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Steering Wunderman Thompson South Asia during Uncertain Times



As Wunderman Thompson India marks two years in the industry, chairman and group CEO Tarun Rai reflects on how he’s led the team through uncertain times

Steering Wunderman Thompson South Asia during Uncertain Times
Just as many parts of the world are feeling hopeful about Covid-19, India is facing its darkest hour. As a mutated strain tears through the country, India is going through an incredibly difficult time and this is inevitably impacting the creative industry. However, amidst this dire scenario, Wunderman Thompson India have marked their second anniversary. The past year has been trying, to say the least, but the agency has managed to grow and respond to both clients’ changing needs and the ever-changing landscape of India.

LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with the chairman and group CEO Tarun Rai to hear about how he’s pivoted the agency during the past two years, the many different faces of India and how being open, honest and transparent has helped him navigate uncertainty. 

LBB> Firstly congratulations on two years of Wunderman Thompson South Asia. I'd love to hear how you think the business has pivoted since the launch.

Tarun> It’s interesting you mention ‘pivoting’. That’s exactly what one of our clients wrote to me – congratulating me on successfully ‘pivoting’ our agency. He wrote this in response to my sharing the news of Wunderman Thompson being declared the Digital Agency of the Year by IAMAI (Internet and Mobile Association of India) where we were competing with a large number of specialised digital agencies. A year earlier, in April 2020, we had been declared the Agency of the Year by Drum so, in a sense, this was pretty much where we wanted to be – pivoting to embrace the new while not giving up on our areas of strength. And that’s what has been our effort of the past two years. To be in that sweet spot. I say it is a sweet spot for a couple of reasons.

First, India is not one India but many Indias. While digital is growing very fast we still have TV as the main medium for advertisers. In fact, between television and print, almost 70% of client spends get exhausted. Secondly, increasingly (more so after the pandemic) clients are looking for fewer partners to sort out their marketing issues. They want better cohesion of messaging across platforms as well as greater efficiency since budgets are tighter now. For both these reasons, an agency like ours, that has the skills and capabilities to deliver an end-to-end solution to our clients, is in a sweet spot.

Besides the awards I mention, our revenue profile has also changed. We now have around 35% of our revenue from digital and tech solutions. A significant part of this revenue is from our current clients who we have been able to cross-sell our digital and tech capabilities. I am confident that digital, tech and data will form 50% of our revenues in the next two years. As an organisation, we have also focussed on upskilling our current staff and we took advantage of the pandemic to run a lot of on-line training programs that were received extremely well by our people.

So, despite a year of the pandemic, we have managed a lot since we became Wunderman Thompson two years ago.

LBB> What have been highlights for you over the past two years?

Tarun> There have been so many highlights that it is difficult to list them down. I mentioned the awards – both Agency of the Year and Digital Agency of the Year- that we got which was extremely gratifying and an endorsement of how we are positioning ourselves.

In the first year my task was to successfully merge two very different companies – synergise their capabilities and keep everyone motivated. And to start building a new culture. I had to do this conscious of the fact that we couldn’t afford to become too inwardly focussed. That we still had to keep our focus on delivering to our clients’ expectations. Changing engines (or in our case, adding another engine) while the plane was flying.

The second year, of course, brought another challenge – the pandemic and the resultant lockdown. As I mentioned above, our people did a remarkable job of working remotely. They displayed an amazing amount of discipline, ingenuity and commitment. We partnered our clients extremely well. As for me, my main task was to ensure I kept the motivation levels high, that people supported each other, collaborated well, that we invested in training and, as an organisation, we were honest and transparent.

So yes, many highlights – including awards, a fantastic new business record, a right mix of revenue streams to reflect our new capabilities and the highest-ever ratings from all our top clients.

LBB> What work has really stood out to you?

Tarun> We did a lot of excellent work for our clients. Work that helped win the Agency and Digital Agency of the Year awards. We also did a lot of pro-bono work during the pandemic that I am really proud of. But what I would pick out is a song. A song from a band that was formed during the height of the pandemic by a very talented bunch of people from across our various city offices and companies. 

A song that lifted the spirits of our people and was played even at Wunderman Thompson’s global conferences. It also reflected the effortless collaboration even though the band members were locked down in their homes. Here’s the song:

LBB> We spoke last year and talked about the changes you had to make during the first lockdown where you called working from home a ‘revelation’. As India is in the middle of a second lockdown, how are you taking the team forward?


Tarun> The speed at which we adapted to working from home was certainly a revelation. It has been over a year and just when we were planning to open our offices – in fact, we had a March date in mind – we got caught up in the second wave of the pandemic. I do believe we can work remotely pretty efficiently. We have partnered our clients really well and have gone out of our way to help them navigate through all the problems they faced during the pandemic. It was very gratifying to have got our highest-ever ratings from our top clients for our performance last year. Ratings that are linked to incentive payments for us. 

While we have demonstrated that WFH is possible and productive, there are obvious benefits of the physical office space. Going forward what I envisage for our company is a hybrid model. A 50-50 model wherein we ‘plan’ not to have more than 50% of our people coming to office on any given day.  Give people more flexibility in how they want to manage their time, how they want to work out their work-life balance.

LBB> As a leader, how have you tackled the challenges that can come with remote working especially in a creative environment where many people thrive off being in the same room as each other when bouncing new ideas around?

Tarun> The most important way is to be open, honest and transparent. And to communicate clearly and often. I have a rather large leadership team made up of our top 25 people who are heads of our companies, functions and offices. With this team I share everything that’s going on in the company. My leadership team was my ally in communicating with the almost thousand people that we have in our organisation. We ‘met’ often to discuss issues, or sometimes just to exchange notes over a remote drink. 

I reached out to the larger organisation through regular ‘checking-in’ mails. And a few times to our extended leadership team (the next level to the top 25) some 150 of them over a virtual meet. I found that people went out of their way to help and support their colleagues. Our leadership was much more empathetic and conscious that they were discussing work with their teams while people were at home, possibly with some family around. Our leaders were also conscious of the anxieties brought on by the pandemic and the lockdown and were sensitive to it. We also invested a lot in training to help upskill our people. I believe all of the above contributed to keeping our people motivated through the crisis.

LBB> As we speak now, the country is grappling a terrifying second wave, with this in mind are you able to plan for the future in any way?

Tarun> As I write, we are in the middle of a viscous second wave of Covid-19 in India. So, right now, my hope is for our country to come together and beat the virus quickly before it really gets out of hand. And I hope we can return to a semblance of normalcy in the next few months.

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Wunderman Thompson India, Tue, 27 Apr 2021 14:49:17 GMT