There is opportunity, but now is not the time to be opportunistic: Navin Khemka, MediaCom

In our 'Beating All Odds' series, Navin Khemka, CEO South Asia, MediaCom, speaks with Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor of exchange4media

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Aug 26, 2020 7:13 PM
Beating All Odds: Navin Khemka, CEO, MediaCom South Asia

In our 'Beating All Odds' series, we recognise and honour the leaders who, despite the problems and glitches thrown at us by the COVID-19 lockdow, ensure that our business and economy remain active while trying to contain the damage this crisis can cause.

Today,we speak to Navin Khemka, CEO, MediaCom South Asia.

What are the main challenges you have faced so far in running your business from home?

Actually, we saw this coming, because we were following this situation very closely from our global offices particularly China, where it hit first and we saw it coming. We were preparing for a lockdown like for almost 3 months in advance. We took a lot of initiatives from our China markets and offices and we made sure all our systems were checked for remote working. Before the lockdown started, we also gave 80-90% of our staff laptops. In fact, the day the lockdown was announced, we didn't have any more laptops to give away, so we transferred all the remaining desktops to people's homes. So that was what we did from a readiness point of view. From a systems point of view, we ensured that every system; be it the planning, the tools and software, even my entire billing system, everything was functioning remotely. Around the 12th or 14th of March, we actually went on a national lockdown ourselves as a group and we tested the entire system remotely. So when the lockdown happened, from a work point of view, we were very seamless, obviously, we were a bit slow, but from a compliant and GST point of view, we are absolutely compliant and all our clients who have reached to say that for the next 2-3 months they will not be sending physical bills, but e-bills etc, are all GST compliant. And the clients have actually come back to say that they really appreciate this move and they will accept not physical, but digital bills going forward.

So, apart from not being in the office, the office is functioning at almost 90% efficiency and 100% capacity.

What kind of solutions are you working on for clients in the industries that have been hit by this crisis?

There are two scenarios. One is the pre-lockdown scenario and one is the post lockdown scenario. In the pre-lockdown scenario, we were getting briefs from basically all our clients, maybe except the travel, tourism and retail sector, since obviously those were the sectors which were very hard hit. In the pre-lockdown time, we were working for all clients on fantastic campaigns for the April-May-June quarter, and that being the largest quarter for us, given that IPL happens in that quarter and because it is the start of the financial year so had many more campaigns planned, so things were pretty normal.

Once the lockdown was announced, it meant all shops and markets were closed, so even if people wanted to go out and buy, they couldn't. So that was when the stress started. briefs started drying up, and the activities that we had planned had to be pulled out, or no new campaigns were going on air even though they were planned earlier. Basically, led by the disruption, I would say 2 things: a. People sitting at home are obviously not having the opportunity to buy and b. Obviously given the fact that the entire supply chain in the industry has gotten disrupted, and movement of goods between the districts is not allowed. That is how the regular business got affected and some of the categories that got affected such as retail, multiplexes, the hotel industry and the travel industry. Basically what we are telling them is that when there is a big storm, and this is like a big storm for the industry, you cannot fight that storm, you just have to let it pass. So we're telling them to just have patience, do not take any knee-jerk decisions, make sure your teams are together, keep the morale high, and things will start to look up within the next 4-6 weeks.

What kind of engagement can you have at this time when your industry is shut?

At MediaCom and GroupM we are actively engaged with our teams. Apart from forming WhatsApp groups, at a leadership level, we are connecting with our teams on a daily basis. Something new which we have done, which everyone within GroupM and globally is also appreciating is at MediaCom we have identified that there are about 20 young people who have joined us and they are “home alone” when the lockdown was announced they were stranded in the different cities and couldn't travel back home. So, we've created a WhatsApp group called the 'Home Alone Kids' (they call themselves 'Flying Solo') and I'm engaging with them on a weekly basis and we've also connected them to a lot of people around them and staying close to them, so in case they needed any help, they don't feel as if they are alone. We are also doing a lot of webinars, training sessions, even stand-up comedy acts, so that's all from an engagement point of view.

From a work point of view, we are investing a lot of time in doing things we have always wanted to do but never had the time. We are upskilling and reskilling them. People have been told to take at least one initiative every week. We have hundreds and thousands of programmes on our global pages, which are like training sessions. So everybody said that every week they will do at least one of them and they are maintaining a tracker which are all of us are tracking. I understand the work could be a bit less, and that we are all working remotely, but this is also the time to make sure we are upskilling ourselves. Many clients have also reached out to me to ask if we can organise some training sessions for them as well.

Since Vivo is also one of your clients, and it is the title sponsor of such a big property as IPL. With the IPL being cancelled, what kind of impact do you think this would have on the brand?

We as Vivo and MediaComhave totally invested in IPL. What IPL has dome for Vivo is unprecedented. Vivo is now a household name in the country within such as short span of time and I feel IPL has a huge role in that. We are totally invested in the IPL and team Vivo is in constant touch with the BCCI to find out what the solutions can be, we definitely want IPL to happen, however, if IPL cannot happen in this quarter, I'm sure between BCCI and Vivo, we will come to a conclusion as to when is the best time to hold the tournament, because of a. It is a high viewership tournament and b. Because Vivo has a lot of launches planned around this event. Having said that, we are still gearing up for the launches as and when the lockdown is lifted. IPL is an opportunity for the launch, however, if IPL does not happen then the business must go on, so there is also a plan B to see what we can do in the next 3-4 months, to make sure the 3-4 phones that are lined up for launches are done and how we are going to liquidate the stock that is getting piled up right now because of the lockdown. There are multiple strategies that being work out right now and I'm sure in the next 2-3 weeks you will see a lot more of this.

You also have consumer durables brand P&G as a client, regardless of a lockdown or not, demand for their products is still high. So will a client like P&G still be advertising during such a time?

On a client like P&G which is obviously seeing no loss of demand right now, it is life as usual there. P&G follows a July-June year, so this is the time when my team usually works on the annual presentations category by category. We've been briefed for the next year and we're working on those annual presentations and there is a lot of work happening from a July-June 2021 point of view. I think they will be absolutely fine when the supply gets restored, apart from that I don't think P&G as a client is facing any huge challenges. Obviously factories have to restart and the supply chain has to be restored. Beyond that, I think it's pretty much work as usual at P&G. We are doing some fantastic work for them and some of their brands, with moment marketing now, especially for a brand like Vicks around COVID-19.

News viewership, time spent on TV and digital has gone up, which sectors can take advantage of this and still advertise at this time?

Yes, it is a media opportunity, but it is not necessarily a sales opportunity. Even if you look at it from an online perspective, even online players are facing a lot of disruption. So yes, the opportunity is big, people are spending a lot of time on media, but it wouldn't necessarily lead to sales, so one needs to be very careful how they invest money in this opportunity. Even when it comes to brand building today, one needs to be very careful because the environment, the mood and the mindset of the people are extremely negative. Obviously we want to build a brand, but at this time you have to be very careful. If you're an online brand like a gaming app or a news brand or app, you would obviously want consumption to rise on your platform so it's a fantastic opportunity because people have the time and they will sample your product. We have MPL, which is a large gaming client and we have Dailyhunt and they are seeing an unprecedented surge in traffic on their apps. So for them, I would say yes, it is an opportunity because people have the time to sample the products and spend on their apps. For the others, I would say the opportunity is there, but it is not time to be opportunistic. It is time to exercise a lot of caution.

Looking at other markets, how much do you think this crisis will impact our economy?

I am no authority on this but I would say the revised GDP is 2.5%, so if you co-relate the GDP to our industry and assuming the GDP is around 2.5-3% this year from a growth point of view, then I think we are pretty much looking at wiping off all the growth we are projecting this year at the bare minimum. So if we were projecting growth of 8-10% for the entire industry and assuming this quarter is the washout quarter or when things will not be so stable, and from July onwards, possibly things will go back to normal, then I think we can say the growth that we were projecting for 2020 is going to get wiped off. In case we de-grow, then there are huge repercussions in the industry and there are certain media which are already in stress and are not growing, they are the ones that will face the maximum brunt. There are a lot of mediums which as under a lot of pressure; Print is under pressure, Outdoor is also under tremendous pressure, so I would say apart from TV and digital, every other medium will go through a huge amount of disruption. And as an industry, we will have to get together and see how we can save all these media from going into a negative trajectory.

What is your message to the industry at this time, what can we look forward to?

I keep thinking about this myself. As a group, we are responsible for almost 3000-4000 people directly and indirectly. We also feel very responsible for everyone who is working with us and with our clients. The three things which I keep telling everybody, which I call the three Rs: Respect – everything; human or non-human. This is a huge lesson for everyone. The time has come to realise how interdependent we are on each other. Do not abuse the environment. The second is to be Responsible as a citizen. Everything is not about money, everything is not about success, so we have to be responsible and do what is right for society. And thirdly, Restraint – we might have all the money, we might have all the luxuries in life, but a little restraint is good just to take care of everybody.

So just follow these principles and ensure that we leave behind a fantastic company for our juniors and a fantastic world for our children.

And what advice do you have for young people in the industry during this time?

My heart actually goes out to them The Class XII students who have passed out and are waiting to go to college and the kids who have passed out of college and are waiting to join the organisations, who have job offers in hand or are looking for jobs. And the third group are the young people who have started up their own companies. My heart goes out to them because they are the ones who are looking at life positively; there is so much to look forward to and suddenly life seems to be very cruel to them. All I can tell them is that we are here to help them, please do reach out to us in case any of you are in trouble and we will see how best we can help you.

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