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 numbeo.com 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.

Cheers.

_______

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.

Advertising as an amoral tongue on rent

The amoral tounge

In my earlier years of advertising, I was fairly uneasy with the thought of working in advertising on moral grounds. There is a sense of lack of control over the truth about what we are talking about on behalf of the brand. In a sense, advertising is just a rented tongue for an organisation. The tongue doesn’t control the hands and legs or even the mind of the organisation. The disembodied nature of corporate makes it easy for morality to escape its being. Advertising says sweet things, it serenades consumers with beautiful tag lines and jingles, it says sorry on behalf of insincere suitors when shit hits the fan. It would all have been fine if advertising industry had the ‘agency’ to direct and compel organisations to ‘walk the talk’. But it can’t. and there in lies a problem.

The agency-less agencies

For example I worked on Volkswagen’s campaign for ‘blue planet’ early in my career, talking about their ecological innovations. And then it turns out that it is a fucking decepticon of a brand that innovated a lying machine to save itself from it’s ecological responsibility. What a douche brand.

Then came Nestle’s asshole MD talking about privatising all water of the earth. And then came the lead laced maggi. How fucking irresponsible. And I was working in Publicis then, it’s Agency On Record, globally. I managed to not work on that brand for most of the time. But I was not comfortable working in the company that worked for Nestle, and I quit soon after.

I jumped the ship the first chance I got with Junxion strategy, an agency working in the social sector (NGOs, CSR etc). The opportunity to do something good with my narrow skill set was tremendously exciting. But it couldn’t sustain.

I returned to advertising with a clarity there after. I joined Dentsu a tad bit mature from the earlier angry phase of working in advertising. I accepted the role with the realistic appraisal of its limitations and morality.

Advertising industry is a symptom, the disease is Capitalism

Systemically, advertising is morally problematic. But once you accept that you are within the system, then you can try to work with good people and better brands from within the system. That choice is liberating: If you can’t cure the disease, then it your duty to at-least alleviate the symptoms. There is always a choice to be made, to rebel and to strengthen an alternative system (to cure the disease)  or to work with the system (to alleviate the symptoms until you can cure the disease). But until you have the wherewithal and clarity of rebelling constructively, work within the system, as constructively as possible within the small domain of your existence.

I know that systemically, I am contributing to the capitalist engine of pollution – polluting minds, polluting ecology, polluting communities. But there’s a large distance between the immediate ‘good’ that I am doing and long distance ‘bad’ I am contributing to. It’s a trade-off with which I have made my peace for now.

On how it is ok to be ordinary

Ordinariness has such melancholic grace to it. Perhaps, its the finality of its evident fall that leads to submission, that stillness.

Just saw the movie ‘The illusionist‘. Its script was written by Jacques Tati, one of the most wonderful film makers ever. Most of his movies are keen empathetic witnesses to the effect of modernity on a simple human existence. When I saw his movie, ‘playtime’, I was spellbound with the many layers of stories woven in a comic portrayal of  a man navigating a modern city.
Watching the Illusionist, reminded me of the fragility of our identity. The movie is about a magician who is finding it more and more difficult to get work due to advent of modern entertainment of rock music and television. One scene is especially telling, when people in the cities are not at all interested in his acts, while in a village in Scotland, his acts gets appreciated. A woman tags along being awestruck with his ways. He tries to earn more to keep her happy, but she finds happiness with another young man. His fragile existence, a function of a bygone era, is erased when he puts a note to her saying ‘magicians do not exist’ and leaves. He sets free the rabbit that had been his trusted aide in magic tricks for years. One is left wondering, what is he going to do with his life now? But no such worry seems to paint his face. He has simply accepted the end of his identity as a magician.

It made me wonder about my own career too. Since I was a kid I have always known exactly what I want to do with my life, and how I want to lead it. The conception of a life was blamelessly grand and simple. It was simply a business between me and ‘the world’. Of course I was born for greatness.

But somewhere along the way came the question of money and debt. And now what must be done is to judiciously carve a route that will keep me as close to my desired life while being able to earn enough money too, without the aim of greatness. (well, towards nothingness really. more about it later.)

A few years of walking the safe path and you start appreciating the hardship that you are not compelled to do. Hence the simplicity of labor becomes all the more alluring. But great things are simple too. and though they are alluring, your safe distance keeps you away from greatness too. You know that you are not Ajinkya (Invincible). That you are quite ordinary really. And all of a sudden, life becomes so much easier. The self-imposed weight now lifted, you can aim of nothingness and be happy.

But then my chosen identity, that of a ad man, is so fragile. I was in that industry for a while, and now intend to get back into it for good, but our addiction for change will force extinction of my identity as a planner too in some time.

Well, good then. It makes my life easier really. It took a long time for me to accept career as a industry and a role. Earlier, I could only imagine career as what I would learn and how that will shape my life and experiences. I guess, the later view of career is better. I do not remain susceptible to times then. My life doesn’t remain just about my labour then.
After-all, I am more than my 10 hours of weekdays.

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Originally published at On how it is ok to be ordinary