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This is the time for brands to play their part as responsible corporate citizens: Dheeraj Sinha, Leo Burnett
Dheeraj Sinha, CEO & Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo BurnettLeo Burnett
Sinha discussed about building a strong people culture at Leo Burnett and also how brands need to step up and help today

This is the time for brands to play their part as responsible corporate citizens: Dheeraj Sinha, Leo Burnett

Sinha discussed about building a strong people culture at Leo Burnett and also how brands need to step up and help today
  • We caught up with Dheeraj Sinha, CEO & Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett to talk about all that has been happening at the agency, how they have been coping in these difficult times.
  • Sinha told us all that is being done to make sure its employees are safe and motivated and its clients get the most effective solutions to their problems.
  • He also gives some advice to brands on how to navigate these times.
The past one year has been challenging for people the world over. It has been the same for organizations that had to pivot overnight, start functioning remotely and ensure the safety, and sanity of their employees. For advertising agencies, that thrive on brainstorming together and the resultant camaraderie, things were obviously challenging and while many agencies have been called out for not being able to empathize with their people, there were a few agencies that got it right too.

For Leo Burnett, a few of the pivots they had been bringing about in the agency in the past 2-3 years worked in its favor. The year 2020, despite being a difficult year, saw the agency lose zero clients, bring home quite a few awards and come up with work that was noticed and loved.

Dheeraj Sinha, CEO & Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett gives the credit for a good performance amidst such gloom to the culture the agency has been able to build in the past few years. “We all know what the agency of the future is going to be. It will be about solving our clients’ real-time problems, not just with advertising but with the combined use of creativity, data and technology. But I feel what really prepares us for the uncertain future is the culture we are able to build. In terms of culture, the agency of the future has to be really flat and everybody has to be a creator. But if you have an agency with an ingrained culture of resilience, of people coming together, fighting together and making things happen, we will be able to succeed, because frankly, we don't really know what tomorrow might throw at us,” he said.

As a leader, Sinha has been working towards building and strengthening this culture that he speaks about. Not wanting to restrict itself to just a creative workshop, the agency has been focusing on creating full-funnel solutions for its clients. A recent example is its campaign for ACKO Insurance where it created StreetEye, a motorcycle-mounted device to detect submerged potholes in real-time. Designed and developed by the Leo Burnett team, StreetEye tried to solve one of India’s age-old issues – pothole-related accidents.

The agency has also launched three specialized divisions – Leo Burnett Digital, Consult and Design, to give clients exactly the solutions they are looking for.

Building a culture also includes how you treat your employees and Sinha says his focus also has been to keep everyone motivated through the last one year, when everyone has had to stay at home. “The biggest job in a people’s business like advertising is to keep our people’s energies up. I sometimes feel I'm the Chief Energy Officer of Leo Burnett and not the Chief Executive Officer,” he said with a laugh. Over the last year, the agency has come up with frameworks such as 0-3-6, a short- term thinking model to help brands and businesses navigate the not just the immediate (0) but the next three and six months. It has also conducted over 50 workshops for clients. Sinha has also been having conversations with different people from his team which he has named ‘Chai Pe Charcha’, to make sure he is able to have a connect with employees who he does not talk to on a daily basis.

Sinha also said that democratizing leadership has had an important impact on how the culture at the agency is shaping up. “As soon as we entered the pandemic last year, we created a platform for our top 50 leaders. We meet every Tuesday and discuss all kinds of issues. We discuss business, new business, people issues, and a lot of the decisions are taken jointly. If we're going through an issue, it's not one person's decision, rather, the decisions are being owned by a larger culture or a larger group of people. And that to my mind has gone a long way because everybody had a contribution and a say in the direction that agency was headed and in the decisions that we should be taking. And whenever we were in trouble, I would always call upon people and people have stood up and fought and we’ve together won the day,” he explained.

When asked what one of his biggest lessons from the last one year has been, he said, “You need to lead from the front. You cannot ask people to do things that you would never do yourself. You have to lead from the front, you have to be out in the trenches because there’s no way of replicating the amount of camaraderie and strength in culture that builds.”

He feels it is a combination of all these factors that helps the agency sail through, relatively unscathed from the turbulence of 2020. “If you look at our revenue performance in 2020, we weren’t more than 5-6% short than say 2019, which in a year like 2020 is really good. Despite the lockdown, we won around 20 new business pitches, we created close to 1000 pieces of work, we conducted 0-3-6 workshops. In fact, we were India's number one agency at APAC Effies and at Adfest. I would attribute all of these achievements to the culture we’ve managed to create at Leo Burnett,” he said.

On how he anticipates the current wave will impact advertising budgets overall, Sinha said, “I feel most of us right now are going to wait and watch, in terms of how this situation pans out. I feel there are two possible scenarios. If we are able to bring the situation under control, say by the end of May in places like Mumbai, I feel it would lead to a postponement of budgets and demand. But if it goes longer and deeper, that is when we will see budget cuts. We might also see some demand vanish.”

Considering the times we are living in where there is immense suffering all around us, what does he think is the correct approach for brands, considering for many people, ads might be the last thing on their minds at the moment! “If you're a brand, large or small, and you have a stake in the Indian consumer market, you're on TV, Digital, you're playing advertising and selling your products, you have to have a stake in what's going on at this point in time. You have to be on ground and help. I have this whole idea of brands being socio-capitalist where, of course, you are a part of the consumer economy but you should also focus on how you can help. Can you help with oxygen, medicines, food, contribution, entertainment or information? And if you can, this is the time for you to help, you have to play your part as a responsible corporate citizen,” he said.