Tarun Rai, Chairman & Group CEO, Wunderman Thompson South Asia is a Media and Communication professional with three decades of experience across both industries. In 2015, Tarun returned to J. Walter Thompson (now Wunderman Thompson) as Chief Executive Officer, South Asia after a seven-year stint at Worldwide Media, a BBC Worldwide-Times of India Group JV. In his prolific quarter century in advertising, Tarun has helped build some of India's most iconic brands, including those of Hindustan Unilever, Diageo, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Hero, Nestlé, ITC, GSK and Godrej.
In today's fragmented communication landscape, Rai believes collaboration with platform/domain specialists to deliver the brand message is key and also attracting multi-disciplinary talent and delivering integrated, end-to-end business solutions is the new mantra.
In a candid conversation with People Matters, Rai shares his learning from his three-decade long professional journey, how ‘doing what you love’ should be your priority, what it takes to engage and retain creative talent and how crucial it is to have an agile mindset to create an agile workplace.
You have spent a large chunk of your professional life in the advertising industry. Tell us about your journey and your learnings from it.
This is a sweep of three decades and needs a book to answer. However, I will pick on some uniting themes from these decades. It’s true that two of my three decades have been in advertising. However, the other decade has been pretty exciting too. My first job was in Asian Paints, straight out of business school. And from 2008 to 2015, I was in media, as the CEO of a BBC Worldwide and Times of India joint venture called Worldwide Media.
In all these years the most important aspect has been the fact that I did what I loved. There’s a discussion about ‘loving what you do’ vs ‘doing what you love’. Though there’s a fine line, I believe in the latter. And if you are doing what you love then everything fixes itself. If you are enjoying your work, then you will excel. From Asian Paints to JWT and Worldwide Media that’s been my story. And when I stopped loving what I was doing I got the breaks to shift industries and try something I’d love. I still remember when I joined Worldwide Media I got a message from the Editor-in-Chief of BBC Worldwide – “Welcome to the best job in India, Tarun”. I thought it was fantastic. Worldwide Media was into publishing in the Lifestyle space. It was, as BBC believed, a ‘passion’ business. And if one didn’t have a passion for the business it would be such a waste. Even before, in JWT, whenever I was getting to a point where I was loving my work less I got a break. My first independent operation in Kolkata in 2000. And then on to head our most important office, Mumbai, in 2002. Advertising itself is a ‘passion’ business. And the reason I spent two decades in this industry is because I was in love with what I was doing. There have been so many experiences on the way that have shaped me as a professional. And then there are my beliefs that have held me in good stead over these years in the various jobs and roles in my career.
- Trust people: Trust your team: I learnt this from my father who used to say that you could decide that a person was a scoundrel till he proved to be otherwise or you could choose to believe that he was an excellent, trustworthy person till he proved to be a scoundrel. I have always followed the latter. I have always believed in the people I have worked with. And there may have only a few, very few, instances where my trust was misplaced.
- If you trust your team members, then empower them: It is always difficult to let go. Always difficult to let a junior in your team take important decisions. But if you don’t give them the opportunity, how would you know if they can take those decisions? And if you don’t delegate, how will you grow yourself?
- Be a leader, not a manager: People want to be led not managed. No one wants to be managed. A leader inspires, motivates, and lays down the vision.
- Individuals are important, but it is great teams that win: I am a firm believer in teamwork and the importance of building good teams. I have been a sportsman all my life and learnt a lot from sports. And if there’s one thing sports teaches you, it is the power of teamwork.
- A captain is only as good as his team: In my senior roles in advertising and in media, one of the most important things I have done is to form my Leadership Team. A team with who I meet regularly and share everything with. And I tell them that if, as a team, we decide on something, then it should be done as it has everyone’s buy-in. And yes, again an excellent lesson from sports.
- Never forget to have fun: We spend so many of our waking hours at the office. It would be such a shame to not enjoy them. I have always focussed on this. On creating a community at the office and a physical environment that fosters enjoyment is very important.
There's a discussion about 'loving what you do' vs 'doing what you love'. Though there's a fine line, I believe in the latter. And if you love what you are doing, everything fixes itself. If you are enjoying your work, then you will excel
What is the biggest talent challenge in an advertising agency? Is it very difficult to engage and retain creative talent?
In the last decade or so, there has been a dramatic change in the client expectations from an advertising agency due to the way in which the markets and consumers are moving. Clients are looking at ROIs more closely; they are looking for more and more data driven solutions for their marketing challenges while our industry has traditionally worked in the area of behavioral change and emotions. This has led to a dramatic shift in expectations from the talent that works in agencies. People need to be more agile about upgrading their skills than ever before. We need to learn to marry creativity with technology. The options available for talent are multi-fold due to the explosion in the number of startups in the country. Attracting talent with diverse skill sets becomes a challenge. Add to this, the significant employee population of millennials who have a strong sense of purpose. Certain soft skills like being comfortable with ambiguity, growth mindset, collaboration skills, empathy and agility in addition to width of experience will assume greater importance. Engaging and retaining creative talent is achieved only through great work. This is possible only through an empowering work atmosphere where people can work fearlessly and are encouraged to have a POV.
Wunderman Thompson has just moved into a new agile workspace. But you have always maintained that an agile workspace does not ensure an agile culture. In fact, according you, an agile mindset comes first, and then you can create agile workspaces. Please tell us more about why you feel an agile mindset is so critical to a workplace today.
Creating an agile physical environment, without first creating an agile mindset and way of working, is like putting the cart before the horse. Assuming that an agile work environment will automatically lead to an agile mindset is naïve. In fact, it can be really counterproductive. However, if the organization has been fostering an agile way of working where collaboration is encouraged and celebrated, then an agile physical environment will contribute immensely. People will value the new space that allows greater interaction. A space that breaks physical silos and encourages more collaboration. In today’s world, not to have an agile mindset is suboptimal. Change is moving at a furious pace. Solutions cannot be delivered by individuals. Not even, necessarily, by an agency’s internal teams. Collaboration today requires working with partners who may not even be part of your agency. There is a dire need for a change in mindset. An acceptance of fluid collaboration. And if your organization has that mindset, then the agile physical environment is a boon. In our case, I believe, I have been able to foster that agile mindset. And we have created an open, transparent, happy and energetic physical environment that helps people collaborate more and solve problems together.
How can organizations create an agile workspace that is a conducive space to provide seamless combination of focused, collaborative and creative work, which leads to better productivity?
An agile workplace has to communicate a certain sense of openness – visually as well as in the company’s way of working. Agile workspaces can create a lot of energy which in turn has a direct impact on productivity. Since most of the agile offices try to reduce the carbon footprint through shared resources, it appeals to the heightened sense of purpose of millennials. It helps break down the traditional power distance that has existed in Indian organizations. This also leads to an empathetic workforce which finds it easier to collaborate. The world is now all about being authentic and fostering authentic connections to deliver the best possible solutions to clients and consumers. An agile workspace with an open atmosphere helps employees bring their authentic self to work. Innovative solutions emerge when silos break down and there is a democratic access to information. At the heart of all of this is a smart design concept which bears in mind that every agile workplace must have collaboration zones, meeting rooms, telephone booths and social spaces, and enough rooms and areas for focussed and concentrated work whenever required.
What does culture mean in today's world of work when the world is moving towards the gig economy and a distributed workforce?
Culture is the glue that binds an organization together. Values, beliefs, purpose, policies, processes and systems roll together to create an organization’s culture. Having a strong organizational culture becomes even more important as we move towards the gig economy where teams are formed and disbanded as per the needs of specific projects. These gig workers need something that is unique and cannot be replicated by competition and which makes them want to work with the organization again and again. An organizational purpose which is authentic, inspirational and aspirational will become a critical success factor. The other success factors will be the values that an organization upholds and the standards by which these are measured for compliance. Culture starts at the top, with the CEO, with the leadership team of the organization, and then flows down across the entire workforce. Culture is also not theory, it is practice. It has to be practiced daily, it has to be visible through action rather than statements on a poster. It needs to be authentic.
According to a previous article, 22% of new hires at Wunderman Thompson are boomerangs. What is it that brings them back? What are the pros of having boomerang employees?
I love boomerangs. I have never asked for anyone of our employees’ ‘loyalty’. I have always told my people that they should be only loyal to their careers. In fact, I believe it is the other way around; the employee should expect loyalty from the company. The company should keep providing the employee with career growth opportunities. And when it can’t, the company shouldn’t hold the employee back. A boomerang employee has left to check out the world outside and is coming back because he or she believes that we are, once again, ready to offer opportunities to them, to grow and build their careers. It is a reaffirmation of their faith in the organization. An empowering atmosphere has been one of the most important reasons for our boomerang hires. We believe in hiring the best people and allow them to do what they were hired for. Then, of course, the work that they get to do for some of the best brands in the country is another major draw. The access to some of the global intelligence tools has been another reason. And finally, our agency has pretty much been the University of Advertising which has taught the nuts and bolts of advertising to some of the most illustrious names in the industry.
You have also talked about hiring non-advertising talent and employing a blind recruitment process to fight unconscious biases. Where do you think, you have reached with that?
People love status quo. There’s comfort in it. When it comes to hiring, we like to hire ‘people like us’. We want clones or ourselves. We want the ‘mini-me’ in our hire. However, with so much change around us, we will not be able to maximize the opportunities with only current skillsets. While we are investing in retraining our current staff, we do need the impetus of people that bring in brand new skills and thinking. And yes, we have also experimented with ‘anonymous hiring’ to remove unconscious bias that can creep in. We suffer from so many biases that if we can successfully remove even some of them, we would be able to improve our recruitment dramatically. On both the above, we have met with some success, but a lot still must be done.
Engaging and retaining creative talent is achieved only through great work. This is possible only through an empowering work atmosphere where people can work fearlessly and are encouraged to have a POV
You were named as One of India's Most Trusted CEOs by WCRC Leaders Asia. What according to you does it take to build that 'trust' in your people and in your organization?
I have talked about this at length at the beginning of this interview. A leader has to take a leap of faith when it comes to people. A leader has to provide opportunities for people to grow. To learn, sometimes by failing. I have always believed in giving my people the freedom to fail. One of my favourite mantras is - ‘Fail fast, learn fast’. And if the leader trusts his people, it has an effect on the entire organization. Trust becomes part of the organization’s culture. And it creates an empowering atmosphere.
What is your take on Diversity & Inclusion? Do you think Diversity is only half of the D&I picture and that often times we forget about putting the right amount of effort in creating an inclusive workplace?
As Malcolm Forbes famously said, ‘Diversity is the art of thinking independently together’ and as MK Gandhi said, ‘No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive’. Diversity & Inclusion are the two sides of the same coin. The future success of any organization relies on the ability to manage a diverse body of talent that can bring innovative ideas, perspectives and views to their work. The most exciting part of diversity is the variety of abilities, skills, experiences and cultural backgrounds that various stake holders bring to the table. This is a very critical aspect in our business where we are catering to consumers who represent a cross section of demographics across multiple categories. If we hold too narrow a view of what constitutes diversity, we will miss opportunities to engage, connect and serve our consumers effectively. Diversity not only involves how people perceive themselves, but how they perceive others! Diversity is much more and beyond men-women ratios. It is very easy to get caught in this dimension of diversity and completely ignoring the other dimensions of diversity and sometimes even completely ignoring the inclusion angle. Inclusion is ensuring that our people are able to bring their authentic self to work without any fear. It is ensuring that they feel that they belong, feel emotionally and intellectually engaged and connected with their organization, their co-workers and with the work they do. Simply put, Diversity is being invited to the party and Inclusion is being asked to dance! Though there has been a lot of momentum on the diversity front, a lot needs to be done on the inclusion front. Most of the diversity related challenges are a result of our unconscious biases. Diversity challenges are indelibly linked to inclusion challenges at the workplace. An inclusive workplace become a reality only when there is senior management’s commitment for the same. The next is to hold the bull by the horn. Identify the diversity challenges that are unique to the organization/industry. Address these challenges through robust D&I training programs geared towards behavioral change and follow it up with streamlining of company policies to reflect the change. Finally, hold people accountable for non-compliance.
Assuming that an agile work environment will automatically lead to an agile mindset is na“ve. In fact, it can be really counterproductive. However, if the organization has been fostering an agile way of working where collaboration is encouraged and celebrated, then an agile physical environment will contribute immensely
As we draw the curtains on 2019, what are the top talent trends you have observed in the year gone by? Can you share 3 of those?
In various ways, 2019 has been a watershed year on the talent front. There has been an increased focus, worldwide, in creating a harassment-free workplace. Digital transformation has become a reality across all sectors leading to increased emphasis on skill upgradation. Ability to navigate through ambiguity has become a critical soft skill. ‘Hire for attitude; train for skills’ is even more relevant today.
What according to you will be the three key trends to watch out for in the talent space in 2020?
Gig workers will assume importance due to the requirement of diversity of thought at the workplace; agility and flexibility to embrace technology and data will become critical; and cross company collaboration and breakdown of silos leading to territory-free workplaces will gain impetus.