‘It is now significant for us to commit to a serious change in all aspects’

In this segment of ‘Beating All Odds’, Aditya Kanthy, CEO & MD of DDB Mudra Group, speaks to Neeta Nair about how his organization is adapting to the COVID-19 crisis

e4m by Neeta Nair
Published: May 7, 2020 9:13 AM  | 21 min read
Beating All Odds

In the past one and a half months of the lockdown, organizational cultures have seen a sea of change, clients are apparently becoming a lot more understanding and creative agencies are coming up with ingenious ways to deliver.

In this segment of ‘Beating All Odds’, Aditya Kanthy, CEO & MD of DDB Mudra Group, talks about how his organization has been adapting to all the recent changes brought upon by the COVID-19 crisis.

How has DDB coped with the COVID-19 induced lockdown? Have there been any surprises?

There haven’t been any surprises, most of it has been pleasant as far as the team is concerned. It is an interesting time for sure. I think it has been kind of tough, and inspiring in equal measure. There's no wishing away the fact that this is a really difficult time. It's a difficult moment. It's, not just from a business point of view, but in so many different aspects of our life. And it's given us all, I think a moment to kind of pull back and reflect a little bit seriously on our place in the world, as it were. It’s at a philosophical level, as individuals, as businesses, as a community, and a little bit of a reframing of what our priorities are. And I think that exercise after the initial kind of shock of what we're dealing with and just the sheer enormity of it, and the fact that there are no rules to guide us through this time. That process, I think, and you referenced that in the introduction, our organization culture, I think that's the single most important thing in a moment like this.

I've been in this company for 17 years. And I think a large part of my journey has been driven by the attachment to that culture and the opportunity to kind of shape it. And that aspect of how the team has come through together has been amazing. It hasn't been a surprise. It's been a reinforcement of what I think is the most important thing in our line of work, perhaps in any line of work, which is people and culture. And that's what kind of sees us through a difficult time like this. And like I said, that is the route through a tough situation, watching out for each other, helping each other through the difficult times. And I think our teams have done that remarkably well. And that's why I think the past few weeks have been inspiring, one, of course at a global level, you've seen the amazing things that are being done by people to make the world a little better in a difficult time, and to see yourself as citizens and members of a community. And I think we see that play out in small ways within the agency as well.

One of the great charms of being in a part of a creative culture is that it's feeding energy of each other, the positive energy that drives and fuels creativity in the work that we do, and you miss that in a work from home environment. You miss that natural kind of give and take of human energy that is so easy to take for granted when you're in the ruck of things. And I think that's been remarkable as an organization. It's helped us make reasonable progress in what as I said before, and as we all know is a difficult time. I think those aspects of how people have worked together as a team checked in on each other, cheer each other up and keep the morale going, and I think importantly at an operating level even coming through for our clients, some of the kinds of projects that have been on our plate, some of the tasks and the opportunities from clients would have been impossible to pull off with the restrictions that we have on how we can work, would have been impossible to pull off without that sense of togetherness and a sense of team which I'm incredibly kind of inspired by within the agency. Everyone's pitched in, you know, from the IT guys to the security guards and it's been remarkable.

There's also a very real issue with a young workforce like ours - a sense of loneliness and anxiety and mental health. And as friends and colleagues, the efforts that people are making to ensure that we're there for each other has been very inspiring. So, I would say it's a little bit of, we've had some moments of difficulty, and many moments of great inspiration, but I mean, honestly our problems are more bigger or less than our competitors, our clients or the rest of the world. And what's the one thing that this moment teaches us - to have a little bit of a sense of perspective on what really matters and the things one has to be grateful for and not lose sight of that.

It was believed that creative agencies don’t function well in isolation, but most agencies have come up with wonderful campaigns from home. Is the work from home model something you shall consider even after Covid-19 is behind us?

I think so. After the experience that we've shared as colleagues working with each other, and in the way in which we've worked with our clients, and that's perhaps because you've got no reason why we shouldn't be allowing the flexibility to our people to be able to do their work and manage their life, their professional and personal lives best that they can. And I think in a trusting environment where we've actually had that experience of being able to come through for clients it will give everyone confidence to be able to push in this direction more. So I think you're right, I think we will see this happen more and more and for it to be seen as normal by everyone involved.

Having said that, I also think it kind of points to the value as I was saying earlier of physical spaces, and everyone coming together, we do actually thrive on that, on meeting people, on the conversations that one has that are not necessarily related to work, on participating in culture more deeply, even if it's not in a physical office space. And I think those aspects of our work are vital too and if anything this time kind of underlines the importance of that as well. So, like with most things in life, I think the truth is somewhere in between in that grey. I think you will see this push in the direction of more flexibility, but also for all of us to realize and recognize the value of that physical connection as well, which I don't think you can underrate at all. I do think that's a really important part of what makes us good at our work and not just from a being able to do our work well, but also to enjoy it, which I think is equally important.

A lot of our energy comes from the feeling of being connected to other people and physical spaces and being able to engage in the world more deeply. It's vital, it’s the oxygen of our business. So I think you'll see a little bit of both those things happen.

What kind of work is your agency focusing on right now?

There's so much going on, I have to say it's strangely busier than pre-COVID, if I can call it that. There's lots of work happening. There are some clients who are going through a huge amount by virtue of the nature of the work. To give you an example, our teams in Delhi work with the Delhi airport very closely. We’re their long standing partner, and you can appreciate how difficult this phase has been for the folks at Delhi airport. And our teams have been remarkably busy and doing extraordinary work in supporting the airport in many ways. They pay back almost exclusively now. The airport is communicating through its social channels and that work is being managed by our teams. On an average day those the number of questions, queries that we're getting, because the call centers aren't necessarily people's natural port of call, it's Instagram and Twitter where people are asking those questions and where DIAL is actually giving out information as well to people. There are between 15,000 to 20,000 queries a day. And I think that work and that contribution, of course as clients but also to the community. There's a lot of interest, you know the relief work that's happening is happening in India out of the Delhi airport. Lots of people who are stranded and away from their families India and abroad are interested on a daily basis on what the changes are in what the infrastructure and what the regulation will allow at any given point in time. So there's work of that nature which is keeping us very busy.

We've launched a brand in the middle of the lockdown. We've shot films with work that involves shooting with kids remotely, which is very hard to do. And I think we've produced some pretty good work in that time as well. So from a day-to-day client engagement point of view, there is high pressure, operational work of nature, but I equally think all of our clients are seeking a different kind of partnership through this time as well, even if they're in a lockdown and the businesses is curtailed in very obvious ways in the short term.

There is a lot of time and effort being spent on what one needs to do to prepare for the next few weeks. And then for the medium to long term as well, because like you've said, quite rightly the changes that are going to get will be normalized after this and all aspects of how we work and how we relate to each other, and to the way we shop, the way we think about spending money and what we think about brands. It's a time to revisit some of those and our teams are doing an extraordinary amount of work. Our strategy teams have done some very, very interesting work in looking at what does this mean for the big themes that shape society and culture. So they've published a series called ‘COVID Chronicles’, which looks at the impact of this time, on education, on gender, on the way we think about our homes, on entertainment, on leisure, on identity and how we form those ideas as well that define who we are and other such.

So, there's that kind of deep, high level strategic work that's being done with. We have over 100 clients, with all our clients in all aspects of our business – from the digital agency ‘22feet’ to DDB to Interbrand, and to OMD Mudra Max on the media side. So we've got I think questions being asked as a media strategy partner, as a digital marketing and technology partner, as a creative agency partner and as a brand strategy and design agency, and it's interesting to see how those kind of lines up.

And then there is from a client perspective a lot of very interesting conversations happening on digital transformation and what that could mean. Going for various businesses in categories like retail, auto, automotive categories, and what does this mean for the way in which dealerships need to be set up or the buying, the consumer journey frame. So there's a lot of work to be done there.

Of our 850 people, close to 300 of them are experts in digital marketing, and to get their talent, apply that talent and their thinking, and their experience on these problems across the board is keeping us so busy. As a company we have to also spend time thinking about what this means for our future and the kind of company that we want to be. And working as a leadership team very closely, I'm blessed to have be surrounded by amazing talent and now have an incredible team of leaders and we're talking to each other all the time more than we have perhaps in the past on addressing the things we have to do internally as a company as well to be of more exciting and attractive to talent and to be as useful as we can be for our clients as well going forward. So the long answer to a short question - but we've been very busy.

Does that mean as an agency it's time to focus on business solutions more than just making ads, considering that nobody is going to go out and test drive a car just like that post lockdown? Does the way a brand is sold become more important than image building?

I wouldn’t say that film in general, or video or what you might call classic advertising will be relevant. I think that still has a huge role to play, and in fact might have a more significant role to play in the future with the amount of video content being consumed, not just on classic kind of TV, but also on OTT and on tech platforms. So, I think this is where you continue to see the principles that drove great advertising, the basic discipline of brand building, kind of recognizing what the foundations of a brand are and what the memory structures are. I think you will continue to see beautiful, the importance of insight and craft and beautiful storytelling mattered as well. But to your point, I do think we're going to exercise development and stretch new muscles as well. These are capabilities that exists at the agency I think, you know strategic capabilities and with a view to business and not just production of creative assets, but with a view to business, a kind of a deeper understanding of how our clients businesses are going to be challenged and reshaped and the opportunity. For instance, in our group to bring media thinking, technology thinking, strategy thinking, and, you know content and design together in different interesting new combinations to navigate that. I think that's very important, and not just which we band together within the DDB Mudra Group across our various specialists, but also the way in which we deal, we work with seamlessly with external partners.

And I think it's a little bit of a fallacy to suggest and it's a fashionable fallacy, but a fallacy to suggest that one company that has all the answers. I think it is a wrongheaded notion. And I think if we have to truly be good partners to our clients, we must embrace that mindset of learning constantly, not just from our clients and within our closed ecosystem, but also with other partners. And having a mindset like that as a company, be willing to embrace partnerships that are useful to clients regardless of whether we control our own that capability or not, I think will become even more important going forward. So I think bringing those pieces together, having the right types of people around the table every time we're having a discussion that is pertinent to. And as you can imagine, with over 100 clients we're looking at categories ranging from personal care and taking care of babies through to, you know big decisions that are more discretionary in nature, you know which are high-ticket items like luxury cars, and I think that spectrum of challenges. There is no one size that fits all. There's no broad brush, but we should be able to cast teams of people.

There's been a lot of learning from the DDB global team as well. I think this is another moment in history where we are kind of are shared across geographies as well. People coming together in across markets, we're having that to a huge extent in DDB. So from our colleagues in China and Hong Kong and Singapore who've had a certain experience with COVID, then Brazil, the United States and in Europe as a kind of a global leadership team as well.

We've learnt a lot from our friends in other B2Bmarkets on how they're coping with that change as well, because some cultures and communities are a little bit, I don't want to say ahead in a sense, but, you know you know what I'm getting at that they've had a certain set of experiences that we may be going through perhaps a few weeks. And I think that is useful as well. So I mean, I think the spirit of how we have to engage with this time is that. I think we have to do your initial provocation, we have to think differently outside of just being kind of producers of creative assets and try to bring as much of this more fundamental thinking which links to business and consumer journeys and the ways in which we can make a difference there with the same principles of brand building, creativity, technology and design, which is the real value that we bring to our clients’ businesses.

Like you mentioned agencies are trying to be great partners to clients, but the isolation gets to you after a point. Also I’ve heard that Omnicom Global has started with salary cuts. How is it impacting the India business?

As I was telling you earlier, conversation it is the one thing that I think matters the most, let's put it that way in our business which is our people, people in our culture. It is really at the heart of everything that we do. And I am particularly concerned and focused on that, which is why at the start I mentioned how inspired I was by the efforts that we were making for each other as a team, checking in on each other, making surprise calls to each other. You're hanging out together digitally, even though physical spaces don't allow it. And I think those kind of informal networks, that bond that we have as an organization, as a team is hugely important in a time like this. But, I equally think you need interventions that are led by specialists, by people who offer counseling. I think I mentioned to you with a lot of young people who are away from their families, living alone, not just you have a lot of work, but also a lot of work at home. You also have to attend to things that you perhaps weren't used to doing in normal work circumstances. And I think that pressure, that sense of isolation also makes a difference and a serious bearing on the mental health of our teams as well. So we've tied up, we've had now for over a year immensely useful team of counsellors who are accessible to our people and are being accessed by our people to help them. I think that's another way in which you have to support your people.

And you're right that there is also a very real business reality, you will appreciate dependent on the economy and on our clients for our business. And when the economy hurts and when our clients hurt, we hurt too, and that is where again, I think a sense of togetherness, a sense of ensuring that we will take whatever hits we have to take together as a team. That's the spirit in which we’ve approached the financial impact of COVID as well which is very real, there is no running away from that. And much like Omnicom globally or any of the other large holding companies, and more importantly many of our clients. We've had to also think through, address and be prepared for the measures that are appropriate in a in a time like this. But the spirit in which it's being done is to try and carry as much of that burden as we can together as a team and to ensure that there is as little impact on as a result of the decisions that we might have to make in the near term as little impact as short term and impact as possible on our people. But it's inevitable.

It is a late Diwali this year. Do you think advertising can come back with a bang in the latter half of 2020?

I certainly hope so. I don't know, I have to be honest. I don't think anyone does. We have to we have to wait and watch. There are some very fundamental, structural challenges. It's not just about consumption and buying which is the way in which you usually think about the festive season and the promise and excitement around that. This is also about the impact it's had fundamentally on our client’s ability to do business. It has an implication on manufacturing facilities. It has implication on supply chains, it has an implication on last mile delivery. So as things start to open up, I think you will find some of those other challenges also kick in. It's not just a problem around consumer demand and people being willing to spend money. That is just one part of the puzzle. The ability of many businesses to tide through what is a serious liquidity crisis, a serious cash flow issues. You’re going to see huge disruptions in some categories more than others. We have to recognize the fact that supply chains are global. And even in India, when you look at various categories, the dependence on farming and agriculture, for example, the inability to be able to tend to your crops the cotton season that is ongoing. What does that mean for the supply chain for the fashion industry, for example? So I think all of those implications that our clients have, they employ thousands of people, many more than we do who are daily wage earners. And there's a serious humanitarian crisis there when factories have to be shut down and people have to be provided for in the greater interests of humanity. It also has an implication on what you're able to do as a business. So I think this is a serious enough problem and a deep enough problem for us to hold our horses I think a little bit on the prediction around how quickly the bounce back will happen. I doubt very much that anyone has a clear answer to that question.

I think what we can do and what we can hope for is that we are listening very carefully, that we are thinking as deeply as we possibly can and are committing to change, which I think is really important. This is kind of a significant moment in our lives to commit to serious change in all aspects of our life. What do we prioritize? How do we go about ensuring that our time is following those priorities? And how serious and committed we are to changing the way we do things, not just as kind of as individuals and as human beings, but also as companies, and then of course, as communities as and as nations and as humanity. I think that piece of work, the seriousness with which we engage in that is I think the big opportunity. If you do that right, then regardless of how quickly the economy bounces back, which could take two quarters, three quarters, four quarters, one doesn't know, one has to hope that things get better sooner rather than later. But the thing that is in our control is this other work, where between us and our clients, we're asking those questions seriously and pushing to for that change to be deep and meaningful, learning new things, working in new ways and challenging some of the things that perhaps get in the way of us being delivering on the things we keep talking about, you know accountability and effectiveness and agility, and purpose. There's a lot of talk around that. And they're usually lots of excuses on why we can't do it. And this is a good time to walk that talk.

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