Kushari previously spent six years at Digitas, most recently as head of investment and accountability. Adweek caught up with Kushari, as well as Omnicom U.S. CEO John Osborn, to discuss her joining OMD in this role during such a crisis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Adweek: Why was Kushari the right fit for this role? And why was this the right time to make this move even before you knew the impact of the kind of disruption you’ve been seeing with the coronavirus pandemic?
John Osborn: A lot of our clients were talking about the need to transform. And a lot of the underlying reasons for that were around disruption, disruption in the way that technology is moving us forward in the new sharing economy, also sometimes referred to as the attention economy. The fact of the matter is that with the world moving more quickly, it becomes more important than ever to be agile and to respond quickly, regardless of the circumstances. We really needed somebody to come in and take a more client-facing role in our transformation.
Shreya can instantly talk broadly and see the big picture as much as she can swoop down and be very intentional in terms of packaging up a lot of information in a way that is extremely relevant to clients.
As this has all kind of developed into a scenario where we’re talking disruption on steroids, her focus in the last several weeks has been very much on our people, making sure that our people are armed with the most recent and relevant information that they can get their hands on, and also our clients. She’s developed a SWAT team, under the heading of our Rapid Response team, that has been maniacally focused on quick turns on rapid-fire questions and needs that our clients are asking, such as specific questions related to a sector of the retail marketplace, the impact on the ecommerce marketplace or the entertainment industry and how behavior patterns are shifting in a unique way.
What are the specific challenges of coming into this role during the coronavirus pandemic?
Shreya Kushari: Whenever you’re new to a place, irrespective of whether you’re in the middle of a global pandemic, it can be daunting. It also is easy because you can always raise your hand and say, “I am the new person, please help me.” Everybody has opened their arms and welcomed me. It has been an easy onboarding. Everybody understands that there’s a higher cause that we are responding to, which is business continuity for our clients while having deeper empathy across the board.
How did you view your this role coming into it and how has that evolved?
We are in the business of serving our clients and ensuring that we have the best product in the market at the right time for the right people. My career has not been in client service. I grew up in media, I’m a hands on keyboard person. I have performed multiple roles from search to social to performance media to running an office to running investments nationally to running global pitches.
My last role was at Digitas, which is a full-service agency with media as one arm. [Osborn] also comes from a larger background beyond media. That’s the perspective which I brought and which OMD appreciated. It was a more holistic view on how to go to market.
Now it feels like I’ve joined NASA as Apollo 13 is launching. But at the foundation is my knowledge of our landscape and understanding of clients across the portfolio and an empathy for the people, both client-side and internally. We are working in a very different environment right now and the question is, “How do we bring all these elements together and keep business continuity?”
What does a definition of business continuity even look like in this environment? It seems like there’s a certain level of disruption that is inevitable and unavoidable. What kinds of conversations are you having with clients around that?
Disruption is the new normal. For me, business continuity doesn’t necessarily get defined in the traditional way of business as usual. It is defined as “How do you continue doing business irrespective of the winds of change?” That might include business transformations, but there’s always action or motion, there’s always planning for the future. Are you future-proofing for that? Are your partners equipping you for that?
How are clients responding to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and OMD’s response to that?
We’ve received a tremendously warm response across the board, across our clients, who see us as partners—not just vendors—and are blown away by the empathy that we are showing and reciprocating.
Clients are used to us working remotely. Very rarely do clients come and sit with us every day of the week. But what is different is that we as a team are now in different locations. And clients have to pivot to that. I will not deny the fact that sometimes there will be disruption going on and that is only natural. We are all human. And clients understand that, and it especially helps us when it comes from the top down. A little bit of patience goes a long way.
What can you tell me about the OMD’s Rapid Response team? What does that entail? How are you communicating that to clients and what has their reception been like?
The reception has been very strong. At a time when there is so much information available, it is important for them to know which information is pertinent to them and how they can then take it to their board members. The Rapid Response team can be broadly structured into two different parts. The first one is digestible nuggets: There’s so much information, what is pertinent for me, what can I take? How can I package this and share it? The second one is a laser-targeted ask which is more specific to a category such as retail.
We are also keeping a pulse on our people. We meet daily with a regional rep who communicates to me and the leadership team anything they are sensing and then we in turn use this module to pass down anything we want messaged out to reassure employees.
For example, day one of working remotely was a bit unnerving for a lot of people. People are not used it, especially those who are earlier in their career. They feel adrift. This got surfaced to me in our Rapid Response daily call. Immediately after that, I pinged [Osborn] and our national head of talent and within hours, if not minutes, it got addressed in an all-hands call.
Osborn: Everything that we all are doing right now, it’s all for our people and our clients. Anything else is not really a priority because it’s all about this disruption that we talked about before. We’re just trying to make sure that everything we’re doing is empathetic, informational and purposeful, not only for our people, but for our clients. And I think that Shreya is an ideal person on the front lines of doing that, and I can’t thank her enough.
Can you expand on what the challenges were for some employees in making the adjustment to remote work? How did you address that and help them make that adjustment?
Kushari: A few of them were feeling a bit overwhelmed that they couldn’t just talk to their neighbor and get a quick answer. It’s such a simple behavioral shift.
The other thing is that sitting at a desk, staring at a screen [all day] can be overwhelming. What we don’t realize is that when we are in the office, we actually take a lot of breaks. And working remotely, it’s the opposite of that because you just don’t move. The solution was to tell them to place a half an hour block in [their] calendar to take a break.
When we were developing rules of the road for remote working—which is new to everyone—we said we must have an HR weekly check-in. We do not know what the impact of a global pandemic will be on our mental health. And we need to keep a check on this diverse, large workforce. We have people from different backgrounds, with different work conditions at home, whether they’re doing child care or senior care, or just living alone or living with roommates. These weekly HR check-ins are basically to keep a pulse on that.
How does this align with COO Scott Downs’ role at OMD?
Osborn: From an infrastructure standpoint and cadence standpoint, he’s making sure that we’re keeping our fingers on the pulse in terms of how our operations are running as sort of the left hand while Shreya is doing our Rapid Response work on the right hand for this period of time.
Scott has a big remit. He is focused on Pepsi USA. In addition to that, he’s our chief operating officer. Previously he had some chief client responsibilities, chief operating responsibilities and Pepsi responsibilities. In a situation like the one we’re in right now, we need all hands on deck. So there’s enough work to go around. And Scott is a vital member on the frontlines working hand-in-hand with Shreya as the chief client officer, and the one who’s really quarterbacking our Rapid Response team. One of the unique things about working through a crisis is that people really lock arms and they watch out for one another.