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Despite it being a tough year for businesses worldwide, Anupriya Acharya, CEO, Publicis Groupe, South Asia is upbeat about India. Given the country’s capability for tech-led expertise and immense STEM talent, India’s importance to world, she says, is only growing, especially in the wake of the digital acceleration. Acharya speaks about recovery in the pandemic, new businesses and people-centric initiatives at Publicis

Q] The second Covid wave this year proved to be more damaging than the first in terms of personal loss and overall sentiment. How much did it impact the ad industry considering there was a general sense of despair for over two months?
The Jan-March period went off well and things seemed to be getting well on track. Then suddenly, this second wave gripped the country. We saw the numbers rise exponentially in our people too. Overnight, we ramped up all possible support to help our people and their families overcome these tough times, from hospital beds to oxygen. While most recovered, we did lose some of our people and some of our staff members lost their near and dear ones. Overall, it was definitely a tough time for all. But now, things are fine and more importantly, the vaccination drive is in full swing. Everybody should be fully vaccinated soon enough.
On the business front, things were way better than the last year. There are two key reasons for that: first, the lockdowns were less severe as compared to last year, and second, the businesses were way more geared up to deal with lockdowns and the limitations on the operations. The decline has been not only less steep but also shorter. Some reversal trends could be seen in June itself. If the vaccination stays on track and we can avoid any more severe pandemic waves, I believe business would revive sooner than later.

Q] What initiatives did your agency take to keep the trust and hope of your co-workers alive in the time of crisis?
2020 underscored the importance of strength and resilience in the face of uncertainty, chaos, and fragility. We realised even more that while we cannot control circumstances and events, we can certainly control our response and hence their impact on us. And so, with people being our first and foremost priority always, early this year we launched PubFit - a holistic programme that prepares the entire organisation towards fulfilling health, wellness, and fitness journey. The whole premise of this programme is, one, there is a mind-body-spirit connection; two, strong resilient people make for strong anti-fragile organisations, happier families, and more resilient societies; and three, the more we make health and wellness a priority proactively, the better our people will be able to cope with stress and uncertainty.
Having said that, the second wave was quite ruthless, and we had to intensify our efforts way beyond what we did last year. We set up a round-the-clock task force for immediate and urgent medical assistance, brought in extensive healthcare coverage with some of the best hospitals of India, put in place tie-ups with a wide range of hotels for quarantine facilities, augmented medical leave and organised vaccination drives for our people and their families.
Our efforts continue but I am happy and relieved that the situation came under control in 6-8 weeks. And the way both the global teams as well as the multitude of volunteers that came forward locally, to help co-workers was also very heartening!

Q] Has this overall sense of despair prompted most brands to suspend pitches and extend contracts with the incumbent agencies? How has it affected the prospects of adding new businesses to your kitty?
Just like people, businesses also survive tough times. Innumerable companies both globally and in India have survived wars, calamities, etc. So, thinking that despair will mean people will stop shouldering the requirements and responsibilities of the business is a fallacy. In fact, all leaders carry the responsibility not only of their people but also of the business and its survival. Hence, yes, some pitches did get postponed especially if they were more of the routine reviews –but many pitches which were important for the health of the business, did happen and continue to happen, both globally and locally.
In fact, the pandemic altered consumer behaviour and market realities and this has led many clients to review existing relationships across the globe as they seek partners that can help them pivot to new business solutions, evolved consumer experiences, commerce, and data capabilities etc. Hence many more pitches are happening at a global level. We all have learned the fine art of pitching and onboarding virtually right through the lockdowns! In fact, we had a very strong new business run last year across various lines and that has continued this year too.

Q] Arthur Sadoun, the Chairman of the Management Board, in a recent shareholder’s meeting confirmed that good trends continued in Q1 2021. He specified that organic growth for the 2nd quarter should be at the high end of the range indicated at the time of the publication of Q1 results, which is +8% to +10%. What is India’s contribution to this growth trajectory?
Well now, the H1 results are published in any case and indeed the organic growth has surpassed pre-pandemic levels. Organic growth for the first half of the year was 9.7%, versus -8% during the first six months of 2020. Q2 organic growth was at 17.1%, against -13% for the same period last year.
India continues to be a key contributor but more importantly, India has emerged as a massive capability centre for digital and tech-led deep expertise across marketing and business transformation solutions. Large mandates across global brands are being managed here and as the role of data and tech rises in advertising and marketing, the fact that India has immense STEM talent, entrepreneurial talent and is also one of the most vibrant content ecosystems, I believe the industry here will become more and more important to the global world.

Q] Your global leaders have claimed that Marcel came to the rescue for many employees, helping them retain their jobs. Is this true for India too? What has been Marcel’s contribution in helping you cope with the pandemic-led crisis?
Marcel has been a revolutionary platform that has brought alive innovation and collaboration and the pandemic heightened its adoption and benefits. Adoption in India was upwards of 90% in less than a month of its launch! It became a unifying space, with quarterly plenary sessions led by Arthur Sadoun, helping immensely in maintaining a regular link with people across the network during this period of uncertainty. It continues to benefit our people, through individual support programmes that look after their physical and mental health, access to many online training programmes, or learnings and best practices across markets or collaboration on client assignments across geographies. Specifically, for retaining jobs too, it has been a wonderful platform. The focus throughout the pandemic has been on harnessing internal capabilities first. Marcel helped work stay within Publicis when one needed extra resources on any aspect of work by enabling quick matching of right resources and availability.
An interesting feature is ‘Gigs’ which is short-term project work, up for grabs on Marcel. It could be anything, from strategically aiding a client’s marketing transformation programme to something as simple as taking photographs of your meal for a campaign in need of assets.
The platform gave us the opportunity to cut through historic silos and create flexible teams. Through Marcel and Bench, we’ve managed to save as many as 200 jobs in India alone; efficiently re-deploying talent in areas where they are needed the most.

Q] There have been some elevations and rejigs in Publicis India recently. Can you share more about the launch of PubHub? How is it different from other marketing tools?
The launch of PubHub was on the cards for two reasons. One is the market context. There is an exponential increase in the demand for scaled marketing transformation solutions as businesses embrace technology, digital and data solutions to reclaim growth. And while there are solution providers across the whole gamut of consulting, agencies, specialists, the ability to weave together the right components of creative, data and technology effectively is limited.
And two, as I said earlier, for Publicis Groupe, India is a massive capability centre for digital and tech-led deep expertise across marketing and business transformation solutions. And so, there is an established scaled capability and expertise already present here. It’s easy for us to expand it to the domestic market too.

Q] IPL, which is one of the big-ticket events for most brands, had to be called off midway. In what ways did it affect business?
The decision to halt IPL temporarily, was absolutely the right thing to do, given the circumstances. But it was doing very well and so when it got called off midway, it was indeed a tough situation especially for brands that had time-bound messaging or planned launches around the IPL. Brands for whom the summer period was critical, had to scout for other impactful properties at the last minute in the same period. Now it is expected to take place between Sept 19th – Oct 15th. This also coincides with the peak advertising season; we expect it to do well.

Q] Which sectors suffered the most during this second wave? What would be the path to recovery for them?
The sectors most impacted continue to be Hospitality, Tourism, Travel, Retail and Real Estate. At an overall level, however, recovery could be seen as early as June and in fact, there has been a revival of demand for automobiles and two-wheelers too. Good monsoons, investment inflow coupled with accelerated vaccination drive should further help. Furthermore, our recent conversations with numerous CXOs indicate that a year into the pandemic now, most businesses have a clear roadmap on recovery and beyond. There has been a lot of work on reorientation to the next normal.

Q] Now that we are anticipating the third wave, how are you preparing your agency and your clients for the remaining year?
Firstly, I hope that the third wave does not come! However, it is good to be prepared for eventualities. From a people and safety point of view, a lot of our initiatives got conceptualised and activated in the second wave and so the learning curve will be shorter or absent in the next wave if it occurs. We have also proactively focused on vaccinating our people and their families.
We will continue to be cautious there. On the business front, a lot of exciting developments really! The single largest impact of the pandemic has been the acceleration of everything digital and hence quite a few of our products and services around Real identity, Dynamic Creativity, Direct 2 Consumer, Commerce and Performance have seen an absolute explosion in demand. Even though we already have strong talent at scale in these areas, we are focusing even more on talent acquisition and skilling to match up to the demand. There are company-wide initiatives both globally and locally.

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