Great ideas can never be locked down: FCB India’s Rohit Ohri

He says de-growth could be restricted to 20% over 2019 with the right incentives from the govt.

From JWT to Dentsu to FCB India, that’s how the career pans out for FCB India group chairman and CEO Rohit Ohri. Within a year of joining FCB India, he had bagged the title of ‘One of India’s Most Trusted CEOs of 2017’.

FCB India also has an array of offerings to meet the end to end communication needs of its clients - two creative agencies -  FCB Ulka and FCB Interface, Lodestar UM – media planning and buying, FCB Digital, FCB Healthcare, FCB Cogito Consulting for brand consulting, FCB Asterii for analytics, FCB Aquila for activation and FCB Neon brand PR and FCB FuelContent.

Having managed advertising communications for  top brands such as Amul, Tata, Indian Oil, Hamdard, Horlicks, etc., over the years, FCB  India  has grown to become one of the top fully integrated marketing communications companies. Recently, the company also had 38 shortlists at The One Show 2020.

With close to three decades of experience, Ohri has been able to catapult brands into fame and the vision stays the same even during the ongoing lockdown.’s Shikha Singh spoke to Ohri to understand how the lockdown has prevailed for him and the company, being creative during a pandemic, his top learnings from the lockdown and the future of the sector. 

Edited excerpts: 

You are heading a group which has three agencies under its umbrella. How is each of them faring in the thick of this crisis? Could you and how did you prepare them for this before the lockdown?  

One of the things that we did was to go into the work-from-home mode a week before it was mandated by the government. Because of that what we managed to do was get our systems in place. So, all the staff got trained on technology platforms like Zoom and Microsoft to stay connected. We started a 24/7 IT helpline to address our employee’s queries.

What are you doing with the projects which were already underway?

A number of projects had to change because the environment has changed so dramatically. Many industries have had to shut down their manufacturing facilities. But our 600+ factories are working night and day manufacturing ideas that build our brands and our clients’ businesses even in these hard times. Great ideas can never be locked down. That’s why we’ve launched an initiative branded - ‘Ideas Unlocked’.  We believe these ideas will help our clients’ brands unlock new, meaningful and authentic connections with their consumers.

How are things panning out with each of them now that we are more than a month into lockdown? Have clients kept you busy?

We have a global EXCOM every week. I’m doing meetings with my board every week as well. Every fortnight, I’m doing town halls with all employees. The CEOs and office heads are doing weekly and daily meetings with their teams. So, the workflow is very carefully planned for each day and everybody is reporting at the end of the day as to what they managed to finish that day. For the wellbeing of our employees, we are offering them classes to upgrade themselves and their skills, especially in the digital space. We are heavily emphasizing on L&D, where we offer our employees with a list of courses they could undertake from various organisations. We are also doing a talent showcase where an employee from our office comes on Instagram to share their talent with the FCB family. We have partnered with Doctor 24x7, an app-based service which provides our employees with the opportunity to speak with doctors and health specialists across the country at any time.

Have summer product launches died down because of Covid2019? 

A number of product launches which were expected in May and June have got pushed. We have partnered with XP&D and BE.Live to launch a digital platform that can be used by brands for engagement and launches. Effectively moving offline experiences online.

Does that mean the summer boom time quarter is going to be a washout? What are you doing to plug the gap?

We are doing a lot, in terms of delivering to our clients and brands. But obviously, Q2 will be negatively impacted. However, we believe that brands should not lose their voice in times of crisis. Brands may need to pivot on their core promise and create new relevance for themselves.

Consumers are walking through a long dark Covid2019 tunnel. Brands can either wait for the light at the end of that tunnel or light up that tunnel for consumers. We believe brands need to walk by the side of their consumers during this time of need.

What did the first few days teach you and your teams about your business? How have senior management and other employees responded? 

Till this SarsCov2 crisis came upon us, we did not have an official WFH policy. Honestly, I was not a believer. I didn’t think we could be effective in working from home. We have a very young talent in our agency and I thought they would get distracted and in the process not be able to work at optimum levels. Fortunately, I’ve been proven completely wrong. The kind of dedication that everybody is showing in this WFH situation is amazing! All the meetings are happening on time and are super productive.

This, in my opinion, will be a big reboot in the ways-of-working of the advertising industry. It is actually a fantastic experience.

What inputs have the senior management given to you? 

I am part of the FCB Global Executive Committee. At the EXCOM, we share experiences and learnings; truly invaluable learning at this point of time. This current crisis has no playbook. Understanding what’s happening around the world and how people are coping in the current times is helping each one of us create our own playbooks.

Has the lockdown helped show up manpower flab where we earlier could not see it or chose to ignore it? Will we see a total freeze on hiring and will we see layoffs and salary cuts in this industry?

How organisations behave in times of crisis will determine how they will fare in the post-crisis-world. I believe companies cannot shrink themselves to greatness. In the advertising industry, people are our only assets. If an agency is looking to bounce back strongly from a crisis, it will need a highly motivated and talented team.

Layoffs and furloughs of employees to protect company profitability are self-inflicted wounds. Wounds that can turn grievous in the post-crisis period. Undoubtedly, cost-cutting measures in this period are critical and companies need to axe all non-productive costs.  

Is the ad industry going to de-grow 10-20 per cent in 2020?  

There are talks about the global economy shrinking. India’s GDP has been projected to come down to zero. It is not just the ad industry, but every industry is suffering. That is the most unfortunate outcome of the recession. Pundits are forecasting that it’s going to take us till 2022 to come back to the 2019 level. What exactly is going to be the percentage of de-growth is very hard to say. It all depends on how soon we come out of this crisis and what economy-boosting measures the government introduces. If we come out of this quickly and there are enough incentives and economic packages by the government to help the industry come back on their feet, then we could be restricted to between 10 to 20 per cent of de-growth over 2019. But if the lockdown continues till June, there will be severe economic repercussions.

What steps could you take to get the network you head back into the fast growth lane?

The most important thing is that we are preparing for the new normal. We will definitely have a pre-covid and a post-covid era going forward. So, AC, i.e., after covid, is really going to be a whole different world.  If we really want to kickstart our business and quickly move into a recovery phase we need to help clients connect with their consumers in the new normal. We are currently doing large-scale research which will map consumer behaviour changes among consumers in the entire pre-covid and post-covid phase. With these findings, we are looking to advise clients about the big consumer shifts that may happen in different categories. This will, hopefully, enable them to create new relevance for their brands.

Further, our partnership with XP&D and Be.Live will help brands take offline experiences online. We feel that after the lockdown is over, offline experiences will be very few and far between. We now have the capability to execute large brand launches, dealer meets and employee meets etc., online.

We’ve also just launched Retail: DAY 1. This is a partnership with Networkbay and will enable us to reimagine retail experiences for brands.

Now that TV has revived aggressively, has your faith in the medium strengthened?

Television is and will always be a powerful medium. Audio-visual today is not restricted to the TV screen. Mobile is the new entertainment screen.

The print medium is, unfortunately, facing some crippling challenges. Unfortunately, a majority of the people have stopped taking newspapers. This was a golden opportunity for the print medium to reinvent itself. Newspapers have gone online. The problem is that the online version is a replica of the offline version. And on the phone, it’s really hard to read. The format needed to be recast for the mobile screen. It is similar to running a television film online.  Being adaptive will perhaps be the most critical skill needed for survival in the new post-covid world.

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