Agility is the key in 2022 and beyond: Nitin Mantri, Avian WE

In today’s ‘Year-ender story of 2021’ series, Mantri, Group CEO at Avian WE, opens up about how a robust ESG strategy will play an increasing role in brand success stories in 2022

e4m by Shrabasti Mallik & Ruchika Jha
Published: Jan 12, 2022 8:58 AM  | 10 min read
Nitin Mantri

As we step into 2022 and look forward to it as a year full of hope and possibilities, e4m PR and Corp Comm presents the “Year-ender story of 2021” series with the theme 'The possibilities that the new year holds for PR agencies and the way ahead'. The series encompasses the views, opinions and thoughts of some of the leading names and veterans of the PR and Corp Comm fraternity on how they perceive the New Year, the transitions they expect to see, and their vision for the future.

In this interview, Nitin Mantri, Group CEO at Avian WE, shares his views about how newer technologies like Web3 and the metaverse will take centre stage this year along with AI and how purpose-driven communication will continue to be the way ahead for 2022.

Excerpts from the interview:

Artificial Intelligence is the future - irrespective of industries. What are the ways AI can come to the aid of PR and Corp Communication professionals in 2022?

If the last 21 months have given us anything, it is the opportunity to radically rethink how we connect with one another, how we share ideas and how we creatively collaborate.

Since COVID hit, we have seen PR firms fast-track tech competence to meet the demands of their stakeholders, adopt future-forward technologies that encourage digital agility among all team members, implement interactive, hyper-responsive campaigns suited to the new reality of our times, adopt machine-learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to optimise client time, energy and budgets, and achieve steady growth in connecting to the broader market despite undoubtedly challenging circumstances.

Tools like Cloud, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence should become our go-to tech assets in order to collect and analyse data and optimise client time, energy and budgets. With the power of AI, we will provide audience insights, reduce time spent on day-to-day-tasks, enable targeting social interactions, predict crisis accurately and track fake news.

However, we must keep in mind that every problem does not have an AI solution. AI may transform the way we do certain tasks, but it won’t revolutionise our industry as a whole, at least not for a long time. After all, PR is all about relationships – with our customers, reporters, our communities, and our employees – relationships that will always require a human element. PR pros will need to cut through the noise to unearth functions that can augment human input and add value to communications campaigns.

What are the trends the Indian PR and Corporate Communications industry can look forward to/ expect in 2022?

Agility is key in 2022 and beyond. We cannot deliver on client expectations and manage them if we don’t creatively collaborate and integrate our services. The International Communications Consultancy Organistaion (ICCO’s) annual World PR Report has shown that the industry continues to have the best of both worlds – old-school skills are still heavily in demand but digital competence, insight, corporate reputation management and strategic counsel continue to power ahead.

We are already working on digital campaigns and continue to add more so-called non-PR services such as creative, advertising, etc.  and this dynamic merger is paying dividends. But we must challenge ourselves to incorporate more integrated capabilities into our campaigns.

Technology will continue to pick up the pace. We will adopt and implement more new technologies to meet client needs. Artificial Intelligence-backed software will allow us to identify key influencers, plan and distribute strategic content, monitor media, and measure impact. Then, there is Big Data that can be broken down and analysed using AI tools to provide targeted services and content.

But what will be more important than any device, tool or app are the People who use them to drive change and improvement in the industry. At the end of the day, it is our people and our workforce who align technological innovations to a greater cause. We have all been talking about how Purpose must be the top priority today. The Bravery Mandate, which is WE’s Brand in Motion study for 2021, reiterates that purpose starts at home. According to respondents of the survey, employee well-being is the number one issue that brands must address to be considered leaders with strong purpose. And this applies to both our clients and to us.

Purpose also means bold and brave action in 2022. Only brands that have the courage to take bold and long-term action on deep and complex issues will flourish this year and beyond. The days of armchair activism are over. A decade ago, consumers would believe whatever a brand said if it was said with confidence and aplomb. But today, where information access is at our fingertips, consumers will look for evidence. Sustainability pledges that won’t come due for decades to come aren’t good enough. The people in your community need to see the impact of your actions with their own eyes.

4) According to industry experts, environmental, social and corporate governance would continue to grow. In what ways will socially-conscious initiatives continue to drive campaigns and outreach programmes in 2022?

Anthropogenic pollutants are eroding the planet at an alarming rate. The 2017 Lancet Commission report on pollution and health suggested that pollution is the cause of over 16 percent of global death. It said that air pollution is responsible for up to 8 percent of these deaths – 3 times more than the deaths caused by tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS, and 15 percent more than those caused by warfare and other global violence.

The need of the hour, therefore, is for people and institutions worldwide to do their bit to address this crisis.

Businesses and industry, too, are key stakeholders in this climate crusade. And consumers, collaborators and investors are cognizant of this. The call for businesses to increase their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance is stronger than ever.

Corporate social responsibility just doesn’t cut it anymore. A brand’s commitment to its stakeholders must go beyond the perfunctory ‘donation’ or ‘health camp’. More and more consumers are expecting socially responsible and sustainable practices across industries and business sectors.

Consumers and B2B decision-makers surveyed for The Bravery Mandate rated environmental sustainability and income equality among the top issues respondents wanted brands to address. And 71 percent of respondents felt that brands have an obligation to engage with social/global problems when they impact the business and stakeholders. Two out of three surveyed even said they are more likely to purchase or recommend products or services from brands that address societal issues that matter to them.

A robust ESG strategy has become indispensable and will play an increasing role in brand success stories in 2022.

How did you cope with the second wave of the pandemic? What were the challenges you had to overcome?

We had a strong business continuity plan in place since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. We had recalibrated our policies, remote work processes and expectations to make the situation less disruptive and stressful for our people and clients. As a result, we successfully maintained growth, protected jobs, and strengthened client partnerships in these tough times.

Even when the number of cases came down in November-December 2020, we did not let our guards down. We remained vigilant and so the second wave of the pandemic did not catch us unawares.

Though every single Avian WE employee was directly or indirectly impacted by the second wave in the pandemic, everyone stepped up to support each other.

At the agency level, we moved swiftly to provide medical resources to our people and their families – from COVID-19 tests and free e-consultations with doctors to providing oxygen cylinders and supporting vaccination programmes. We gave employees wellness day off every Friday for the entire month of May 2021. We launched an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to tackle the mental health fallout of the pandemic. We also pushed back non-critical deadlines and reprioritised work so that our people could focus on their health and well-being.

How have the young generation / new recruits adapted to the system of working remotely? What are your views on how successful the hybrid working model will be in the coming year?

Surveys have shown that many employees would like to continue remote work, while some want to return to work in an office. Flexibility is the key here. According to recent data:

  • Flexible and remote working are more important than financial benefit.
  • Flexible working has gone up 91 per cent this year (for men and women) in PR.
  • Remote working has gone up 20 per cent in one year.

So, we must move with the times and find a middle ground, starting with embracing the hybrid work model with new openness.

Hybrid model will differ from office to office. Regardless of how it is executed, organisations must exercise empathy and listen to employees’ feedback and then incorporate them in their decision-making. 

The pandemic has been a trying time for us all, especially on the psychological level. How should organisations prepare themselves for the next year?

The pandemic has put greater emphasis than ever on the well-being of our workforce. Mental health has emerged as one of the key subjects in discussions around employee welfare. And really, we’d be foolhardy to ignore this much-needed conversation. Take the recent trend of the Great Resignation. The top reasons cited for people leaving include excessive workload, toxic culture, lack of recognition, inequitable work-life balance and unfair treatment, which means, employees today will no longer lay low and tolerate sub-par working conditions.

If organisations want to retain talent and expect them to be sincere and committed, they must prioritise creating work environments that make them feel seen, heard and recognised. According to The Bravery Mandate, WE’s 2021 Brands in Motion Report, respondents have rated employee well-being and personal needs (physical, mental and financial) as the most important issues.

It is our responsibility to equip our employees with tools and resources to protect their mental health. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Conduct regular employer surveys to detect and understand current mental health problems in the organisation. During the pandemic, we had conducted several surveys which had specific questions on mental health that helped us gauge the problems faced by our people.
  • Drive awareness and action on mental health by encouraging people to openly talk about mental health and back up that talk with action. For example, my firm launched a #WECare initiative a couple of years back to protect people’s mental and physical health. As part of this programme, we host webinars with mental health experts and encourage our people to discuss about their problems.
  • Make mental health services more accessible to employees. Here again, I will give another example from my firm. We launched an Employee Assistance Program to provide counselling services to The programme includes a Mental Well-Being Support Helpline and free access to professionally crafted resources such as open webinars, reading material, to name a few.
  • Strive for work-life balance. I know that sounds impossible in the PR industry, but whenever possible, we have to push back on unrealistic demands and deadlines.

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