Living in the heart of a thriving city, while observing the peculiarities of society and pondering about one’s future has never been more challenging. It’s been nearly a decade and a half since I was hurled into the ‘so-called’ corporate world of Sri Lanka.
I was prewarned that it would be a piece of cake but what my peers and seniors forgot to disclose was that there’s more to the corporate world than what meets the eye.
Two Thousand and Eleven
We had lost the last Cricket World Cup to a formidable Indian team in 2009 and wounds were still fresh. Sri Lanka had played some great Cricket until we met our Asian arch-rivals. Sport has always been something that has uplifted the frivolous inhabitants of the jovial island nation, especially since the conclusion of the 30-year civil war which engulfed most of the country’s beauty. Sri Lankan’s were known for many things but none greater than the love for this amazing sport gifted by the English somewhere around the early nineteenth century.
You’d probably read the disappointment when I say we didn’t too well at the 2009 T20 World Cup finals either. If you were associated with the sport in any way, you’d agree with me when I say that it wasn’t a good couple of years for Sri Lankan Cricket.
My being an enthusiastic chap fresh out of university, what are they called again? Oh yeah, “Fresh Off The Boat” FOBS for short joined a leading Social Services company and needless to say the job role wasn’t paying much. (Probably because all I had to do was read and write articles on Alcohol, Smoking and its detrimental aspects on humanity) but on the bright side, the coffee was good. That’s one thing with us Sri Lankans, we love our hot beverages especially Tea and Coffee. Apart from that the job really didn’t offer much in terms of growth. So, I set forth elsewhere hoping to build my fortress in the sky.
The Next Chapter
If you’re in your mid-twenties like a free bird, no, let’s go with hawk, gazing into the yonder then we could relate well. This agency was magical I mean I wouldn’t start work till 10.30 am or so despite having to sign in by 9.00 am. Office camaraderie, extended lunch breaks and constant treats were more a habit than a luxury. Oh, I don’t even know how Aunty Tara kept gobbling all the chocolate cakes and brownies, she had an insane craving for an ummm… Oldish lady. Office romance was on another level, Chathuranga constantly trying desperately to woo Chani and Athula passing a cheeky remark or two at the Anuradha our policewoman. And then there was Lara. The entire Creative department just drooled over her. Such poise, such grace all that and more in a tiny fair package.July, a few months after my first real job I was hired by a leading Advertising firm with an immense reputation both locally and globally, perhaps on the pretext that I represented a certain school by the sea that was a part of a school cricketing tradition that existed for nearly 150 years. Or maybe it was the international tertiary educational exposure hmm… either way, I was hired and thrilled.
The best thing about this place, however, was the fact that we never had attire restrictions. Even sarongs and flip flops were permitted. Ahhh! the life.
Writing for me has been somewhat a cryptic skill that’s perhaps why I suppose I enjoyed this place more than any other place. I was quite surprised and thrilled when Shani came up to me with a compliment from a client “Here the client loved your work and wanted only to write their ads” she said. If only they’d know that a junior writer was behind all that, they might have even changed agencies.
At this point I befriended the office flirt, you know I can’t use his name for obvious reasons but if you have a sister or a bunch of girlfriends then he’s sure to be on top of your mutual friends’ list. This guy was full of himself at least according to the ladies at work but seemed quite decent to me, we’d talk of Cricket whenever possible possibly because he and both played for Division A clubs, we both were fitness fanatics but this bloke took it to a whole new level. He even had a pan and cooking oil at work so that he could munch something in between.
Giving up a degree in Biotech wasn’t the best decision I’d made but perhaps it was the most fruitful. I mean had I not turned up at my doorstep one fine day saying “surprise” then I’d probably not have been able to head over to Malaysia to pursue my dream career in Mechanical Engineering. Yes, I know what you’re thinking and no, my degree isn’t in Mechanical Engineering but let’s get to that later I wouldn’t want to give you a headache just yet.
Fate has a funny way of taking us to places when we least expect it to. That’s exactly what happened to me when I BSA also an advertising agency of high esteem. Now armed with a Master’s Degree in Psychology I thought I was ready to analyze the minds of the client. It is said that the client has absolutely no idea what s/he wants to sell. They just throw a brick at you and expect to find a fortress at their yard. Sadly, this is still the case in this industry and unfortunately, no one has the capacity or the audacity to educate the client in this regard. Until then doom isn’t just another computer game we’d have played early on. So, as I was saying before I got a tad carried away, I was hired to handle a few social media pages and strategize or so I thought. Who’d have known that interviews were much like what the ancient Chinese proverb ‘a dagger concealed in a smile.’ Read. Now note when Sri Lankans’ say ‘We already have a Manager to handle social media but we’d need an assistant’ that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the ‘Assistant Manager’. How was I to know the Creative Director who happened to interview me made it sound like that were the case but alas I was famed as a ‘Business Development Executive’ and to add salt to the hypothetical wound the ‘Manager’ who was just a year or so older with similar qualifications and experience as I was two levels higher than I. Feeling betrayed I called it quits a few weeks later. That’s when the real change happened.
The Power of Perseverance
Interview after interview I was left heartbroken. All I heard were “we require an aptitude test’ or ‘we’d get back to you once we reach out to the board on your salary expectations’ or worse they’d simply steal your idea and then one fine day you see it either on TV or a billboard etc. this is the harsh reality of the Sri Lankan private sector. Mind you these aren’t small scale companies or startups. The abysmal void that I dug for myself made me ponder why a bloke with close to a decade of Advertising, Branding and Marketing experience, A degree in Communications & Media Management, A Master’s degree in Psychology and an impressive portfolio couldn’t acquire a scale of a hundred thousand Rupees. The Education industry makes you work extremely hard for a piece of paper which is hardly utilized in the practical world and worst of all they end up charging an arm and a leg for it. When the time to reap the rewards come, you’re at the end of the ladder and sadly there no going up proportionally to what you’ve invested. This is the untold truth of society. Every child in this wonderful country would have this fate written for them unless their parents are affluent Directors of major conglomerates or Politicians.
‘A journey of thousand miles starts with a single step’. Knock knock and knock on the door and if it doesn’t open break the darn thing open until you enter. This is what happen when I was sitting at a table surround by a couple of youngish directors and a doctor who owned a boutique web development company. They were quite frankly fed up of the typical Sri Lankan jargon so, convincing them was going to be a challenge. They asked me how I could take their business to the next level. Heck, all I wanted at that moment was a job that could pay my bills. Isn’t that what everyone wants? The board decided to give me a chance and when I asked them why I was hired this is what they said “Your answer a service offering should thrive to make someone’s life easier and if we find the root problem of our potential clients’ business, then we can find a solution. That is when they pay us. They pay for a solution not for a product.”
Life is all about taking chances. Had the Cricket Management of Sri Lanka not taken a bold chance to open the batting with a bowler who could bat a bit and a young wicket-keeper both whom fancied playing shots, we’d probably have never won the World Cup in 1996 and neither would we have come to attest the magnificent innings of the Dynamic Duo Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. The Management decided to risk it and the Captain implemented it. Sri Lanka simply thought out of the box. It could have gone horribly wrong and we could have been the laughing stock of the Cricket fraternity but it paid off. It’s a leap of faith and nothing more to create something special.
‘Head of Communications’, the turning point of my professional career. I will always be grateful to those who sat at that table that day. When my time came to bid adieu, I had managed to raise our clientele to 40, which was a remarkable effort given the fact that we only had a workforce of 10, which was also ironically the number of accounts we initially had.
The next three companies A,B,C taught me to never stick my nose in employee – Company matters. Let the Human Resources department do the dirty work after all that’s why they are there, aren’t they?
Challenges and Lessons Learned
While enjoying a stint as the ‘Head of Social Media’ I was required to perform a rather vapid task. The task which involved denying two senior employees from taking Annual Leave at the same time during Christmas. One of them Krish had made plans with family, while the other Geth was scheduled to fly overseas. The daunting part was telling them that one of them had to forgo their plans as Management wished not to release two seniors simultaneously and unfortunately for me both had applied for Annual Leave months in advance. Now conveniently HR & Management passed the ball on me. Sweet… The ethical thing to do is let them both go take their time off. When I tried to explain the situation to Management all they were worried about at the time was the workload. Typical Sri Lankan mindset. “You have to keep them here at office. That’s final” was all I heard. Why Should I be the ‘bad man’ Why can’t HR do it, after all it’s their mistake, were some of the questions that probed my mind.
The second problem was that a client of ours, a leading global media agency in the country who eventually contracted one of its clients Unilever to us. We at the time were in charge of managing Unilever’s social media pages brand-wise. This was a big deal as a chunk of our revenue came through these accounts and not only that it also added a sense of prestige to handle an international brand.
All went well until a circular was sent across to all the Heads of Departments (HOD) to simply halt all Unilever activities within the following two days as a payment issue between the client and us had arisen. Upon consulting Management, I was informed that the client had failed to settle dues for the past 6 months or so and finally the plug was to be pulled without their knowledge. What would happen to Unilever? They would completely be left stranded. What would happen to their reputation?
These thoughts of concern prompted me to contact the accounts department for verification and subsequently reach out to the Client, whom assured that all payments were settled the previous evening. Informing this to Management didn’t go too well as they insisted on sticking to their ‘Gorilla Attack’ finally I was left with no choice but to inform both the Client and the product Heads of Unilever of our interest to pull the plug.
This entire pandemonium made me realise that staying at this company any longer made no sense. Finally, I tendered my resignation the following day.
This was a good experience for me as I had never faced such a situation and anecdotes some of the other Heads mentioned made me realise that I had made the right choice. Some of the other HOD’s were talented in a multitude of ways, they were capable of superhuman feat while remaining calm, while staring at the face of pressure. Shakeer Dassanayake and Hemantha Elikewela were a notable few.
The Final Straw
At this point the private corporate sector was something that wasn’t even remotely palatable. Things didn’t turn out as I had planned and neither did it get any better.
Office politics is something that is widely available throughout the working community in Sri Lanka and quite frankly I reckon we love it in away. Sadly, this was the case at my final workplace listed here and a part of it I did not wish to be hence, the resignation just after a brief period.
The journey in the corporate world has been a daunting and tedious task paved with nails however, over the years I’ve acquired many traits, fraternized many important colleagues, been to wonderful places and tried out my hand at a plethora of industries from Event Management, to FMCG, to running my own digital agency to freelancing etc., all, which I learned plenty from but the most invaluable lesson I learned was to never give up. “We could either chose to wallow in sorrow or sneak in through the window of opportunity”. The choice is ours.
The author, a well accomplished figure in the Media & Advertising Industry serves as Digital Marketing Head and Creative Director at a leading firm in the industry. He is also a fitness enthusiast and an Editor for a lifestyle magazine, who resides with his five pet dogs in Colombo.
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