Good places -> Good routines -> Good work.

Routines have a certain magical quality.
In my experience, good routines create a virtuous spiral – good routines increase efficiency, work quality and satisfaction with work. You feel in-control, you manage relationships well enough and manage to have fun while getting shit done.

The secret to forming these routines isn’t in our ‘will power’ or whatever the new-age gurus want us to believe. It is simply a function of good work atmosphere where we look forward to meeting co-workers and doing work together. (or at-least not actively hating the work or colleagues.)

In one of my earlier roles, I was handling in excess of 10 brands. It was made possible because clients were kind and considerate (so scope of work never was in doubt and we worked on actual problems, not manufactured ones. This was made possible by senior management setting the right expectations.), servicing team was smart and earnest (so I could delegate some amount of strategy work with them. This was possible because they were driven to grow in their career by the management.) and creative teams actually trusted me with my briefs and feedback (so we interacted more and more fruitfully. The agency had a culture of respecting the planner’s role. So when I entered the role, I did my best to preserve that expectation too.). The owner of the agency was instrumental in inspiring a hunger for success. He was a hard taskmaster but was generous too. All of these things allowed me to form a coherent routine.

I would start my day by writing for an half an hour – often this blog, or notes on a strategy project or a brief. This habit of writing everyday would intellectually stimulate me. Due to this, I would enter any new project with a charged up mind.

The second habit was to clarify the brief during the meeting itself. I was lucky to get some good clients who would engage in a dialogue and not misunderstand the questions with ego. Often, a well articulated problem statement is enough to kickstart great creative work. I would try to get that agreed upon during the first meeting itself.
The third habit was to write my brief as soon as I got back to office from the meeting, often on the way to office itself. I was usually excited by the brief, would have a few hypothesis already in my mind. Writing thoughts down helps find out errors in thinking. It helps build a coherent logic. So my argument/ ppt and briefs would be done on the day of meeting with clients itself.

Fourth habit was getting my brief vetted with the Chief creative officer. Thankfully, it was an excellent partnership where conversations led to interesting possibilities and ideation.

So essentially, good people enabled me to form good routine and consequently we did some great work together.

On the other hand, if there is no routine – chaos ensues. Chaos ensues because people don’t feel that they are in control. And that is a function of how badly the leadership runs the organisation.
At another place, we were forever fire-fighting – either imagined or real. Often because senior management had not set right expectations with clients or right processes internally. The work is forever delegated and junior-most person does all the work. this approach is bound to fuck up. A place where senior people do not deign to even write down their thoughts in an email or put together a slide or even think of an idea is bound to fail. The place was stratified – those who work as underclass, those who brow-beat (manage) the underclass during meetings/ email/ phone call as the ruling class. This kind of stratification cannot possibly lead to respect for work and hence creation of good work.

People would turn up late at work, because they were dreading what was going to hit them. So even a slow day would not bring a break, it only meant limbo.

There was a deep mistrust among people and leaders didn’t do much to change that. No one was celebrated, but blame was distributed handsomely. So people were busy avoiding blame, not chasing possibilities.

Which meant, I couldn’t depend on servicing team for basic things like competitive analysis, creative teams to listen to my briefs in good faith or have an honest conversation, leadership team to solve issues and not blame in return instead.

So we couldn’t plan our work well enough. Which meant no possible routine to build.

Without a drive to win, we kept on dragging. Projects took needlessly long time to get completed. There were numerous meetings that only served to break the flow and waste time. The agency was forever on backfoot.

The agency is on a downward spiral. The organisational structure ensures it. It is not led by owners but by ageing bureaucrats. They are whiling their time until they hit retirement. They hide behind hierarchies. They are jaded and can’t will themselves to learn new things. Which is not to say that they don’t know the buzzwords though. They throw meetings and new hires at new problems, instead of pausing, thinking and honestly changing something about the way they work. They have no thesis for their future. They are hurtling blindly into future and they won’t let the young unfetter their vision. They are doomed.

People are not idiots. They sense this. They call it bad energy. They call it a dump. The sincere most among them try to patch things over, work hard. The cynical merely enjoy the chaos. Neither can form a routine. Neither can work meaningfully.

Slow down to break the stride of bullshit surfers

Surfing Notions

Is candy no longer an impulse purchase?
Is the world still on the ‘liberal progressive’ journey?
Will Amazon/ Facebook ‘surely’ cede control to regulators?
Will they fight misinformation honestly?

From the trivial to the profound, I find myself in the midst of rushed debates where beautiful questions are raised and then summarily decapitated with bland certainties informed with nothing but an overactive ego propped up by a scrap of a half-baked notion. People in power build straw arguments on the back of one ill-informed notion after another.

Surely, candies are not impulse anymore because people are asking for leader brand by name. ergo….
Surely, people of the world still want freedom, liberty, equality. (they better be. my whole worldview depends on it. if they don’t, who am I? what would I do with my fractured beliefs?)
Also, How else to justify the progressive brand shtick? Also, how else to win at gold tinged bubbles named Cannes/ Effies?
Surely, the big tech will cede control. (I don’t even want to imagine the alternative. The owners are heroes, someone that I could have been. I can’t imagine them as villains or worse as simple humans capable of pettiness, narcissism or greed.)

Meaning drowned under the deluge of notions

Questions are such beautiful things. They are an invitation to explore, to understand, to meditate. They tease us to dig deeper, to dive in the richer complexity of the world.

Instead, questions are increasingly treated as simply the setup for a punchline.

This is a profound shift. It is the curse of the information age. The deluge of information is so profound that we can survive only by surfing it, not diving in it. The victim of this is meaning. meaning doesn’t matter anymore. what matters is appearance of meaning.

Information theory X Modern day management

Successful Managers embody this. They confidently keep spouting intelligent sounding bullshit that they can get away with. In Trumpian times, the secret of success is to overwhelm the others with bullshit, the constant stream of bullshit rendering the logic / truth seeker impotent. It is the DDOS attack on consciousness. Overwhelm, confuse, slash and burn.

Bullshit is always faster than truth. Truth emerges only slowly, deliberately. Bullshit is not taxed with effort or intelligence. all it requires is confidence and ability to surf over one straw-man argument/ logic/ fact to next.

Slowing down

As the responsible one, as the people who actually get shit done, it is important to slow down, to break the stride of the bullshit surfer.

It is important to throw the lasso of reason on the question raised and hold onto it.
Why is Candy no longer an impulse purchase? or did you mean that they are impulse purchases but brand matters? so some kind of mints solve a problem (post-smoking masking) while some don’t? or has there been some fundamental shift in the way human desires are triggered?…
So world is actually much more complex now with the rise of right-wing politics? the David of progressive politics versus the Goliath of racism/sexism/…ism is the right narrative to build? So the statement is a political wish, not a fact?
So why would the big tech cede control? is it in their interest? has there been any historical precedent of people ceding control willingly? what forces have been successful in ensuring that powerful cede control to the less powerful?

If we are persistent enough (and polite enough) with our questions, maybe we can unearth the real questions to answer.

As a planner, it means to physically slow down the meetings, hold clients longer until sensible questions and answers emerge.

As a planner that means to say no to unimportant projects that keep you needlessly busy. Need to free up that RAM.

It means to point out bullshit from where ever it might be emanating from – senior management/ clients/ fellow planners/ creatives… and politely help them arrive at a sensible goal to chase.

Moving through time

We can count on time to move ahead regardless of anyone or anything. No one can petition, cajole, bribe time into moving differently. Yet, that doesn’t mean people won’t try.

For us corporate stooges, time is defined by the rhythm of deadlines and weekends. And as such, some of us work towards those deadlines and weekends, while some others stumble, knock through or slip through them.

The latter half among us never fail to request extensions, curse the Mondays or spill the coffees.

We resent time on Monday for it flows too slowly: And before, deadlines, not slow enough. We drag ourselves against the currents of time, trying to find the pace that suits our mood. Music helps, though not many people know it. Caffeine helps too – it puts a little booster to our internal clock and gets us going.

But there are times when nothing seems to help. We remain unprepared to meet the deadlines. At times like these, the deadline ceases to be that gentle current and instead turns into the fearsome category VI rapids. We paddle through frantically with bullshit, bluff and bombast. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Our stocks accordingly rises or drowns.

To rebel against the rhythm of your world is foolhardy. It’s better to rebel against the world instead.

Sponges and Rocks

Sponges absorb. Rocks don’t.

Increasingly I feel that the advertising agencies are populated with rocks while all the smart sponges who absorb knowledge, references, culture are going to start-ups, consultancies and so on – the new capital makers.

I see fairly young creative teams who churn out the same old ‘manifestos’ characterised by 2000’s era semantic bullshit. I see senior leadership struggling to grapple with fundamentals of digital age consumer journeys. I see copy writers who don’t know age-defining shows and cultural references. They still don’t know Flume, Gesaffelstein or the Casteless Collective. They don’t know mainstream nor the niches. They haven’t seen Kurosawa, Truffaut nor Pa Ranjith or Nagraj Manjule. They have not read film scripts, nor tried to write one. Basquiat & Grayson Perry are aliens to them. So is the work of Sagmeister & Walsh. They have not read Amitav Ghosh, Vonnnegut, Philip K Dick or even the contemporary thought leaders like Harari or Gladwell.

What to do with these rocks? You make available books, interesting chats, video links to them, which duly fall sideways as they remain busy wallowing in their mediocre existence bereft of the beauty that the world offers all the time.

It feels as if we live in different eras & cultures and we are accelerating away at light speed. I am a voracious reader, curious about new ideas and content. and the only people who share that curiosity are outside advertising – artists, film makers, new age capitalists. You step into an Advertising office and increasingly it feels like stepping into retrograde timezones. The flotsam industry flowing downstream helplessly and without knowing it is going downstream.

Advertising bros have a big problem: low self-respect

Yes. Self -respect, not self-esteem. They hold themselves in high enough esteem. Many of them could be rightly called out for their arrogance or over-confidence. It is not an issue of self-image as much as it is about an internal moral framework.

I am specifically talking about the way the client-agency relationship is deteriorating and how the advertising bros are reacting to it. What happens when we lose business now? What happens when we keep getting invited to pitches that do not end with change of AORs? What happens when a not-so-smart client gives you useless feedback or worse, hopes you to decode his/her grunts, nods and irrelevant comments? What happens when clients don’t give you enough time or money for the stars and worlds it wants to create for its brand? What happens when they squeeze you for margins, favors and extra un-billed work? What is happening with talent? Are they getting proper feedback, proper support to do their work?

I see the management, across most agencies & globally, conceding ground at each of these moments. The dialectic is totally absent. Apart from a few vanity browny points, we hardly see agency management taking stand when it really matters. I am not talking about pride. I don’t see pride as a virtue. We don’t need to be proud of our work. Pride is a negative emotion. What we need is a sense of self-respect independent of our work, independent of our financial leverage, independent of our contractual obligations and rights. Self-respect that is grounded in our humanity, in our ‘agency’ as human beings. That I feel is absent.

That self-respect powers you to ask the right questions, to stand for your right to your time, your money. That self-respect helps you see things clearly. Without that self-respect, convenience blinds you from reality. Without that self-respect, we accept client’s gibberish or half-baked thoughts as concrete orders. Self-respect gives you the power to very humbly ask the questions that must be answered. Without self-respect, the management ends up piling on more work than the team can handle and with far too many reworks and rounds of reviews. Even if they feel sorry for it, what good is that remorse? What force is marrying them to this situation? It is a simple issue of proper feedback and setting the right expectations. Self-respect propels you towards clarity, towards equal terms of engagement, towards a work-ethic that leads to joyful work not dreadful work.

i hope for agency leaders to grow respect for themselves in their own eyes.

Shifting to Colombo, Sri Lanka?

I am an Indian, living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And I would have done a few things differently had I known a few things about Colombo before I came here. So here’s a heads-up for future expats heading to the wonder island.

The summary

If you are a savvy business person and looking for new opportunities, Sri lanka is a great place to be at. If you are a salaried person looking for career growth… assess your options well before coming here.
For a South Asian salaried person:
Come here for the wider footpaths, less crowded city, the blue sky, the greenery and the amazing beauty of the island. Career or economically, it is probably worse than your other options.

For someone from developed economies:
Come here for an interesting addendum in your CV and a relaxed work culture. Again, career wise or economically, it is probably on-par with other opportunities you might have.

For somebody from China:
Welcome to grow with your nation’s colony.

Either ways, bargain a better deal with your company for a better pay pack and hopefully a house and a car as part of the deal. If you don’t get a house and a car, look for substantially high allowances. If neither, do not come.

The lowdown –

  1. The walk

    Among South Asian cities, it is easily amongst the cleanest, neatest cities. The single most important reason for me to choose a city is its ability to allow me to walk pleasantly from work to home. So discounting the terrible traffic fumes, I like Colombo walks quite a bit. I do get to enjoy a good  three km walk everyday. Besides, it is not as crazy crowded as other Asian cities, yet.
    Having said that, the housing bubble here now is dangerously inflated. Housing is very expensive. I was lucky enough to get a company house in the heart of the city at subsidized rate. If it were not for that, it would not have made any sense for me to shift here. If you stay beyond 5-6 km from your work place, the commute could be harrowing (like in most cities, but slower.) So you are between a rock (expensive cars for commute) and a hard place (expensive housing close to work) when it comes to quality of life in the city.

    So here’s the first tip – move here only if your company provides you with a house and a car, or if you are desperate.

  2. ‘Nice’ People

    The stereotype is true to a certain degree. Sri Lankans, by and large, are mild in temperament and they have the patience to indulge others. Neither do they have the brashness and loudness of Delhi-Gurgaon-Noida hell hole nor the incessant busyness of Mumbai folks. Any town in India on its way to become a ‘city’ becomes a little sharper, a bit brasher at its edges. That too happens here, but to a lesser degree I feel.
    Having said that – my perspective is limited. I live in a fairly upmarket area so that shields me. For instance, I wouldn’t be as carefree in Pettah as I am in Kollupitiya. If you are  woman, you could experience catcalling, stares, occasional hooting too, especially in the evening.
    So it isn’t a paradise either.

  3. Getting repairs done is a pain

    The flip-side of the ‘niceness’ is the inefficiency and lack of dependability. Getting anything done in Sri Lanka is quite a challenge. The first challenge is finding people – there simply aren’t many electricians, plumbers, etc. Those who were in the trade have left for Gulf countries for better pay. Those who didn’t go, are driving cabs and tuk tuk (auto rikshaw) since it can pay even better than these trades and with the added bonus of freedom. So Sri Lanka is facing a huge problem of skill-shortage. This matters because if something breaks in your home you better fix it yourself or wait for weeks and months to get it fixed.
    There are a few professional services that work alright, but i won’t trust all of them. The norm is that of repeated calling, reminding and cajoling people into getting things done.

    I see it in positive light though – A labourer here is much more respected than in India. Indian workers are treated poorly and driven to work ruthlessly. Indian households and companies can be brutal assholes. Sri Lankan labour though has some amount of agency and they get paid much better than in India. So YAY for that. I accept the inefficiency as a welcome cost for living in a (slightly) better world where fellow comrades are treated fairly. (again, unfortunately not to the extent of Nordic or German fairness, but a welcome experience coming from Indian cities.)

  4. Advertising career

    Well, if you have revenue responsibility – Sri Lanka would be a smaller market but one with decent growth potential. That has its own set of  dynamics though. The long term prospects for Sri Lankan economy are not too bright, unless you are Chinese (from my perspective – bad deal with china, currency in doldrums, low preparedness on developing strategic markets or skill development and terrible deficit.) There is a vision to make it the next Singapore, making it a financial hub, aviation hub etc… But I don’t see any proof of that helping the middle class. The money is staying with the Chinese and a few rich local parties. Strained middle class -> strained consumption -> strained agency growth.
    Besides, most FMCG categories have nearly universal penetration, that means growth is not in expanding markets like in India, but in stealing competitive shares. With impending opening of the economy, there will be competitive bloodbath for local brands. High inflation rates means subdued consumer confidence (even as compared to India, per-capita wealth in Sri Lanka is better).
    All this means – Agency clients are not doing too well, and won’t do spectacularly well in the future too. That means, pressure on agency for margins, cuts in marketing expenditure etc. So if you are a suit and coming to Sri lanka to manage an agency, be prepared to lead a smaller biz with uncertain prospects.

    As a planner too, the experience would be quite different. To begin with, since the businesses are smaller, agencies hire planners to look after  a wider set of portfolio than anywhere else. In Ogilvy, I am the only planner. In other agencies too the teams are either non-existent or fairly small – largest being a team of three planners.
    But the number of brands is not fewer – so it means I have less time on most brands. Pitches, launches, fire-fighting – a planner is spread thin over many projects. I never have visibility of my time beyond a week’s time. I am always busy or waiting to get busy soon.

    So that means I don’t get to deep dive in category/ consumer understanding. I don’t have the luxury for doing it. I typically crack the brief on the day of client briefing, prepare the strategy deck the next morning. and iterate it over the next week while attending to other brands. I have adopted this work habit and am ‘comfortable’ with it. I doubt there would be many planners who would want this though – since this limits your control over long term projects – building IP, sharpening your skills, going after bigger challenges…

    Like in most other countries, agencies are laggards in adopting their business practices for the digital age – they can’t foresee their marginalisation and plan for it. So even as I see opportunities with business strategy projects, design projects that could get us in higher margin services, the agency is simply not prepared to change yet. Like India, even here there is much room for learning growth of both servicing and creative folks. Like India, there is a limit to how much and what you can push for.

    What that means is – same expectations as in other markets but with fewer resources and time.
    Come here for – Experience of working with reasonable people. Experience of wider set of brands and consumer segments. Experience of pre-bubble universal-penetration economy.
    (I would give another 2-3 years for the Chinese money to sustain Sri Lankan housing bubble.)
    Don’t come here for – Bigger challenges, innovations, pushing boundaries of what you can do.

  5. Very expensive living

Here’s my perspective about cost of living in Sri lanka compared to cities in India – (I have previously stayed in Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad). Here’s a useful link from that compares cost of living fairly well. (though they tend to err on the side of caution.)

From a top level – I would say I spend about twice as much in Colombo as I did in Gurgaon. Consequently I am saving less here.

Coupled with the recent drop in exchange rate for LKR, (0.41 now for 1 INR. it was 0.46 half a year ago) the savings have taken a further hit. This rate of depreciation should be alarm enough for any would-be migrant to reconsider his negotiations.

Details are as follows –

Apart from restaurant, everything else is fairly expensive in Colombo.
1. Barring a few items (Soaps, etc), most Consumer goods (imported) could be two to three times costly. Consumer goods from local companies will be 1-5 to 2 times the Indian rates, mostly. There are exceptions of course.

2. Grocery is fairly expensive too , apart from seasonal local produce. Most things for Indian diet would be atleast 2-3 times costly.

(For eg. Bread – 160 – 200 LKR (In india 25-40 INR) , local Biscuits pack – 100 LKR (in India it would be 25 INR) , Eggs, 200 LKR for 10, etc)

3. Cars – i didn’t buy any – nano costs 15 million LKR here. that gives a perspective. Fuel costs are similar though.

4. Rentals – Hmm.. I would say expensive than Gurgaon, a little cheaper to Mumbai. It can go down if one plans to commute for an hour. But expensive vehicles punctures that economic logic. I would say, Gurgaon was cheaper because one can get new good apartments at much lower rates in a fairly decent locality. I was paying INR 30,000 in DLF Phase 1.  For similar locations, here one might have to pay more than 150,000 LKR per month for a comparable home.

5. Electronics – similar to India in a basic electronics. However, as you go for beyond-basic electronics, your would be paying 3-4 times higher for value-added items.

6. Utilities – Phone bills are similar. However, electricity and water is a bit more expensive. I am again spending 1.5 to 2 times the amount here, even as I am using much less electricity. (Don’t need AC here that often).

7. Public transport – is similar to India in cost and experience. a bit cleaner though. My wife uses Pickme (a local uber) often and finds it fairly useful. Some annoying drivers notwithstanding, it is largely a decent experience.

Overall, cost is higher, but it is compensated with relatively cleaner air and opportunity to walk without being trampled upon and honked at.

In summation – Sri Lanka is a growing economy and a lovely place. So there are business opportunities that you may find here that you might not find at other places. So do come here if you have a plan in you mind and a realistic assessment of how you are going to achieve it. If you are coming here to serve in a company, demand a substantial hike and a house and a car. Hope this lowdown helps somebody in negotiating a better deal.



May 2018 update.

I just did a  bit of analysis of my salary in view of inflation and exchange rate getting worse.

I received around 12% increment. It wasn’t a great year for the company, even though my contribution had been above average (more pitch wins by our team than the year before. first gold in Effie for agency. First ever WPP Atticus award too won by me.) In team spirit, I didn’t contest.

But the inflation from Aug 2016 (the month i started living here) to May 2018 has been effectively 8.39% (I considered CPI for each of these months to arrive at this.) In this period, the exchange rate has gone down from 2.169 to 2.428. And there was a revision in tax structure where allowances are also taxed.

So all in all, i received 4% effective increment in LKR. But in terms of INR, my income went down by 3.17%. Effectively, my income decreased here!

For anyone considering to move here, i would advice considering these factors – high inflation, high taxation, weak currency and no strong prospects unless you are investing in Chinese plans for the island.

I think my move was beneficial, since i got to escape one the most polluted places on the planet at a salary that wasn’t too bad. so it’s ok for me. Evaluate your own priorities and options.

The feedback loop

There is one definitive characteristic that separates the competent from the mediocre; the practice of giving, seeking and acting upon constructive feedback.

I was fortunate enough to get good bosses early on in my career who were kind and thoughtful with their feedback. I learnt a great deal from them.

One of the most valuable artifacts I have, is a printout of my ‘yearly evaluation’ by my then boss, Anirban, who took the pains to write multiple pages worth of insights about my work. He saw the good in me that I was not aware of. He kindly pointed out areas of improvement that I was afraid to even acknowledge. Without feedback like that, I would have remained insecure and incompetent. But I was lucky to get good bosses. I shudder to think about those who work in companies that do not have a culture of giving, seeking feedback at all. And there are many companies like that – I have worked in one where the bosses never gave any constructive feedback at all, they would just sit on judgements. Young creative guys would not know what will hit them. The creative process became a religious process – blind, fraught with terror and delivered with superstitious hope. Superstitious folks are not the ones to reason and improve. It was a terrible place with low morale, high insouciance and middling prospects. I was at my busiest in that agency even as none of the work we did was worthy of going in anyone’s portfolio. We were a factory of uninspiring ads.

Don’t be at such a place. And rescue your own workplace from becoming one.
A good place to work is where the boss provides kind and thoughtful feedback often. A rookie might not even know what he needs to know, so the onus is on the leadership to cultivate a culture of thoughtful dialogue, of thoughtful analysis of our work.

Without feedback, there is no improvement.
Without improvement, there is no growth.
Without growth, there is only existential dread and career insecurity.

Why subject yourself to it? If you are senior enough, get in the habit of engaging your team in thoughtful feedback dialogues. If you a junior, get in the habit of asking for feedback.

Feedback is a lot of work – you have to think hard, analyze… most are too lazy to do it proactively. So demand a feedback from your superior after every project. No other education/ ‘training’ is needed if you have a culture of thoughtful feedback.