How does marketing meet its objectives, even in times of crisis?
It is a typical temptation in most crisis-response situations for Marketing to be quick-bucketed as discretionary. For those who do not yield to this temptation, marketing becomes the biggest opportunity in crisis. It is the biggest opportunity to not just meet but exceed objectives.
How and Why?
Crisis reveals character because it is often a multi-dimensional challenge. It calls for every P of marketing to get contextual with another “P’ that matters most— Purpose. It is an opportunity for every brand to evaluate its “reason-to-be” and context how it can play a constructive role in the crisis and through that process become more relevant.
Like at Microland for instance, we turned ourselves inside-out to take on the new normal and through that experience enabled the clients we support to take on the new normal.
We say we are in the “reliability” business and today more than ever that becomes critical. Reliable infra is what is keeping that world ticking – and for us to be a part of that “purpose” is a big motivation. Driving a simple agenda like 100% Work From Home for ourselves and in parallel for our clients, meant that we do better at what we always do.
Likewise, the pace of “digital transformation” that we cornerstone ourselves with, now is on overdrive (what was achieved in the last 2 months, would have otherwise taken 2 years) and via the right marketing we are making that visible. Every brand solves a problem, and crisis has enough room for every brand to pitch-it. Crisis is also a time to re- evaluate and consider offering adjacencies and new markets.
This is also a great time to do smart CSR: look at brands like OLA that is enabling a financial support system for its drivers or Intuit that is helping small businesses with Milaap. You stick with your stakeholders through this crisis and they will stay with you forever.
How can the IT industry do a better job of branding itself globally?
India IT has proved itself to the world. From labour arbitrage (we are cheaper!) to intellectual arbitrage (we are smarter!) to ethical arbitrage (we are nicer!), Indian IT has little to prove. It has proved its worth in its performance and share of the global pie.
“Thought Leadership” though has been a missing link in Indian IT’s brand articulation. There is an opportunity for original ideas emerging from the industry to become international standards. I would love to see a “Business Agility Model” or a “Hybrid Sourcing model” that emerges from Indian IT and its collaboration with academia to become a gold standard for capability assessment.
What experiences in your career have transformed you the most?
“Standing on the shoulders of giants” and the opportunity to work with great leaders across Cognizant, Infosys, IBM and today Microland, has been the most transformational. While it has been exhilarating and exasperating at the same time, the willingness to be humbled on the face of greatness and learn from the best has always been transformational.
I owe all of my today to the day after Valentine’s Day in 1999 when I started my career in IT with Cognizant. Falling in love with an industry that’s changed the way the world works. And an opportunity of that magnitude in my hometown, Chennai (outside of a Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore) was truly rare.
To be under the direct tutelage of Ram (Ramkumar Ramamoorthy – today’s CMD of Cognizant) was almost like a gurukul experience. A hands-on leader like him – stood by my side in every deliverable, allowing me to learn, every step of the way and to make mistakes as well. Amongst many other things, Ram was a master-editor and the amount I learnt sitting right next to him as he spruced up a document is an experience I try to replicate with my team, whenever I can.
For a brand marketing person, the craft of getting your content right is like the basics of “making your bed” for an army officer. The other learning was how to keep a strong sense of camaraderie sans bossiness with your team. With Ram on my side and the amazing leadership of Kumar Mahadeva – the very illustrious and enigmatic founding Chairman of the company, Francisco D’Souza – the charismatic young Turk, Lakshmi Narayanan – the ever so humble and empowering father figure, working first hand with Cognizant’s leadership that was always focused on the “Contrarian’ was the best thing that happened. It set me to focus on the pursuit of differentiation that was the core of branding.
Likewise, some of the stellar leaders that I got a chance to work with in Infosys (Murthy with his big thinking) and IBM (Susan Jain who made me push the envelope), and the ambition of these two organizations to make a difference to the world – was truly transformational in framing my thinking of how brands with a larger purpose can pivot beyond brands with a uni-dimensional financial purpose.
As much as the great places teach you great things, the not-so-great experiences teach you greater things. My experience with Private Equity and start-up entrepreneurship taught me the value of patience, perseverance, and reconciliation. Things won’t always go the way you want, people won’t always behave the way you like and the times won’t always be as easy as you wish—but ‘If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs” (Kipling’s “If”) “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it”. There can be nothing more transformational for someone than knowing how to flourish after you falter.
“As much as the great places teach you great things, the not-so-great experiences teach you greater things. There can be nothing more transformational for someone than knowing how to flourish after you falter.”
What role does technology play in marketing?
Technology in marketing has elevated its status from being ambiguous to being precise, from being subjective to being objective. With digital taking over the marketing universe the possibilities of leveraging technology to exhilarate is as possible as the opportunity to evaluate.
Both front-end presentation tech and back-end evaluation tech have transformed the world of marketing. Thanks to tech, Marketing ROI is clearer than ever, customer experience is more important than ever, and creative leverage is more valuable than ever. The possibilities that tech opens to build deep customer engagement, intimacy and stickiness has never been more exciting.
The thing to watch out for though, is to see technology as a “potent enabler” and not the “sole purpose” of marketing. Great marketing needs original thinking and creative ideation, that only experience and intelligence can bring. Tech helps in leverage. Tech-only marketing strategies are at best exemplars of lazy-marketing.
If leaders must develop 50% of their teams to be better than themselves, what advice would you give them?
Show you care!
There is no greater focus for leaders today than to show their teams that they care for their growth. Caring also means putting your teams before yourself when things go right and putting yourself before the team when it is otherwise. A deep sense of intellectual integrity that earns trust.
Have your signature!
My forever brief to myself and my team – “the next job ought to be different from the last one”. Be bold to get bored with yourself and look for that something special in your every output. Work hard and fight for what you truly believe in. All else is terribly boring.
How are you as a leader not wasting this current Covid-19 crisis?
By looking at adjacencies to be relevant in the current narrative across the stakeholder ecosystem. Crisis is a great opportunity to shine and am looking for and executing on every opportunity that presents itself. And of course, most importantly, trying not to do what everyone else is doing. This is a great opportunity to stand differentiated – both in words as well as in actions and am largely focused on looking at ways to do just that.
From your experience, how can organizations benefit from more diversity?
Diversity across dimensions such as gender, physical ability, sexual orientation and most importantly diversity in thought, makes organizations more mature.
In an increasingly self-serving world, diversity presents an opportunity to think about others. Diversity helps shed prejudice and matures teams to work collaboratively. Diversity also creates a high level of objectivity within organizations, where what is said matters more than who says it.
As a leader, how did you discover your life purpose?
By doing what I can, using my craft. By holding onto the things I value, and bringing them to impact via my work to the world at large.
Like for instance, I have always been a big admirer of how media can precipitate social change. The opportunity to roll out a women’s safety program in my last role with a media conglomerate working with the Police and other stakeholders was immensely gratifying.
Likewise, bringing tech to make the world better was a promise that I helped execute at IBM with its many innovations. Doing my day-job and always looking for an opportunity to make it meaningful in the larger scheme of things, has pretty much been a life-purpose that helps me experience personal gratification in a professional indulgence. And, the closer I can architect it to make business sense – the more exciting it gets.
What does innovation mean in the context of your role?
Innovation is presenting a perspective and actionizing it unlike anything else out there. Innovation is about conscious differentiation and the experience of new value adds. Innovation is about seeing an opportunity in every challenge and pursuing that path to success. Innovation is also about smart execution.
What long term trends do you see that leaders should be aware of?
Do not expect to be patronized. Expect to be challenged.
Beware of your prejudices. The world is not what it was yesterday.
Learn to inspire your team. That is your day-job.
Compliment doing with thinking. Tactics can only win in the short run. There is more to the brand than the balance sheet. Keep investing in it.