The pandemic is an accelerant, not a matchstick: Tarun Rai on the difference between the two.

We caught up with Tarun Rai, Wunderman Thompson South Asia’s Chairman and Group CEO, for an update on the agency, as India emerges from lockdown.


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In India, spending on traditional media was as high as 70% in 2019. Some of the leading FMCG companies were spending as much as 75% of their media budgets on TV alone. And pre-pandemic, while digital spending was growing at 30%, forecasters still expected digital spending to overtake TV only a few years later. The pandemic, however, has changed that in a short span of time. New reports indicate that digital spend will exceed TV as early as next year.  

Tarun’s view is that COVID and the ensuing lockdown has brought forward the transformation timeline, not caused it.

“The pandemic is an accelerant, not a matchstick. It has not necessarily lit any new fires but has certainly made the slowly burning, small fires into big, raging ones. It has sped upshifts we were already experiencing in the marketing industry and the wider economy. This was most pronounced in digital and tech where two years of tech adoption were compressed into two months.”

So, what does this mean for brands in the region?

“Clients were already grappling with how their brand delivers a clear, consistent message through the multiple communication partners. And now, even more, pressing is the contraction of marketing budgets, which necessitates consolidation and working with fewer partners. The need for  an agency like ours that can use its diverse capabilities across data, technology, digital, e-commerce, and, of course, mainline communication has been made more acute since the pandemic.”

“Within a category, coming out of recession, the recovery of some brands will be faster than the others, and that will depend on how they navigated the period of the crisis and how they come out of it - which will essentially separate the ‘boys from the men’ - what we call ‘bounce back velocity’. How quickly you are going to bounce back will depend on how you manage coming out of the crisis and what you have done during that period. Have you kept the conversations going with consumers, or have you abandoned them? Have you been visible, done relevant things? And as you come out of it, are you spending enough? Good brands invest and don’t stay silent. Media rates are down, and competition is less, you have the advantage of what we term ESOV (excess share of voice).  This ESOV will translate to greater market share. What we are telling our clients is that this is not the time to pull punches, this is the time to invest, the festive season is upon; thus, there is pent-up demand, and this is the period that is going to separate the smarter companies from the others in a particular category.”

A growing number of brands have recalibrated their strategies and turned to agencies for integrated, end-to-end solutions. Wunderman Thompson’s 50 new business wins across the group in the last six months, many from our existing clients is evidence of this.

“I was surprised to discover that some of our retail clients’ revenues were still 90-95% brick and mortar, so, under lockdown, 95% of their revenue just vanished. This shows that when something is working, there is a degree of inertia to diversify. The pandemic has demonstrated that an omnichannel strategy has to be in place, not just to manage exceptional crisis, but because the opportunities are there and growing. E-commerce is one of Wunderman Thompson’s strengths globally and in India. We have been able to help clients move into that space.”

Wunderman Thompson’s mix of integrated business solutions with creativity is doing exceedingly well. The agency produces amazing creative work, proving that a focus on digital and speed of delivery doesn’t mean compromising on creativity, just the opposite. In India, they recently bagged 12 blue elephants, 1 bronze elephant, and 38 baby elephants at the Kyoorius Creative Awards for their work on Lux, Facebook India, Turtle Limited, and The Times of India. They were the only full-service Indian agency to be ranked in the ‘Most awarded agencies in APAC’ of the Drum’s ‘World Creative Rankings Report’ and just this week won further prizes at the ET Shark Awards.

Perhaps one reason for this success is Wunderman Thompson’s understanding of the complexity of the Indian market. As Tarun says, “there are many Indias.” In order to be a great marketer, you have to be sensitive to the array of cultures inside the country and authentically connect with them.

During a period of crisis, brands have to be empathetic, not just saying, but doing things for their consumers. Our ‘Big Bang of Do’ study talks about how businesses and brands will have to be more empathetic, authentic, responsible, and creative in their actions and their communication. Brands can’t ignore the current context; tonality has to be right. Advertisers have to recognize and balance optimism with reality and empathy. Consumers today just don’t want a product; they want a ‘product solution.’ 

Our concluding topic was on the role brands play in helping people.

“Every brand is now a health brand”, meaning that as we emerge and resume some elements of pre-lockdown life, brands, in just about every category, now must convey messages of safety, best practice, and assurance. “Brands have a responsibility to people, so now as we open-up and enter the festive season in India, brand messages must encourage people to ‘celebrate responsibly’ and mask-up!”.

Brands have a role to play in reminding people to be responsible. One of the campaigns I am proud of was our ‘#MaskIndia’ campaign for The Times of India, the country’s leading English daily, encouraging people to wear masks and to make their own mask as, initially, surgical masks were in short supply and a priority for healthcare workers. The 360-degree campaign got a lot of visibility and attention, including a tweet from our Prime Minister. While brands are doing their bit, creative agencies like ours should also be involved in raising issues of public concern. We did a lot of work, including on domestic violence, with our senior women creative leaders who partnered NGOs and support groups to prevent and to report domestic violence that had seen a sudden spike during the lockdown”.

AdForum would like to thank Tarun Rai for the open and frank discussion – we learned a lot. Thank you also to Rohini Saldanha, for organizing the interview – much appreciated.

 

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