Posts Tagged ‘transitions’

Part 3: Three weeks waiting for Result

 This is part three and was first published on December 2nd, 2005 while I was living in San Francisco.

You’d think that the coolest thing that could happen to you in the world would be to come into work whenever in the morning as long you managed to saunter in by 11ish, have lunch that was sent over from the HQ canteen, brought by the lunchboxwalla who would then proceed to serve us on china plates with silverware while tracking our accounts for our monthly bill on payday. Then leave around 3.30pm if you didn’t go drinking to the nearest pub instead or open the bottle that Piush would keep in his bottom drawer. And get paid for it. You’d think it was cool but it wasn’t.

After the events in part one and part two, morale spiked certainly, and the six of us would come into work everyday and play cards and tell tall tales, and one guy, he was an expert at extemporaneous classical urdu shairi (poetry) except his were always vaguely filthy parodies that kept us in tears.

As the first week passed, and both Rajat and Sohrab had made visits to the office to tell us to keep the old upper lip stiff, chin chin and all that rot, men, hold on for just another week while we stratergerize your future, you have no clients, we just took over the agency, um yes well, had a nice lunch?

And by the end of the second week, I’d interviewed at Hope Computers, the India VAR for Autodesk in marketing while the rest of the boys were working frantically on their resumes. I must proudly say that Manoj Sharma’s was my first success in positioning someone else’s skills in the marketplace, within months he was a Marketing Executive at Bharat Shell in Bombay.

Hope made me an offer of a 30% increase in salary and I had just received the formal letter and contract when Rajat Sethi arrived to take over as the Head of Result:McCann, India. He’d never worked in direct marketing before but we knew our jobs and worked with him, what he did know was behemoth style brand building, which was something I hadn’t been exposed to until then. Our first project, which took ALL six of us to execute because nobody wanted to be left out of our first project/work after almost a month of idleness. Besides, it was fun. Levi-Strauss had just entered India and needed launch activities executed in New Delhi. Additionally, now that we were officially employed by McCann Erickson Worldwide our salaries were rationalized, perhaps a teeny bit in dollars, but my pay was increased by 94% and promoted to Sr. Project Manager. And for the most part reporting directly to Rajat, and Sohrab for a particularly unique internal project.

First, the Levi project – terrible, really – we had to work till all hours coordinating 501 sponsored dance competitions in the local clubs. Then there was a concert and fashion show. Vehrnon Ibrahim had been flown in from Bangalore to sing his Rush lyrics and Led Zep song and be the DJ. Dude, wtf are you these days? He was lead singer for the band that opened for Deep Purple in India. I was the first person ever to get his autograph.

When McCann moved us out to a better office (it looked like a brothel to be honest, it had been a leather showroom and we didn’t rip out the mirrored walls and glass details when we remodelled) and provided us with our first multimedia computer (1995) I was immediately entranced with the possibilities.

I managed to convince Sohrab to invest Rs 15,000 on a corporate sponsored project that would allow me demonstrate in an upcoming All India meeting of McCann management how the PC could take over the need for lugging A/V equipment  up the wazoo to pitches. We could turn everything from TV clips to radio commercials to print advertising into  one presentation.

 Sounds very ho hum doesn’t it?

Well we were the first in India to adopt that in the advertising industry to my knowledge, if anyone else has an older story I’d love to hear it as well :)

 My opening screen was Sohrab’s head shot ( he was CEO, McCann Erickson India at that time) with the only .wav file I could find that went smarmily, “Hello, darling”. The audience roared and every client servicing department got their own high tech workstations instead of just the creatives.

Sometimes, when you work against so many resource constraints, that it feels like you’re either re-inventing the wheel each time, or making do with the equipment you’ve got to emulate the cool stuff out there in the developed world.

Could that be the root of my mangled paraphrasing, if necessity is the mother of invention, is prosperity the father of innovation?

Part 2: Result in transition

Hmm, I was overwhelmed there for a minute, for this post is about the events of that one day when the future existence of Result, as an entity, as a company, as the direct marketing arm of McCann Erickson Worldwide would still exist. For there were just six people in the office, not counting the external staff.

Manoj Sharma, luckily, was there. He was the only other AE. The others were Piush Ahluwahlia, Field Project Manager attached to my client team, and two, three. (I’ll put our photographs up later.) But I’ll just say this, for a while there, I felt like I was in the TV show Combat, and that this was my platoon and we were abandoned on the hill surrounded by the enemy, waiting.

Why? Because Manas came over to tell us that the Boss had said that McCann was going to close down their DM arm and there was no future and they’d gone away to start their own firm before they all got axed and if that we hurried we could get our jobs there with double the salary. Ain’t that grand, how they saved us?

Did not. I knew that ME had NOT said anything about whether they intended to close down Result or not, besides, I’d heard that Sorab Mistry, the CEO of ME India was in town from HQ in Bombay to meet with the GM guys. So I said, you know what, if they’d wanted us, they would have told us along with the others that they were going instead of sending you back with the news. I’m going to withhold judgement on what ME is going to do, in fact, I’m going to march downt to McCann’s Delhi office and ask to talk to Sorab Mistry directly. He can jolly well tell me first if I have a job or not before I go wandering off chasing a rumor.

The others looked horrified, afraid that they’d lose this job opportunity too if I pissed the Boss man off by haring off to talk to Sohrab. Whooptydoo, I said, [I remember my attitude so clearly, at this ..this dastardly act seems too melodramatic..but that’s how it felt] I don’t know if I wanna follow this leader.

Nobody was pushing forward, even those who “hear hear” ed me, to offer me a ride over on their motorbikes, until Piush said, “I’ll go with you, Madam, but you do the talking”. Heh. He piped up soon enough once we were shown into Sohrab’s presence in a conference room. Sohrab had rushed out of the GM meeting to see us when he heard that we were outside asking to see him. You rock, dude. (He used to call me “professor” or “engineer” but I wasn’t Parsi :)
I will never forget that day what Sohrab Mistry said to us,

Directors of companies do not leave on 24 hours notice. he said

The tone implied it was “not done”. I agreed.

Piush said, “Ok sir, if you’re saying we’re still your employees then you tell us what we should do next.” Sohrab looked at us and said, “Go, manage, hold things together for the next couple of weeks. It’s going to take me that long to figure something out for Result and you guys.”

And so we did. It took three weeks.

To be continued.

How Result became Result:McCann – A trilogy of tragedy and comedy

This is part one and was first published on December 1st, 2005 while I was living in San Francisco.

Life was a peach for Rajat Sethi while he was at Tara Sinha McCann-Erickson in the mid-nineties. As senior vice-president he was looking after an array of brands and serving their ‘traditional’ communication needs. His world turned upside the day the agency was taken over by McCann-Erickson Worldwide.

“The entire team of Result, the direct marketing company of Tara Sinha McCann-Erickson, walked out, leaving the company high and dry,” he reminisces. 

With blessings from the new management team at the agency, Sethi helped rebuild Result, and in the process, fell in love with direct marketing. Today, as chief executive officer at the India office of Wunderman, one of the largest integrated marketing solutions companies in the world, he is as excited about direct marketing and customer relationship management issues, as he was when he first took to this discipline.

This is the introduction to a 2003 interview of Rajat Sethi, ex Sr Vice President and Head, Result:McCann, India. I found it when googling for links to my previous post, and serendipitously, the very story I was hesitating to write, has been touched upon here. So, come, sit by the fire and listen to what really happened, before Rajat came to Result back in June 1995.

Monday was May 5th 1995, I recall the date, I have never forgotten that Monday in the decade since, I came to work after a long weekend catching up with an old flame in Bangalore and had flown into New Delhi late Sunday night. I was not my best in the mornings, but anyone who’s worked with me, usually figures out I’m better after the second cup of coffee. But that morning when I walked up to the office, I could tell something was wrong before I even reached the front door. Mohar Singh the driver was standing talking to Vijay the peon and you could tell they were verbally wringing their hands in terror. As soon as they saw me they came straight up to me together and started off,

” Madam, help us, save our jobs, what will we do, you are the only here, you are the seniormost, tell us what to do”.

[Now I could insert a long cultural note to clarify all the politically incorrect language I’ve used in this paragraph, but rest assured, that is how things worked. And I was just an AE, under a New Delhi branch manager at that time. Keep in mind that India has no welfare or security net for it’s citizens. At a certain socioeconomic strata being out on the street without a job means starvation for the family until the next paycheck.]

In addition, there were the subtle heirarchies of the AE’s, the field managers and supervisors – field staff as in they managed the hundreds of college students or daily wages workers we used for door to door promotions, product launches and other events in the field, requiring street smarts to outwit thugs at night, cops during the day and night as well as all the logistical and beareaucratic permissions for a parade etc – and the support staff that every third world office has – drivers, cleaners, kitchen staff, peons of different levels, office boys etc. Labor is plentiful.

In this context, what had happened, as I was to discover was that over the weekend, the Managing Director, his other Directors, the Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Bangalore and Calcutta branch managers and other senior staff had, along with all the client files and work in progress, fled. Oh, and they took the boombox and were trying to take the car, but we stopped them. heh. sigh. Imagine walking into your office on Monday morning to find your desk stripped of client files, papers strewn across the floor, everyone’s desk ransacked, computers, equipment, everything, gone. Luckily the desks were oversize workstations and our chairs were still there. So I sat down and had a cup of tea and a cigarette.

to be continued..

Impact of mainstreaming and commodification of cyber cafe services

Around 2007, the urban cyber cafe industry began to display signs of maturing as the market saturated and the services specific to internet access underwent a process of commodification.  As it came to be perceived as no different a business than setting up a corner kiosk or hot dog stand, there was a shift in the profile of owner/operators. Many employed professionals such as doctors, teachers, accountants et al purchased going concerns as a means to increase their income streams, considering it no different from owning any other type of  shop which could be manned and run by employees during the day.  While computer literate, few in this new segment of owners were the computer savvy technical specialists or hobbyists who’d originally set up internet operations as a business nor were their employees for the most part.

Given this context, Mathew, who runs a thriving cyber cafe business spread over three towns a couple of hours north of Nairobi, articulated three reasons why many cybers were seen to have shuttered their business:

1. Gaining a reputation for unreliability – Inexperience and/or lack of knowledge on basics like virus management, maintenance or even not knowing how to make all the equipment work meant that systems were often down or not working properly quickly leading to customers avoiding the shop.

2. Quality and training of staff – There would be a difference in operations if the owner were to check in with the business and dealt with issues as they arose rather than showing up once a week for example. Finding qualified people to manage the cafe in the meantime, ensuring that at least one person with the requisite technical knowledge was at hand or on call was imperative to ensure the smooth running of the operations and gaining customer confidence regarding the quality of services offered.

3. Customer relationship management – Thus, building relationships with customers, ensuring loyalty and repeat returns over the long term was of importance to sustain the business.  Mathew himself had a sophisticated customer loyalty program in use across his three cafes – a smart card which could be purchased for differing amounts in advance and printed with the customer’s photograph. He had set up a system by which his staff could monitor and track minutes used by this user base across the three different locations. It ensured loyalty as well as provided an upfront cash payment that is one of the benefits of a prepaid business model.

Perhaps this was why the decline was being seen so obviously in urban locations accustomed to having a cyber at every corner. In Mombasa, one of our interviewees mentioned that it felt like there was one in every building.  The urban industry had matured to the point that a cyber was as ubiquitous as an MPesa dealer or Coca Cola kiosk with the subsequent assumption by many that it could be run as easily as any other business. This aspect does not diminish the impact of other market forces such as internet enable mobiles and affordable data plans and modems but does help explain why we kept hearing that business was growing whenever we stepped out of the city.

As technology diffuses outward from the urban metros, the cybers are seen in ever smaller market towns and highway crossroads, that is, the industry is still in its growth phase, though certainly not in its infancy. A short conversation with a small town mobile shop assistant informed us that they were selling an average of 5 broadband modems a month and she herself found it cheaper and more convenient to browse via her phone. Another young man employed by a national operator observed that education was a critical factor as well – not in terms of the basics, as the region he supported had a very high literacy rate, but in terms of locales where more young people were going off to college and university, being exposed to the potential of this new technology then bringing it back home for it to spread further.

What this seems to imply is that its the casual or social browser – the chatting on IM, the Facebooking, the occasional email – who seems to have cut down on their cyber visits, and this is often the largest segment of people going online. The hard core enthusiasts, the business users or anyone who has not yet invested in their own set up but prefers the “comp” to quote one young man, aren’t abandoning their trips.

What is happening however to the industry as a whole is a natural evolution. In the city, its the innovators who are thriving even as the basic shops decline – a case of may the fittest survive. None among the knowledgeable IT savvy owner operators ever even considered the mobile as a threat to their business, perceived or otherwise. The only constant response to the subject was that of the pricing plans mentioned earlier.

While the answer to the question of whether its mobiles that are pushing the cyber cafes out of business seems to increasingly be a No, our exploration of market forces acting on the industry is still throwing up factors that we had not taken into consideration when we began.

The role of the cyber cafe: Assisted entry ramp onto the information superhighway to use a cliche

Monica’s cyber in the small town of Maai Mahiu, a market for a primarily rural area, is now the only such facility available. There was another cyber on the other side of the main highway, she said, but it closed within its first year of operation.  Internet access in this locale is available only through 3G and its a poor signal with spotty data performance.  JamFram Cyber Cafe offers the town its only source of business support services – photocopy, lamination, binding, secretarial services as well as 6 desktop computers networked on a 3G router.  When we were there, the electricity was out across the town and she was happy to talk while waiting for the lights to come back. In the half hour we were there, only two customers walked in – one asking for a photocopy, the other to check on his documents given for typing.  The cyber business was slow though she’d noted that mobile requests were increasing – the local phone dealer sending new owners of data enabled phones down to her to help them set up an email account and a Facebook page as well as the settings to permit browsing.

So why would the townspeople call her when she took a slightly longer Christmas holiday earlier this year, making her cut short her intended holiday until the middle of January and return to open shop by the 3rd? Why were they concerned that she might have decided to shut shop like the other cyber which gave up after 5 or 6 months? We were left with the impression that the townspeople would support her business bureau’s continued existence than lose access to her range of services.
We found that the cyber cafe has a role to play in the local community beyond the simple service of walk in to browse the internet.

Broadly the roles can be clustered under these main categories:

The cyber as intermediary across the digital divide (ICT)

In people’s minds, ‘Internet’ was associated with the cyber cafe. We heard this over and over from cyber cafe staff that various telco dealers would send across customers facing challenges with the setup of their data enabled phone over to the cyber for help. Or after making the purchase of an internet enabled phone, people would come over to the cyber first – since you cannot set up an email account then make a Facebook page without a computer. Even someone like Jacqueline in Kagumo who was working at the local phone dealer and was saving up for her own laptop and browsed primarily through her phone had to visit the cyber first.

In Malindi, a significant proportion of Salmatech’s customers were the beachboys whom market forces (their international tourist clientele) were forcing onto the internet via email, Skype and Facebook. Necessity drove them to learn how to use the basics of the computer enough so that they could respond to inquiries, communicate and make bookings in advance of the high season – this was critical enough that they would often trade off topping up airtime minutes on their mobiles in order to have money for the cyber’s minutes of use. Here, the cyber was the go to place, even if some of them already owned laptops gifted by tourist friends, to learn and be informed about the hardware, the software and critically, the utility of the internet.

Most cybers offered customers the Kenyan Revenue Authority (KRA) online services for a fee – the facility to get PINs and submit VAT returns online being one of the first egovernment services rolled out nationally. Other such services offered were US Greencard lottery applications, visa application services, registrations for national examinations, even bus ticket bookings when offered online.
But the mediation was not simply between the customer and the internet. Cyber cafes whose operators had a technical background also tended to be full of spare parts and supplies, many offering maintenance and support for hardware in addition to basic services like virus removal, software updates and configuration.

We also found some cybers, particularly those with fixed unlimited access (such via WiMax or DSL), acting as micro ISPs – running cables out to their neighbours for a fixed monthly rate (usually much lower than what the service cost) in order to mitigate the risk of being unable to cover the cost since incomes were otherwise irregular and often unpredictable. But this behaviour, imho, has less to do with their role as an intermediary – though in fact that is what it could said to be – and more to do with coping mechanisms to help manage expenses on volatile cash flows.

The cyber as a training ground

Whether its formal classes offered in basics of computer use or simply the help received from a friendly generous cyber cafe staff or owner, the cyber is most often where learning and practice both online and on the computer takes place.

The cyber as a social place

Primarily seen in locations where there were many young college students, the cyber seems to have become the local hangout. Boy and girls were seen waiting outside for their turn at email or Facebook, chatting with friends, relaxing and mingling with no hurry to get anywhere or do anything in particular. One newish cyber in Kilifi even had an ice cream parlour with cozy tables and chairs in the front half of the spacious store, all decorated in bright colours and visuals.

The cyber as a business bureau

The majority of cybers tend to offer at minimum printing services along with scanning and photocopying depending on their choice of equipment. Most however offer lamination, binding, a variety of typing and basic typesetting services as well. Photo printing, passport photos and mPesa or airtime sales can also be added to increase sources of income but the basic concept of support services tend to default to the local cyber. This role perhaps explains why Monica’s clients were concerned enough to encourage her return to work even if browsing the internet may not have always been their choice of service.

Typesetting or typing services have expanded to include helping students with their research online in some cases, and in places where the internet was not a popular enough service, this facility offered the opportunity to develop a regular clientele of small businesses, local government offices and students to sustain the business.