Revival & Survival: The opportunity is much larger than the problem - Praful Akali

Prepared or not, India has now moved on to the ‘Unlock – 1’ phase as an exit strategy for the two-month long lockdown period. It is definitely a changed world that India is entering now, and we will have to learn to live with the Coronavirus in our midst.

A lot has been written, debated and discussed over how much the economy and business operations have been hit. We, at Adgully, aim to look at the revival story. What does it take to jumpstart an economy? That is the great narrative that we are following up as part of our ‘Revival and Survival’ series.

Praful Akali, Founder & MD, Medulla Communications, remains upbeat about India’s economic revival and expects net benefit from the changes triggered by the pandemic and lockdown. He is hopeful that the shift from China for Make in India over a 12-18 month period will net out the negative impact of the crisis.

What does the new normal look like? How much has the COVID-19 crisis disrupted business operations?

Of course, COVID-19 has disrupted business operations. A number of us were caught with our pants down. However, while we are rushing to put our pants back on, it’s also a good time to look at what has been exposed. Is it a good time to send our underwear for cleaning? Or just buy new underwear? Or rush to the gym? A good, clean, hard look at ourselves and our businesses is the order of the day. Damn! My metaphors will get me sued one day.

In the marketing industry, it forces us to think long-term, focus on strategy rather than the dreary, reactive steps that we sometimes allow to define marketing. In advertising, we have been lucky – as a back-end service industry, business has not come to a complete halt as it has for most front-end services and manufacturing based industries. However, that increases the challenge – how do we deliver in the short-term under lockdown conditions, but also prepare ourselves in the long-term for the changes that every industry, including ours, must go through.

What should be the blueprint for a post-COVID-19 economy?

To me, the most critical point to remember is that the opportunity is much larger than the problem. With colleagues in advertising and marketing, we have this joke that the CIO, CEO, CMO and CFO put together have not been able to drive the digital change even over several years that COVID-19 has achieved in a few months.

At an economic level, we’ve all read the WhatsApp forwards that explain how economies like Japan, Germany, South Korea were built out of crises. For once, these forwards make sense. Closer home, we’ve all seen how the Sindhi community has grown into one of the wealthiest communities (on a per capita basis) after being killed or pushed out of their homes penniless during the partition.

So, if we do look at it as an opportunity, it’s a good time to list a few of the opportunities available to India as an economy:

  1. The shift in manufacturing from China – personally, I was looking for a ‘Made in India’ smartphone and I realised that more flagship phones are being manufactured in India than was the case even a year back when I was hunting for phones for my wife and nephew. The journey has started and will hopefully accelerate.
  2. Perception drives investment far more than numbers. This is true for foreign investments in India too. Accordingly, the rebuilding of perception of India as a responsible and reliable country post-COVID-19 is a big opportunity.
  3. With economies over the word shifting to digital, organisations involved in the content, creative and development of these platforms, including advertising agencies have a global expansion opportunity.

How are you strategising for the remaining quarters of this Financial Year 2021?

Medulla is working with all our clients to build two sets of strategies – one to rebuild communication for 2020 (or FY 2021) without tweaking communication objectives and strategies. And two, use the experience in 2020 as learnings to relook at strategies for 2021 and beyond, based on what we believe is the new normal for each industry.

In Pharma advertising, for example, with medical reps being unable to promote brands to doctors post the lockdown, there has been an incredibly accelerated shift to digital communication to doctors. So, through digital media, we now potentially have 8-10 contacts with a doctor each month instead of 1-2 that happened face-to-face. Each of these contacts has to be value-adding to be noticed and not the standard brand-centric communication. However, a digital-first strategy needs to be developed afresh – segment doctors, define their customer journeys, build new content planks to move them through the customer journey. Only then are we in a position to build digital first communication and content.

In the consumer healthcare space that Medulla operates in, ‘healthification’ of every segment is the order of the day, be it food brands, personal care brands, even consumer durables. In this sector, currently Medulla is involved in product innovation workshops, exercises that help existing brands build health-based claims, helping brands reach out to healthcare influencers – doctors, gym instructors, dieticians, chemist retailers, et al – through short-term communication and development of long-term initiatives/ platforms.

How do you see businesses and the Government working together to undo the lockdown disruption and address the market uncertainties?

The glorious impact of the lockdown has been that everyone is in this together – the central and state Governments have been working together like never before, as have employees and businesses, and of course, as have businesses and the Government. Initially, one did have a sense that some Governments were shifting responsibility on to businesses by trying to regulate employee retention and salary protection. Eventually, the Governments have realised that you can’t plug a hole with concrete from another hole. And businesses have stopped passing on the buck to Governments, so we’re getting into a better space. Hopefully, these good changes will be resilient and are here to stay.

How do you visualise the economy and your sector a year later? How much would it have recovered by then?

I believe the global economy would be deeper into a crisis at the end of the year as the impact of unemployment, debt crisis, or market stagnancy in certain industries will start widening the depression. None of us in recent decades have seen the world simply shut down for over a quarter, and the domino effect that this will have can barely be imagined.

As far as India is concerned, I am personally optimistic. I am hoping that the shift from China for Make in India over a 12-18 month period will net out the negative impact of the crisis. Or that being a consumption-led economy, unlike other export-oriented economies in the East, we should be in a better position to weather the storm. Or that the improvement in global perception of India during the crisis will help drive investments. Or that the smoothening of the agricultural supply chain during the lockdown will persist beyond and help the rural economy drive the urban unlike any time before in the past. Of course, since we had a depressed fourth quarter in FY 2020, the final quarter of FY 2021 will appear that much better.

Medulla’s sector, of course, is healthcare. This covers brands in consumer health, personal care/ food brands that provide some value on health, healthcare delivery, pharma and more. Of these, healthcare delivery will undergo a big change with the use of technology to facilitate proactive care, management of chronic diseases, remote clinical support, and more. Some brands that do not adapt will shrink, but this is also an opportunity since consumers and the Government will definitely increase healthcare spending as a whole. For every other sector that Medulla supports, I would expect net benefit from the changes triggered by the pandemic and lockdown. In other words, for those of us who realise that opportunity > problem, we will be in a good position.


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