Describing the ongoing lockdown, Swati Bhattacharya, Chief Creative Officer, FCB Ulka says that what was once expected to be just a phase or a chapter has now become a book. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have been a huge eye-opener, she says, as she shares her thoughts on coming to terms with the situation, teamwork through technology and her intimate relationship with her brands. She also has a word of advice for the Government - whatever defence budget we have should go into health and nutrition right now!
Here are excerpts from a conversation with Swati Bhattacharya:
Q] Tell us how the lockdown has been treating you.
The lockdown is now no longer like one phase… what we thought would be a chapter is now becoming a book. So, in the beginning we had an amazing spring. So, one could enjoy nature and feel the earth shrugging, so to say. Then came a phase when we had to actually confront the scale of suffering of the migrants. We are calling them migrants but they are the workers of India. In that phase, the heroes of India became people like Sonu Sood and I fell in love with Barkha Dutt again. Now we’re at a phase where there are five COVID-positive people where I live. So, suddenly it’s come closer. But one has also walked from that alley of fear into an alley of understanding that we are dealing with microbes, so hands have to be cleaned, the mask has to be worn, and all that - we have to make that into a way of life.
Q] There must have been times of introspection during the lockdown period. What emerges as a stand-out thought from there?
It has been a period of introspection and of adapting to new things. Even working from home… how do you feel connected to people without seeing them? So, I feel the quality of my conversations have improved hugely, because I had reached a point where my conversations were almost like, staccato. Now, I’ve become a big conversation junkie because I’m talking about my feelings. I love the way I’m being able to focus on my feelings or other people’s feelings, in a lot more organic and honest way. I don’t want to lose that post COVID.
Q] In an industry which thrives on people getting together - to ideate, pitch, create and shoot ad films, network, jam, hug, talk and party... what will be the effect of social and physical distancing?
In terms of jamming together, that is still happening. I personally have done two global pitches, and there were people from everywhere. Then I was judging the ANDY awards of the Ad Club, New York and again I was like, “Oh my God, we can judge like that!” So I must say technology has come to the party. It is a practice – the more you do, the easier it becomes. I feel there’s a lot more honesty, because you know the meeting will end at a particular time. The feedback system is better. I’m still learning, but it hasn’t come in the way.
Q] Did the creative process become difficult at any point?
No, because we are practising isolation. As creative people, when we come to the Zoom call, we are bringing something that is better quality. The thought that is cooking in your head, it’s on a slow cooker. So by the time I’m saying something, I’ve nourished it with some silence and thinking. Otherwise, you are only in that tick box mode where you work within a certain schedule. But this is still the first phase. I don’t know how the juniors are feeling because I’m interacting mostly with senior people. The young ones locked up in their barsaatis, probably with a bad water cooler, I don’t know how they are feeling.
Q] If you were to think of your own work over the last few months, what are the campaigns that you would like to call out? And what are the stories you can tell us from there? Times Out and Proud is one…
Yes, Times Out and Proud, done in April last year, is winning now at multiple forums. After that, by the time it was Diwali and Dhanteras, ‘Streedhan’ had happened, which was also quite a riot. Post COVID, there was the launch of Horlicks with the Unilever logo, and it taught me teamwork of a different kind. In a way, it says an amazing thing about human beings that when you trust and you let go, there are bigger, better gifts you get.
Q] In what way do you see the post-COVID workplace evolving in your organization and elsewhere in the industry?
Those trips, which used to be like just pack your bag for one meeting, for a while, they will be gone. We’re still deciding whether we should open up. IPG has said very strictly that we can’t force anybody to come to work. Then if it’s voluntary, how do we manage the numbers? Will it be a few of us who come on one day and then the next day a few of us? In India, the summer is so hot that a central air-conditioning system becomes necessary. One has to be very sure, but we still don’t know if this is the peak or if there’ll be another peak. So a wait and watch approach works so you can minimize risks.
Q] What is your sense of what is on the marketer’s mind? Do you think advertising will have to work doubly hard now to deliver results for the marketer? What do your clients tell you?
Some clients are in the midst of their worst panic attacks because they feel that they were just razed to the ground. Even if you take the Times of India, such a big client, they’ve such a big account, when they say their readership has gone down by 50%.... what do you think that client is going through? I guess once the economy partially opens up, when people start to think a little outside dal chawal, mosquito repellent, sanitiser, floor cleaners, etc., then maybe people will start opening up and advertising. It’s going to be quite a journey. On the other hand, there are my FMCG clients who are actually doing pretty well at this point. So there are all kinds of moods I see in the boardroom.
Q] By when do you think the advertising industry is going to get back to some semblance of normalcy? What are the challenges that you face now? What are the challenges you see going forward?
The only person who knows what’s happening or what’s going to happen is Donald Trump! The rest of us, we don’t know. We’re talking about COVID while a typhoon is going to hit your town, or when the locusts are going to arrive or while we wait for the monsoon which brings a lot of other viral infections. It’s all like baptism through fire. Will we come out of it? Yes. How we deal with it, and how the Government tries to focus on health and nutrition will be very important. Whatever defence budget we have should go into health and nutrition right now – we need a re-examination of what we also perceive as threat.
Q] What positive outcomes from this period do you see being taken forward into the working of the marketing and advertising industry in future?
What does eating an ice-cream mean to a child in this situation, when you’ve cut away his friends? Or that feeling when your part-timer came back? What was that sisterhood moment? Now that you truly realize what she brings to your life, are you ready to look at her salary a little differently? I feel the salary that I earn is made possible by someone’s support. We have to think of those things. Why are we scared of a Rs 2000 raise, but not scared of three muffins, two coffees and one soda costing that much? I’ve thought of that a lot deeply. All the fault-lines in society are clear to see.
Meanwhile, so many people are putting up their ads and I feel okay, you are feeling kindly, but is it converting into something? So if Horlicks wasn’t really giving those bottles to frontline staff, and they just wanted to create this ad... I think it’s great that they were doing it but didn’t put it in their ad… it makes me take my job more seriously, because yes, I want to entertain you but I also want to connect with you.
Q] What next from Swati Bhattacharya? What are you thinking of? What are you focusing on just now and in the long term?
I don’t know, maybe monkhood! For me, my themes of work have always been love, gender and urban life and there are so many stories in my head. I want to think a little bit deeply in terms of what else can I do without upsetting my workday. I feel I have a very personal relationship with my brands… maybe it’s some kind of a madness, but for me, they really become like people in my life. I like to provoke intimacy using brands. So, even in present day India, where you can get lynched for eating beef, I could do a veg/non-veg film for Domino’s. It was my first film on that brand, but it was exciting that the marketing head allowed me to do that. It’s a very simple moment, but I want to do more of that. Mostly, I use my connection with women and with society, and the brand becomes like a catalyst. So that’s my life with brands and then I have a life without brands where I create short stories or documentaries. Now, I just hope I have those many years ahead of me because the way things are going, everybody is looking at mortality in a very different way.