'When COVID-19 started, there was negativity but now the sentiments are positive'

In today’s edition of 'Beating All Odds', Rajdeepak Das, MD-India, and CCO, Leo Burnett South Asia, speaks to Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor, exchange4media

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Published: Jun 2, 2020 9:01 AM  | 11 min read
Beating All Odds

In this series of 'Beating All Odds', we are speaking to leaders who in the last eight weeks have fought back every challenge thrown at them by COVID-19 in order to keep their businesses going.

Today, we speak to one such leader - Rajdeepak Das, MD-India, and CCO, Leo Burnett South Asia.

How challenging is it for a creative person to be locked in a house and continue being creative? You have come out with so many campaigns for brands like HDFC, Oral B and Oreo during this lockdown. What's keeping you and your team motivated? How are you executing it?

As a creator, the greatest freedom is not having any freedom at all, and that is exactly what's happening. When you don't have freedom, you find new ways to create things. A lot of new ways have to be invented in order to create and execute the ideas that we have. A lot of old ways that we used earlier have been shut. In a way it's great because it's forcing us to think, which is not regular, has not been done before, and is not mundane. Starting from HDFC Bank's work, which is going out and creating a small activation, which we're turning into a massive one, all over India, to creating a platform for shaadi.com, where in the first time in history, we are doing a massive amount of work.

How are you organising online weddings?

We are working to create a platform for shaadi.com. People wanted a platform where they could get married online. In India, Muhurat is the most important thing. Everything should happen at the right Muhurat. If the Muhurat passes, than the wedding can get postponed for months and years. Therefore, if one has a Muhurat now, they have to get married now.

We started a platform for our client shaadi.com and have executed three weddings till now. The best part about the platform is that the groom and bride are in different parts of the country and take part in the rituals online.

How are Hindu couples performing their Pheras?

There is fire in front of the priest, the bride and the groom. Both the bride and the groom do the same thing virtually that the priest asks them to do. When we had this, we realised that the most important part of the wedding is a Pundit, Maulana, or a Priest. We thought if we can find somebody to officiate the wedding, then rest could be managed. So, we went ahead and found the holy men to officiate the weddings.

A lot of people have been waiting for years to get married, or for the correct Muhurat. They met their match on shaadi.com, things were good, but suddenly the COVID-19 lockdown happened. There's always a first time for everything. Therefore, like I said, you put creative people in corner, and remove all the freedom, that's the best freedom we can have.

The weddings are also getting a lot of international media attention, as it's the first time something like that is happening. Watching big fat Indian weddings being conducted online is fascinating for them. When they join us, they see things happening properly online, where all rituals are followed on both the bride's and the groom's parts and everyone partying. A proper wedding that is happening online.

You really have had a fun lockdown?

Yes, a very interesting lockdown is happening for us. We just finished 'Thank you Ma' for P&G corporate film. Convincing friends to act in their home is easy but for the campaign I had to find frontline workers like health workers, bank employees or police personals, who are at the frontline doing their job. We had to interview their kids how they felt about their moms working. That's the kind of emotion you can't fake. The story is between a mom and a child. The entire thing is about how despite the COVID situation, working moms are not forgetting to do all small things for children - like reminding them to wash their hands, come back on time, don't go out, do you homework etc., while doing the big things on the frontline. It's just the beauty of the motherhood, when you look at it, you wonder how they do it. So, we did a campaign 'Thank you, Ma'. The entire campaign was a big piece of work. We were experimenting one thing to figuring out what more could we do? We knew what we have. We have to create from what we have and not expect what we don't have.

A lot has changed during the lockdown. Once we go back to the routine life, how will it change production and other things for creative people? What kind of long term changes do you think this period will have on the creative side of agencies?

This is the new normal. If you're expecting 700 people under one roof working together, I don't think that is possible in the next one year. Today we have a combined meeting of creative team, business team and the planning team. Similarly, every week we have one meeting, where we talk about what's happening, what we should be do and everything.

Recently, I got up saying that when I go back to office, I will talk about this or that, but I realised I'm not going back to office any time soon. When I go back to office, there will be 20 people. The next day there will be some other 20 people. If we are expecting everything will be fine and we are going to come out of it, then that is not going to happen. This is a new reality and we have to start executing things in this new reality.

The truth is - the execution style has also changed. So, if we think that the client will spend money on production like before, the answer is no. It's simple. If the idea needs money, the idea needs money. If it doesn't make money, it doesn't need money. If I need to create something like Avatar and I have budget of Rs 5 lakh, it will look like a cheap cartoon comic strip. It will depend on what the idea needs. If your idea needs big execution, we will have to shoot, and we don't have a choice what to shoot. If the idea needs a big execution, we don't need to shoot. We are downplaying the creative industry by saying it only makes TVCs and do productions. As a creative industry, our main job is going to be as the trading platform, creating tech platforms from clients are creating a business platform for clients. I think that will be the biggest thing for us in the next one year, starting from last two months that passed to next one year, how we transform our clients businesses, not through just TVCs but other ways. Can we see something else, can we work with the CTOs, CMOs, CFOs and Field Heads and find a new way of doing it.

Is there a change of conversation now when you speak to your clients?
We started the same thing three to four years back - that it's all about act, it is all about creating platforms. Whether it's for Bajaj recreating the motorbike or creating a platform for India and Pakistan together on OLX, we have not stopped creating platforms. That is one of one of the biggest habits of going to client, not just with TVC, but with something that can actually change the business. Now because of the lockdown lots of businesses are going down and lot of businesses are coming up in a different way. We got a chance to work with not only CMOs, but the R&D department of five or six big brands to create such platforms. Post lockdown, I think the future is going to be interesting and beautiful.

Do you think, eight weeks later there is a kind of COVID ad fatigue?

I totally agree with you. And the reason is, context is everything. You can create a context but if the context is not there, then there is no use of it. Lot of COVID ads are based on simple supers and simple pictures but it is brilliantly worked for us because the context is so right. When the lockdown started and I used to meet the client, we used to present to them something and immediately after seven days we would discuss that the old idea won't work. The concept changed from fear, to normal, to hope, every day.

Every week we are seeing a new trend emerging. When COVID-19 started, there was a time of negativity, but now there's a positive. That time they were talking about 3% deaths that are happening, but now we are talking about 30% recoveries that are happening. We are talking in a different language now. Now COVID-19 has become a new normal for us. Every single week, every single day, the mood and the tone is changing. So, what you are thinking now, if you don't execute today, by tomorrow, it's not relevant anymore. Because next week is a different scenario. In eight weeks of time, we actually have 10 different insights merging up every week. So the COVID theme is going to be there, but new concepts will be popping up. Maybe not the same thing that we saw, but a new angle, a new story, is going to pop out. I'm sorry, but you will have to bear with those things till COVID-19 is there, but a new angle to it always.

You also have many clients who have completely shut their productions right now. What kind of suggestions are you giving to them? What kind of strategy do you have for them?

Let me break it down in a simple way. This is not World War III. The infrastructures are still there. People are still there, and once situation becomes safer, people will come out. The moment safety norms comes out, we will just jump out to dine out or travel again.

In a couple of days, the future is going to be safety. Whichever brand makes you feel safer, you'll go for that. That's the thing, the infrastructure already exists. We just have to change the infrastructure a little bit. I remember in Singapore there is a cover between passenger and driver. They change the cover with every passenger. So businesses are going to change. What you have to figure out is the creative solution to make the business operate, and not a creative solution to tell a story right. The infrastructure is there, that's a beautiful part of it. The infrastructure is not going to vanish, we have to just start changing things and it's going to start moving. We are recovering fast. Things have to change a little bit and the business will change a lot. You have to do what you do the best, but you have to start changing yourself. If you don't change you're dead.

How has the lockdown changed you as a person and a professional?

I'm a social person. I wanted to talk to people; I need to have a chat with them over tea or coffee. It is very important to me. For me meeting my creative people, business people or people in my office are the most important thing in my life. My social life is actually my office. I spend 18 hours of my day in office and it is my first home, literally. Suddenly you are away from your home and your people that you really love. You miss them, and you realize, if it happens to you, you have to have an understanding of people who are out there alone in the city, in one room, with no one to talk to, what are they will go through. You emphasize with them as a human being. I think the way I have started looking at my people has changed a lot. I have started connecting personally, with people more. You always saw the happy side but you are now seeing the human side of them. And the other thing is, you realize is what are the things you need to change in your house. When things open, I’ll make sure my house is more work friendly.

How have you kept your team motivated?

We tried to call every day, if possible. I try to call all the young employees, alone in the city, at least once a day. If I don't call, my NCBs also call them personally and talk to them. That is on a one-to-one level. Then we come to group level. We are talking to every group. We also have lots and lots of activity happening. We're realizing that a lot of people are really creative. In advertising they're amazing, but they are also good in singers, are amazing dancers, musicians, or they cook really well. They never talked about it. I'm connecting with them on human level. As a leader you have to reach out and be accessible all the time. They are alone; you have to be with them.

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