I am not writing this piece as a columnist or as a blogger. I am writing this piece as a village elder. After 36 years in the advertising and media business… a journey that took me through many esteemed and venerable organisations, both as a working professional, and then as an entrepreneur-owner, I have witnessed many ups-and-downs in the business.
There were two recessions in 1980 and 1981-82 (triggered by the Iranian Revolution) while I was still at college, and at B-school. These impacted job placements in a big way. I saw the first major recession of my work career in 1990, sparked by the oil price shock, which actually led to the 1991 Economic Reforms in India. Then in 2000-2001 came the dot.com bust that led to a bad recession, accentuated by the 9/11 attacks which further strangulated the economy. Then came The Great Recession, ignited by the subprime mortgage crisis and the housing bubble in the US, in 2008-2009. But nothing was quite ever as bad as the current 2020 pandemic.
The world has changed dramatically in the last three months. A rare disaster, a coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in a tragically large number of human lives being lost. As countries struggle to implement necessary quarantines and social distancing practices to contain the pandemic, the world has been put in a Great Lockdown. The magnitude and speed of collapse in activity that has followed is unlike anything experienced in our lifetimes. This is a crisis like no other, and there is substantial uncertainty about its impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. A lot depends on the epidemiology of the virus, the effectiveness of containment measures, and the development of therapeutics and vaccines, all of which are hard to predict. In addition, we now face multiple crises — a health crisis, a financial crisis, and a most importantly, a jobs crisis.
There have been rumours, and more rumours, many WhatsApp messages in recent weeks with graphic details of job sackings in the media business – closure of editions, shutting down of supplements, shuttering of channels, and more. I prayed at first for it to be all fake news because I don’t trust anything that is forwarded to me on WhatsApp. But then the rumble grew louder. And more disquieting. Editors, journalists, sales guys, ops persons … storied mastheads were asking employees to go. Only yesterday, a close friend told me that one of Delhi’s best known newspapers was starting to terminate 27 per cent of its total staff on the advice of McKinsey. Patna, Pune, Noida and Gurugram editions of the paper, I was told, were headed to closure. Around 150 staffers of the daily, and its pink brethren, were likely to lose jobs this week itself, with a 31 May good-bye. All those on the hit list had already been asked to resign, or face termination. I just felt sad. Very sad.
I have, in my time, been a tough and unforgiving boss. Must have guillotined scores of employees… for under-performance, inefficiency, lack of aptitude or just a lackadaisical attitude. But never ever because the chips were down. In 2008, when I was chairman of Dentsu India, despite a 30-40 per cent decline in business, we did not fire a single employee. It may also have had something to do with our being a Japanese company where employees stay on despite the ups-and-downs of economic cycles. But as the Indian partner too, I personally did not propose or effect a single loss of employment. That year we made no profit; we gave no performance bonuses, almost no raises; we held no annual overseas conference; we persuaded everyone to stay in company guest houses; and we survived. Business got better the next year, and by 2010 we had started to get back to previous highs.
Are Indian media owners being too hasty? Don’t they have enough reserves built over the past decades to survive the current storm? Are balance sheets of past years so very fragile? I wouldn’t think so. Media houses have been known to be reasonably prosperous, with owners who are wealthy by any standard. Then, why the panic? Sure, advertising has dried up. Sure, there is no circulation revenue. But the lockdown will open up, sooner or later. But jobs lost will be fatal blows for families… old parents even more vulnerable to the virus, school fees of children, mortgages, EMIs… departing employees have much to worry about, more so since the jobs scene outside is likely to remain arid for some months.
A media CEO, who once used to work for me was recounting his woes to me last week. Scared owners; restive investors; no ads; no paid supplements; no events; no respite. No choice but to reduce costs. Sack employees. I gave him some unsolicited advice: 1. Don’t use McKinsey. Their consultancy fees will save 200 jobs 2. Take a 50 per cent salary cut yourself. Give all C-suites a 50 per cent cut too. That will save 100 jobs 3. Ask all HR guys to take a 40 per cent cut. It will save 20 jobs 4. Furlough all employees who do not have dependents. Pay them a subsistence salary, maybe 50 per cent. But let them take a break, its okay 5. Ask all other employees to voluntarily take a 25-30 per cent cut, to be restored when revenues get back to 2019 levels 6. No annual leave this year; no Diwali bonuses 7. Ask all columnists to take a 25 per cent cut 8. Everyone works an extra one hour everyday once offices re-open.
I don’t know if the above mentioned CEO will heed any of my advice. But I sure hope he, and other leaders of businesses, rise to the occasion: make this a shared problem, an ordeal where everyone sacrifices a bit, and more, for the common good.
So far, there is only muted news from the ad agencies front. Thankfully no negative news on sackings at least. I hope it stays that way. And foreign owners do not liberally wield the axe. Indian employees as it is make a fraction of what their counterparts in London, NY or Singapore make.
I hope and pray for the return of the good times soon. I pray for compassion by employers. I pray that owners and CEOs look more to human suffering than care for bottom lines. As I close this piece, I am reminded of a prayer an old colleague once shared with me:
My Heavenly father, as I enter this workplace I bring your presence with me. I speak your peace, your grace, your mercy, and your perfect order in this office. I acknowledge your power over all that will be spoken, thought, decided, and done within these walls.
Lord, I thank you for the gifts you have blessed me with. I commit to using them responsibly in your honor. Give me a fresh supply of strength to do my job. Anoint my projects, ideas, and energy so that even my smallest accomplishment may bring you glory.
Lord, when I am confused guide me. When I am burned out infuse me with the light of the Holy Spirit. May the work that I do and the way I do it bring faith, joy, and a smile to all that I come in contact with today.
Amen! And, God bless.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal has been on the governing bodies of AAAI, IBF, MRUC, ASCI, NATAS and more. He is an advertising and media veteran.