Shephali Bhatt
Oct 10, 2012

Live Issue: Do Indian agencies have robust HR systems?

Shephali Bhatt finds out whether agencies here can avoid or deal with a crisis like MEC UK has found itself in

some of the reportage the Kieran Allen email received
some of the reportage the Kieran Allen email received

A resignation mail from Kieran Allen, senior manager, MEC, UK, has been the talk of the viral town of late, by virtue of its content which had damaging allegations against Allen’s manager, Greg Shickle. Twitter timelines have been abuzz with hashtag #Shicklegate and western media has been occupied with reporting the latest developments on the issue. The viral frenzy aside, the incident brings about a critical question – Are ad agencies equipped with robust HR systems and people policies?

Rohit Ohri, executive chairman, Dentsu India, says, “The ideal people policies would propagate being proactive in engaging with your employee rather than being reactive. But given the work pressure, agencies succumb to the reactive route and forget the engine that drives growth in the organisation, the people.” An employee needs to know that his employer is thinking about his needs holistically and is not just there to extract every ounce of his caliber, he adds. 

Ask Mahesh Chauhan, co-founder, Salt Brand Solutions, and he would rate the current HR system at 4-5 points on a scale of 10. “HR practices picked up in India with the advent of global networks. And since India has its own quirks, HR policies of the West may not work here,” he states.
Could the solution be in emulating HR framework of corporate India then? Surojoy Banerjee, president – HR, RK Swamy+Hansa Group, disapproves of the idea. He says, “Agencies do not work on a 9-5 basis. There are times when an employee stays at work for nights altogether. Policies like work-from-home may be common in IT set ups, but it cannot work in advertising agencies. Agencies are informal in their approach internally – casual dressing or flat hierarchies are preferred. Such freedom is essential in an agency.”

But is an HR department the solution to such employee issues?  Sanjay Thapar, chief executive officer, Bates Asia, says, “It is not necessary to have a separate HR department as long as you have a referral mechanism that addresses employee issues. Because of the nature of the business, we are going to face such issues at work. Every organisation will deal with it differently. But it’s important that every organisation provides its employees the right to speak and state their grievances.” 

Chauhan elaborates on how traditional HR practices were all about overcoming people’s weaknesses while the modern ones work on people’s strength. To layer these changing paradigms with Indian ethos is tough, he avers. Ohri believes that it is also a function of the amount of money that an agency can spend on HR. “Increasingly a lot of agencies are realising that you have to invest in people in order to build a creative culture but what they actually do is pretty slender,” he remarks. 

Can they afford to spend as much as other corporates spend on HR? “The answer to that question is – No,” says Chauhan. “The market conditions are tough. And more than the ability of pocket, it’s the question of prioritisation. The investment in HR should logically lead to higher returns for the agency as well,” he notes.

Would a mail like Allen’s affect the agency’s stature as an employer in the market? Suprio Gupta, managing director, Torque Communications, doesn’t think so. “Such mails neither prove the validity of the claims nor are they revelatory in nature. Sadly, the victims will be both the letter writer and the intended target. It does not necessarily mean that the accuser is either devious or not a victim but that the manner in which such charges are put out and circulated result in either sympathy or redressal.”  HR or no HR, the agency needs to take some strong action in such cases, in order to send out a message as an organisation, Ohri concludes.



Agency head

Rohit Ohri, executive chairman, Dentsu India Group

People in the agencies believe that HR department is out there to be the police. Sometimes, they work in a draconian way. The business that we all are in, you are running more often than not and amidst the chaos, you forget some of the basic things. You need to have a sound HR department but it should be supported by the senior management. It is important for any agency to have a good system of communicating issues and problems. One should sense an issue while it’s simmering and check it before it gets critical.



Agency head

Mahesh Chauhan, co-founder, Salt Brand Solutions

HR picked up fairly late in Indian advertising. Its evolution happened towards late 1990s or early 2000s wherein someone who had reached his expiry date in the agency functions would be asked to handle the post as a token of his loyalty towards the agency. It was never culturally a part of our organisational structure. Most of the HR practices are dated. The western HR framework doesn’t go in sync with our panchsheel principle. We need to take the best of their policies and ensure its right adaptation in the Indian milieu.



Agency HR head

Surojoy Banerjee, president – HR, RK Swamy+Hansa Group

HR policies are by and large the same across corporates, including advertising agencies. It is the way each organisation engineers these processes that makes the difference. This customisation is determined by the goals they wish to achieve. Customisation could be in terms of work timings, leave management, employee engagement activities, career growth planning, performance management systems.


Aency head

Sanjay Thapar, chief executive officer, Bates Asia

People policies are critical in any business. Since ours is a people-centric industry, we are always looking to hire and train good talent. Therefore, giving importance to people policies has become critical. Every organisation deals with people issues differently. An HR department may not always be the be all and end all of all employee issues. But if it exists, it must ensure that the agency has a robust redressal mechanism.



PR agency head

Supriyo Gupta, managing director, Torque Communications

It will be grist to the mill for a while for the people who know the personalities in the mail. I doubt that such mails will go into the chronicles of either memorable writings or incidents. That is, unless one of those involved in the mail likes to take it further. I doubt either the clients of MEC or its employees will see much of this being of business or organisational consequence though a organisation that is proud of its practices would possibly investigate some of this to ensure that no deliberate wrongs are done. 

Campaign India