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Isolated, but not insulated: How creative honchos are making the most of WFH

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to adopt new and innovative ways of staying afloat and operational as they ask their employees to work from home. While there are certain professions where the workforce needs to be on the ground – such as medical personnel, essential services, news media, police and administration, judiciary, shops & commerce, pharmacies, etc., quite a few professions have taken to working from home – viz., advertising, corporate houses, tech companies, other media.

The advertising industry, which thrives on working odd hours and collective brain storming, is faced with the challenge of ideating while working from remote locations. Maintaining the creative workflow going uninterrupted is resulting in out-of-the-box thinking from creative honchos.

Keeping this in mind, Adgully sought to let some of the leading creative names in India do the talking on ‘Managing Creativity While Working from Home’, in our #TwitterChat series, held on March 27, 2020. Taking part in the #TwitterChat were:

  • Naila Patel, Executive Director at Mirum India 
  • Swati Bhattacharya, Chief Creative Officer, FCB Ulka
  • Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, 82.5 Communications
  • Senthil Kumar, Chief Creative Officer, Wunderman Thompson
  • Ashish Khazanchi, Managing Partner, Enormous Brands
  • Satbir Singh, Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Thinkstr

Naila Patel, who moderated the session, started off by asking the panellists, “Creativity and work from home, how well do the twain meet?”

Swati Bhattacharya replied by saying there is nothing unusual about working remotely. “Everything happens in the real time and when we are on platforms like Zoom or Microsoft. I am able to find what is interesting to them and what they are polite about. However, I am not just able to hear my colleagues, but look at their faces!”

Expressing his views Sumanto Chattopadhyay said that the presence of the screen makes one focus better. “Things are more structured and people have to come well prepared. For me, WFH is helping me think, while video conferencing is great for integrating the team thoughts. To get some creative juices one should informally conduct VC sessions,” he added.

Meanwhile, Senthil Kumar had an interesting comparison – “think E-mail chains and WhatsApp groups”, he said. According to him, managing remote work is similar, but more responsive and responsible, since team members are isolated from each other. He further said, “We are isolated, but not insulated. Collective collision of insights and ideas in writers’ room and the brain storming is missing, but the ideas can ignite from anywhere.”

Ashish Khazanchi likes the energy of the teams around, the live discussion and the pace at which things are happening. He shared that he has been working from home for over 10 days now and according to him, it is allowing people to do deep work. “The cubicles in the offices were never meant for creative work!” he quipped.

“We have completed three weeks of working from home,” said Satbir Singh, adding, “We are now used to it and that he was wondering if going back will be the same again.” On a lighter side, Singh mentioned that it is not uncommon in the advertising “to go home, change into pyjamas and crack a campaign overnight, which I have done in my 25 years of business!”

Here, Sumanto Chattopadhyay shared how he once adjusted to a telephonic call presentation under protest. “We had to tell the client to move the slide to No. X. Now, it is much better with shared screens as one is able to see each other,” he added.

The discussion then shifted to how does one tackle remotely controlled pitches?

For Chattopadhyay, this is working well as the work is being integrated over the net. Technology is also helping with the use of some project management apps so everyone knows what everyone else is doing. He said, “Creative types hated this, but it is practical when one cannot interact with each other.”

According to Swati Bhattacharya, there are no specific sets of dos’ and don’t, the same rules are followed when working from home. “Our secret sauce still remains the same, which is defined by the brand purpose,” she added. On the other hand, Senthil Kumar said, “We cannot afford to ignore any opportunity as that would close the door on an idea that could have happened. While we have shut the door on the virus from entering but our heart and homes are open for the next big challenge in a brand’s life.” 

Making his point on the pitches, Ashish Khazanchi noted that businesses are adopting a wait and watch approach. He pointed out that it is difficult to predict when normalcy will return or what will be the new normalcy. “It is not the right time to take any strategic call as that would be short sighted. Any brand that needs anything more than tactical must really wait,” he felt.

Agreeing with him, Chattopadhyay said, “We are adapting on a minute-to-minute basis and all we need to have is that mindset to ride this storm. Our pitches are happening remotely and we are learning how to use the apps and relevant software for the pitches which we used to outsource earlier.” Sharing his point of view, Satbir Singh said that they participated in a pitch recently, which was handled remotely over Zoom. The first round of this pitch was face-to-face, so people were familiar with each other. “It is a bit uncomfortable to talk to a laptop, especially when people turn off their video to save the bandwidth,” he admitted.

On the question as to how to keep the team motivated in these times, Swati Bhattacharya said, “You motivate people the same way as offline – respond quickly to the feedback of your team so that you do not lose time. Speed is of importance for me and that’s the golden rule.” On the other hand, Chattopadhyay noted that WFH is forcing people to do a bit more. If he or she is a non-self-starter, they normally ask for more time and extension. With the use of VCs, where it is scheduled to a particular time, one has to be ready, otherwise they will be in a spot if they miss it.

Senthil Kumar had an interesting point here, when he said, “Being creative is the primary passion in this business of ideas. Inspiration and motivation should come from within, so if you are not self-motivated, you can’t be creative. All the hardware and software have been shifted to our team members, with Wi-Fi activated in most homes and we now prepared for the long haul for all our clients and brands across the country.” Ashish Khazanchi stressed on the importance of continuing to chat with one’s teams, even aside from the work and the projects that they are involved in. “We are using this time to get everyone to think beyond their line roles. Constantly being in touch helps,” affirmed Satbir Singh, adding, “The current situation has impacted everyone – both agencies and clients – and everyone is cool right now. We have also noticed that there is a dip in the number of active briefs and deadlines haven’t been a problem!”

As far as clients’ reaction to their agencies working from home is concerned, Satibir Singh pointed out that everyone is in the same boat, if not the conference room. He noted, “The welcome change that I am noticing is that people are far more relaxed and in a good mood. An official call is always welcome.” Ashish Khazanchi also agreed that the easy pace seems to have done everyone a lot of good. “Imagine being within an earshot of your six-year-old daughter and being anything other than the Santa Claus that you are in her eyes. No Q3 target is worth that price!”

“Currently, most businesses and brands are seriously impacted and we have calls every day with key stakeholders and clients on the current challenges for the brand. We have startopd planning for the various best cases and worst case ahead,” said Senthil Kumar. Sumanto Chattopadhyay averred that the current situation is affecting clients. “Before the lockdown, a few were insisting on the face-to -face when we wanted to do VC. But now, of course, everyone is on the same boat – or you could say, united against the same enemy.” “Both clients and agencies are facing the COVID-19 situation,” said Swati Bhattacharya. She noted that the world is quickly beginning to realise that what is truly powerful and valuable in this time of crisis is creativity and that one cannot lock down ideas. “Our end objective should be to help navigate our customers with ideas that will help them during this uncertain and stressful time,” she affirmed.

The role of technology cannot be denied as the world shifts to WFH. When asked about the tech and tools used to help in the creative process, Ashish Khazanchi shared, “At the moment we are living out of Zoom meetings. We are also evaluating other project management tools such as Slack, Asana and Jira for better and smooth working of the projects flows and resource management.

Swati Bhattacharya, too, mentioned about using Zoom and sharing her experiences on using the tool, she said, “I had not used it before, but now I quite like it because I am able to see everyone, even if there are 40 on that platform.” Along with Zoom, Sumanto Chattopadhyay is also using Microsoft Teams, which have worked well so far. “We are also experimenting with project management software like Good Day and Basecamp to organise the workflow and know what each team member is busy with at a given time.”

On the other hand, Senthil Kumar said, “We are in the business of ideas and use every single tool and medium of communication in the brand’s journey. While no one has invented any new tool for WFH, we have learnt to employ the best tools for managing remotely by using Video Conferencing, Google Hangouts and WhatsApp groups.”

“The technology that creative people have needed to work from home has not changed a bit (paper & pencil)!” according to Satbir Singh, adding, “It’s the meeting bit that requires modern technology – Zoom for larger groups, WhatsApp for smaller ones.”

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