KV Sridhar
Guest Article

Conscience has left the building; what remains are humanlike ruins

“Don’t you find it a shameful antithesis when an industry that exists and is paid for understanding human behaviour is suffering from a loss of humanity?’ writes KV Sridhar, aka Pops.

“Growth for the sake of growth, is the ideology of a cancer cell.” Edward Abbey.

‘(they) were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.’ - Tacitus (Roman historian and official, c.58 to 115 C.E.)

One of the copywriters who started his journey with me 20 years ago, he might be 42-23 years old now, lives in Delhi and travelled to Bengaluru on work is fighting for his life, walking the tightrope of death suffering from COVID in Bengaluru. A boy who would speak his mind and had a lot of cutting-edge ideas, I am really fond of him. His family has given up hope, for the last 10 days a machine is keeping him alive.

This has disturbed me no end. We are all helpless, down to our knees in the face of this ruthless virus. Being a person who doesn't believe in prayers, I took a leap of faith, for his family shared ‘all that can help now are prayers’ and thus I prayed. I reached out to a prayer group in Dubai that prays for COVID patients. Such was my desperation, my want for him to live. (As I am finishing writing this piece, we lost him an hour ago.)

I may sound emotional and disproportionately angry but that is all I feel for this industry. The industry that gave me wealth and identity for understanding people, today surfaces as inhumane makes me die in shame.

Amidst this sordid, helpless situation what robbed me of the sheer faith in humanity, particularly had me questioning the very ethics of the industry I have lived all my life were the news that surfaced. A leading agency had a couple of his employees complaining about uneasiness, which was dismissed as travel fatigue, later that day they had fever and were sent home only on the guarantee of providing hourly updates on the work assigned. The COVID infected employees were made to work from home even in their situation.

Since 2018-19, in effect of the economic slowdown agencies were affected and a lot of agencies got rid of their top layer. We witnessed a bunch of senior people leaving agencies and starting their own creative boutiques and with them the last batch of value upholders was gone.

On hearing the issue, the rest of the attending employees worried requested the HR for a work from home scenario only to be denied. And soon 40% of the employees were infected and of which 2 lost their lives. An incident that opened a can of worms when it comes to the unethical, downright inhumane conduct agencies have when it comes to exercising empathy in times like these.

'Pops' KV Sridhar
'Pops' KV Sridhar

For the first time ever, I felt shame to be a part of an industry that I took pride in. The only emotion I felt was rage. As I shared my rant with the editor of afaqs! she said, “Pops why don’t you just vent it off. Write your rage down. We cannot write it because no agency is coming forth to bring this out in the open; if you talk about it people will take notice as it is a serious issue.”

And so I write, or rather rant, question, admonish, shame the status quo, the cruelty ad industry has given roots to. I start with equating this situation with an incident in Roman history - ‘(they) were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle.’ - Tacitus (Roman historian and official, c.58 to 115 C.E.). In the fear, greed and lust for power, may be not literally but, but definitely burn-out humans.

Instead preparing for future challenges, agencies choose to cut corners and be regressive, almost tyrannical. Even the so-called custodians of the industry, industry bodies like AAAI are choosing silence and inaction.

My anger may reach you as an exaggeration and while reading you may just dismiss it as a ‘disproportionate over-reaction’. Well for me that complacent attitude itself is the very irony, the very root of the evil that this industry is breeding. And I don’t write for your judgement, I write to force you to question your conscience. Or has it left the building? And left you as a mere human ruin?

Where does this inhumaneness come from? I have an answer to this, and you may not like it. But enough has been said, done and sacrificed for your liking. Since 2018-19, in effect of the economic slowdown agencies were affected and a lot of agencies got rid of their top layer. We witnessed a bunch of senior people leaving agencies and starting their own creative boutiques and with them the last batch of value upholders was gone.

As a result, today the ad industry is devoid and gradually deprived of values and ethics. It has become about ‘Money’ at any ‘Cost’. A sense of paranoia of irrelevance has gripped advertising agencies and they unlike digital or technology companies are worrying. Today clients are directly approaching creative individuals, and production houses have stopped chasing advertising agencies. A paranoia that resembles ‘Nero’s fear that he started the fire’.

Under this pressure advertising agencies have started hiring young people for lesser salaries, made people with lesser experience the leaders of the clan and this inexperienced lot usually is seen nodding to the whims and business ambitions of management. Charging less, bowing to the client became the norm. And in this paranoid race valuing people became a thing that ‘weaklings’ do, a deterioration that has been rampant for the last 3-4 years has now risen to the obnoxious level of ‘let's not even value life’ because all that matters is ‘Business’ with a capital ‘B’. This is the demise of any and every ethic, humanity and empathy that ever breathed in this beautiful creative industry. It has been reduced to a mindless, maniacal race to get higher and higher, stepping on and over the people who work for you and their families.

‘Value your people and their families, giving them salaries doesn’t mean you own their lives.’ Look at yourself and may you realise you have blood on your hands. Learn from the handful of companies that are taking care of their employees, even for the ones who work from home. They are providing mental healthcare, changing the set-up to 4-day weeks, giving them time off with their families. Don’t you think pressure exists for them too? But they choose valuing life over mindless ambition and strive hard to strike a balance.

But what’s the ad industry doing instead of valuing the talent it has? We stoop to the level of disregarding their lives. Never has the industry seen a depravity of humanity in the last 70 years. We have witnessed union issues, economic slowdowns, emergencies, natural calamities and a lot more that has come and gone but we have survived together.

But not this time. Instead preparing for future challenges, agencies choose to cut corners and be regressive, almost tyrannical. Even the so-called custodians of the industry, industry bodies like AAAI are choosing silence and inaction. What adds to this mayhem is the ‘Greater than God’ ego state of clients, who, somehow, are oblivious of what the world is suffering from and still are living in the fantasy world of all is possible and must be made possible for ‘my wish is thy command’. They are denying home shot films, are saying no to green screens and insisting on exotic locations and pushing agencies and production houses to travel, risk their lives and delivery. Because after all, ‘Client ne bola hai’.

Well dear anarchical, so called glory brands and capital empires - you are equally responsible for this loss of values and ethics. The push starts from you. Don't you have enough? That you cannot somehow give up a bit for a while? Absolute shame on the way your greed for growth drives you to extents. Also don't think you can pass the buck to agencies in the veil of clients - for no one stops you from taking a stand for your people. Your paranoia is unjustified. Nothing is the end of the world; nothing is more important than human lives.

Don’t you find it a shameful antithesis when an industry that exists and is paid for understanding human behaviour is suffering from a loss of humanity? It’s like a fence, meant to protect the crop, destroying the crop. Well, we take pride in being torch bearers of human insight and understanding humans. You are aware there are technologies available, they are all at your disposal and yet you choose an archaic, regressive way of working because you are so insecure about your growth.

If you think burning people out and pushing them to deathbeds is your way to growth - well shut shops, you will do a favour to the ones who work for you. The world is operating on central cloud platforms, global companies are getting their work done virtually, in fact many are seeing a surge or zero decline in productivity. What makes you think physical presence is required?

I just want to tell you one thing, quoting the words of Edward Abbey - “Growth for the sake of growth is the cancer cell’s ideology.” And you have let the cancer spread in the form of COVID. I may sound emotional and disproportionately angry but that is all I feel for this industry. The industry that gave me wealth and identity for understanding people, today surfaces as inhumane makes me die in shame.

Remember Nero. Remember his guests. For they let people burn. You are burning them out.

The author is global chief creative officer of Nihilent, described as ‘a global consulting and services company that uses a human-centered approach for problem-solving and change management’.