest” be over as we all know it's coming at a larger cost, though blinded to it in the hurry for short term success. Would we rather stay in a hotel that meets the new standards of a safe environment, environment-friendly products, nature-friendly practices, or just a cheap hotel or cheap travel option? Think about it in a situation if this crisis goes on for 2 years. Product, services, brands, companies, governments, and leaders, in general, have already taken note of this in their marketing and storytelling in the immediate term (those who haven’t you can see how they are getting flagged in the media). Am sure a lot of it is going to continue into future, else consumers are surely going to reset their relationships in the medium and long term

A lot of what is said above is a bit more directional and still open-ended. These are just thoughts based on observations, chats, and reading up so far (probably the Phase 1 of the virus spread). That's why it's important to further break down the problem-solution matrix into NOW, NEXT, FUTURE Pillars. I am sure we have all done this at our work and annual planning presentations to clients so many times. Think life planning or business planning is not going to be any different from that.

NOW is more about managing the current crisis in the best possible manner. How can we assist in helping people, brands manage to wade through it safely, keep it relevant, and help the people who need help. What we have seen is most people adjust to this faster and rise to the occasion like in any other crisis. People quickly collaborate, are willing to go through the suffering, and also help each other out in this phase. The question really when would steam most of this generation be born after the 1930s or 1940s and have seen anything like this before. There were pandemics in the '50s and HIV in the '80s etc but still low in scale or is not like a World war or been in lockdown ever. Worry is the patience of business in terms of cash and consumers in terms of fighting an invisible enemy will be over in 3 to at best 6months. The sooner we adjust to living with the new reality it would eventually turn out better else the collateral damages will start showing up in terms of food shortages, civil unrest, etc etc

NEXT is all about how we get financial stability back into the businesses and consumers. Look at what are the key pillars that need immediate fixes and what are things that need to change or go. Most of the must-do vs nice-to-do decisions will be taken in the phase. This is the phase that will question our resilience and power of real collaboration between business, consumers, and Governments. The crisis may have eased out but the injuries will stay and will take time to heal. This is the phase that could go on for a year or even two, possibly.

FUTURE is where we have to question what will help us survive a long term existence. Question the business model, way of working, where is the growth going to come from, and has the structure and operations adapted to new or evolved consumers needs. Not sure anybody can predict this phase as most of it is conjecture at this point-in-time or this is more a board room or investor level thinking (not the ones shared in webinars or articles). Not even sure a lot of businesses or even own metrics of success will remain the same. I think the only thing we could do is to be ready to unlearn, learn and stay engaged with the larger ecosystem and policymaking to make sure the business or our self is ready to accept the new normal and co-exist

In conclusion, here are my key watch-outs

  1. Companies, Govts, and Individuals - need to relook at the core reason for being (Purpose), what is the impact on the society and environment at large. These need to be redefined in tandem with shareholder profit goals. Not an easy thing, that's where future-ready leaders will adapt or new ones will emerge and some will fall off the radar
  2. Technology transformation is going driven from intrinsic needs rather than extrinsic needs. Technology will no longer be just an enabler but will become the backbone. It will need to not just to improve convenience or remove drudgery but to help revolutionize human capital which balances economic progress, society upliftment, and a sustainable environment 
  3. Collaboration is the keyword. Divide and rule is the easiest way to achieve power and success, but it leaves all of us negating the good with the bad. Remember the virus won't differentiate the social classes, geographies, rich or poor. Maybe a bit idealistic view, but this will be the single biggest differentiator of industries, markets, geographies, and societies to revive up fast and carve a better sustainable future.
  4. Quality will be re-defined to accommodate Safety, Trust, Community, Access, Wellness, Sustainability integrated into the growth and profit goals.. Will we? Or we may ignore and move up. The decision is ours, and this opportunity is too good to be wasted.
  5. Sustainability, Climate change, Inclusion, etc. will become the mainline agenda and till now individuals have no real ownership. The onus will now shift to us at an individual and societal level, not just remain in political manifestos and a global agenda. Get ready to take ownership, drive accountability to forge a better sustainable future within our own homes, localities, and workplaces. Ask what can I do to contribute and make your stakeholders more accountable for holistic development

Hoping not just for a new normal but a sustainable normal. Call it survival of the fittest or smartest, just that the definitions need to be adapted to new realities. 

Ajit Varghese is an accomplished client-centric and digital focused Global Media Leader with a track record of turning around media agencies, leading rapid growth and market dominance. With over 25 years of experience in the media, he is currently based out of London. Varghese has had extensive stints in CEO roles with WPP in India, Asia Pacific and Global roles. He possesses a deep knowledge of consumer, content, technology and commerce, that has exceeded client expectations over time. Varghese is known for his penchant in driving change by building vision, a strong inclusive employee culture, backing it with products/capabilities and ensuring delivery with strong accountability.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com

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