Being a phoenix

There’s been a flurry of recent thought about second chances. Lest you conclude that I am re-evaluating my plan for life, these thoughts are anything but prescriptive.

There are people who believe fulfilment lies in private jets, 40 years of a happy marriage and the cover of Time magazine. I have tried and failed to participate in such belief.

I belong to a residual group that remembers the irreplacable excitement of the first day of the first job. On a less economical note, I do not deny that the best days of a relationship reside in its beginning. And, in consequence, I believe not in climbing a ladder, but in starting at the bottom and climbing a couple of rungs, only to slide back to the bottom and start over. Those couple of rungs at the bottom are, according to me, the most challenging yet intriguing, excruciating yet enjoyable part of the ladder.

Four years of technology, four years of communication and four years of commerce later I am neither an IT guru, nor a creative director, and far from being a Vice-President. And yet each of these times was thrilling enough for me to be back at the bottom rung today, starting from scratch and going through the pain and the joy all over again.

However, there is a catch.

Each time it gets harder to conceive an austere skin-and-flesh state of being. How do you invalidate the repository knowledge and wisdom that has grown over the years? How do you deny a personality that has been pruned and polished by social existence? How can you erase a physical configuration that makes for easy judgment? Ridding oneself of material possessions is easy, it is the intangible wherein lies the challenge.

Here’s to round four of starting from scratch and heading towards sunlight, to reconciling with a new career and a new life. If emptying my pockets is metaphor enough to going back to the beginning, I am halfway there.

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The storm before the calm

I was told it’s a big deal to quit a good job and take off to the mountains. In my mind it was simple. You quit. And then you leave. And you don’t look back.

I read somewhere that it is as if the continent of South America was built for travellers. I believe that it is built for people who are looking for answers without knowing the question. Maybe the answer will be the question that needs to be asked.

And this mystery piques my curiosity enough to allow for an unwavering motivation that does not falter despite the temptation of a rosy job offer, or a cosy bed. Distant lands hold promise, and I have every intention of unravelling this pledge.

But then, Hello World!

An Indian passport doesn’t get you very far in this judgmental world. Access to money, rightfully yours and legally earned, is a bitch. Human Resources moonlight as blood-sucking vampires. Friends make it hard to leave.

The world is a factory, and it is designed to be a nightmare for people who choose to leave the assembly line.

I think this is good. In fact it is great!

Much like a bachelor party before a wedding, this limbo period has been a test. It has re-introduced me to all the worthy temptations, and has awakened me to the challenges that lie ahead. And yet I choose to take the plunge. I choose to distance myself from familiarity to embrace something without knowing what it is. And if THIS does not say “I do,” then I don’t know what does.

Machu Picchu awaits. So do the high plains of Bolivia, the iguanas of Ecuador and the streets of Medellin. Vamanos!

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.

iPhatuation

Nokia asks its employees to be honest and forthcoming in their work-related social communications, so let me begin from there.

I have been a part of Nokia for three exciting years, during the course of which I was thoroughly enamored by its consumer offerings, its culture and most importantly its intent for social good.

Before I joined Nokia, I had never used one of their products, neither their paper and rubber, which were well before my time, nor their mobile phones. I had, instead, had the mixed fortune of using an iPhone, a MotoRAZR, an HTC Touch (which I returned in 2 days because the phone supported only French and not English), a Sony Ericsson T-something which did not deserve to be remembered, and a Samsung clamshell that I stole from my mom because it had a spectacular monthly plan.

Frankly, I never put much thought into the mobile I owned – until I had to do it for a living. It came to me as a surprise that mobile phones overtook shoes as the most prominent symbol of economic stature in Africa a couple of years ago. If forced to comment on my past phones, the most I can say is that the MotoRAZR had a funky ringtone, and that the Samsung flip-phone did not break when I accidentally dropped it from the second floor. However, I do retain a strong opinion about the iPhone. And before getting into this any further, I should assert that this is strictly a personal opinion driven by personal circumstances.

In early 2008, the iPhone was the zeitgeist gadget. It still is, but was much more so back then. My affluent cousin mentioned that he had one lying around somewhere because he did not care for it and I eagerly volunteered to relieve him of the burden. I prepped my housemates for two weeks, losing no occasion to remind them that I was soon going to have an iPhone – Home of iTunes, Mother of touchscreens.This was going to be the greatest and most portable music experience ever, and I couldn’t wait for it to begin. The day finally arrived, the iPhone came along and I honeymooned with it for the first couple of days. This was the future. A touchscreen in my hand!

A few days had gone by. I was now texting friends that I never did before because it was an opportunity for me to get more of the touch experience. The alarm clock was so much cooler than my drab Samsung alarm, I would actually wake up in time for class. Multiple homescreens – I got a high from just flipping through them and knowing there was so much I could do with this phone! This cannot be in the same league as the RAZR. This isn’t a phone. This is a smartphone!

And then there was the flip side which I chose to ignore. I tried twice unsuccessfully to get myself onto iTunes, but it was too complicated to figure out. The backside of the phone made an annoying sound when I slid it on the table. The camera click was loud, but the picture quality was poor – analogous to barking dogs never biting. Maps were an illusion because I could never afford to load them on a prepaid SIM card. And yet I loved it. I loved the iDEA of the iPhone.

Good things don’t last forever. In true tragic fashion, my e-topia came to a crashing demise. My housemate, fed up of my preening, challenged me to a music duel. We both had to play the same song on each phone (he had a petty Sony Ericsson) and the louder, clearer speaker would be the disambiguated winner. I thought this was a fair duel because to me the iPhone was largely a music phone. Fifteen minutes later we had picked the song. He tried Bluetoothing the song to me, but since the iPhone does not support popular technology, we had to transfer it to his computer and then to my phone. The taxi driver was to be the referee, and he would be subjected to a blind test by not identifying the device that the music was coming from. As you probably guessed by now, the crappy Sony Ericsson won. Hands down! There was absolutely no comparison between the crystal-clear $150 Sony Ericsson speaker and the $600 iPhone one.

Woe-struck, I plunged myself into sorrow and contemplation. So the iPhone wasn’t invincible. All the misdemeanors that I had previously forgiven now came to the forefront – the poor connectivity, the inaudible calls, the overheating battery, the thousands of unused features, and the unfriendly iTunes. The humiliating defeat at the hands of an unassuming Sony Ericsson gave me perspective. I didn’t love the iPhone. Hell, I didn’t need even half an iPhone. All I sought was the idea of it. It was time to swallow hard and recognize the beginning of the end.

Elevator Etiquette

I work at Nokia. Our office is the crowning glory of a Dubai skyscraper that looks over the Arabian Sea. The Atlantis and the Burj al Arab serve as three dimensional wallpapers behind our transparent walls, and the Emirates Golf Course modestly makes itself available to pensive Nokians when they want to look into the distance. And yet… it sucks.

With about 30 floors in the building, and my light-footed self shuttling up and down constantly, I spend about half an hour twiddling my thumbs, everyday, in the elevator. Over a year, I have invested nearly 8,000 minutes observing and despising my fellow elevatees. This post is a desperate attempt to salvage some value out of these 8,000 minutes.

If the one year I spent in Cairo made me hate elevators, this last year in Dubai has made me despise elevatees. Admittedly, going from hating the game to hating the player is a moral degradation, but I hope this post adequately represents my plight and wins some sympathy. Here is what I deal with. Everyday.

The TimeWaster:
1005am. I am already five minutes late to an important meeting and am cursing myself for the lack of Supermanness in my body. If I could, I would smash my way through floors and ceilings to get to my office without interruption. Ding! The elevator stops on the 6th floor. The door opens to an empty corridor. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. The door finally begins to close. Just as I am about to heave a (premature) sigh of relief, a hand appears out of thin air and wedges itself in between the doors. 1007am. The door opens painfully slowly as I see my career disappearing painfully rapidly. A man, beaming from ear to ear, walks in basking in private glory. His swagger tells the story of a man who achieved greatness by grabbing the one that nearly got away. 1009am. As I discretely try to slip into the meeting room, I am met with clicking tongues and shaking heads.

The Hunchback:
Our small group of future elevatees waits patiently for the elevator to descend from the heavens. After five minutes, the patience wears off and we begin to gather mob-like qualities. One man pumps his right fist into his left palm. Another looks up at God, praying for respite. The third one makes his way to press the button for the fifteenth time, hoping this time his will trumps technology. And amidst this anger and frustration is the nineteen-year old intern, completely oblivious to the goings-on, thoroughly involved in the affairs of her social network. When the lift finally arrives, she gets in only because the traffic shoves her in that direction. Fifteen floors and no mishaps, wow this must be a record! Meanwhile the intern continues her deep engagement with her mobile, so crookedly hunched, so vehemently engrossed, so alarmingly un-inquisitive about her immediate surroundings. When her phone loses signal she finally manages to look away from the screen and up at the floor display only to realize that she never pressed her floor button. A string of curses later, she looks at me with an annoyed glare strong enough to induce guilt in my feeble soul. Maybe in some way I was responsible for her absent-mindedness. I apologetically get out and wish her luck. She glares until the doors close shut between us.

*Note: Can’t believe I fell asleep writing this blog.. mental note that I am writing a blog, not a book…

The Narcissist:
From the instant this person walks in, he can’t take his eyes off his reflection. I duck to avoid his elbow as he wastes no time in organizing his hair. After a few moments with my nose in his armpit, he relinquishes and swivels sideways to admire his profile. Sock! His elbow gets me this time. This man is all about symmetry – he swerves the other way to pay attention to the remainder of his body. When his floor arrives, he walks backwards in earnest sadness, like he is bidding farewell to his reflection forever.

The Loudspeaker:
This specimen thrives in the company of colleagues, particularly in enclosed premises. Fifteen floors in the lift with him and I have a good understanding of his company’s financials, its marketing strategy, his son’s Angry Birds addiction and his typical weekend. “Why speak softly when you can scream” is his baseline logic.

The Altruist:
A subconscious TimeWaster, the Altruist shalt not step into an elevator and leave behind his comrades. He suppresses any attempt by the doors to shut. “No need to run, I am holding the door…”

The Lazy Bum:
Able and sturdy, barely 25 years old, the dude walks into the elevator on the 14th floor. One look at him and I know he’s going to piss everyone off with what he’s going to do next. He presses #13.

The Helen of Troy:
Gorgeous lady walks in – oxygen becomes scarce as all the men start breathing heavily. Everyone in the lift arranges himself around her.

The SpaceInvader:
Dude, stop backing up into my belly!

Zambia

Chapter 0: Prelude
I have been asked a million times. Why Zambia? And as I paid for my expensive flight, I asked myself a million times. Why Zambia? My first stop in Livingstone, the land of wannabe backpackers with laptops and iPods, strategically positioned tattoos, and ‘I dont care, but I do care’ attitudes. My second stop, Lusaka, a place with nothing of interest even to the most curious.

And then I flew to Luangwa.

I rode a tiny plane with an hour’s worth of bumpy riding to the middle of nowhere. As we landed, the plane came to a harsh halt. A herd of impala was crossing the runway. A lady ran to welcome us to Mfuwe, and led me out of the airport where kids played football in the midst of some bush. It looked like the local football clubs had a huge following. At least among the deer and the warthogs. It hit me. After traveling for so long in the African continent, I had finally reached Africa.

Chapter 1: Home

8pm. I am guided to my tent by a man who has never been more than two kilometres from where he was born. His torch barely lights up the path. There’s a swishing sound from the grass. Was it a snake, or was it the wind? I can’t tell – except I don’t feel the wind blowing on my face.

My sagging sense of observation is suddenly awakened by a loud grunt about ten metres from me. Gah, it’s just the resident hippo, incorrigible in his mating endeavor. We hear the elephants breaking branches ahead of us. Diligently we get off the path and walk through the grass, in the direction of my tent.

I unzip my tent, crouch, and dutifully remind myself to conduct my regular checks. The hole in the mesh is still blocked, that’s a good sign. But the magazine I leaned flimsily against the gaping hole in the back has slid off, so I set it up again. My mind begins to wander – why has the magazine slid from its designated spot? The ground is even, and the magazine isn’t heavy. Did the snake from the morning make its way into my tent, thereby displacing the magazine? I shut my eyes to force such thoughts out of my head. It is impossible to sleep when your mind is seeking signs of a trespassing snake.

I keep the light on to keep the elephants away from my tent. Although no one believes this, I maintain that elephants stay away from lit tents. The moths break through my tender blockades and make a dash for the only light in the vicinity. I try to ignore them so I can fall asleep, but the frogs come bouncing in, in hot pursuit of the moths. I curse. I don’t want any snakes coming in, chasing the frogs. After the close call with a curious green mamba in Livingstone, I was pretty much done with snakes for the rest of my life.

Lights off. I’d rather take on elephants than snakes. Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. This is my second sleepless night, the first one ruined by the horny hippo stomping around my tent. For a wannabe wildlife expert who grew up in cities scared of domestic lizards, it is hard to sleep when a hippo, a croc, lethal snakes and a whole herd of hungry elephants are lurking nearby, barely separated by a layer of linen that wouldn’t hold against a human punch, leave alone a passionate animal.

I give up and force myself out of bed. This is war. This is redemption. This is the preceding moment that will define my wildlife escapades of the future.

I have to face the grass. And all that it brings with it.

I crouch, unzip my tent, reset the magazine with two fingers and walk alone in the darkness back to civilization.

Fifteen minutes later, I tried to be unsurprised about still being alive. I browse through a narrow collection of books. I couldn’t more randomly have found a more appropriate book to keep me company over the next few days. The Trouble With Africa.