Mukta Lad
Dec 13, 2020

Lockdown (ad)ventures of agency startups born during the pandemic

Entrepreneurs tell Campaign India that starting from scratch has its benefits and drawbacks.

Lockdown (ad)ventures of agency startups born during the pandemic
Setting up a new business is a challenging process. Par for the course are coming up with a viable idea, signing up clients, having conversations with investors, hiring the right talent, investing in office space, setting up the IT infrastructure, and the list goes on. What happens, then, when a global pandemic throws a spanner in the works?
Campaign India spoke to senior professionals from the advertising world, who began their entrepreneurship journey right in the middle of the pandemic.
Ready, set…wait
Covid-19 made a lot of agency start-ups re-think their launch strategy. Founders of some, like Wondrlab and Gravity Integrated, had to delay their official launch, while others like RD&X Network accelerated the process.
Rajiv Dingra, founder, RD&X Network, says that his idea for a new start-up came to him in February this year. “As the pandemic spread, it became apparent that deep tech for transformation and gig economy-led businesses will be the future, and a future that’s fast advancing towards the present,” he says, about why he felt the need to advanced his launch.
Despite a launch that was delayed by three-odd months, Prashanth Challapalli, founder and managing partner at Gravity Integrated is happy with the way things worked out. He was about to hire 15 people, sign a big client and rent office space. Come lockdown, the client ‘disappeared’, taking with them the need for a huge setup. “The pandemic has allowed us to build a whole new model that helps us attract both, talent and clients, not only from different parts of India but also from the Gulf, Europe and SEA,” he says.
If not for the pandemic
Saurabh Varma, founder and CEO, Wonderlab, says COVID-19 gave his team the space to discuss, debate and strategise on their hypothesis. “If we’d launched earlier, there would have probably been more experimentation with our model, than needed at the moment.” Now, Wondrlab has had the time to curate and partner with tech platforms, and dive deeper into driving value for clients.
Starting up requires quite a bit of running around. Something as basic as the opening of an official bank account was a challenge in the initial months. Consumer behaviour, too, changed rapidly.
Anand Siva, co-founder and head, business excellence, Nittygritti, adapted the gloomy sentiment into an opportunity for his start-up. “Our venture focuses on how people buy online, and how brands prepare for it. The many behavioural changes during the pandemic were our inspiration and purpose, and we had to stay glued to them.”
Kaizad Pardiwala, founder, Spring Brand Solutions says brands are being careful about expenditure during this time. Varma agrees. “The first thing clients do is cut costs with their existing agencies, but not necessarily move the business.” The seal-the-deal conversations got pushed by a few months, he says. Pardiwalla believes that a firm belief in the offering and client contacts helped Spring power through.
Meeting the clients
Advertising is a relationship-led industry. Here, face-to-face meetings, a personal touch or a quick business lunch can go a long way in forging new client relationships or retaining the existing ones.
Dingra says his agency’s business requirements are finding early-stage companies that fit the requirement and that can potentially become a part of his network. He admits this process has been challenging. “We couldn’t meet the founders face-to-face, and all legal and commercial discussions are also happening through video calls,” he says.
There are others like Varma, though, who didn’t have to establish too many relationships from ground zero. In fact, Wondrlab has been delivering work to clients even before the launch. He says it was reverse pressure, with clients unwilling to wait for the launch for delivered work. “The timing of the launch was an issue for us, not the construct of the work,” he says.
On the other hand, Siva welcomes virtual meetings. “We would probably have spread our time thin on wasted efforts. All our consultations, meetings and closures happened without them, and perhaps done faster with more productive hours thrown in,” he claims.
‘Geography is history’
If the pandemic has taught us anything, is that it’s possible to work for anyone, from any corner of the globe. Challapalli believes “geography is history” especially when it comes to hiring new talent. To this end, Gravity Integrated recently announced that it will be a work-from-home, permanently. This decision has helped Challapalli and his partners handpick talent with different skillsets from all over India.
Dingra says he hasn’t even met nine of the 11 people working at RD&X, in person. However, Monday meetings and Slack interactions have kept this ship sailing successfully for them. Siva held interviews in-camera long before the pandemic, while several of Varma’s team members have already worked with him in the past, setting the relationship off in the right way.
Defining workplace culture
A workplace’s culture is one of its most important aspects. It gives the organisation its character, purpose and distinct identity. 'Work culture', a commonly thrown buzzword, does the all-encompassing task of attracting like-minded talent, motivates the workforce and impacts its happiness, and on a macro level, affects happiness. It is also, however, that evolves from an agency’s inception. How then, does work culture evolve at a time when colleagues and bosses are just voices and squares on Zoom?
“Culture is not about meeting in person. It’s formed by what you agree on, what you stay silent about or what you disapprove of,” feels Dingra. Varma thinks along similar lines. “Culture is built through a common vision, ambition, clarity and a sense of deep connect. Once the leadership defines a workplace’s culture, then it’s about ensuring that it is passed on to the team and everyone is aligned.”
Challapalli says, “Our culture can be described in three words: transparency, accountability and diversity. We are very clear that we will spend less time on Zoom calls and more on actual work.”
The post-Covid era
While the Covid-19 threat is far from over, one can hope that the post-pandemic era is lurking around the corner. However, working remotely for several months has changed the way we look at offices. The world has realised that for the most part, work gets done regardless of getting together in a physical space, and arguably, more efficiently, too. Agency start-ups agree.
“We won’t be looking at office space and travel in the immediate future. We don’t want to fixate on where people are; we want to thrive in an ecosystem that revolves around our mantra of ‘physically distributed, objectively united’,” says Siva.
And speaking of office spaces, Varma brings up some numbers. “Most legacy structures spend 8-10% of their revenue on rent. In our case, it won’t be more than 3-4%. Whoever wants to collaborate is free to come into the office.” Dingra, too, claims his start-up will always be remote-first. RD&X has also made online meetings defacto “since no one is ever late for them”.
Working from home seems to have made time more valuable, thereby increasing efficiency. Seemingly, the new world order doesn’t have time for long meetings any more. “Creating a good balance of ‘phygital’ with respect to time and meetings is a practice worth carrying forward,” feels Pardiwalla.
An increasing gig economy (a workforce inclined towards short-term contracts and freelance work over permanent jobs) is another factor that will come into play more often. India’s gig economy has grown by 20% this year as opposed to 52% in the previous two years. Globally, there are about a million jobs losses estimated due to the pandemic, making an abundance of specialist talent available for projects. Using these professionals effectively will be agencies’ next focal point.
A lot is changing about the way we work; a new way of life that began during the lockdown will seemingly continue way beyond.
Campaign India

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