Disclaimer: The following words will be the regurgitated: pandemic-unprecedented-never-seen-before-cliché after a cliché. So, let’s skip them and jump right in.
The brilliant book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harris mentions how wheat domesticated man and not the other way around as Homo sapiens like to think. Before wheat cultivation, we were foragers and hunters. That meant we went out to look for food and moved to wherever it could be found. As we learnt to cultivate wheat, we stopped leaving our shelters and nomadic life became a rare concept.
Something like this happened to Homo sapiens with Covid-19. We became domesticated. So the question is: Will the idea of leaving our homes in search of a livelihood still make sense or will it become a thing of the past, like foraging for breakfast every morning?
A lot has happened to the Pakistani ad community during Covid-19. One was the case of a major account switching between agencies after winning a pitch led by procurement (in other words, the lowest bid won). The incumbent agency was sent regrets and a handover period. The incoming traffic on LinkedIn from the Islamabad and Lahore areas started resembling rush hour. Plenty of interviews and questions, like “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, must have taken place, But then, what was not supposed to happen, happened. The situation is as convoluted as this last sentence.
According to some sources, the new agencies underbid themselves in order to win accounts and the result was that the required team structure could not be put together within the agreed budget and timeframe. So the incumbent agency ‘won the account back’ as it came second in the bidding. All legally and professionally done. But was it pragmatically done?
The element missing in the negations was a reality check. Inflation has gone up, taxes have gone up, yet agency retainers have gone down and good resources cost good money.
Let’s look at this from another angle. You are a restaurant and what you are selling is cooked food. Ambience, music, experience all come second if the food is not up to the mark. This is the reason why food stalls in Singapore have Michelin stars and queues a mile long. You go back to your favourite place, be it a dhaaba or a posh restaurant because of the taste and quality of the food. What will happen if you run out of ingredients and consequently the chef who works with these ingredients? Apply this to any creative business. Fashion designers, graphic designers, interior designers; every creative business comes under the same umbrella. You cannot sell if you run out of the product. For the creative business, the product is creativity.
Now let’s throw another ingredient into the mix – technology and the efficacy of remote working. A couple of tipping points emerged during Covid-19. The first is the fact that you can now both hire resources from any corner of the world and find an employer from any corner of the world. With services like Upwork and Payooner, platforms to launch a freelance career are freely and legally available to all Pakistanis. This in effect means that companies now have to work harder at retaining their talent.
For the people who made the time to invest in their skills, there is now the possibility of reaching out to anyone for mentoring and advice. A mentor can live across borders and thanks to Zoom meetings there is no need for awkward small talk. The second is that the adage of dress up, show up and occupy desk space (widely accepted in the corporate world) is no longer relevant. Now the people who sat on the sidelines have been sidelined. On any given day you realise that the essential team members who are needed on call are those who manage the work. Fancy titles have become just that and plenty of businesses have realised they have been carrying dead wood. The third are the empty office spaces. While budgets were cut across industries, overheads such as electricity, office kitchens and rents came down for most companies. Bricks and mortar lost their charm overnight and companies that used to pride themselves on their branch networks suddenly started swimming upstream with e-commerce and what was said to require five years took five months to flip the status quo. One more thing that went into a coma was email. WhatsApp took over as the primary platform for official communication. The journey from replying to an email to reacting to a message was short.
How will businesses survive and deliver on their growth targets in this new normal? It surely cannot be back to the old ways; it has to be moving forward. Here is what this mere mortal thinks. (They are my personal views and may never see the light of day in any organisation, but humour me.)
1 Continue remote working and move to smaller offices. Put teams on rotation, have a boardroom handy for meetings and throw some overheads overboard.
2 Identify core teams needed for the work and cultivate remote relationships with consultants and freelancers. This will create more diversity among teams and enrich the work. Such a model will (theoretically) move businesses away from retainer models towards project-based models.
3 Stop taking yourself so seriously. We all know that dressing up doesn’t matter – showing up does. Your physical presence can be easily compensated by your virtual presence in the boardroom.
4 Agility. Nobody knows what is going on. Everyone is making it up as they go along. Then why not be a true nihilist and say: “Yeah, let’s try that”?
5 Don’t be like Hamlet. Avoid paralysis by analysis at any cost. To be or not to be is not the question anymore. Get it done; you can make it perfect later.
Easier said than done, right? Who knows? May be it is not.
Atiya Zaidi is ECD, BBDO Pakistan & Co-founder, Shero Space, a career coaching and mentoring company. firstname.lastname@example.org