We are hoping we’ll recover faster than China: MA Parthasarathy

M A Parthasarathy, CEO, South Asia, Mindshare, spoke to Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor, exchange4media, on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak as part of our new series – Beating All Odds

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Apr 1, 2020 9:31 AM
M A Parthasarathy

COVID-19 has put the entire nation under a lockdown. These are indeed very difficult times, not just for us, but for many countries across the globe. The impact of such a lockdown on the economy and businesses is inevitable. While each of us is doing our bit, there are leaders strategising to ensure that the impact on business and economy is contained to a large extent.

Over the next few weeks, exchange4media will bring to you leaders who we believe are beating all odds to keep up the momentum of the industry.

Parthasarathy speaks to us about the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak and the nationwide lockdown.

Edited excerpts:

 What according to you are the most important qualities a leader must display in unprecedented times like the present?

I think that the most important thing is being humane. People are going through a lot; it's a situation which has never happened before. So the first and the most important thing is to first see each employee as a human being, as a colleague and as someone going through difficult times and yet trying to do a lot for the clients and for the company. Apart from that I think it's the best time to actually lead by example, don't expect anything from anyone which you wouldn't do yourself. Finally, it takes an incredible amount of energy and stamina, whether it's because of the uncertainty or because you are cooped up in the house or you don't have the camaraderie of your colleagues. And also because things keep changing and you need to be strong and energetic, both in body and mind.

 How are you keeping the morale of the employees high?

I don't think it is just me because a lot of spontaneous initiatives have been done by people in the company and I am grateful to them. This has shown there are a bunch of leaders in our company and each one of them has shown initiative. For example, we had something called the Purple Throne (because Mindshare is purple), where everyone had to post a picture of how they've done up their workplace at home, and we got close to 100 responses with some really cool workstations which you could have never had in the office. Then there are people conducting yoga classes, there are happy hour meetings where we just chat about anything, there are a lot of quiz contests to stimulate the brain and a lot of other things happening which are keeping people engaged. I think as long as you have constant communication, people will be motivated.

What this crisis has taught us today is the interdependence of businesses and people from all walks of life. Do you think this is the most important management lesson we need to hold on to when we emerge out of this situation?

There are lots of lessons that we will take out of this crisis and it will transform the way we work even after we come out of it. A lot of things will change for the good. I will give you a simple example. Someone told me – and I hadn’t realised this – when you talk on the phone, you end up being more curt and abrupt than you are meeting someone face-to-face. Very often, it can sound quite rude. Just this simple task of how you communicate on the phone will change. People will be more empathetic and do that in a much better way.

Appreciation of people, importance of communication, empathy and prompt and meaningful responses. I can’t walk across someone’s table and chat. So, if I get a mail or WhatsApp and if I don’t respond within an hour it could mean I don’t care about it or I am ignoring it. You have to be doubly careful in terms of responding fast.

Is there an increase in productivity?

It’s too early to say whether there’s increase in productivity. Because it is also a time the kind of work we are doing is different from that we do during normal times. Today, I am doing probably five different scenarios, war-gaming and things like that, rather than actually building and executing plans. So it’s a different kind of work.

Productivity - we will know, I think, after a month or two when we see what difference has been made. But I know I’ve been far busier now than I was when I used to go to office.

Does that also include household chores?

Luckily, I haven’t had too much of that to do. But for a lot of people I know how much of their time goes into jhaadu, pocha, bartan and khaana banana (laughs). So my full empathy and praise for those who are able to manage both.

While TV and social media consumption is high now, advertisers are still shying away from big campaigns. How are you tackling this? What steps are you taking to ensure that the brand grows stronger despite the challenges?

It’s a very tricky situation. You have to find the right balance between keeping in touch with consumers and ensuring they don’t lose the brand connect. But at the same time, if your product is not available on the shelves or if you are unable to give consumers access to your product, do you store money in your war chest to times when there’s an opportunity for consumers to experience your product? How much do you do for that versus how much do you do to keep your brand top-of-mind? It varies from category-to-category and brand-to-brand.

What we are doing for brands is we are plotting out multiple scenarios like I said. Trying to look at a lot of decision trees – ‘if then, else’ kind of planning.

The other is recovery planning – what do we do when the situation improves and are we prepared for that?

So there’s a lot of introspection, lots of suggestions and at the same time lots of small and simple ideas for brands to engage with their consumers across categories.

Without naming the brand, can you giving an example of how are you making the recovery plans or what kind of advice are you giving brands?

The first advice is that there should be a recovery plan. That’s the most important thing. And clients are doing it themselves as well. They are also planning if this thing lasts till end of April, end of May or end of June. In each of these situations, the recovery plan is different. That is the first point we are trying to manage.

I wouldn’t want to take out client examples as such. But for a number of clients we are proactively looking at suggestions on what can be done during this period through small but meaningful gestures for their consumers. Such things will make a difference at this time for them. It is very important to not look opportunistic in any manner. A lot of thoughtful initiatives, which consumers might appreciate, is what we are trying to bring to brands.

As an industry expert, what advice would you want to give youngsters who are now sitting at home and are trying to manage and cope with the situation?

The first thing I want to say is – ‘This too shall pass’. It’s a temporary phase. It is a test of people’s energy, stamina and character. There’s no one watching over your shoulders to see whether you are spending your time on Facebook or on work. I think people have risen to the challenge beautifully. It’s proving there’s no need for genuinely skilled and motivated people. There’s no need for external motivation. They are coming up with some brilliant ideas. I think it will be recognised, people showing initiative and energy at this time will be appreciated.

Keep the spirits up! Know fully well that this too shall pass and have fun. It’s a great learning time. You will learn things you have never before, while sitting in office and chatting with friends.

What kind of impact will this break have on our industry’s growth?

It is very hard to put a number because there is no fixed end date in sight. One can only learn from other markets. Let’s say China has the most remarkable recovery. At our company, the employees are back at work, which is true for most companies. The market, at least from the second half of April, should be going towards normalcy.

But that means there have been three months of non-normalcy in a market like China. Will that period be three months in India or more than that? We don’t know. We are hoping we will recover as fast as or faster than China.

In which case, it won’t be perhaps that bad. Today’s prediction is that the GDP growth will be at 2.5% on an average, which is a 50% drop from what was projected earlier — 5.5 to 6%.

So we all know there is some kind of link between adex, ad industry growth and GDP growth. So we know it will come down perhaps by 1.5 or 2X of that. There will definitely be an impact. We’ll just have to see how to minimise and plan for it.

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