Benita Chacko

"It's our responsibility as leaders to bring work-life balance back": Wunderman Thompson's Shamsuddin Jasani

Completing 100 days as the CEO, he says his vision is to grow the agency twice its size in three years, but while keeping his people happy along the way.

After being at the helm of Isobar for over 13 years, when Shamsuddin Jasani joined as the CEO of Wunderman Thompson, South Asia, in November last year, the first thing he did was to meet everyone in the organisation physically. This gesture comes from his firm belief that ‘the agency ecosystem is all about people’. Not only does he want to know everyone very well but more importantly, he wants everyone to know him well. These meetings have been about listening to the teams and understanding their pain points. He wants to have complete transparency.

In a conversation with afaqs!, he shares his vision to see the agency grow twice its size in the next three years, integrating different parts of the business and developing the full potential of its martech and commerce capabilities. But all this while keeping his people happy. He insists that it is the people who make the agency what it is and it is imperative that they are appreciated.

He stresses on the need to separate work life and home life once again- two sections that have blurred into each other in the last two years. But he takes the onus for this saying, “it is the leader's responsibility to make sure that happens”.

While he strives to provide this balance to his people, he himself achieves it through family time, especially with his seven-year-old son, weekend runs and a glass of single malt Scotch. Yet he rarely feels the need to unwind as he enjoys the work and the challenges that come with it.

Edited Excerpts:

What is your vision for Wunderman Thompson? And what will be our focus areas here?

Wunderman Thompson has been the leading light for advertising in India for nine decades now. We are a creative agency and always will be. But we need to evolve. The agency’s next evolution will be to take this understanding of consumers and apply it to the entire customer journey. So it's not just on the brand, but the entire business and even the post purchase journey. The evolution from brands to customer experience is the natural evolution. And that's our vision for the next year- to evolve and work with our clients. We have a vision of growing the agency, twice its size in the next three years.

A lot of this is going to be powered by technology and commerce, because without that we will not be able to close the loop. We already have great marketing technologies under Mirum. We also have Wunderman Thompson commerce, which has a large set up in India doing global level work across a lot of companies. We want to tap into those resources to bring those capabilities to the India business as well. That's the focus for us as we grow into 2023. But our bedrock will always be creativity. And, of course, in whatever we do, digital is going to become front and centre of a lot of things.

What is exciting you currently?

I'm really excited about the closer integration between all parts of our business- Wunderman Thompson, Mirum, Wunderman Thompson commerce. We are already going to the market with a lot of products together.

Which are the directions you are looking to grow the business?

The new business will be bifurcated into different avenues. The first is the creative agency, that is always going to be bread and butter for us. But martech and commerce will also fuel a lot of the growth over the next three years. We're also looking at the right kind of acquisitions in data technology, commerce and experience design space.

What are the learnings that you bring from Isobar?

It was 20 years of working with all kinds of amazing people. Two things that I've always done is that I hire people who are better than me. There are a lot of people in the system who are absolutely brilliant. So it's about just making sure that they get a voice. And the second thing is how do I make myself redundant. This is more from people's perspective, which means how do I make an organisation of giants. From a digital perspective, bringing the idea that it is just another medium, and not necessarily something that you need to think of separately. We need to think of digital along with the entire planning and creative team that does mainline media. Isobar went from being a digital agency to a media agnostic agency. Wunderman Thompson also needs to be media agnostic. We need to think of the best that the brand needs.

Your shift from Isobar to Wunderman Thompson was a move from a new-age agency to a traditional agency. It was also a move from Dentsu to WPP. What really changes when you switch networks?

The basics at the global networks don't change, but what changes is the culture of the organisation. How we work, how do you motivate people, what is the kind of leadership that you have, those are the things that change. The good part here is that, because the structures have existed for so long, everything is established. So you don't need to put in a lot of effort doing that. It's just a little bit of tweaking and modernising. In such a large organisation, it's just about rolling your sleeves up and going to work. And that's what I did. From the first day onwards, I was on the ground meeting people. So it's easier when I have come here.

How difficult is it to imbibe the culture of an organisation during these times when people are working from home?

That's one of the things that needs a lot more work. So you can still build the culture, but the level of effort is much more. For example, if you won an award, when you are together, you automatically find ways to celebrate it. But in the digital space, you need to make that extra effort to say, ‘Can we talk about this?’ or ‘Can we create a framework for us doing it?’ But I do feel that we will be able to go back to work very soon. It may not be 100 per cent back to work, maybe a hybrid model. And we'll be able to create that kind of excitement and culture. But I think the last three months, we've been trying to speak to the people and make sure they are supported.

How difficult is it to acquire and retain talent today? Especially when you are competing with e-commerce, OTT platforms and content companies in this regard.

It's an industry wide problem and it's across the industry. Talent is certainly a concern for everyone. For us, it's a multi pronged approach. Number one, of course, is the right kind of compensation. But compensation is only a very small percentage of why people work with others. The last two years have been extremely challenging and we've all worked very hard, but we've lost the connection. We are not coming to office and we've lost the human element. The whole agency environment and ecosystem was something that I used to enjoy when I started my career. For all of us in the entire agency ecosystem, it was being in that exciting place, which created those great pieces of work. That part of the ecosystem has gone missing over the last two years and that has played a big role in retention of talent. So we are working very hard on just making sure that there are these points of interaction and community, these points of feeling like a part of something. They need to feel that they are contributing because that's extremely essential.

In the last few years, across industries it's become a very transactional relationship. Earlier you had a work life, and then you had a home life. This allowed us to do wonderful work and allowed us to deliver. Everything's kind of got together now. That needs to come back a little bit, and we will find ways to make sure that that happens. At the end of it, it's the leaders responsibility to make sure that happens because people work for people. We need to make sure that people are feeling appreciated, a part of the team and that their views count. So the way I look at it 80 per cent of my job is about my people.

In the last two years, India has seen three waves of the pandemic. What has been the impact of these intermittent lockdowns and changing guidelines on the agency and the overall industry?

We need to understand that this is something we'll have to live with, at least for the foreseeable future. Then we need to be very fluid about it. We need to have a plan A and B. We need to think and hope for the best, but we also need to prepare for the worst. But while clients are not spending in one part of the business, they are going back to prepare themselves for these eventualities. The business models of our clients have changed in the lockdown. So there is a shift. Everyone needs to understand how to be relevant in that shift.

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