We are working to ensure clients are relevant 3 years from now: Shamsuddin Jasani

In today's edition of 'Beating All Odds' series, Shamsuddin Jasani, Group MD, Isobar South Asia, speaks to e4m Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman, about strategising to ensure clients are future-ready

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Apr 7, 2020 9:02 AM
Beating All Odds, Shamsuddin Jasani, Isobar

We are in the midst of a major crisis; every day we are looking for solutions to sustain ourselves. In these times of crisis, there are leaders who are showing us the way forward despite all odds, problems and challenges COVID-19 has thrown at us, they are ensuring that the work and the economy keep moving. Today on our 'Beating All Odds' series, we talk to Shamsuddin Jasani, Group Managing Director of Isobar South Asia.

How are you coping with the situation, working from home and managing your team?

It's a very unique experience and I think working from home is a challenge, I've never really done this before. In my 20 years of my working career, I've hardly ever taken a sick day, I enjoy going to the office and it's a very big part of me going to the office and working with the team. It's a new revelation working from home and enjoying spending time with the family. This has actually brought the teams a lot more together. One of the things a lot of people, including myself, believed, is that work from home wouldn't work. That people wouldn't be able to do work from home, it's not in the culture or people would take advantage of the system. Isobar started work from home about a year ago, and everyone had 2 days work from home every month which was working ok, but this is on a very different scale. I think people have started taking a lot more responsibility. I don't know if this will continue in the regular process, but I do believe that productivity has gone through the roof. It's a unique and new experience and hopefully, the lockdown ends on the 14th, but let's keep our fingers crossed and keep going from there.

What kind of work are you engaging in with brands and clients?

We started working from home about a week before the lockdown across all the cities. We also sent all our creative machines to everyone's homes, so a lot of ideation and conceptualisation is already happening, so we're taking this time to speak to a lot of our clients to really take a breather and work on strategising for clients. It is extremely essential to utilise this time to take a step back. We have spoken to a lot of clients and we have told them that we're there for them whatever they need and they should utilise this time to make their assets better and prepare for tomorrow. It's not a recovery plan, this is planning for tomorrow rather than planning for today. What we are talking about with our clients is, yes you have all your earned and owned assets, and what I mean by earned and owned assets are - websites, TVCs, videos and social media platforms, eCommerce sites- those are all prepared for today but are they prepared for tomorrow? Are they prepared for being relevant three years down the line? So it's not about taking stock and making sure that we are trying to be relevant only for today. We are working on strategies for how to be relevant three years down the line and take a breather to clients because this is a time when there isn't much work happening at the client's end. Now it is not about operations, it's about strategising, it's about the big ideas and thoughts that are there. The last two weeks have been spent in understanding what we have been doing, trying to get the operations out of the way, trying to make sure that when we are back on track, we are ready to move and go on day one. But it helps that we are a digital agency because it means that we are never shut, we are always working and we are thinking of tomorrow. We are working with a lot of clients to make sure that they are ready for 3 years down the line and strategising for them. 

Since everyone is confined to their homes, consumption on digital has increased drastically in the last few weeks, do you have clients whom you would now advise to spend more on digital?

That is where we are looking at a more strategic direction with the client. Is it really relevant for them to spend right now? Yes, there are some clients where it might be relevant to still spend, but the majority of clients will not be looking at spending money right now. It could be counterintuitive as an agency, but the objective is to take a breather now to look at the future. And how we can make sure the future is intact both as Isobar and working as a partner to a client. We're not advising our clients to spend. A lot of large clients today are not selling anything, they are not moving on, it doesn't make sense for them to advertise right now and we're always thinking what is best for the clients. I don't want them to do COVID-19 messages which are not related to them. Yes, if I was working for Dettol, or Savlon, or those kinds of industries then it's very different. But there are challenges, but the objective right now is to mitigate those challenges; work with clients to be able to deliver relevant messaging for where we are today, then yes, but don't force it. It's a clear message that we are working with clients, that we are partnering with you, we understand where you are, there is a lot of pain that everyone is going through, but we are looking at the longer-term strategy.

And what is the kind of response you are getting from clients?

We are very happy with the response we are getting. For us, it's important that we are partnering with them on this journey. COVID-19 will end, at some point. We will get back to working and what is very important is that the clients will see the efforts we are putting with them to help them overcome this crisis. The whole idea of taking the long term view is to make sure that they come out of this relatively unscathed, no one is really going to come out unscathed, people are going to face challenges, but we want to help clients come out healthily and be able to take on the challenges of tomorrow. And I do see clients respecting that a lot. We are having a lot of conversations across the levels with clients. Work is continuous, clients are really working with us on what we can do and once this ends and how we can take things forward; everyone is very optimistic. There is one thing that is very clear, be it the clients or the agencies, everyone is very optimistic. There are already launches online for the end of April, we are ready with the plans, and we'll move pretty quickly on that. At the end of the day, as leaders, we have to be able to guide our teams in the right direction and not lose hope.

You also manage other markets besides India, so what is the kind of response you are getting from there and what is the level of crisis you are facing in those regions?

Not much, just two other markets, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and everywhere the situation is like it is in India; everyone is working from home, but what's important is that we have the right leaders everywhere and they are inspiring their teams to keep on doing better work. They are finding ways and new innovations that are coming in and this is the time, as I said, to step back and innovate. So I'm not finding it difficult at all to inspire people because we have amazing leaders. What is going to help us tide this is great people who are showing the way and I think that is really helping us. All countries are just rearing to go, and they are just looking at this not as a full stop, but as a comma.

How much do you expect this crisis to hamper the industry and economic growth this year?

I am an optimistic person, but also as a realist we need to understand that this is going to have a deep impact on economies across the world and in India. I believe it's going to take 6 months at least for things to come back to any sense of normalcy. I also see an at least 15-20% reduction in terms of spends across the board. In 2020 when digital was supposed to grow 30%, 28% was what the DAN Digital Report said, I think it's going to be a bit closer to 15-17% growth. Which means the next couple of months will be slower, and then will pick up during Diwali time and hopefully IPL happens, if not in India, but somewhere out the country. I think once this settles, it'll be close to September or October when we will see it coming back to a little bit normal. But at an average, we're looking at a 15 %t drop in terms of spends and this is across the board.

What are some of the lessons this crisis has taught you?

One of the things which came to me as a leader is I wanted people sitting right next to me for the job to get done. This is both internal and external. Clients wanted that, even internal teams. I think a lot of myths have been broken. If more than 250 people can work digitally and work together at delivering solutions to a client, each in separate locations, I think a big myth has been broken of those who say “I need someone right here to deliver something to me”. Yes, we still need to bounce ideas, we still need to meet. But a lot of these meetings could have been an email. And now we have realised what is important and what is not. And I think that will remain even after all of this. The whole idea of work from home will take a larger role. People used to be afraid of it and in any big city, we lose about 2-3 hours travelling. I also think this will make sure we have the right mix of people working from the office as well as working from home to make sure we are delivering great products and ROI is much better.

How are you boosting your team's morale at this time?

We have calls almost every day. I'm having a town hall in 2 days with the entire team. Firstly, you need to be upfront and honest about what is happening. There will be challenging times, but as a leader, you need to tell each and every individual that they matter and we are responsible for where they are today. One thing that is very clear is that we are going to face these challenges, but we are going to face them together. And that's the point I keep reiterating, that we are all together in this. Secondly, you need to be compassionate. There are certain people who will have certain challenges and as a leader, you need to understand and be compassionate and have enough speed to be able to answer to these challenges because as a leader I need to make decisions at a much quicker pace in this kind of a scenario keeping in mind the overall objective.

Of course, in the end, we are all working towards a goal, make sure they know what the objective is, and break down those objectives to shorter-term, mid-term and longer-term objectives and give them a reason to believe in what they are doing. A lot of people are sitting at home and losing the focus and hope, but if you give them a goal, an objective and a direction and clearly have it laid out, they will have something to work towards.

What advice do you have for young people in the industry during this crisis?

I always say that your biggest supporter is you. I look for inspiration within, there will be difficult times, and at the same time you need to make clear choices; it's your choices which will define where you go. I'm not a big believer in luck, I'm a big believer in the choices you make. The situation is going to be difficult, so clearly make an informed choice as to what you are going to do. Do you have the finances to ride out the 6 months? It is going to be difficult, clients are not going to spend. If, not, go out and see what is the best way forward. Everyone has slowed down, but that doesn't mean good people are not wanted. Make a choice, stick to that choice, but yes, you have responsibilities, you have decisions to make. Make those decisions with a clear focus in mind saying that this is going to be slightly difficult, it's not going to be business as usual. Finance is going to be important for everyone, make the right kind of choices. You cannot be an entrepreneur if you're not risk-taking, but in this kind of scenario just weight the risks because they are slightly higher.

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