It's important to constantly keep your stakeholders engaged: Chetan Mahajan, The Mavericks

In today's 'Beating All Odds', Chetan Mahajan, Founder & CEO of The Mavericks, speaks to Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor of exchange4media

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: May 11, 2020 8:46 AM
Beating All Odds with Chetan Mahajan, Founder & CEO, The Mavericks

In our 'Beating All Odds' series, we recognise and honour the leaders who, despite the problems and glitches thrown at us by the COVID-19 lockdown, ensure that our business and economy remain active while trying to contain the damage this crisis can cause.

Today, we speak to Chetan Mahajan, Founder and CEO, The Mavericks.

How are you managing your work from home?

This because we don't have a choice, I think it's doable. Is this the most preferred way of engaging with fellow colleagues and clients? Of course not. While at the times I think we have adapted well in the last 40 days now, but most of our people, including me, spend long hours working. It seems productive, but the collaborative spirit which comes while working together, it just doesn't happen. While technology, like video calling (VC), has tried to bridge those gaps, it's very difficult to bring in the collective creative output on VCs. But yes, given the scenario, most of our people have are actually putting much more time in work and are more productive, than ever before.

How much has lockdown affected communication industry?

From a revenue point of view, there has been a significant impact. Businesses, particularly in the space of travel and hospitality have gone to absolute zero revenues generation. All those people have either gone on a three to a six-month sabbatical or have completely withdrawn from the contracts. Other businesses, where the impact is significant, but their revenues are not bottom down to zero, continue to work with us.

Which are these businesses which are still using communications and are still working with communication teams?

There are many actually. From an industry point of view, two industries which are doing really well amongst all this chaos and crisis are healthcare industry, particularly the health tech industry, and the education technology companies. For these two companies, it's a moment of transition. I'm sure they didn't want it to come this way. But the digital transformation of these industries has been immense. This has been a tipping point for them. Schools and colleges overnight switched to digital and started delivering the online classes. It didn't take too much time for them to establish the infrastructure. It was just about getting everybody together and getting started. I have a son who is in class six. He didn't miss his school time, except for the first couple of weeks. They were just organizing and putting the structure in place, making sure that all the features are available. But then they have been online, the tuitions are happening online. We work for IIM Calcutta, they have also moved everything online. Business is as usual for education companies. And if you look at education technology companies, I think this is the best time of these businesses.

What kind of suggestions are you giving to brands which are not as active as education or healthcare, and not completely shut like travel or aviation?

There are two things which are absolutely essential during these times. One, this is a time when you really call out your purpose and make sure that your stories are driven by a purpose and not by a product. Brands, particularly the ones which we are working with, have a clearly articulated purpose. They are not finding it difficult to engage with their stakeholders, because they still have a lot of stories to tell. Whereas the brands which were very transactional, very product focus, they don't have much to tell, as they don't have any other story, besides their product. I will give you one example of playschools. Playschools have a very clear process. One of the biggest reasons is, enabling women to go back to work.

There are multiple impediments for women, starting from marriage to child, and could be migration to other cities or countries. And these barriers don't allow women to go back to work and pursue their careers with an equal amount of aggression as men would do. So playschools not finding it difficult to engage with their stakeholders. It is because, while their business is to enable women through making sure that the kids are very well taken care of, while they are working, whether from office or from home, through day-care and preschool, but the reason of their existence is, enabling women to go back to work. They still have a product story to tell. They're able to keep their ecosystem, as well as, the stakeholders, meaningfully engaged and not trivially engaged. Whereas, some brands we work with, are unfortunately very product-centric or service-centric. They don't have much tell.

Another example, which is not a client, is Xiaomi. They are also very purpose-driven brands. They don't have a dearth of stories. When they go out and engage with the media, they have enough stories which are revolving around their purpose and not centred around their products. Those kinds of brands are not facing many challenges. But for others, of course, it is tough.

The second aspect is your internal communication in a crisis. This is also the time when you are not able to meet and purposefully engaged with most of your employees. In many cases, you're not even able to purposefully occupy them. And that can be very frustrating for the team members and other employees. That's where communication agencies, as well as, the internal corporate communication leaders' role become very pivotal. They make sure what the leadership is thinking, how they are navigating through these tough times. It's not just about the reassurance, everybody's going through these uncertain times, and it can be not just frustrating, but very depressing as well. We conducted a survey across 600 professionals in the country. Some of the insights were very interesting. For example, while the company may push people to work from home because of the crisis, but people are just looking forward to going to the office. While most of us thought people will love working from home, it's actually very contrary to the general belief. I was actually surprised. While some people did mention that now going forward, they would love to have some amount of flexibility with respect to work from home, but they don't want work from home to become the new normal. That's very scary. Also, when you go to office work life and home life become balanced.

How much do you think people would want to spend on communication?

If you look at any crisis like this, whether it was the, you know, the Lehman Brothers crisis in 2008, you would see, some brands have a genuine problem and other brands will also take advantage of this crisis. This is an opportunity to negotiate and renegotiate all the contracts. Call for pitches and try and save as much as one can on various contracts because if revenues are not coming in, then the only way to sustain yourself is by making sure that you're not spending too much.

Going back to the insights we got from the survey, most of the people expect the economy to recover in no less than one year, and definitely around two years. So it's a long time. We're not looking at a V-shaped recovery anymore, which earlier many economists were talking about. One of the reasons for it not likely to happen is because there's a lot of uncertainty, both from a business perspective and from the perspective incomes which people and companies will have. 50% of the people we surveyed said, they are expecting to earn less in the coming year, than what they earned in the previous year. On the other hand, there was an interesting insight. They also expect to save more. Because during these times they have realized that cash is not just the king, it's being promoted to be an emperor now. You have to have either cash or liquid assets, and not assets which you can't immediately sell off or liquidate. Therefore, what has happened is, all the discretionary spend will take a significant hit. People will not open up their pockets easily in the next six to twelve months.

How much impact will COVID-19 have on overall PR industry?

The good thing about the PR industry is that, be it a small organization or a large organization, or be it good times or bad times, it's very important to communicate, whether you're talking to your people internally or other stakeholders. You are not here for the next quarter or the next year. All businesses are made and built to be running perpetually. That's why it's very important to constantly keep your stakeholders engaged. They need to be told that one good reason why they should be loyal to the brand. It can only be communicated through you know your organic channels and not through paid channels. Particularly, when we know you're not looking at increasing the sales through spends, and then it's only about building and protecting your reputation. I don't think any company which is serious about building a brand and reputation for themselves, will be putting a tight leash on the budgets for PR. Of course, they will get reduced, but the opportunity if you ask me, is going to be much bigger for the PR industry.

How are you keeping yourself motivated? And how are you keeping your employees motivated?

It's a two-way street. I'm fortunate because we just started about two years ago. We just completed two years this week. Therefore, we have a relatively smaller team. When you work with a smaller team, you have one-on-one connected with every team member. It's the belief in the leader, and in the ability of the leader to be the best during the tough times. When people believe that's good enough for motivation. If they know that they are with somebody who is most suited amongst the ecosystem to help navigate, negotiate and emerge as a winner from here, nothing can motivate them more than that. In the challenging times, all you need is that one hope that I have a good chance of not just surviving this crisis, but perhaps thriving from this crisis.

How do you keep your employees motivated in these times?

We do quite a few things to just keep ourselves purposefully engaged. The highest rate of motivation for creative people comes from having enough work. Nothing can replace that. If you have enough work and unable to you know exhaust your creative energies, then you're bound to be happy. The second aspect is, people are missing each other and they are not able to live their lives as they used to two months ago. Here you need to provide extra care. You need to be more than transparent. You also have to communicate constantly. You cannot leave a gap and have to involve your people in decision making. We have taken some tough decisions internally. We have lost revenue and we completely understand the client’s decision. We stand strong with them because this is the time to be together. What is very important is to have a very transparent engagement with your people. What we have been doing is we give a status update to all our people every 15-20 days, on a conference call, that this is what is happening with our clients. This is what is happening consequentially with us. And let's find the best way to navigate this. Collectively we have taken some decisions which are actually harsh on the people, but since they are part of this decision, they know why these decisions are being taken. It doesn't affect them at all. In fact, it motivates them and charges them up that yes, we will fight together. And only if we fight together we have a chance to win.

What do you think is the way forward for the entire industry?

This is the time to stand together. Many clients will come back and say that their business has suffered and we would want to reduce the retainer or the project fee for the next three to six months. It has happened to us and what we have done is, we have actually increased the deliverables by 20% to 200% during this time. In the routine course of business, we always do our best like most of the agencies. During these times, it is even more important that you're going out of the way and making sure that everything that is possible is done, both from an external communication point of view and internal communication point of view.

Secondly, which is again very critical is, your people have to be with you more than ever while you negotiating crisis. It will eventually be over, and if it is not over, then it becomes a new normal, and people will find a way to live their lives around it. If you have those right people, they will help you move to the next level. I strongly believe, particularly for midsize and relatively smaller agencies, it's going to be a huge opportunity. I'm not saying this because large brands and midsized brands will be cutting budgets and looking for opportunities with mid-tier agencies rather than larger agencies. Larger agencies, unfortunately, have significant fixed costs, and they can't do much about, vis-a-vis an agency like us, Today we don't have an office and we don't have to pay for it either. We don't have those kinds of costs associated with our business. It makes much easier if you have flexibility with respect to your overheads. It's much easier for you to bounce back in an ecosystem like this. My recommendation for people across agencies is that just be transparent. Everybody is going through a tough time. If you are engaging with your stakeholders in a transparent manner if you're keeping them informed about what is happening and how you are able to support them. Explore new avenues of engagement. It's very important to unlearn many things and learn new things. This is also the time utilise your spare time and learn a new skill. En-roll in an online course. Retrain yourself. Make sure that you know you are one step ahead of the client and client doesn't get an opportunity to tell you what needs to be done.

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