Shifting to Colombo, Sri Lanka?

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.



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.

Effie Awards propagating wilful ignorance?

The incentive is structured against comprehensiveness

Effie awards are fairly important awards in Advertising. They are about ‘effectiveness’ – They recognize campaigns that have been effective in achieving their stated goals. So far so good.

We have won it, a lot of planners I know have won it. It is an essential career milestone for many in our business. Some job postings mention it too – ‘need planners with experience in winning at Effies‘. It is that important.

So the incentives are not geared to bring out reality of the marketing effectiveness. The incentives are stacked to create a straight narrative that joins the dots between the results and actions of agency, most convincingly.

I am yet to read a case that credits a favorable policy change, economic change, societal change for gain of brands. Even though they do impact businesses. There is simply no incentive for writing such a case. (Who will go to collect an award for an economic case? The FM?) So even if Paytm had a windfall of opportunity with demonetisation in India, you won’t see an Effie case for it (I hope).

I understand Effies serve a purpose to encourage marketers to put in more thought and rigour in their practice. But since out of the many other variables that affect a business, a comm strategy tends to remain in focus with Effies, we remain blind to the complete picture. I will give you an example.
Recently I was working on a brand that lost market share. We were working hard to figure out why we were losing. There was a new competitor in town, but it’s communication wasn’t convincing. We did consumer research, comm tests etc. Turns out comms was not a factor at all, though brand imagery had suffered. The culprit was pricing – SKU mix strategy. With the right SKU, the value paradigm had changed. A high Share of Voice for a fairly good campaign couldn’t convince people to choose our product over the better value relaunched product by competitor. The competitor is kicking our ass and he can’t enter a case in Effies. Would you give an award for winning by identifying a sweet spot with an affordable SKU? I wish Effies would.

Need to Change Effies to reflect the need of change with Advertising business

So you realise that there are a whole host of variables to win the market with and Effies tend to reward only a few of those. It is unhealthy. Because as agency business gets marginalised, what will help it become more relevant is to find out ways to become more effective beyond ‘campaigns’. To remain competitive against consultancies and fb/ google, agencies need to look at the big picture, start looking at and rewarding marketing efforts that go beyond campaigns.

If one were to make sense of the world solely based on Effie cases, the person would come out as a gullible idiot with false sense of intellectual enlightenment.

We need to engage with the complexity, the uncertainty

Read a few cases and it makes you think that the marketing world is a very rational and simple world. But it is anything but.

The cases paint a flat picture of the world – the causality between efforts and the market response seem ridiculously simple, even as they project conscience of all the factors affecting the brand’s performance. Is it even possible, to know all the factors that affects a brand’s rise or fall? If causality was truly that clear, would companies need the army of sales managers, favorable retailer relationships, the many offers and schemes and lets not even get started with consumer’s irrational behaviors and preferences. We assume these ‘variables’ as ‘constants’ in our grand scheme of building the case. And that is not helping anyone.

If anything, awards only reinforce our illusion of certainty. It creates a false sense of expertise about a subject as complicated as applied sciences, but without the rigour of applied sciences papers and awards. A medical sciences paper would go to great lengths, source hundred of experiments, cite precedence to establish correlation and yet shy away from ascribing certainty, there will always be a caveat. Causation is difficult to prove. More so with psychology, sociology. It is almost impossible with these fields. And yet, advertising professionals write thousands of cases a year, joining myriad dots to convincingly prove cause-effect between a brand’s success and their effort.

The cases gives you a sense that an enlightened mind was behind the campaign – some cases read as dramatic as the story of Siddhartha. One gets a sense of an incisive insight cutting away unprofitable behaviors and perceptions, suturing profitable ones. In reality, brands seldom follow as simple a trajectory. I mean, sure, great ideas do have out-sized impact on brands. But it is easy to ascribe out-sized impacts to even mediocre ideas, in absence of a culture of rigour. We want to believe in it, so we do without critically examining the cases.

Often the germination of such ideas are random, their expression might come from unexpected quarters, their reception might be dependent on a lucky social chain of events… Great ad campaigns often had a huge element of luck, of serendipity involved. But we will never find a case talking about such lucky lifts. The cases build a myth of straight thinking – business problem statement leading to insight leading to creative idea. How many times has this process really progressed so linearly in a real agency?

And there is no reason to absolve ourselves of this randomness. This very randomness will help us remain relevant in the age of AI. If causality truly was achievable, we would have been replaced with robots by now.

So perhaps, it is in our interest to institute another awards – Lucky Ideas Awards perhaps. It takes efforts to get lucky, sure. I don’t wish to discredit the hard work behind good ideas. Indeed as John Cleese suggests – to get good ideas, one needs to work at it, push oneself harder and not be too pleased with oneself. Yes. But even then, to be in a position to think for a brand that has a cultural cache, that collects data and conducts researches, that has a confident and energetic marketing department who is willing to enter awards – needs luck.

Many brands simply do not have enough data on their business. Many do not want to experiment. Many do not have great ambitions. It requires luck to work with clients who are systematic, ambitious, willing to experiment. And after that you need to work hard for a good idea. and then immense amount of luck for that idea to be supported with the many thousand things happening that affect a business.

So essentially – recognise complexity and reward strategies that succeed, no matter the form of its execution, no matter the size of its footprint.

We can do this.

We can do this.

In a smoke-free meeting room, a tin box of crackers goes around with a dozen people munching, masticating, marauding the little round rascals. The biscuit is no good, someone opines. But that doesn’t stop him from dredging a fistful of those from the tin box. The box’s golden underbelly is now visible and that is causing visible disbelief to a few.  They had hoped it to be bottomless. Alas, they don’t make magical ever-full tinboxes of yummy, crunchy biscuits any more.

Is it the biscuit or the clank and clink of the golden box? The eyes in the room are narrowed and the smiles almost reach them. Must be the evening. A good way to leave office – on full happy tummies after hearty bouts and jousts of the brain. The preceding hour had been one of ideas been coaxed out, thrown around – like a beach volleyball. The idea gets tossed from one person to another. The difference being, in this game of volleyball, the ball mutates with every bounce – it changes colour, shape and its feel. The CCO sitting there gets worried from time to time – he is worried the ball will mutate into a lemon. But when the game is on, there is no stopping the mutation. It is a delicate art to stop the game when the ball is a pristine orb of furious energy and shining originality. It is easy for it to end on a sour lemon of an idea, if someone holds on to it too dearly. The chief creative offer then has to coax it out of the biased hands and set to back and forth bounce again.

Like a bunch of bandicoots made to wake up by digging them up at the height of noon, the end of game feels disorienting to many. But the CCO has found the shining beacon of originality and awesomeness. It’s time to make the idea happen.

The chief and the planner walk in, “so what’s the idea?”.

There is a moment of silence as no one is ready to start the new conversation. There is alarm in their eyes – eyes that are also dying to roll at the profusion of what-they-think-is, bullshit that is to follow. They are worried that the chief and planner duo will shoot out darts and puncture the various mutated globes they are holding in their arms so dearly. Most of their ideas would be punctured now. Only one idea will leave the room alive. Most will be killed pretty mercilessly.

The CCO makes an attack. Attack as in the music, not war. A confident start to the symphony that leads to the crescendo of ideas. It starts playfully, with laughter and grand pronunciations, with witty observations segueing into grand visions. Like an experienced conductor, he shores up confidence among his fellow team mates and encourages their ideas to be pronounced in sync with his melody. The rhythm unfortunately is set by a misogynist joke. But people weather it, knowing well that the joke is the support that swells the confidence in the conductor and questioning it now, will derail the symphony. The composition is more like jazz – improved upon as it gets performed.  The planner and the chief, seeing that the ideas are not ‘too bad’ and ‘to the brief’, sing along too. They add bass of reason and strategic perspective to shore up the melody. They envision what the client will react to and steer the idea in a direction that would be better appreciated.

The music changes – now it’s a call and response gig. The planner suggests, the creative team reacts, the chief questions, the team builds upon. The give and take goes on until everyone in the room is confident enough of winning hearts with the idea.

There is palpable excitement in the air. We can do this. Goddamnit we are gold.

“That is the creative challenge”

“That is the creative challenge”

If clients, planners, management folks and even creative directors make a habit of envisioning their idea before talking about it, we would be spared of a lot of bullshit.

So recently we presented an elegant campaign that was not ‘exciting enough’ to the client. They thrashed it mercilessly.

“Its a 20 seconder, we don’t have the time for a story.”
“Print needs to say ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘that’ and ‘this’. Make it all big. How will consumer know this. He needs to know that too……”

Essentially, they wanted to talk about five different things in an exciting manner in a twenty seconder ad that should also be clutter breaking since they had low budgets compared to competition.

I told them that the ad might work better if we concentrate on the most important thing – one thing to talk about. We might then have a chance of making memorable successful campaign. But nop. They wanted to say it all and apparently that is the creative challenge‘.

‘That is the creative challenge‘ is a phrase I have heard often enough. Its the lazy way out of having to make decisions. It is the lazy way out having to work as a team to arrive at better ideas.

It is precisely at this moment that one knows – the campaign is going to be  a dud. At a strategic level, the client has already made a mess and does not want to own up to it, to make sense of it. And no amount of creativity now is going to salvage it. And even if by the stroke of dumb luck, creatives come up with something workable, the idea will get ‘dialed up, dialed down‘ as the client tries to retroactively make sense of his / her strategy.

The antidote – Make people think along

If by some means you could inculcate a habit, inculcate this. For every meeting – briefing, brainstorming, client presentation etc., – make it a habit of visualizing the idea being presented. What could the idea mean actually? What are the best/ worst ads you can think of in that direction?

So if the planner gives you shitty brief with big words – ask him to give him an example of a ‘bad ad’. Give it a go. The planner has not thought through his brief if he doesn’t already have a few ideas himself.

So if the servicing guy comes back with client feedback that seems to worsen the creative work – ask him/ her to think along – how do they visualise it? how has the client visualised it?

so if the client asks to ‘dial up/ dial down’ or add this/ that – ask them to think along. ask them,

What should the ad say?”,
“What would the people remember from this ad?”

If no one has confident answers for these questions – there is no point in starting to work on a script/ idea. Get clarity about ‘what the ad needs to say/do’ first – not in abstract bullshit terms but words that anyone can visualise, actions that anyone can relate to.

A matter of dialing ‘it’ up or down

A matter of dialing ‘it’ up or down

As a strategic planner, I try to make choices clear for a marketer: for example, whether a campaign needs to talk about ‘new ingredients’, ‘benefit of new ingredients’, ‘advantage of the product’, emotional pitch for the brand and so on. Now, for a reasonable person, making that choice, though not easy, is possible. All it needs is to do is to consider the data at hand, understand the objective well and review lessons learnt in past.

The point is, for a communication to be strong, marketers must choose ‘one’ direction. Mostly, I propose a choice to them with a rationale why. Most of the times those suggestions are accepted. But then comes a certain breed of clients that can’t make up its minds.

It treats communications as an act of piloting an airplane. a lever dialed down here, a button pushed there. They recognise the various variables at play. But instead of choosing the one variable to push for this one campaign, they try to pilot their brand through the inundated sea of medias with a single commercial that talks of five different things – ofcouse – some ‘dialled up’ and some ‘dialled down’.

These commercials always ‘pass like a ship in the night.’ Then it becomes a challenge in avoiding the inevitable when the  client has made up its mind about the whole business of dialing up and down.

The trick is to understand that, while the marketing plan and budgeting might be similar to piloting an airplane with various dials to turn up and down. When it comes to a campaign, it is more like rowing a boat. Build on previous strength and pedal forward in a defined direction. No room of pedaling other boats or pedaling in multiple directions at the same time.

Choose one direction, choose wisely, push hard.