Mumbai: Angela Ryan, the Asia-Pacific human resources director of GroupM, the global media services network of marketing communications services holding company WPP Group Plc., talks about human resource policies in tough times, steps to build morale and where Indian resources can be used in other markets. GroupM media agencies in India include Mindshare, MediaCom, Mediaedge:cia and Maxus. Edited excerpts:

People policy: Ryan says getting people to feel motivated in this environment is important.

Shubha George is an example of someone based out of India, but has some skills and expertise that we want to deploy outside of India. At the moment, some of the work she’s going to do outside on a long-term basis is still being crafted. The idea is that she will be based in India (for now) but (be) involved in the network in other ways. We are looking at a regional role for her. In the meantime, we needed to ensure that we have a succession plan in India for Mediaedge:cia. What we have (now) is the handover period. Going into a leadership role anyway takes around six months or more.

How has the economic downturn affected GroupM’s staffing policies?

We are a part of WPP Group Plc., which employs more than 100,000 people in various offices. Globally WPP has announced a reduction in head count. Obviously different areas (markets) have been affected in different degrees. In Asia-Pacific; it’s much lesser. In India, we haven’t made any (staff cuts). But certainly, where people have friends and colleagues in other markets that have been made redundant, there’s a sense of anxiety that comes with that.

Any example of how you are hoping to build employee morale?

In spite of the staff cuts, we still heavily invest in training and development and engage with people better. In GroupM Asia Pacific, we have launched a new management programme, called Momentum, designed for our top talent. Really smart people get to be managers at a very young stage in their career. But they haven’t learnt how to manage other people. Which is why we have invested in a very large-scale programme this year (Momentum) that was co-developed with a leading training consultancy. Our employees go through different development plans, which includes e-learning, one-to-one approach, etc. Part of that is learning how to manage yourself and to manage other people.

Is there a marked change in attrition rates this year versus last?

Young people populate our industry. Employees in most of our markets are predominantly Generation Y (or generation next)—a demographic group that looks to change jobs every couple of years... Media agencies have generally seen 30-35% attrition rates last year; but this year because of the downturn, it’s in single digits. It’s a good opportunity to retain talent. Even during a downturn, there’s always room for excellent people and if you are hiring you would want to hire the best.

Will GroupM India be a hub for the network in any skill areas?

We are looking at having a lot of backend operations out of India. We are still piloting it though. GroupM has client teams, supported by an operations backend.

We have a function called mPlan—a plan that manages the operations part of the business. Then we have another division which is a resource centre that takes care of accounting and billing. These are centralized in Mumbai and Delhi and are doing work across the country. We will see how this model will work in other markets and we have shared this at a regional level.

Besides, we already do have a matrix structure between agencies in GroupM. One of the benefits is that we are able to leverage talent from whatever market they may sit in and use it across the region, as we need to. As per our matrix structure; we have small teams (specialist units/services) that are hubbed out of Singapore and have regional headquarters in Hong Kong and these work across the region. We manage to employ people who are trained in a particular area and work across markets. Like my role. I am based out of Singapore but I am the HR director for the Asia-Pacific. A key part of my role is to spend my time travelling to local markets and interacting with teams there.

Could you talk about some innovative practices used by a GroupM agency to encourage out-of-the box thinking?

Well, MediaCom, for example, outside of India have a stated mission that says: putting people first translates to results. In a lot of markets, we launched a programme for Mediacom called Freshness, a concept that talks about the way that you think and challenges you to think differently. It helps you come up with innovative ideas, and not use the same old and tried methods of doing work. Again in markets such as China, GroupM has taken employees out in an activity that involved street art. The idea is to think differently, so you don’t come to work everyday and do the same things. In GroupM India, we are getting some drummers in and some basic lessons for (drumming) will be given. It’s a way of de-stressing and doing something different. In this environment, getting people to feel motivated is important.