Industry leaders spell Solidarity with a big ‘S’ during the COVID-19 crisis

Empathy, transparency in dealings and remaining connected with consumers top of mind, say Sam Balsara, Shashi Sinha, Ashish Bhasin and Amer Jaleel on exchange4media’s first webinar

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: Apr 9, 2020 2:28 PM
e4m webinar

The COVID-19 pandemic induced shutdown has produced an unprecedented effect across the marketing and advertising ecosystem. While the future looks rather grim at this point, industries and sectors and, in fact, the entire human race is seeing a solidarity like never before. Leading by example are the stalwarts of India’s media and advertising domain who participated in exchange4media’s first webinar.

Here’s what Sam Balsara, Chairman and MD, Madison World; Shashi Sinha, CEO, IPG Mediabrands India; Ashish Bhasin, CEO APAC and Chairman India, Dentsu Aegis Network, and Amer Jaleel, Group CCO and Chairman, MullenLowe Lintas Group had to say about the need for solidarity in this crisis in a webinar moderated by Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor, exchange4media.

Kicking off the conversation, Balsara defined solidarity for the industry, clarifying that agencies should refrain from taking advantage of any situation the crisis might cause. He was clear that this is when companies must stay transparent in dealings with clients, agencies and employees especially. “Even if the lockdown continues, which it mostly will, I'm sure under Ashish's (Bhasin) leadership, we'll come together on our platform (the Advertising Agencies Association of India) and take a decision on what we can collectively do and ensure that lives and jobs are safe once the industry gets back to normal,” Balsara said.

IPG Mediabrands’ Sinha was quick to second that, and added that the priority for everyone should be to keep the industry safe and to stay united in ensuring the safety and happiness of employees, of partners and vendors. “We are in the media business and we feed off media, and are closer to whatever is happening. Small examples of what we can do are – we can help people in need, sick people, our own employees, their families, etc. So we can start with simple things, both physically and emotionally, which will raise the morale at this point of time,” said Sinha.

In his capacity as President of AAAI, Bhasin pointed out that this is an industry that is quick to come together in solidarity even when there is no crisis. “According to me, the first thing for us as leaders is to be real and authentic. Everybody needs to understand that this is an emergency situation and it is not business as usual. It is going to impact and cause difficulties to a lot of people, hopefully for a short period of time and hopefully we will all come out of it. At times like these, liquidity is an issue that affects all agencies. So we need to start communicating with our friends on the media owners’ side and tell them our problems and accommodate each other, keeping in mind the challenges that they face too.”

He added that Sundar Swamy, Chairman of R K Swamy Hansa, has proposed an initiative, which he hopes to take forward with the support of senior industry folks like Balsara and Sinha — to write to the Government about what they can do to help agencies at a time like this. This is also a time to address people working in the industry dealing with insecurity about their jobs, salaries, etc., and for the leadership to communicate and reassure people across the industry, particularly those at the lowest end of the pyramid, and come out stronger in the end.

MullenLowe Lintas Group’s Jaleel said that the crisis has a huge humanitarian aspect to it, which the industry should keep in mind. The crisis has had a far-reaching effect across sectors, and it is not limited to just the media and advertising industry. “Marketing has understood how inter-dependent it is on the littlest person, the person at the factory. We have understood how dependent we are on our production people. This crisis is huge and it is human. It has exposed inter-dependence and has converted a lot of people into better human beings. The whole world has a shared history right now and is experiencing similar problems. We may all become saints by the end of this, because we will get each other so much and we will understand each other so much,” Jaleel said. While he agreed that the situation has brought the industry together, he also said that there has been pettiness and bickering. All that will soon disappear, he observed, since this issue has put everyone in the same boat.

Speaking about the kind of support the industry seeks at this juncture from the Government, Bhasin spoke about some of the obvious ways it can help the industry. One of them was to clear the dues owed to advertising companies, given that the Government itself is a major advertiser in the country. This could help address the liquidity issues the industry is trying to deal with. “If the Government can pay its own bills, which are often not paid for months, and even years, that would help. The TDS deducted, especially from media agencies, is disproportionate, because our commissions tend to be 2-2.5%, but TDS is much higher than that. There are always refunds we need to get on income tax and that often gets stuck for years and the industry needs this money to pay salaries, rent, etc. There are some practical suggestions like these.”

He also drew parallels with whatever is happening around the world, particularly in places like Singapore that are offering relief to businesses. “Over a period of time, we need to put money back into the pockets of businesses so that they can continue to run,” pointed out Bhasin, saying that the industry is still in the process of collating suggestions and pleas to put before the Government.

Speaking about the crisis before the world and the industry, Balsara observed that there has been no time in history when the whole world has been locked down the way it is today, perhaps barring the recession of 2008 brought on by the Lehmann situation.

“At that time, business and advertising took a hit. We, in fact, saw negative growth in advertising for the first time in years back in 2008. The most difficult task now for both agencies and advertisers is to get the economy going again,” he said, adding that it might be a lot easier for companies that have maintained brand equity to benefit when things normalise. However, the industry folk need to put their heads together to evaluate how advertising can get rolling again when the lockdown is lifted, because everyone will be facing a severe cash crunch.

IPG’s Sinha said it is premature to guess about how things will turn out when the lockdown ends and India returns to normalcy. “It is all nice to say that there will be a U-shaped or V-shaped recovery path, but it will take time. There is no doubt. We need to go client by client and break them up in small, manageable parts. So each client has some strong markets and weak market depending on category. Without generalising, some kind of micro discussion with clients will need to happen.”

An interesting discussion that followed was about the brand Amul, part of the IPG Mediabrands’ clientele, which has been particularly active through the crisis, despite being a conservative advertiser that has gone on record to say it spends less than 1 per cent on advertising. Sinha offered a possible reasoning for Amul’s sudden advertising overdrive.

“Aside from Amul’s infrastructure, which has been able to respond to the surge in demand for milk, a lot of credit goes to Mr R S Sodhi. If you see the communication, a lot of it is around ‘Maa ki Mamta’, or small moments of joy at a time like this,” he explained, observing that with morbid news coming out of news channels today, Sodhi has brought out some positivity in his advertising. Also, given that many advertisers are staying away and withholding their campaigns, it’s been a kind of hidden bonus for Amul to advertise and get the consumer’s attention at a difficult time like this. However, only time will tell how much this campaign has impacted its brand equity.

Bhasin added that advertisers and agencies would do well to note that when the lockdown lifts, it will not be a switch that comes on and restores normalcy in the country. He spoke from experience, having seen first-hand how the offices in Wuhan, China have coped and are still recovering from the COVID-19 blow.

Speaking about how the creative agencies might help in this regard, Jaleel said, “All of us, whether marketers or brand builders of any kind, are trying to keep a connection on with our audience. There is a lot of fear among people. What we are suggesting to our clients is what we have always done traditionally in the past, which is to keep the connections going with consumers and solve problems with creativity.”

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis will be felt and seen across the board even through 2021, said Balsara. While some categories might be up and running in no time, others might be left grappling and struggling to return to what they were in the pre-COVID era.

Compiled by Christina Moniz

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