Despite the pandemic, India continued to contribute incredibly: Gordon Domlija

Domlija, CEO, APAC at Wavemaker, noted that 25-30% growth for APAC came from India alone during the pandemic

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Published: Jun 23, 2021 9:21 AM  | 11 min read
gordon domlija

In today's edition of 'The Resilience Story,' e4m editor Naziya Alvi Rahman speaks to Gordon Domlija, the CEO, APAC at Wavemaker. He opens up about retaining and growing businesses, India's contributions to APAC, the relevance of awards and, above all, maintaining the human touch in a world ravaged by the pandemic. 

Your agency has been doing reasonably well, despite the pandemic. You have recently retained L'Oreal in India, which is a very big account. You have Mondelez and many other big advertisers in India. How is India contributing to your overall growth for APAC?

First of all, I'm going to correct you because, rather than "reasonably", I would say "remarkably" and "astonishingly", given the circumstances and the context of where we are.

For me, the key story here is about resilience, learning attitude and aptitude, which focuses on people, and the truly outstanding work that they deliver despite the circumstances.

We are a young company.  A lot of our strength and our growth over the last couple of years have been focused on our ability and our agility to drive outcomes, different ideas, and different ways of working that really resonate with clients, as their businesses, consumers and the whole media ecosystem change.

Right now, India has truly, remarkably, (given the situation) has continued to contribute incredibly. One of the really fascinating things about what's happening in India is that business really hasn't slowed down, at all. Now, it feels like businesses are going full steam ahead in the amount of pitching we do in the original publication. I really feel that business hasn't slowed down at all.

Now, in terms of total numbers, India represents about 20% of our business in the Asia Pacific. And in terms of the growth, it's contributing even in the COVID period and has been ahead of its size. Around 25-30% of our total growth is coming from India at the moment.

L'Oreal, which is a critical piece of business, not only in India but across the world. When we have a huge ambition as an agency, you always want to be tied with brands with huge ambition, who challenge you. They put you under pressure, but that's the only way you learn and grow.

If you look at the other retentions around Heinz and Cedars, we've done very well. If you look at the number of start-ups and tech companies that have contributed to the growth of the new economy businesses, I'm really seeing India at a cusp of a technological and digital revolution. 

But the situation in India in the last two months was bad. As you know, we had that second wave, and it was far more damaging than the first in terms of personal loss and overall sentiment. How much did it impact? 

When you're talking about business, it's very difficult for me to separate the human element from the business element, because it's very easy to fall into a trap of talking about just business.

Nothing's happening, because, in reality, business does go on. Now, all of our clients are still operating, people still own businesses and we're still part of a massive global economy. So, things have to keep progressing, despite what is happening at a human level.

What we've been very good at doing, is making sure we prioritize a human element through this period and the effects that it is having on people since we're a people’s business. To me, looking after them has been the priority over this period.

But with that said, people have still been wanting to occupy themselves with work. People still want to keep busy and feel like they're doing something, achieving something and growing. So in reality, what I'd say is, it hasn't really slowed us down. If anything, it's made us think differently about how we work. And we are doing things very differently.

But if you look at our team in India, they are just fantastic. And, you know, Ajay (Gupte), as our CEO in South Asia, has done a fantastic job in unifying the business, in creating a community spirit around the business and sharing the pride and the optimism that they have about the work that they're doing. I mean, you see the work that we do, particularly something like Mondelez, it's really second to none. So I'm immensely proud of them and of what they've achieved.

In the last one-and-a-half years, all of us have been affected by the pandemic. India has been one of the worst affected. However, in the APAC, which markets have proven to be more resilient than the others?

I feel remarkably lucky, being based in China, I'm based in Shanghai. And other than the original outbreak, and then some sort of very sensible, regimented way of getting back to a full working environment; We haven't been in any sort of lockdown or restriction for well over a year now. So business here has accelerated.

For a lot of global brands, you realize now the importance of China, particularly when it comes to luxury brands and consumption. China has taken the bulk of sales in the world now. Over 50% of all luxury sales are contributed by China. So there's resilience here, but that is circumstantial.

The borders are still relatively closed here, and categories like travel and tourism have been most affected. But a huge new industry has developed around internal tourism and this has more than made up for the gap and that includes travel, retail, etc. And particularly in China, we had a lot of travel clients. So that hit us quite hard last year. The country has been remarkable in the ability to just create a new economy, from the circumstances that they're in.

APAC for Asia Pacific is far from a homogenous region. Some regions or some markets are affected very directly. If you look at the contribution of travel and tourism to Thailand, you know that it knocks off 25% of the GDP of the country. So, some markets are genuinely suffering.

Where would you place India in this context and which APAC market can India learn its lessons from? 

From a business perspective, I have really seen India accelerate, I think, they are taking a lot of cues from how China has grown particularly around commerce around the route to market. I think India has always been a country that is very quick to pick up and accelerate. We've seen that, despite the inability to actually get people in an office and do any sort of formal learning or training.

In these areas, India has just picked up very fast out of necessity. And I see that the acceleration part is very similar to what it looked like in China a couple of years ago. IPL is still a massive driver of media and of consumption.

India has that optimism and I think that has helped massively this year. There's no one who isn't optimistic: “Don't worry, IPL is coming back in September, and then we've got the holidays.”

From a business perspective, it's been positive in terms of how accelerated our thinking and our ability to be creative are. Honestly, I'm blown away by the work that we do there, and the creativity of our people there.

India has always been a Creative Media hub. China I would say is far less creative. It's much more performance orientated. Whereas if I look at India, the creativity, the storytelling, that comes out of our teams in India is incredible and leads the world genuinely.

In every adversity, lies an opportunity. So what, according to you, will be the biggest opportunity for advertisers in media and the post pandemic world? How do you see the media business evolve?

Things have developed now, around not only platforms, communications and the ability to target very precisely, but also story-creation around your messaging. I look at how we already do things in China, and it's dominated by platforms, how you have conversations on platforms, how you actually build an organic conversation.

So increasingly, that moved from mass public debate domain into more private ones -- how people talk to each other and how brands interact with people's lives in those channels.

So for us, while storytelling is the output, there is a lot of data and analytics that has to go into understanding where your customers are, and how they will react to certain mysteries, and test and learn at a massive scale.

We work with a lot of traditional FMCGs and not so long ago, there was a clear IMC process, which still felt very modern. People will continue to expect to have experiences in the digital space. As the doors and retail open up, you'll see a lot more integration of the auto, in terms of what an online experience looks like, as compared to an experience in-store.

You'll see far more investment into actual experience centres, in retail and destination. We’re already seeing that in China. To me, that integration and that merging of the online world and offline world and how that comes together is a massive opportunity for brands. They're the brands that grow.

The agency partners that you pick will be the ones who are specialized in that area, who understand what our consumer journey looks like for a digital world, for a real-world or how to connect with people, and how to influence them through that journey. 

Wavemaker did exceedingly well at Cannes in 2019. How aggressively are you participating this time and what are your expectations from the first virtual version of the awards?

So we did very well in 2019 led by some Huawei campaigns that drove excellent results and performance in the awards. This time around, it's a new era in terms of how these things work.

I've never been to Cannes, so I don't really know what the physical experience is like. For me, awards are a fantastic recognition of our people. And I would encourage them to take pride in what they've done. I would rather have a very healthy business than a bunch of awards is always my mentality. Awards are your cherry on top.

Globally, we have 25 entries, and 13 of them are from India. It just goes to show that this is our entire global network, over half the awards are from India. I'm really, again, super proud of the teams and the efforts, but you can see the work we're doing. With Mondelez, the work has been outstanding and well documented. I hope that we bring home, a lot of heavy metal for our teams. 

Coming back to the pandemic, what did you do, as an agency, for your employees here in India? 

There are two ways to raise funds. Firstly, you've got direct support. Some of the direct support is around what we've done around APAC, globally, at the WPP level, at group level, and at an agency level. I think there've been some fantastic fundraising events, fundraising initiatives, which were driven particularly when the need for oxygen was at its highest.

But how we were able to purchase and get these things into the country. As you know, infrastructure wise, sometimes India is not the easiest to navigate when you're actually trying to deliver support from outside of the country. From that perspective, as a group, we came together quickly in terms of fundraising, trying to get things on the ground and to our people directly.

Our talent and Human Resources teams have been absolutely phenomenal, in doing everything they can to find hospital beds for the people and their families. There was a central sort of helpline, which anyone could be in touch with, not just from Wavemaker, but from our entire organization.

There was the extension of health insurance to ensure that everyone was covered within our organization, which was a major move. The responses that I've seen have been nothing short of miraculous.

On the other side, it's also about demonstrating empathy to people who are suffering. Work isn't the most important thing in your life. Your life and your family are. As an organization, a great thing to say is: "Prioritize yourself, self-care, and family care are the most important things in life. Work, noise, will always be there."


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