EXCLUSIVE | Ashish Bhasin, Dentsu: Resilience, Ambition, Contentment

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For this very special exclusive, we caught up with Ashish Bhasin, CEO – APAC and Chairman – India, Dentsu , one of the most respected thought leaders in the entire APAC region on all things media, marketing and, of course, digital. The objective was to bring to every professional who has emerged — scathed or unscathed — from 2020, the most calamitous year in living human memory, the immense benefits of Ashish’s illuminating insights, wisdom and guidance for the new year we are in. So that every professional across levels can learn, benefit, survive and grow in the wake of the pandemic. Which, everyone is praying to see soon.

In this conversation over a Zoom call with Pavan R Chawla, Ashish Bhasin, as is his wont, shares a truly illuminating account of his vision, strategy and response to the pandemic over the past year. He speaks of re-evaluating, re-prioritizing, and much more.

The man who believes in a strong balance of contentment and ambition, and in doing what’s best for a client instead of pushing a sell-only agenda, shares his unwavering focus on retaining his network’s enormous advantage of industry leadership in solid digital capability through experts for each area of digital marketing – something he had both, driven and was driven by, from the get-go. Ashish also shares his vision, philosophy and strategy to demolish silo-ization with the solid-value-delivering OneP&L approach.

So, from Ashish — who, in 2008, brought Dentsu Media into India a full 88 years after the first big international giant had arrived, and since, has led DAN India in its race to the solid Number 2 in India, and now leads the re-christened Dentsu across the entire APAC region – here are insights  we are confident will benefit every single professional and student in the space of building brands. And in the personal space, hopefully inspire them to re-caliberate priorities to navigate life in the year ahead, and beyond.

Read on.

2020 was truly the biggest year on every count. Was it the same for you?

It definitely was. It was the best  and the worst of years, at the same time.

It was definitely one of the worst years, because nobody in this generation would have ever seen a year like it. In my working lifetime of 33 years, I’ve gone through at least four or five recessions — some of them pretty deep — slowdowns, etcetera. But something like this where you were locked down and it was globaland with a very real threat to life…? Never seen anything like it. In fact, you slowly recalled the kind of stories that your grandparents, or your parents told you about, right? But I think even the last few generations hadn’t experienced something like this. So to that extent, it was a very unique year. Obviously, there was a lot of suffering, and many people lost their lives, many lost their livelihoods and suffered a lot in this period. So that’s what has made it the worst of years.

But I think it was also the best of years, because it will be remembered in history as a landmark, almost like a pre corona-  and a post-corona time, because it got us to re-evaluate many things we were – mindlessly, sometimes — doing for decades. Business travel, for instance. Of course business travel will come back, but I’m not sure as much of it was needed as we saw happening in the past. I look after APAC, and China was the first country impacted. We’ve been grappling with this from about a year now, just before the Chinese New Year when China went into lockdown.

A year ago, I would not have worked from home even for a day. And if you’d’ve asked me to imagine a scenario where 15,000 people in our region would be working from home, I would have laughed at you. And overnight, we were forced to do so. And I think we managed quite well in the end. I  mean, that’s the good thing about human beings — we are very resilient.

That’s the good thing about human beings – we are very resilient: Ashish Bhasin

When you’re faced with adversity, you find ways around it. And I think it also gave people time to reset, time to re-evaluate. We keep talking about work-life balance, but you never get down to doing anything different unless some big events happen. And I think this was one of those big events, which got most people to re-evaluate. I personally, haven’t spent this much time at home in the last 30-plus years; there hasn’t been a week when I haven’t travelled. And now it’s been nine or ten months since I’ve taken a flight. The amount of time I’ve spent with my family, with my children, doing things that I want to do.

So yes, it’s been a sort of re-discovery period in that time. It’s been the best of years and the worst of years, mixed into one, but the important thing is to take lessons and learnings from it, and apply those for the future, taking the good parts. And if there were some silly things that we were doing in the past, we shouldn’t repeat those in the future.

Did the lockdown and the new reality of socially- and physically distanced working and, indeed, living, lead to greater clarity, a new perception, perhaps…? Has there been more empathy, more caring? How did you react when you first realized the lockdown was here to stay? The first shock, perhaps?

More than shock, it spurred you to immediate action. I think we went through different phases – the first priority was to look for safety, and for continuity of business. We weren’t geared up to enable 13,000 to 15,000 people to work from home virtually overnight. It meant things like reaching computers to people, making sure bandwidths and things like software safety were in place.

Also making sure your teams and people were safe, because in the initial phases, particularly, there wasn’t enough information. And we were following what we have in place – business-continuity planning. If in a key geographical area, some part of a business isn’t physically operating, then, continuity planning helps you pull out a backup in some other geography, and you can continue to press ahead. But in this instance, every country, every market, every office had to suddenly be shut down, and was physically not available!

I think the IT guys did a phenomenal job. And they are, to my mind, the unsung heroes of this process. Because thanks to them, we actually didn’t feel that much of pain in the end. I mean, work started resuming very quickly. So that was the first phase for safety that the pandemic, it’s physical threats and the lockdown enforced.

What were your next set of priorities, the next phases of evaluation, strategizing, prioritizing?

The second phase we quickly went into, was to evaluate business decisions. I mean, there were lots of costs and expenses — whether real estate costs, travel costs, people-related costs… and you had to conserve cash, because that is what will determine survival and figure out how do you continue serving your clients. And in many instances, clients’ businesses had virtually dropped to zero — particularly in a market like India, where the lockdown was very severe.

Then we came to the third phase. Where you take the blows, and then you figure out, okay, now, how do we emerge from here? How do you very quickly bring back things to normalcy in the new normal? So you accept the constraints, and in light of the new reality,  how do you make the best out of it? Which are the areas you add greater focus to, which ones do you de-prioritize, and leave which parts of businesses. Like the events business or the out-of-home business, or the cinema business, all of which were deeply impacted.

On the other hand, the digital business was much less impacted, and in fact, actually grew by the end of the year, even exceeding the previous year’s growth. So how do you change your priorities while always keeping your clients top of mind, and ensuring you make your re-prioritization always work for your clients. That became the challenge of the next round. And I must say  I’m very proud of the way our teams really stepped up in these very difficult times.

That’s really commendable, and we too believe the year of the pandemic had us drawing from our deepest reserves of grit and determination. As you very correctly observed, ‘we humans are very resilient’. What lessons did you take and have kept, as leader of a business with teams that together have an enormous impact?

One of the lessons for me was that in this period of social distancing, proximity – even if through the virtual mode — was critically important. As a leader, you needed to communicate more, not less, because you know, everybody was in a state of anxiety: ‘Will I have my job? Will my client leave me? Is it safe? Am I even going to survive this – both, personally and physically. And also economically?’ And so many other anxieties.

And there were hard decisions that had to be taken; every organization had to take hard decisions. But the more you talk, the more you communicate, I think it communicates a sense of the real togetherness we always felt with our teams; it also communicates comfort to people — that at least we are all in this together. Because I made it very clear to everybody that this is a once-in-a-hundred-years kind of thing, and we must not underrate it; that nobody’s going to get out of it unscathed. But if we stick together, then we’ll probably come out stronger at the other end. That, I think, was a very important phase.

There will be positive economic growth, and with positivity in the economy through good growth, advertising does well. And when this happens, we want to be leaders to grab more than our fair share of it. And the reason I believe we’re best geared for it is because we went significantly more digital than the market and our competitors: Ashish Bhasin

That was a really insightful look through the rear-view mirror at 2020. What do you see through the windscreen, of 2021?

I think this, the fourth phase, is about re-building. Ultimately, India’s a thriving, vibrant economy. Yes, we’ve had a year that’s been a write-off in many ways. But India’s 1.3 billion people are going to buy soaps, toothpastes, bicycles, mopeds, cars, mutual funds, higher education and so on and so forth. I’m very bullish and optimistic about India for the medium run, and for the long run.

There will be positive economic growth, and with positivity in the economy through good growth, advertising does well. And when this happens, we want to be leaders to grab more than our fair share of it. And the reason I believe we’re best geared for it is because we went significantly more digital than the market and our competitors.

In 2019, for example, roughly 19 to 20% of the market was digital, but by then, for the Dentsu International group in India, almost 46% of the revenues came from Digital. We were three, four times more digital than our competitors. And we’re now seeing the benefits of that.

So when I look ahead after we’ve turned into and entered 2021, the fourth phase we are in, is not only about re-prioritizing our business to capture the maximum growth which will come back, but also, equally, about being prepared for some areas that will remain sluggish, so that we can focus more on the high-growth areas.

The one thing this pandemic will do is maybe propel a
more gig-based kind of an economy where advertising
will become more project-based, because I feel that in the short term, the thrust and emphasis will be more on performance and performance-related advertising that delivers quick results in sales, rather than brand-building
in the short term: Ashish Bhasin

Great. And how has the agency-client relationship been through the last year, and how do you look at it evolving in 2021?

We study trends in general, and have seen that the agency-client relationships have been becoming smaller, shorter, and not as long as they used to be.

The one thing this pandemic will do is maybe propel a more gig-based kind of an economy where advertising will become more project-based, because I feel that in the short term, the thrust and emphasis will be more on performance and performance-related advertising that delivers quick results in sales, rather than brand-building in the short term.

In the long term, of course, things will probably come back because you know, the grease of any economy is liquidity. And one thing that the lockdown did was it took away liquidity, it took away that grease, so every client wants very quickly to liquidate their stocks, to have sales so that the cycle can start moving quickly again. There is a little bit of a short-termism in approach which I anticipate will prevail — at least for the next two or three quarters till things kind of stabilize.

And  what kind of advice would you want to give your clients, going ahead?

See, as partners of clients, we have to work with them for their business solutions. I found it strange that there were some people in the midst of lockdown, who, even when there was no distribution happening, were still proposing theories to clients — that they should continue to advertise even in that scenario. The key purpose of advertising is draw people to your shops, to your store. But if the stores are going to be shut, what sense does it make other than for a few essential goods?

So my general approach to clients has been to be their partners to figure out if they’re in as difficult and as unknown a territory as we are. And if we do it together, I think we tend to land at the right place to figure out that what their immediate need is, and then give a solution which meets that need instead of being a very copybook or even clichéd kind of solution that says to them that even in such difficult times, doing advertising will work.

I mean, there has been absolutely no precedent, no historical data to go by. So to just spout those general theories was just not the right thing to do. We partnered clients on a horses for courses basis — whatever was best for their business in those circumstances. First, let’s get to the short-term, and the short term problems, keeping the long-term in mind so that we can build ourselves stronger to ensure the long term can be stronger.

And I’m sure that approach was well received…

I think the clients reciprocated very well. The beauty was that in this period, we won so much of new business once things settled down. There were many pitches, many areas, and from the same clients, we won many more mandates for additional areas of businesses. The good  thing about our group is that we have some of the best and largest digital agencies, creative agencies, media agencies, out-of-home agencies, CXM businesses, etc. So to the same clients, we were able to offer many more solutions.

We took a more business-solution-integrated kind of an approach, which is why I’m a big fan of ‘One P&L’ and ‘One Denstu’ as we speak, because I think over the years, if you see how agencies have evolved, and how clients are now fed up of dealing with 50 different people… they want specialists because it’s all about ‘specialism’. They don’t want the generalists any more. So for example if it is digital, he wants to speak to the digital expert; within that, if it’s performance, he wants to speak to the performance expert. But he’s fed up of having to coordinate between an event agency and a PR agency and a digital agency and so on.

We took a more business-solution-integrated kind of an approach, which is why I’m a big fan of ‘One P&L’ and ‘One Denstu’ as we speak, because I think over the years, if you see how agencies have evolved, and how clients are now fed up of dealing with 50 different people… they want specialists because it’s all about ‘specialism’. They don’t want the generalists any more. So for example if it is digital, he wants to speak to the digital expert; within that, if it’s performance, he wants to speak to the performance expert. But he’s fed up of having to coordinate between an event agency and a PR agency and a digital agency and so on: Ashish Bhasin

So tell us about the overall approach Dentsu is following in the year ahead?

Our approach — and I think that’s been one of our key success factors in India — is to go under One P&L. We will give you a solution that is best for your brand, we don’t have the agenda of silos. And the reason we are able to do it is because we formed this agency afresh in India. I came in and brought Aegis Media into India in 2008, and it later became Dentsu Aegis when Dentsu acquired Aegis. I came in 88 years after my competitors, and for 88  years before that, I think it was in the 1920s, that WPP came in with Hindustan Thomson Associates and Lintas – IPG came in 1930s… I think in 1938. I was coming in 2008.

So I had to do things differently. I think there were two things we did very differently, which really paid off well for us. One was that we foresaw the digital trend well before anyone else and went very heavy into digital and became leaders in that area. Because that’s where the consumer was moving. And today that’s really paying us good dividends.

And the second bit was — I could see that clients were fed up with this silo-ization. So we said we will give all the benefits of specialisms without the hassles of silo-ization, And that was the One P&L philosophy. And I think that worked well, and during the pandemic it got heightened.

One of the things that the pandemic has done is that a lot of these trends were already there. I mean, digital wasn’t a new trend, it was already there we could see it, it was already growing even before the pandemic, but what the pandemic did was that what would have probably taken five years to happen — grandparents coming on to Zoom — would have eventually happened, but may have taken five more years before they did. This forced it to happen in five months, because there was no option, right?

Another example is that of what’s one of the last areas to fall in a big scale for e-commerce; that tends to be groceries, and when groceries start coming online, you can figure out, ‘OK, e-commerce is catching up’. It would have still happened, but it would have taken five more years, maybe, to happen. But when you were locked down, you had no option. You were ordering onions, potatoes, lentils and rice online. The trends got accelerated during COVID-19 and I think that’s where we caught the trends at the right time.

Thanks to this pandemic, geography is now history; it
doesn’t matter where you’re based, right? So there could
be great talent sitting in Meerut or Copenhagen, which I, sitting wherever, in Singapore or Mumbai, can now utilize today, whereas a year earlier, we weren’t even thinking on
those terms: Ashish Bhasin

So, what kind of future do you envision?

It’s up to us to build the future along with our clients. I think it’ll be a much more consolidated future. Because in the past, it was an era of proliferation — more brands, more spread out and many offices, etcetera. I think one thing that the pandemic has shown us is that efficiency is critical, where you have to work smarter, and wherever you can, become more efficient. That you must do, and it will open up a lot of good things. For example, the biggest problem facing the industry in India, I think, is talent. We are all poaching talent from one another; we’ve never concentrated on growing talent.

And that’s been my biggest grouse. Thanks to this pandemic, geography is now history; it doesn’t matter where you’re based, right? So there could be great talent sitting in Meerut or Copenhagen, which I, sitting wherever, in Singapore or Mumbai, can now utilize today, whereas a year earlier, we weren’t even thinking on those terms.

I think it will hopefully open up fresh talent coming in, in a less expensive manner,  because the relationship will become more like a gig-economy — more project-based rather than a permanent overhead that you’re carrying. These are some of the permanent changes we are going to see in the way that we work, in the future of work. It’s going to be very different.

I would like Denstu, not just in India, but also in APAC,  to lead this change. Change is going to happen. You can either keep trying to resist it and get slapped, or you can lead it and therefore form it the way you want to. We’ve opted for the latter, we are going to lead this change and take it in the direction that we want, which is true future proofing.

And I think that’s the good that will hopefully come out of this.

That’s wonderful. And just as how we shall work in the future has got amended, has there been a change for you in the personal space… your idea of happiness?

I think happiness in many ways has to do with satisfaction. You’ve got to be contented with what you have. Because somebody may have a billion dollars, but may still not be contented and therefore will be unhappy. But at the same time, you’ve got to balance it with ambition.

There needs to be a fine balance between contentment
and ambition, and you will then land in the right
zone: Ashish Bhasin

So, to me, happiness is a great balance between contentment and ambition. And being a Punjabi I find that in very simple things — in some good food,  in spending time with my family, in doing things I like to do.

For instance, I used to be a big film-watcher until my college days; every Amitabh Bachchan film I would watch on the first day of its release. But then, after college, I hardly ever watched any films in theatres; I’d watch them only on aeroplanes. I’ve watched the entire Singapore Airlines library or the Jet Airways library of movies, but I wouldn’t watch films or TV. On TV, I’d only watch news; I’m a very avid news watcher.  I didn’t even have a Netflix subscription before the pandemic, but in the last six, eight months, I’ve watched I think more movies and more serials and content than I have in the past 30 years!

So happiness is a lot of these small things — sitting with your family, doing things you like. I’ve lost 11 kilos of weight, which I would never have bothered to do. Happiness is in the small things — it is about being contented and in what you have, without losing the ambition of having more and wanting more.

There needs to be a fine balance between contentment and ambition, and you will then land in the right zone. That’s where you get Happiness. You don’t necessarily get it out of titles and money and power and material things. All of those may be necessary, but you also get it by, you know, friends and family and time that you spend with people.


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