Wunderman Thompson South Asia’s chairman and group CEO speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about new ways of working under lockdown, why brands need to remain relevant and a very catchy company song
Living through lockdown and advising brands on what they can do to stay on top during this time is no mean feat for Tarun Rai, chairman and group CEO at Wunderman Thompson South Asia.
When India first locked down there was a lot of uncertainty about how the lives of over a billion people would fare during the pandemic, but at Wunderman Thompson employee welfare was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The company has since adapted its technology and ensured that motivating staff with online training programmes is a regular occurrence.
With staff happily adapting to the ‘new normal’, the team have been working hard to ensure that their clients are as relevant as ever. Here, Tarun shares his advice for brands and why accelerations in technology have put Wunderman Thompson in a good place to achieve their long-term goals.
LBB> What is the mood in India at the moment?
Tarun> The current mood is of cautious optimism. Two months ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, the fear was that the Covid cases in India would spiral out of control - and also the mortality rate.
After all, we are a country of 1.3 billion people. Our big cities, particularly, have a very high density of people and the infection transmission risk is extremely high. Coupled with that, our health infrastructure is not the best in the world. Despite the fears, the last two months have been better than expected. There are many theories going around on the reasons but, somehow, we have managed to control both the infection rate as well as the mortality rate.
The other interesting thing about the Covid crisis in India is the lopsided impact on various regions and cities of India. For example, Mumbai, our financial capital, with a population of 20 million has 42,000 cases at the start of June. Bangalore, our IT capital, with a population of 12 million has only 326 cases! Also, almost 50% of all cases are from just a handful of cities. As a result of all the above the government has decided to start opening up the economy in most parts of the country. In fact, we are planning to return to our office in Bangalore by mid-June. While the two-month lockdown has impacted our economy there is hope that the recovery will be swift.
LBB> How did you and the team react to the new ways of working?
Tarun> It has been a revelation. While we already had a flexible approach to people wanting to work remotely, to have the entire organisation of over a thousand people working from home with just a couple of days of notice was going to be a challenge. Or so I thought.
I was amazed at how our people responded. Our HR and IT teams did a stellar job. And the WFH model was up and running smoothly from day one. The tech was already available, we were just not using it enough. I do believe that this crisis has ensured that two years of tech adoption got compressed into two weeks. Like in many other instances, I find the crisis to be more of an accelerant than a change agent. A lot of trends that were already visible just got accelerated. I have always been focussed on our people’s output than how many hours they spend in office. So, for me, it came as no surprise to find that our people worked efficiently and responsibly from home. They have been as productive, if not more, than before. I am conscious, however, that while working from home has its obvious advantages in terms of travel time etc., it also comes with its challenges.
The biggest one is separating the boundaries of work and family. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is also a lockdown which means, for a lot of our staff, managing children at home. And an extended lockdown, as has happened in India so fatigue will set in.
We have, therefore, focussed a lot on keeping the motivation levels of our people high. This means a lot of communication with our people to keep them abreast of developments in the organisation and give them periodic updates. We have also focussed our attention on building capability of our people and invested in a lot of online training programs. And finally, on having some fun too. We got together a Wunderman Thompson band to create a song for our staff. The band members were from five different cities, all under lockdown who collaborated on-line to produce the song. It was a big hit, not just in India but in the Wunderman Thompson world too.
LBB> How has business changed for Wunderman Thompson since the lockdown?
Tarun> The lockdown has impacted all our clients- some more than others. We have clients across many categories including hospitality, retail, aviation, media, durables, technology, real estate and of course, FMCG. With an extended lockdown and a serious disruption of production, distribution and demand even FMCG clients faced a huge drop in their revenues.
As a result, the marketing spends of our clients were cut back and that has had a direct impact on our business. Most of our clients, however, recognise that this is a dynamic situation and can change very quickly. The cutbacks are, therefore, temporary and most of our clients are preparing for a quick bounce-back. With the latest government announcement of a significant relaxation of the lockdown and the opening up of the economy, the bounce-back will be sooner than expected. It is time, therefore, for our clients to get their marketing plans back on track.
LBB> How have you worked with brands during this time to change their communications?
Tarun> We have been advising our clients that brands should continue to communicate with their consumers during the crisis. While organisations are facing challenges, consumers are even more challenged. This is not the time, therefore, for brands to abandon their consumers, to go silent. The communication, however, cannot continue as before. It has to be relevant to the current crisis. It also has to be empathetic and authentic. And brands should try and add value to their consumers’ lives in this crisis. This is also the time for brands to ‘act’. Either directly, by, for example, changing production lines to produce facemasks or sanitisers. Or by making their brands available through e-commerce and home-delivery. Or indirectly, by supporting causes, promoting better hygiene etc. We have released a comprehensive report on the subject called ‘The Big Bang of Do’. Most of the brands we work with have been receptive to our suggestions and we have ensured that the conversation continues with their consumers.
LBB> What are you advising brands?
Tarun> We are passing through some really unprecedented times. We need to focus on the short term and take all the necessary measures to tide over this crisis. However, this is not the first crisis the world has seen, and it won’t be the last. While everyone is impacted by the crisis, it is the smarter companies that will have a better ‘bounce-back velocity’ coming out of the crisis. And these are the companies that will gain market share once the crisis is over. So businesses have to have a ‘twin lens’ approach. One lens focussed on tiding over the current crisis and the other on the post Covid-19 longer-term future.
LBB> Are there any campaigns that WT have worked on during this time that have stood out to you?
Tarun> While we have worked on many impactful campaigns and it is difficult to pick out just one, I can mention the work we have done for The Times of India as it was aimed at raising awareness around an important topic. The campaign was to encourage people to wear masks when stepping out. Masks that they could make themselves at home. The campaign was very well received and even our Prime Minister shared it on his Twitter handle.
LBB> Has the uncertainty affected your long-term plan for the business?
Tarun> We remain focussed on our long-term vision. We are committed to being a new breed of agency. An agency that combines the best of creativity with data and technology. We want to deliver end-to-end solutions to our clients, seamlessly. Clients have been looking for an integrated approach to their business and communication needs and, like in other areas, this desire is going to get accelerated post this crisis due to an increased focus of efficiency and ROI. As an agency, Wunderman Thompson is in the best position to deliver that.