Getting through a pandemic: How can Indian agencies survive the chaos?

Sandip Maiti on Survival of Indian Agencies

How do you plan your agency business & utilize the COVID-19 crisis period? Sandip Maiti, Experience Commerce raises some pertinent questions in this area and highlights key solutions for Indian agencies.

Pandemics occur once a lifetime; but despite countless warnings, humankind refuses to take it seriously. We were living in a post-SARS world for 17 years before we got inflicted with COVID-19. But look at our shameful level of preparedness. The powerful heads of governments cannot even get together, on time, to agree on what is the best way forward. Indian agencies too feel the brunt of it.

Public health is a complex issue and how to balance between economic impact and epidemiological impact is not the average citizen’s cup of tea. Such decisions are best left to the government.

When it comes to large businesses with global networks and deep pockets, there have supposedly well thought out business continuity plans. I am not privy to any, so I am unable to state with reasonable certainty that a COVID-19 scenario was documented and planned for by businesses, global or Indian. Hearing the impassioned video of Arne Sorenson (CEO-Marriott International) while he delivered the bad news to his team, it was amply clear that one could not have a playbook to grapple with an event of this magnitude.

Every agency business in our country is certainly writing one, as we plow through week 2 of #WorkFromHome. At our agency Experience Commerce, a subsidiary of Cheil Worldwide, we are wrapping our head around 5 key things as we move ahead.

  • Evaluate the Business Scenario – What is getting impacted and how
  • Observe Consumer Behaviour – Identify Opportunities & Challenges
  • Assess the Event Time Horizon – Do Survival Planning
  • Write “My Agency Playbook”
  • Create a Framework for Ethical Decisions

Business Scenario – What is likely to get impacted and how?

The hospitality & travel segment is badly hit for obvious reasons. What else is under serious risk as we speak? How many clients in your portfolio are going to suffer bad and how? Get early signals. Which businesses will get hit by negative consumer sentiment? Where are they likely to cut spending to survive? How will that impact your revenue projections? If a bulk of your revenue is projected to come from Projects/Campaigns, what is the likelihood of that happening in the next 3 months?

One needs to factor such uncertainties on the revenue side of their business plan. Best to take a shot at it early this week, if not already.

Observe Consumer Behaviour – Identify Opportunities & Challenges

Consumers do strange things as a herd in uncertain times. Case in point, the 5 pm support call visible across the country yesterday. Who could have predicted the 100% turnout? Be wary of the fact that sentiments can rise and fall with alarming speed, related to businesses you serve. ‘Hoarding’ as a behavior pattern is validated around the world in such situations. What does it mean for the F&B clients in your portfolio? How do you guide your client with identified opportunities from consumer signals on social media? Do you foresee a challenge?

One should communicate more not less, in such times with their client partners. Giving them the confidence that you are up to the task. At a pitch meeting over a VC, I heard a prospective client laud us for our commitment to the business.  

Assess the Event Time Horizon – Do Survival Planning

Unfortunately, no one is an expert to predict how long this event will last. The collective opinion of experts is that if contained well and tested at scale, a country is likely to see a turn-around in the situation within 10-12 weeks. That, dear friend, may not be the time window that you are going to be happy with; and thus, I use the term ‘survival planning’.

What is the impact of a canceled IPL and a canceled Olympics on your campaign projections? If the auto industry is indeed struggling now, what is the likelihood of its recovery 12 weeks from now – or is it going to be 24? That start-up you were betting on winning – how likely are they to get their Series A and when?

  • It’s important to start CUTTING discretionary costs.
  • Pile up the savings from travel and allocate them to a survival fund.
  • Recruitment is a tricky issue. Do we freeze hires or continue, planning for drops?

Also read: What kind of brand communication should you put up in times of a crisis?

Write “My Agency Playbook”

What are my new business opportunities: Reflect on the categories you manage for your clients or likely to open up for potential pitches. We started thinking and realized maybe consumers will need more laptops now than ever before, as everyone warms up to working and studying from home. Is there work to be done there?

Will people dial-up ‘Ghar-ka-khana’ as they get conscious about the need for greater immunity?  

How can I help client partners: start finding ways in which you can support their businesses. Every opportunity must be identified and supported, and some must be pro-bono. If you expect your client to bail you out in your tough times, this is the instance to volunteer your time for them. You will be surprised at so many new opportunities that will come up, and this can help justify the use of resources committed on their account.

How can I prepare better for future: List down all the things you wanted to do for your agency and get it done now if resources are idling. Prepare that film, upgrade that website, write up those pending case studies. Nail that product idea. It’s essential to come out stronger when normalcy returns.

Create a framework for Ethical Decisions

This is the tough one! Is there any kind of communication that you would not support (as an agency) but getting pushed to execute? Is this the time to push back at the risk of upsetting them? If you find your business already unviable, should you be transparent and communicate with your team? Do you let go of some people or do you take hair-cuts as a team to extend the survival window? What if your global HQ/Network asks you to support decisions that are unviable at a local level? Do you micro-manage work from home and include surveillance tools on your employee laptops?  Will you support staff afflicted with mental health issues resulting from extended lockdown?

The more you probe, the more issues you will find that will be a certain test of leadership. It is time you put together a framework to help you arrive at such decisions.

Getting through a pandemic is not easy. So many things to do in such little time and its effectiveness is yet unknown.

As we collectively step on to uncharted territories, it’s vital that we listen, introspect and be heard through these difficult times.

This article is authored by Sandip Maiti, Founder & CEO, Experience Commerce.