Category Archives: corporate

NetNeutrality: The Wrong Perspective

As consumers, we Indians are fickle and puerile latching on to shiny new objects without thinking twice. I choose to believe that NetNeutrality is the latest such fad. While this might be a serious concern in the developed world, I don’t think that it is such a bad thing for India and other unconnected nations.

For every one of the 600,000 emails that went out to TRAI in favor of NetNeutrality, there are probably ten farmers and rural handymen silently saying “Dude, I’ll take what I get. Let me have it.” Unfortunately this “cause” has been led by people who already have the privilege of internet access and who are capable of sending emails to TRAI voicing their opinions. These are people thinking about creating a level playing field for big and small internet companies. But how does a farmer tell TRAI that he’d rather have the internet for free, albeit a small part of it?

Internet.org went overnight from being a noble cause to a sick corporate manoeuvre. I loved the idea. I like the idea of Airtel Zero too. Imagine being able to provide free weather reports to farmers and fishermen every day. Imagine being able to bank the unbanked through digital means. This is possible through platforms like Internet.org and Airtel Zero. So instead of having paranoid visions of censorship and data access control, let’s take these platforms for what they are – an opportunity to provide internet access to millions of people that need social upliftment.

Do big companies have an unfair advantage? Yes they do. Are startups going to get screwed over? Probably. But given where we are in the social development cycle, the government should care more about providing an opportunity for hundreds of millions of citizens than about equal opportunity to small companies. If Airtel is wise, it will probably give a heavily discounted rate to small internet companies.

You can choose to look at this as a blasphemous violation of the urban internet entitlement, or as an opportunity for the rural internet hungry – I choose the latter. You can choose to look at this as opening the floodgates for censorship, or opening the door for an informed population – I choose the latter.

I hope the government voids the 600,000 emails to TRAI and serves those who have never sent one, while exercising caution to make sure that this doesn’t become a precedent for censorship. Let us make this about NetAccess, not about NetNeutrality.

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Hire people who will quit. It is okay.

In April 2012, I was drafted to head the incubation center at IIIT Hyderabad. One of the first things I had to do was to recruit a team. This was a bit of a challenge because I had no network in India, no plug into the ecosystem and no big brand to attract employees. Nevertheless I set out to build a team with just one rule – to hire people who will quit.

This flew in the face of many an opinion that employees should be recruited for the long haul. Despite all the raised eyebrows, I think I got it right.

Our team was tasked with inspiring thousands of young minds to give up modern day blue collar work (IT offshoring) and to believe in themselves enough to build their own companies. I believed (and continue to do so) that such dramatic inspiration cannot be delivered by a team that had decided to “settle down with a job”. We needed to be a team full of ambition ourselves, and hope that some of our enthusiasm would spill over onto the impressionable young minds that couldn’t think beyond a job at Facebook (or worse, Infosys).

Two years hence I was running my own tech company and I was advised to follow the (absolutely disgusting) best practice in corporate India to “sign a 1-year bond”. This evil bond allows a company to demand a fee if a recruit quits before one year. Now, I admit that a lot of effort goes into training employees and it is a financial and logistical tragedy if they quit prematurely, but I also believe that this is the cost of doing business – the onus is on the company to retain the employee (and bonded labor is not a legitimate retention policy). Needless to say, our company doesn’t have that policy.

So quit if you must, we’ll be okay.

Lest I oversimplify, there are some caveats.
1. The entering team member should be “able and willing” – able to fulfil the job and willing to go the extra mile. If the recruits do a great job while employed, there will be no ill-feelings when they quit.
2. This logic might be more applicable to high-pressure jobs (such as product development or growth marketing) than to sustenance jobs (such as an accountant or a receptionist).

While I might have been skeptical of my own beliefs a few years ago, I have now completely bought into them. I don’t talk about a leaving employee in hush-hush tones. Instead I bring it up unabashedly while the entire team is out for tea and have everyone joke about it and wish them well. I can sense the relief in the team when they see that quitting is not a bad thing. And inspires them to stay on!

When the door is open, nobody leaves (my dog is an exception).

Hinduism Inc.

I don’t find religion very compelling, but nevertheless I would like to borrow from Hindu mythology for this post. Amongst the vast span of Hindu Gods exist three primary ones: Brahma The Creator, Vishnu The Stabilizer and Shiva The Destroyer. Each of these three gods is entrusted with the responsibility of either creating, managing or destroying things respectively.

As an employee, I wish my job was as well-defined as one of these three but unfortunately I have to juggle between all three roles continually. The same goes for all my colleagues and friends. This situation of uncertain role definition begs the question “What can we borrow from Hindu tradition and apply to corporate culture?”

One way would be to strike out the designation of “Manager” as a misnomer and spread out employee responsibilities. For example, the “Marketing Creator” would come up with innovative tactics and strategies, whereas the “Marketing Destroyer” would rid the company of inefficient processes, investments and resources. The “Marketing Manager”, on the other hand, would ensure smooth running of all marketing operations – implementing the Creator’s innovative ideas despite the Destroyer’s ruthless cost-cutting measures.

This is however impractical – not only because we would have to triplicate a headcount to get the same amount of work done, but also because everybody wants to be a Marketing Creator and none a Marketing Destroyer.

The other, less drastic measure would be to digest the fact that a single employee will continue to juggle between different roles, much like in today’s corporate environment, and optimize the weightage of Creation, Management and Destruction across time. By way of illustration:

Phase 1: The Destroyer
In this phase you enter the role with a fresh perspective. Your predecessor, no matter how accomplished and stellar at his work, is bound to have done a few things wrong. So you set about fixing all his inefficiencies. The fringe benefit is that this is also an opportunity to prove that you know what you are doing and earn the respect of your colleagues. In this phase your role is weighted with about 40% destruction and 60% operational management.

Phase 2: The Manager
Over a period of time, as all the inefficiencies are culled, you free up time for other activities. This is the phase when you can afford hour-long lunches and off-days when you switch your mind off at work and chat on Facebook. With not much destruction to do, and with the laurels of an enhanced RoI to get your back, you have no pressure to perform. Besides, by this time you are already comfortable (and hence efficient) with managing operations. This phase, with 5% destruction, 40% management, 5% creation, 10% networking and 40% bumming around is the calm before the storm.

Phase 3: The Creator
By now questions are asked in whispers about whether you have turned complacent. Your boss wonders if the fire in your belly has been extinguished by your pompous lunches. Like the phoenix, it is time to rise from below. The networking that you accomplished in the previous phase comes in handy and gives you the opportunity to try new things, to experiment and to showcase your results. Your experience of two phases furthers your ability and credibility, so you lack the fear of going wrong. In this phase, you spend about 30% of your time managing and 70% of your time creating new stuff.

Phase 4: The Afterlife
It is important to note that you are as much a victim of this cycle as you are a benefactor. Once you move on to different pastures to destroy someone else’s work, your previous role will be usurped by someone – much like you at the beginning of your stint, who will set about destroying the inefficiencies in the creation that you managed in your last phase. And thus completes the cycle.

The Prodigal Client

Three years in advertising followed by another three in marketing give me the benefit of understanding both sides of the story. Marketing managers are comfortable saying the agency is at fault, and agencies are used to muttering under their breath and carrying on with the standard ways of working.

The question then is how marketing managers can remedy some of their ways of working and this post is prompted by my photographer friend, Neha Ramabhadran (check out her blog here) and her experiences with clients. My attempt here is to suggest some simple, practical measures that can be undertaken by marketing managers, but could easily be replicated in other formats of client-supplier relationships as well.

“Our client is an idiot. He doesn’t know what he wants.”

“Is he an idiot? How does he expect us to deliver this by tomorrow?”

“The idiot should seriously stop telling us how to do our job”

While I’d be the first one to say that agencies always have plenty of room for improvement, it is often overlooked that marketing managers can follow some basic ground rules to better their relationship, and hence the results that their agencies deliver.

The one prominent word in the examples above is “idiot”, an ambiguous word that expresses frustration and anger more than a description of the client. It could easily be replaced with “jerk” or “moron” with little effect on the message it conveys.

1. Treat them as individuals
Remember that your agency is not one person. Just like you treat individuals in your team as separate entities, the same should hold true for your agency. Statements like “our agency is very slow” are inaccurate. Pin-point who from the agency is slow. Is it a particular account manager? Is it the creative? Is it their finance team?

It is important to bear in mind that each member of the agency team has a career ambition and needs professional growth as much as someone in your team does. Making the same mistakes over and over again is a clear indication that the person responsible for the work is either hates his job (unless he is plain stupid). A lot of people getting into agencies hoping to be creative minds but get stuck with monotonous jobs that they didn’t sign up for. Is that the case? The end goal is to zoom in on the crux of the problem, not to make broad statements like “My agency sucks”.

2. Do your homework
Briefs are rarely inaccurate, and that’s obviously a good thing. But the problem is that briefs are also rarely complete. Unsatisfactory work can often be traced back to a brief that was incomplete, fuzzy or too abstract. An extra hour spent in preparing the brief can save days and often weeks of work that’s never going to see the light of the day.

3. Response time
Agencies are sometimes guilty of being slow in responding to emails and phone calls. It is completely unacceptable that an account manager does not receive phone calls during work hours. There is no two ways about it.

However, as the client, we can often set the standard for response time. Always take agency calls. Set yourself a response time – that you are going to respond to our agency’s requests within 2 hours of receiving them. Sometimes work gets delayed by weeks just because the marketing manager is too busy to take 2 minutes out of their schedule and respond to an email. Once you set the quick response standard, the agency will be inspired to follow suit.

4. Transparency
Clients are often not transparent about their business to their agencies. Assuming agencies always sign an NDA, there is no harm in sharing with them the state of their business. This allows them to better understand where you are coming from, and how they can influence that. This forces them to think not about how they can come up with the most creative idea, but how they can come up with the best solution for the problem at hand.

5. Be precise
“We are launching a new product. Can you come up with some activation ideas?” is not a brief. So then what is? Let’s try and explore further.

“We are launching a new product. This is different from our previous products, and our competitors’ products because it has a new widget. Our market research says that most of our consumers value this widget and its availability plays a vital role in their purchasing decision. Can you come up with some activation ideas for this?” Is this a brief? Maybe, but it’s not complete yet.

“Our measure of success for this campaign is to engage at least 20,000 consumers and demonstrate to them how this widget can revolutionize the way they use this product. We need to engage these 20,000 consumers over a 4-week period. The ideal way would be for us to seed 1,000 consumers after which the idea should be engaging enough to draw in the remaining 19,000. Our budget for this campaign is $200,000” Much more complete.

“We do not want an online quiz because we have done it before. We do not want a mall activation because we do not believe that this will generate enough traffic for our target of 20,000. We do not want television partnerships because we cannot afford it.” This rules out any proposals that are a waste of time because you know from the very outset that you do not want them.

“We need this campaign to be live 4 weeks from now. So we need to finalize the activation by next week. The way I would like it to work is if you can come to next week’s presentation with 10 ideas, of which we finalize a couple. Don’t worry about making them look good – what I am trying to do is to finalize the idea. So it’s okay if you present them on a flipchart not PowerPoint.” In my opinion, this is really key. Agencies spend a lot of time working on what they think is a “big idea”. As a client, when we see it, we realize it’s not really that big an idea. Given that we have time constraints more often than not, we are forced to rule out the choice of starting from scratch, and are left with the only option of making the best of the presented idea. The way of working described above makes the marketing manager a compass that corrects the course of the ship along the way, rather than wait until the ship deviates for too long and then make a feeble attempt to get back on track.

6. Prioritize
Reality is that agencies are going to be overburdened most of the time. Reality is also that half of that work is either not time-sensitive or not business-sensitive. So there is always room to prioritize.

This allows the agency to focus on the more important stuff and relegate the less important jobs. This also earns their trust because it shows that you are a sensible manager who understands that it’s impossible to do everything at the same time. So if you often say, “John, please make this a priority. We need this tomorrow,” then make it a point to also be conscious and say whenever possible, “This is not a priority. We need this by next week.”

7. Know what you want
A fairly generic one this, it is important for the client to nail down his objectives for a project and how he sees it manifesting rather than changing his mind several times during the course of the project. This is a clear pre-requisite for many other suggestions in this blog.

8. Be responsible for minutes of the meeting
Status meetings can be a disaster if not utilized properly. Agencies often try to speed up the parts that they are not comfortable with, or have messed up. So it is important to be on the alert and ask them to slow down if they are going too fast.

Also, in an average status meeting we discuss around 30 different jobs. So it is hard for the agency to keep track of the important ones versus the unimportant ones. This makes it really important for the client to retain control over the minutes of the meeting, in order to highlight the important jobs versus the secondary ones. And to make sure the complicated ones are not getting delayed or swept under the carpet.

9. Create structures/frameworks
When clients ask agencies for reports, proposals, ideas, etc. it often turns out that they are not satisfied by the manner in which the content is presented. While it might be too much for an ad-hoc presentation, it would be well worth the time, in cases of repeated presentations, to sit together with the agency and draft a format for presentation that would satisfy the client without burdening the agency too much.

10. Explain and prove why you are right
“I don’t like it,” might not be adequate feedback for a proposal that saw input from several agency members over several weeks. There is a good chance the proposal is uninspiring because the brief was bad, but in any case, the least that can be done in such a situation is that the client properly addresses the reasons why a proposal does not make sense, and how it can be addressed in an optimal timespan.

“This does not work because the widget is not properly positioned and does not hit the limelight. This can be fixed by reducing the focus on other features and using the widget as the single reason-to-believe. It needs to be the hook to draw consumers to our product.” is slightly better than “I hate it.”

As a way of working, you could always et expectations from the very beginning. “My default answer is going to be NO unless you present something that is bang on strategy and different from anything we’ve (or the competition has) done before.