Ravi Rao, CEO of GroupM MENA, discusses all the steps that were taken to keep employees happy and what changes the group is considering for next year.
How did you manage 2020 at GroupM?
It was a bit of a shock; we hadn’t realized how quickly the pandemic and remote work would be thrusted upon us. But people adapted pretty well and it turned out to be very positive. Of course, there are always exceptions who beat the system, but they do that whether they are in an office or working remotely. The vast majority collectively pulled together and was actually contributing more than ever. To me, for whom remote work had always been a question mark, it was a big surprise and it opened up the possibility of making it a permanent feature.
Did you have to take specific measures in terms of salaries and packages and if so, what were they?
We made a call that only the top 28 people would be asked to opt in for a voluntary salary sacrifice – from me down to the managing directors. We didn’t go below that, ensuring that the regular employee had zero cuts in pay. In addition, if anyone from the top 28 had a constraint, they could opt out, no explanation required; and 28 opted in.
It worked well and also showed how the organization rallied together, bringing about a lot more camaraderie. The best part is that WPP actually returned every single dollar cut this year; it was a fantastic gesture.
Our online salary survey shows that women have been impacted harder by the salary cuts and monetary restrictions implemented during the pandemic than men. What’s your take on this gender gap (which, incidentally, is not unique to the region) and how did you manage it at GroupM?
That’s surprising. There would be variations across markets because of the difference in market conditions and standards of living. [At GroupM] It’s standardized in such a way that outliers depend on specific situations and are very minimal; and there has never been an issue between men and women. In Mindshare, for example, six out of 11 markets are headed by women.
Does it mean that, as GroupM, we are on the right scale in terms of equality and gender mix? The answer is no. One simple example is our MENA EXCO; we were all men [on the team]. But the new Talent Officer coming on board now is changing this bias; this might look like a small step but, for me, it’s an important, relevant step that needs to be taken. We need to bridge the gap, even at the most senior level. There is a conscious effort to ensure that there is a balance and that there is a parity in everything that we do. We follow global guidelines, as long as we don’t break any of the local norms, and we take it very seriously.
Did you have to let go of anyone?
I would highlight that the individuals that were let go were not as a result of COVID but part of normal yearly attrition. However, we had to stop unwarranted new recruitment. We typically have many new employees joining across multiple functions; but last year, we consciously decided to delay the entire recruitment process until 2021, unless there was a real need. And it worked to our advantage.
So are you picking up where you left off in 2019 in terms of recruitment?
Of course, yes. In fact, in January/February 2020, right before the onset of the pandemic, our recruitment was one of the highest because we had won multiple accounts. 2021 is a continuation of the first quarter of 2020 and it’s business as usual.
What were the main lessons from the pandemic for GroupM and for you personally?
Firstly, collaboration became much more critical and it came through very well despite all the constraints.
Secondly, tasks assignment, follow-up, and execution were more thorough; people followed the process to a T to avoid the pressure of work accumulating. We talked to each other much more often than before, which brought everyone in the organization closer and helped us rathe team’s real spirit.
It’s worth noting that this period allowed us to also evaluate certain people, their drive and commitment toward the organization or the client that they work for, not from a performance evaluation perspective but more of a character evaluation perspective. All these soft points really came through during the online process.
What benefits and services have you focused on in particular during the crisis?
Support comes in multiple stages and forms, and employees may not directly feel the benefits. It’s like insurance; until something happens, you don’t realize the need for it.
One interesting dynamic was mental health. Some people were in isolation and were getting depressed; so, we rolled out a number of initiatives, part of our global programs, such as a direct call-in where you could speak in either English or in Arabic, for help.
Upskilling was another benefit that’s unquantifiable from a dollar perspective. As an individual and as a team, the more you are able to learn something new and therefore are given an opportunity to expand further the horizon, the more it builds confidence. We rolled out a few programs where people could enroll and only had to pay a minimal cost if the courses were not free, with the organization paying the rest. The most interesting courses included AI, robotics, coding, and we saw interest levels spiking.
You mentioned making work-from-home a permanent feature. Why are you considering it and how would it work?
We are currently reworking a host of policy guidelines globally, with the flexibility to adjust these guidelines to each country’s specificities. For example, if a country has really weak Internet connectivity, then remote work can be a problem rather than an advantage. But in markets like Dubai and others, it can actually work wonders. Come 2022, you might find guidelines changing, giving people the option for hybrid work.
What other changes are being considered at the employee compensation level?
We do polls of the entire group and some of the things that came out very clearly were work/life balance, wellbeing, proper performance capability evaluations – because you can’t just base your evaluation on pure number delivery; there are many non-financial, non-quantifiable parameters that we need to look at.
We are still in learning mode and we don’t have a definite answer or solution to everything; but we have been given an opportunity to look beyond what we used to think.
Everyone in the industry is trying to think of new ways to motivate and incentivize their teams. How is this linked to the hurdles agencies are facing in recruiting and then retaining talent?
More and more tech companies, from Amazon to TikTok and others that might enter the market, not to mention clients, are taking people from the communication industry. But this is not about salaries and incentives alone. You need to build a culture where you create a strong employer brand proposition and high-performance work [environment] that attracts and retains talent. And that’s not easy.
Do you see some new trends emerging in how people see work and how it should be compensated? For example, what do you think of the four-day workweek?
I’m a bit cautious about the four-day workweek, having been in advertising for more than 30 years. My reading is very simple: we are a service industry. The four-day workweek may have certain advantages but the question is, how would clients feel about it? And the problem with the four-day workweek is that it can occur only if the entire environment works together at the macro level. In France, for example, everyone accepts that everybody is off for two to three weeks in the summer and it works well there. But could you do the same here? Not really. We are already cut off from the rest of the globe by at least one day every week; we are blocked on Saturday and Sunday, to which you add Friday in the Arab world. That’s three days and you’d add one more? Sorry, but how would we manage?
What about compensating high-performance staff in a more entrepreneurial manner, like a profit-sharing scheme for example?
In fact, if you really look at the WPP system, this has always been the case; it’s not anything new. Which is why I would rather wait for the additional guidelines in 2022 because many markets are coming back from the pandemic and many different, multidisciplinary learnings are coming through. The management is looking at this seriously to ensure that changes occur so that we can overall improve and enhance productivity. Our primary goal is for clients to benefit the most because that’s why we are here, as an industry. But at an individual level, it makes sense and it is very much there in WPP.
As a group, we have always been looking for reliance in terms of compensation and this will continue to evolve.
Do you see this happening across the board in the regional industry in the region?
There is no way around it. Our entire world revolves around adapting together to the situation and the needs. The need today is so dire that any group that doesn’t adapt will be faced with more trouble and blockage than ever before. I don’t think any group will even consider being rigid. I suspect that, come December or January, you will find a lot more insights coming into play.