With vaccination efforts gathering pace and spring finally springing, conversations are turning once again to the grand return to the office.
In India, where lockdowns are already easing, indie shops are weeks and months ahead of their counterparts in the UK and US. As they tentatively return from the home office, can we learn from their progress?
We posed that question to chief executives of two of India’s leading indie agencies – Sideways and Famous Innovations – and had them share their perspectives on getting back.
Abhijit Avasthi is the founder of Sideways, which he founded in 2015. According to Avasthi, “some professions have had to adapt a bit more drastically than others during the pandemic and agencies are among them.”
The ad industry thrives on people coming together to create magic – by way of brainstorming sessions, research or creative execution, he adds. Managing the magic without physical interaction has been challenging for Sideways. “Maybe software folks and accountants can go about it normally, not us agency folks,” Avasthi says.
A firm believer in people coming together, in his view, a thumbs-up sign on a Zoom Call can never replace the warmth and positive affirmation of a pat on the back from a boss for a job well done, or a hi-five with a colleague.
Which is why the agency is already back to 50% strength in the office, with half the team in on alternate days, all in line with proper protocols. Everyone is masked up even inside the office, he says. Sideways’ has established further ground rules: “When someone comes from out of town, they stay home for five days. If there’s even a minor cough/tiredness, you stay home. We’re encouraging people to pool transport and come so they stay in a bubble.”
“The difference in output is so apparent from what it was a few months back,” Avasthi shares. The only permanent outcome, in his view, will be the acceptance and faith in the flexibility of working methods should a need arise, and also a little more respect for people’s time. On the client front, his experience has been a good one: “The clients have been very understanding and supportive, by and large.”
”Almost all honoured their pending financial commitments to us on time to keep us going, though work was at a standstill for many,” he shares.
Being an indie made it easier to come up with our own mechanisms, says Avasthi, and the biggest advantage is the option to choose what to do physically, and what to do remotely.
Raj Kamble is the founder of the indie agency Famous Innovations. For Kamble, the single biggest change in agency culture in the wake of the pandemic has been the integration of mainline and digital.
In just six months, agencies became living, breathing, and walking digital organizations. Once the dust settles, Kabmle says it will be interesting to see the impact of this on digital-only agencies who could never build a good creative team, or on creative-only agencies who fell behind in going digital.
The other impact of the pandemic has been the erasure of geographic barriers. During the pandemic, the team worked with agency teams and brands in London, New York, Amsterdam, Japan and Germany. With everyone working from home, it didn’t really matter who was where; staff could work as a single global team with many partners and brands. It leveled the playing field for Famous Innovations to play on the global level, a shift Kamble hopes is permanent.
Coping strategies included daily morning calls with his core team throughout the WFH, to connecting with the whole agency – 150+ people for a biweekly chilling session. The agency took advantage of the situation and connected with industry leaders from across the world for inspiring Zoom sessions, he adds.
In his office, the core team is coming in on alternate days, even as many of their multi-national clients get back to the office. “As long as we take all necessary precautions and don't overcrowd our offices, I think it’s OK to come back”, says Kamble.
Famous Innovations’ indie status allowed it more speed and freedom to take decisions and make quick changes, says Kamble. While network rivals were cutting down on staff, he claims to have spent lockdown months hiring new people and strengthening the shop’s digital and technology assets.
“We were also able to take some emotional decisions, which I would not have been able to if I was working in a network agency,” he says. ”Almost six months ago, during the toughest period, we actually increased all our junior people's salaries to help them cope with this situation. We did not lay off a single employee and increased our overall staff by 20%.”
Advertising is a ”heart business more than a brain business,” believes Kamble. He concludes: “If you want people to put their heart into the work, you have to invest emotionally with them, their families and their life.”