The key is to find an intelligent way to retain communication with consumers: Ajay Gupte

In this edition of 'Beating All Odds', Ajay Gupte, Chief Executive Officer, South Asia, Wavemaker, speaks to exchange4media Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Apr 8, 2020 8:32 AM
Beating All Odds

We are all officially shut in our houses for the next 2 weeks now. There is complete uncertainty about everything around us. In these unexpected and unprecedented times, while we are struggling to do our day-to-day tasks, there are leaders who are sitting at home running businesses, they are managing agencies - not only in their countries but also in the neighbouring ones.

Today, as part of our 'Beating All Odds' series, we have one such leader - Ajay Gupte, Chief Executive Officer, South Asia, Wavemaker.

How does it feel to get into a crisis as big as this within 3 months of taking up this huge position?

 It couldn't have been more sudden for me. This is something completely unexpected, it's straight out of a Hollywood movie. Really, no one can plan for this and no one can be ready for something like this. There is opportunity here. I believe if marketers and agencies play well it is an opportunity and I look forward to coming out on the other side of this stronger.

 What do you mean by opportunity?

 Things will never be the same again, there will be a lot of changes. Brand rankings will change, customer behaviour will change, and it is imperative on us, the onus is on us to stand along with the consumer while they are going through this change in behaviour and at the end of it, hopefully, we will stand stronger.

 What kind of changes are we expecting in customer behaviour?

 There are several. For example, a lot more time is going to be spent possibly on screen. There is going to be increased OTT consumption, given the fact that entertainment is required right now. Therefore, customers are going to lean in more on OTT. There is going to be an increased inclination towards eCommerce. And these are things that are going to happen and there is going to be a fallout. While we are seeing massive changes, we will not go back to normal, we will end with slightly higher levels than when we went into this lockdown.

Will there be a behavioural change, in the sense that will we continue to be more at home and consume more digital?

 More digital is being consumed right now. People will get used to better quality of programming, of the OTT-kind of programming. These things will become part of our lives. It will obviously not be at the same levels we are seeing right now, but it will remain a little higher than what it was when we got it into this phase.

 You have big advertisers as your clients, be it Mondelez or Bisleri. What kind of plans are you making for them? What kind of suggestions and advice are you giving them right now?

 This is a tricky situation for all clients. Yes, you are right, production and distribution is a problem. Getting the stock to the distributor, from the distributor to the stores and to the consumer is an issue right now. Most eCommerce sites are not delivering even the essentials, and local stores have become more important. The challenge is definitely there when you don't have the ability to reach out with your product to the consumer. So at one end the advertiser might say I want to protect this money and use it at a time when it's more useful, but there is the other point of losing equity in the minds of consumers. Gaining it back will be that more difficult at the other side of the lockdown. So, somewhere, there is going to be a mix and that will depend on the categories and brands.

 The key, right now, is to find some intelligent way to retain communication with the consumer. There are brands that are doing so. There are a lot of case studies which are finding innovative ways to stay in touch with the consumer. It is tricky for the brands, you cannot seem to be taking advantage of the situation, you have to play it carefully. You have to genuine and honest, cannot be completely off, but have to find a way to keep engaging with the consumer and also keep very closely in touch with the situation on ground because when it does come back to normal, as we have seen from examples in China, there is a surge in demand.

 The key thing we are doing is we are sharing information with our clients on what's happening in media and different categories, and what's happening in different parts of the world because we exist in so many markets globally. We have our offices in China, which has been ahead of the curve in this situation. So we are sharing our information with our clients and talking to them and seeing what are the best ways to manage their investments at this moment.

 What are some of your key learnings from China's example?

 We are learning that there are brands that have managed to obtain some equity in the minds of the consumers and are benefitting a lot more at the end of the lockdown. The brands that were completely off are struggling to build that equity back. Therefore, it is important to be there in some form, while obviously acknowledging that you wouldn't want to invest all your money right now. In some cases, such as retail, where sales is completely zero, we need to be present in the consumer's minds in some way.

 Consumption on TV and OTT media has spiked. How are you communicating this to your clients?

 This again goes back to our first situation. There is one side to it, which is the advantage of media being at its most effective. But, on the other side, the brand probably needs to save up on some of its investments. We are using the increases in media profitably for the client, so there some genres of programming which are going up a lot more than the others. Likewise, there are some media which are not as fast paced as the others. We are keeping the client constantly informed of all the shifts and given the objectives of the brand what we would like to do at this moment. We are utilising media to our advantage.

 Netflix is your client. Their consumption right now must be at its peak, not just in India but across the globe. So as a media advisor what is your suggestion for a platform like that? How do they advertise?

 Obviously, it is a fantastic opportunity for Netflix. These are those tipping point moments that come and a brand must make the most of it. It's about getting the consumer to know that there are entertainment options available. It is all in home media right now, so it is a mix of TV and digital that we are using.

 How are you boosting the morale of your team during this crisis?

 It is definitely a challenge. On the face of it, if you were to tell people before the lockdown that you could work from home, people would have taken it with open arms. But as we have all seen, we are all working a lot more in this - managing the work from home environment. The lines between home and office are also blurring. And we have other challenges like managing things at home since there is no house help, and a lot of couples work so they have to manage the house as well. So it is challenging.

 I think the first thing is empathy, we all understand the challenges and like my people I'm also going through those challenges, so I'm completely empathetic of what they are going through. This is something we need to understand and be flexible with. The second thing is to be in touch. There is nothing like communication right now. There are some single team members who are locked up alone at home right now, so it is not easy. There's no one to talk to and you need to do everything on your own, so these are tough times. We have tried to ensure there are fixed times of communication across levels - me with my executive committee and then us communicating with each office at one time. We've had some really interesting chats with having the whole office come on one call.

 Also, I think we need to have some fun, and that's what we've been trying to do. What has been nice is that people across the levels have taken initiatives. For example, we have someone from our data team who has started classes on data and analytics, which I think is a fantastic initiative. It took off so well and got so much traction.

Another team had a jamming session, and it was lovely because people were participating from across cities. There is a lot of positive energy and it gets people to interact with others and feel part of the whole. I'm very fortunate to have very young, passionate people who are pulling it off on their own. So it is a challenging time for our people, we have to recognise that and support them in whatever way possible. Also, try to communicate and keep their spirits high. And honestly, I believe the kind of connections we've made today in these last 2 weeks, you don't normally get to make that in an office.

 Coming back to the economy and the impact of this crisis on our industry, how much do you think is this going to slow down our growth this year?

 This is not going to be easy and I hope for all of us that we are going to be in a position to get out of the lockdown as soon as we can. It is important that everybody supports the lockdown and stays at home. Every week we lose, it's going to affect us more. All of us are into scenario planning, so we are looking at what happens if we manage to get out of the problem in April, May or June, depending on when the lockdown ends. It's going to hurt us deeply, it is hurting us at a grassroot level. You have the lowest common denominator which is the daily wage earner, who has been hit the worst. His consumption is at the bottom of the pyramid and it keeps going up. So it is going to be quite bad. It is difficult to put a number on where we will be right now. All I can say right now is that I hope by the end of April we manage to recover, or at least get back into normal life and even after that it may take at least 6 weeks or longer to come back to regular consumption. So it's going to be at least the quarter of April, May and June. All of us are hoping that we come out of it soon and we can get back on track.

 Which sector do you think will be affected the most? And how will this crisis affect the print domain in particular?

 Like you said - television and digital have been the least affected and possibly have been positively affected. Yes, print has been negatively impacted. Basically, because they have not be able to distribute and even after they have managed to get a go-ahead from the government, there are societies that are not allowing them. But Print has survived and they have been innovative. They have really pulled themselves together. Doomsday has been predicted for print since the last 10 years but they have managed to stay afloat, they've added digital and done a lot of on-ground activations. So, they are bringing themselves together and I'm sure they'll find a way to come back. But let's just be positive about it. Once this gets over, life will come back to normal, people will be on the streets again, but yes, they will feel the hit for these 2 to 3 months.

 What are some of the key lessons that you have learned from this crisis?

 There is a lot of learning and introspection.  There is a lot of time to think when we are not travelling. All of us feel our days have become longer because we are starting our days earlier and ending them later, and we're constantly on the phone or on the team's chat and trying to get work done. One of the things that I have learnt is to stay more connected, I have enjoyed being a lot more in touch with my people, and I think that is something I would like to continue. Another thing is we have all realised that there is merit in work from home and it is not as unproductive as it was thought to be and maybe there will be a lot more work from home as part of the normal process. Communication on all these apps that are now being used, is quite effective. Personally, I think being connected with my clients has improved a lot, and quality communication in this form - where you are a lot more personally connected - is definitely going up.

 Also, what I have seen across teams, across us and our clients is that we have become a lot more understanding of each other in this situation and I think that is something we will all take away positively.

 What advice would you give to the young people in the industry?

 Firstly, look after yourselves. Take this time to do a bit of exercise, given that at this time you're not even walking to office, eat healthy. It is possible the only time you'll get to eat 'ghar ka khana' and the type of khana that you believe will make you healthier, so use that opportunity. Find some time to learn a new skill. We are creating a lot of programmes that people can join to learn new skills, or join something that you've always wanted to do but never had the time. Spend time with the people you care about. Call them up, speak to them, it is important to keep your spirits high. We are social beings so it's important to keep connected with the people that you love. So use this opportunity to stay healthy and fit, and to enhance your skills and also stay connected to the people you love.

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