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Aalap Desai: 'The only option we have right now is to keep swinging!'

20 Jul 2020

The COVID-19 global lockdown has not just confined us to our homes but thrown at us challenges of various dimensions. From the ad industry’s perspective, organising and shooting an advertising campaign in these conditions proved to be the big test.

However, despite these challenges our creative leaders have continued to create work that inspires all. In our new series – e4m Creative Zone – where we get to know how Creative heads have been surpassing the COVID hurdles.

In today’s edition we speak to a star creative who has an interesting background. Apart from ads, he has written feature film scripts, web series and TV shows like the first season of MTV Sound Trippin’. We catch up with Aalap Desai, National Creative Director, mcgarrybowen India.

Previously, Desai was Creative Partner at Hotstar and has also been a part of the team at Leo Burnett, JWT, DDB Mudra, Ogilvy and Ambience Publicis. He has handled brands such as, McDonald’s, Complan, HE Deo, Nerolac, Huggies, among others.

In conversation with exchange4media, Desai speaks of virtual ad shoots, how it’s made work and relationships more transactional and client budgets.

Edited excerpts:

As a creative how is this experience of creating and shooting remotely?

Typically, this lockdown has kind of throttled the creative business a bit. But we are adapting to it, to the calls and we're getting used to brainstorming on calls and getting used to thinking, presenting better. Initially there were a lot of problems when we were making presentations, ideas and everything but now we're kind of getting out of it. I think there were teething issues, because we’re not used to working from home. But now we're getting around it.

The biggest challenge that we're kind of facing as creatives in the ad agency world is that we are used to sitting in a room, bouncing ideas off each other, using each other as bouncing boards and then coming up with an idea. Now we do it over calls, and we're finding our space there.

As far as shooting is concerned it's a bit difficult. Honestly, because if you're on set, you can interact with the director sitting right next to you or the actors. Right now, we're doing it remotely through live feeds, through Google meets through teams. So I would say that the physical presence at shoots is always better. There is a limited perspective on what a computer screen can tell me, as far as shootings are concerned. But when it comes to sitting at the shoot itself, there is much more interactivity. There's much more involvement but nevertheless we are getting stuff out.

Initially, I think there was this whole trend of how you could make out that these films were shot during the lockdown. There were fixed accesses. But now we have kind of evolved beyond that as well. As shooting was halted for a while, another thing that has happened is that we have started moving more towards animation which is another positive sign.


A lot of people tell me that virtual working has changed things in a way that people call each other only for work. It has made relationships more transactional. What is your take on that?

So as agencies we are under a lot of stress, there are deadlines. We are working till late, and that happens a lot. I personally feel that, and anyone in an agency there is because they love the business. The amount of hours we work or the amount of stress that we take, we cannot be paid enough for it.

And a big part of that love comes because of the people that are around you. So more or less the culture of an agency is something that you build when you're sitting next to each other, or you're going down for the smoke break or you're probably having lunch together. Its the non-timing things that actually drive us to do the work things better. Right now the biggest challenge I think is that it’s all becoming transactional. I used to go to the office at say 9.30 am in the morning and come back around 8.30 pm in the night. During those hours I was spending one hour or 45 minutes having lunch with my creative team. Through those conversations I used to kind of understand what is going on in their lives, food preferences, among other things.

Now, we're now on calls, so much that I have never called anyone out of work, or my creative team out of work, and said, “Hey, what did you have for lunch.” We don't do that anymore. We don't have the space for that anymore, because all we're doing is work meetings and calls. At the end of the day, you're just so tired and you don't want to talk on the phone anymore. So yes, the culture is taking a hit. I personally feel that we have been cut off from each other and that is kind of becoming counterproductive but with time as we are getting used to things, I think that will also grow, in my opinion. For instance, I have started making one call a week to someone who works with me, who's a close friend of mine, and just having a conversation, which is a non-work conversation because I think we all need to really keep a check on each other if we're doing well or not.

How are client budgets now? Are they finally ready to spend on advertising when compared to March and April? What is the general mood like?

Yes, after the market started opening up and people started going to stores and malls, it’s all opening up slowly. Projects that were happening around February and March that had been paused have now resumed. I don't think we've come to the original amount of the budget. The budgets are lesser than we were discussing but the positive sign that we have started discussing the projects, again. So it's kind of opening up. I think it will take some time before we come back to normal and kind of get to the budgets that we used to. Right now, clients are a little hard on budgets because they have different things to look at and worry about. If the business survives, advertising will come in later.


The situation has brought in a great deal of upheaval in the way we work. What are green shoots of opportunity that you see here?

Of digital and the increase of it, I think it is beautifully spiked. We've gotten used to having video calls and virtual presentations. I think it's beautiful. If we ever get 100% back to normal. I think we will end up being more productive because it will be a combination of the physical interaction that we used to have, and a combination of this. Now, I no longer need to fly down to Delhi for a meeting. Like I can sit in Bombay and have that meeting. Initially the first instinct of everyone was if there is a meeting in Delhi, we said that let’s fly there. Now we will start avoiding those things. It saves a lot of time and ups productivity.

I think being stuck in home has sort of sensitized us a lot. We've started concentrating, and paying attention to things like domestic violence, pride, or say depression for that matter. As a community, we've become more sensitive to things, because we've all been pushed into one box.

Moreover, the amount of pieces on digital have increased and the spends on digital have obviously increased but the amount of creativity has increased in a great way. In terms of thinking, this is something we have never faced before that kind of puts your thinking into a box. And when you break out of that box, it will be something that we've never seen before. Because the problem in the end is so new that the solution that comes out automatically becomes the novel idea. It becomes stronger and how you approach it is new which is great.


What would be your message to creatives on grappling with this phase of creating amidst adversity?

So, the biggest thing that I keep telling my team is that whatever we're going through right now, this too shall pass and we will come out of this. So the only option you have right now is to keep swinging. We have to just keep swinging and hope to hit as many balls as possible. So I think that holds true for everyone and that’s what we need to do right now. We just need to keep our patience in place till that happens.

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