When you stay positive, you start seeing opportunities: CVL Srinivas

In this edition of 'Beating All Odds', CVL Srinivas, Country Manager, WPP, speaks to exchange4media Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Published: Apr 13, 2020 8:34 AM  | 15 min read
Beating All Odds

The coronavirus crisis has swept the entire world into a whirlpool of economic crisis and is likely to have a major impact on the advertising and marketing industry.

In these times of difficulties, we need our leaders more than ever.

In this edition of 'Beating All Odds' series, we have CVL Srinivas, Country Manager, WPP.

Where do you see the light at the end of this crisis?

There is no denying the fact that right now are going through very challenging times. I grew up listening to stories about WW2 from my granddad and this is probably a WW2 kind of event for our generation and it's tough and challenging. Everything is very different from the minute you wake up in the morning - the fact that you have to work remotely and we're not sure how long it's going to last, or if there's going to be a cure. So yes, there is no denying the fact that it's challenging.

 On the other hand, if one looks for the positives, I think there are many. We've seen so many positive changes happen in the last 2-3 weeks. I don't think we've ever seen this kind of a digital transformation in every aspect of our lives — whether personal or professional. We, as organisations, industries and people, have adapted to this and that shows we, as a race, are capable of a lot more, and as organisations as well.

 It is obviously teaching us to be a lot more patient, and to be focussed and stick to our goals. I think we'll come out stronger. There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel, as and when we reach there. All said and done, India is going to continue to remain the fastest growing major economy, although the numbers are obviously going to come down. It is also going to remain the fastest growing ad market, although again the numbers are going to be scaled down. As things rebound, they are going to get exciting. Clients will need us a lot more than ever, given the challenges they are going to face. So, looking at the agency side, there are exciting times ahead.

As the leader of WPP India and with so many big agencies to handle, how are you keeping the morale of your agency heads and employees high at this time?

A couple of things have worked well for us. Firstly, we started planning for this very early on. The fact that we're a global company gave some insight on how things panned out in China, and later on in Europe and the US. In fact, we had our global WPP leadership team in Mumbai for almost a whole week in the first week of March when all of this was playing out. So the policy decisions were being taken in front of us and we were part of the whole thing and therefore we started planning early on.

 By the time the lockdown was announced we had managed to get all our people to work remotely from home. We have 80 offices in India and over 15,000 people across our companies, including our associates, so we're talking of a massive set up in that sense. Frankly, even I was pleasantly surprised in the way in which it happened so smoothly. People adapted to the new way of working pretty well, we had fantastic support from our different leadership teams, from across all our operating companies — the IT, admin, HR teams — and everyone across WPP chipped in an ensured this worked, so it was a collective effort. Planning and all of us working together made things happen pretty smoothly.

 We are focussing on our employees, trying to ensure that first of all they are safe, they are healthy and they are in good spirits and that they are motivated to get back to their desk at home day after day, so we have quite a few initiatives on that front. We have, for example, created a learning and development programme which is pan-WPP, where we have a lot of interesting sessions lined up. It's already kicked off with a fantastic response. We have conducted sessions by some of our own champions within WPP, our partners, and quite a few fun sessions lined up as well. Next week we are organising a concert online for all WPP employees and it's going to be exciting. There are also a lot of fun stuff that the teams are doing on their own. Every market is carrying out their own activities. Some of our training programmes obviously are common and shared, and there is a lot of exchange happening with our global offices.

 At the end of the day, it's about keeping in touch on a daily basis, communicating with your teams, but at the same time I think you shouldn't over burden your teams with too much of work, it's important to stick to the basics and be focussed. Just realise that everyone is going through stressful times, so just help out and reach out to one another. And as a family and as a unit, we've come together pretty well. Just a  couple of hours ago we had our Global CEO Mark Read do an exclusive town hall for all WPP employees across India, and then Mark and I did a Q&A with all our employees. So those are the things we will keep doing, going forward as well.

 How are you dealing with your clients during this time of crisis?

 There is no denying the fact that they, just like us, are going through very tough times. Clients are obviously more focussed on the here and now, while everyone's focussed on how we get through the next 4-8 weeks or 12 weeks. For them, it is a question of supply chains getting restored, factories getting up and running again, products reaching the shelves, therefore, getting the whole cycle moving.

 I've had lot of conversations in the last couple of weeks directly with clients and through my client teams and one of the things we have tried to advise our clients is - if possible, try to ensure some amount of salience for the brand because study after study has shown that when things rebound brands which have some amount of saliency come back a lot stronger. The other thing we are saying is to be careful with the messaging that you run at this time. You need to be empathetic, you need to position yourself as a brand or service that is helpful. And of course, be very judicious with your spends because at the end of the day you need to conserve your resources for stronger and better days ahead. So how do you have the most intelligent mix at this time, if you can't have those big national campaigns can you use digital media more innovatively, etc.

 I just wanted to share some work that is being done for our clients even in these challenging times - like these by various operating companies within WPP. And it just goes on to show that despite all the challenges and pressures, people are putting in some great work. Landor, for example, has pretty much overnight created a new packaging for their client Jagatjit Industries when they got into the hand sanitizer line. The Glitch has turned out some very interesting campaigns in the last couple of weeks for clients such as Diageo, Netflix and Lenovo. Wunderman Thompson came up with the 'Make Your Mask' campaign for the Times of India, from the Delhi office and this obviously has got a lot of visibility and appreciation from folks all around.

They've also done a lot of interesting work for HUL and UNICEF.

 GroupM had organised the Critic's Choice Award which was meant to be an on-ground event with one of the industry bodies. Obviously, the event couldn't happen so they turned it into a virtual event and it got streamed live a few days ago. And again it received a lot of appreciation. It showed how to think on one's feet and quickly adapting to the times that we are in.

 Autumn Grey's 'First Transfer' campaign for Axis Bank, which we were talking about earlier, I thought was a fantastic work. 82.5's work for Himalaya and Luminous again was very interesting. Ogilvy has done interesting work across all their offices, including the Tata Sky, Asian Paints and Mondelez campaigns in Bombay, which are already on air. The work they have done for The Hindu and Fortune Oil in Bangalore and UPI from Calcutta, and also the Mother Dairy campaign they have done from the Delhi office.

 So across we have had some great work. Genesis Burson Cohn & Wolfe (Genesis BCW), our PR agency, has come up with some very interesting ideas for GSK, 3M and others in the last couple of weeks. So we've had great work done across the board. On the one hand, we are advising clients to see how best to manage resources to keep their brand salient, but we're also closely aware of the practical problems they are facing. It actually differs quite a bit in terms of client and sector, so talking to them more often and being there as their trusted partner is what's important.

 Tell us more about what WPP is doing on the CSR front in terms of the Coronavirus crisis.

 Apart from our people and clients, being a large responsible organisation, we are also mindful of keeping our communities in mind to see what more we can do. The WPP Foundation through which we channelise all of our CSR investments has been doing phenomenal work for the last couple of years. It's being run by Rama Iyer, who has won practically every award there is to win in the CSR circuit. And what we have done in the last couple of weeks through Rama and her team is that we have lined up options for our staff and our operating companies to contribute towards all the causes  — such as issues the migrants are facing and support for healthcare workers. We're contributing both as individuals and as organisations and it is all being managed through our foundation. We are also doing pro-bono work for some of the organisations as WPP and our operating companies. Anyone who needs help in times like these, we are most willing and most happy to play our part.

 It has been reported that China's revenues went down by 17% in the first few months of the outbreak. How do you see this situation hampering the growth of our economy and how much time do you think it will take to recover from this crisis?

 It is interesting you spoke of the China number because those are the numbers going around across businesses and almost every business has been impacted there. We will also see Europe and the US go towards those numbers as things catch on there, so I think we could see it in our market as well - in terms of what would be the dips we would see. It is obviously very difficult to put an estimate on what it finally will be as well as how long it will take to recover. The only thing I can say with a lot of certainty is as and when things recover, India is probably going to continue to be the fastest growing economy as well as the fastest growing ad market, although the numbers are going to be scaled down quite a bit. I guess it will all depend on how long this prolongs in India.

 Mark Read said that India is a standout market for WPP. Does this crisis put more pressure on you? How will we cope with this situation?

 I think this is one of those rare situations where the pressure is somewhat equally distributed across every person and every market, and I'm sure it's the same across organisations. So, yes, I think we all will feel the pressure and all organisations will. But like I said, there are a couple of things to look up to as positives. One is the fact that India is, all said and done, a land of opportunity. Even now, we have a massive headroom to grow, we have pretty strong fundamentals and the ad sector has been doing pretty well for the last few years, growing at decent double digits. We may not have a double-digit growth, of course, in the coming year but some growth will be there. More than that I think we will all soon realise that the past benchmarks and the past rates of growth and the formulae and the models that we've all gotten used to are not going to be very useful going forward. We are all in a reset mode right now, and we'll have to figure out what is a decent growth level for the industry and for individual organisations. That to a large extent depends on the way the product and services get transformed. Talking of the advertising and media business, I personally feel there is a massive opportunity for agencies as ourselves to play an even more important role to our clients and brands. I think there are newer opportunities we could look at in terms of contributing to their strategy, the way they redesign their portfolio, the kind of brands they need to bet on in a post-COVID era, even working around purpose. It will actually take on a new meaning. I think there is a lot we can do as an agency community. The main thing is to stay positive, when you stay positive, you start seeing opportunities.

 In the current scenario, BARC India numbers have shown that viewership has been breaking its own records, particularly in news viewership and digital. Do you think there certain sectors which should continue advertising during this time?

 As I said earlier, on one hand it is important to keeps brands salient and ensure that you don't completely vanish in times like these. On the other hand, one also needs to keep in mind some of the practical issues the clients may be facing, like in some cases such as ‘no stock’ or extremely limited resources which they want to conserve when things come back. So it is a balancing act which one needs to look at.

 There are sectors like CPG, BFSI, Education and anything which is based on technology or digital platforms – they should continue to advertise. Some of them may have reduced spends, but they are still there - Media and Entertainment can be counted in that. But there are other sectors which have been challenged even before the COVID-19 crisis - the auto or the telco sector and to an extent the retail and real estate sectors as well. So, I think those will take a slightly longer time to come out of the crisis.

 What advice do you have for the young people in the industry at this time?

 I would say try to be an optimist. Look at all the positives. I would say this is probably the best year to get into the industry because this is the time the industry really needs change agents and needs people with a fresh perspective, and people who can challenge the status quo and the old mental models, many of which need to be thrown out. So now is the chance to stand up and be counted. I think people who come and make a mark can really fast track their progress within the organisation having joined in this year.

 There is a lot of talk about the crisis having a major impact on Print and the OOH industry. How much time do you think it will take for these sectors to recover? And what do you think they should do right now to ride the crisis?

 I think this is the best time to go back to the drawing board and ask how do I reshape my business or my platform for the post-COVID 19 era. We have seen shades of that happening already. We have looked at the whole Print industry and hats off to them, they have all been extremely agile and have come up with digital and easy-to-read versions on mobile. Today I spent a lot of time in the morning reading the PDF versions of several newspapers. So that is a great example of the medium adapting to the changing times and I'm sure we are bound to see a lot more of such innovation going forward.

 This is something which ultimately we will come out of. When we go back to building brands and getting them back on air, I'm sure all these media will go back to seeing growth - whether it's Print or Outdoor. 

 Seize the moment, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, whether it's about our own personal transformation or the organisational transformation, or whether it's about coming out with new ideas and innovation.

 Thanks to what we have right now, let's make the most of it and come out with something that is stronger and more reliable; something which is more in tune with the times, whether it's a product or a service. So it's a great opportunity to unlearn a lot of stuff which will be useless going forward and pick up the new things. So seize the moment.

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