#Throwback2020: How the pandemic reshaped agency culture

The agencies of the future are going to work on a hybrid model.


NEW DELHI: There were a lot many seemingly impossible things that 2020 managed to turn into reality. One such thing was advertising and marketing agencies locking their gates and their employees working remotely for a good chunk of the year. For a business that thrives on human contact and face-to-face interactions, where beer pe charcha has been a trend for the longest time, and where teamwork defines the core strength of the company, it seemed like a herculean task to undertake. However, the year made everyone used to it. In fact, for the industry, it has paved the way for a more relaxed, geo-agnostic, hybrid working model, which will possibly be its future. And not just the technology, but the human connections that have developed this year will help sustain this model. 

Relationships across the screen 

The first task for the agencies in the lockdown was to create a system for its teams while working from home to ensure that the output does not drops and their commitment to the clients continues in the same way as before. This was a humungous task as none was prepared for it. They adapted the new techniques of sharing the status of work, deliberating ideas, seeking feedback, team meetings and briefing sessions. Agency folks across the hierarchies took time to adapt but they did and the work went back at the same pace. 

Earlier in the year, Indiantelevision.com had also reported that the Covid2019 crisis made agencies and clients bond well than ever before. 

Publicis Worldwide MD Srija Chatterjee had this to say about improved client-agency relationships during one of our virtual roundtables: “We have started understanding each other more. There is much more transparency now. As an agency, we know what the issues are that they face with cash flows and we are trying our best to help them out.”

Also, Kinnect CEO Rohan Rohan Mehta and COO Chandni Shah in a live virtual chat corroborated that clients, in fact, became very comfortable with presentations and pitches over video calls. And it might be a trend that will continue to stay in the industry for a good long while, though they personally would prefer it to be otherwise. 

Be it crunching numbers or deliberating on that one great creative idea, all the teams adopted the new normal and started bonding on the screens. They collaborated more and engaged with each other beyond work making work-from-home feel like not a very tough task. 

Wavemaker South Asia CEO Ajay Gupte told us in a previous interaction, “On the team-level, we have gotten much more closer and understanding of each other. Earlier, our teams in various states could manage to meet once or twice a year, but now we are having at least two meetings every week.” 

During the lockdown, the agency execs took up participated in team games and sessions like learning cooking, singing. They celebrated festivals online, shared new learnings and developments to create a light atmosphere.

Embracing a hybrid model

Advertising is a people's business and at the end of the day, one needs to have boots on the ground to ensure the execution of the ideas at the last mile. This includes production, post-production, art-work, shoots and several other things.  

While the lockdown restrictions eased, it was not possible for everyone to immediately go back to the office. Havas Media Group MD India Mohit Joshi mentioned in a tete-a-tete with Indiantelevesion.com founder, CEO and editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari a few months back, “Yes, the offices are open but we are not forcing anyone to join. Additionally, we have done extensive joining assessments for the people on grounds like who all are living alone versus who all are living with old parents or young children, who have morbidities associated, etc. So, only those people are being called to the office for whom it is absolutely safe. We are not allowing anyone who travels via public transport to come to the office.” 

Wunderman Thompson South Asia group CEO and chairman Tarun Rai, while speaking at a Bangalore Advertising Club webinar, insisted that it is high time that agencies embrace the hybrid working model. 

“I have been passionate about the fact that people should be allowed flexibility at workplaces. We need to be more output-focussed and not input. We can work remotely and deliver the same results,” he said. Rai added that this will help in vapourising the gender bias at the workplace. 

But more than everything, it will allow agencies to rope in skilled people with hyper-local and targeted capabilities to deliver better solutions to clients. Several industry leaders pointed out that having great talent on-board will not be a function of geography anymore. 

Several big agencies have reopened the offices. Leadership teams are meeting once or twice every week. Mid-level execs are allowed to come office but are needed to inform in advance. Its HR teams are ensuring that the office does not have over 30 per cent staff at once.  

What the future looks like

The industry is positive that hybrid is the way ahead. Freshly appointed PHD India CEO Monaz Todywalla said, “In terms of working models, hybrid working is going to stay. Agencies will collaborate with skilled professionals more. There is also going to be a big focus on in-house skill development.”

Case in point being most of the young agencies that launched this year – like Syed Amjad Ali’s Catalysts, Saurabh Varma’s WondrLab – are going to be geo-agnostic enterprises. Although nearly all agencies are regularly working with freelance professionals across different geographies to execute projects but this trend will further grow.

In Rai’s view, traditional agencies also will be moving towards a more free working environment where going to the office would not necessarily mean sitting in a cubicle. It could also mean meeting for a coffee or sitting at a co-working space.

However, he added that for this to turn into a reality, legacy agencies will have to do a rejig of their entire culture, HR policies, and appraisal systems. He argued that to make all of this function in the real world, people will have to give up the control they are used to exercising on their teams and will have to turn more trusting towards people.

“In addition to that, we also need to work on our HR policies and appraisal schemes. To this date, we have to punch in our office timings as the system remains input-based. Even with consultants, we are used to asking how many days they will be coming to the office. All this needs to change,” he remarked. 

For Mehta and Shah, this pandemic has paved the way to a flourishing gig economy in India. Mehta noted that more agencies will be open to outsourcing specialised skills to freelancers and consultants. However, there is a long way to go for standardising the prices and work culture for those who are not on company payrolls.

He added, “LinkedIn has been a part of the media mix for most advertisers for the past three years now and it has constantly been bringing in new formats to advertise also. The place where LinkedIn lacks a little bit is its expensive pricing. Also, the number of people on the platform is quite limited and you can’t reach a wide audience. I have been waiting for LinkedIn to become more India-centric and viable in terms of pricing. As soon as that happens, a ton of advertisers will flock the place and will be using it way more aggressively.”

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