Managing Director and CEO | 11 May 2012
If you look at the heart of marketing, it breathes meaning into things and ideas. Take Coke and plain carbonated water – the difference between the two is a few billion dollars! As human beings, we decode everything, because the human need is to fill ourselves with meanings. If you are a shaper of meaning, you must know how meaning is made. What is becoming important is symbolic and virtual. Marketing opens up new ways of seeing the world.
Santosh Desai is Managing Director and CEO of Future Brands, a branding services company in the business of creating, managing and offering consultancy services in the brand and consumer space.
Desai has been in the advertising business for 22 years, his last assignment in advertising bigh that of President of McCann Erickson.
A leading commentator on societal and cultural trends, popular culture, brands and marketing, Desai has addressed many national and international seminars and been a jury member of international and national ad awards. He was a jury member of the 56th National Film Awards. He has also penned a book titled ‘Mother Pious Lady – Making sense of everyday India’. Desai is also a regular columnist with The Times of India, Tehelka, Media International and other publications.
In conversation with exchange4media’s Shree Lahiri, Desai speaks about the significance of marketing today, the advertising world in the 80s and now, and the journey ahead...
Q. “Marketing is nothing but creating a meaning. It is today’s biggest challenge and opportunity”. This is what you had said at the India Social Summit. Please elucidate.
If you look at the heart of marketing, it breathes meaning into things and ideas. Take Coke and plain carbonated water – the difference between the two is a few billion dollars! Coke is Coke because there is more meaning in the word. The valuable meaning is that we are not limited by the physical world; the game is about functionality, but what is the meaning that can get added. For instance, take the ‘rakhi’ and a piece of string, the rakhi has so much more meaning to it.
As human beings, we decode everything, because the human need is to fill ourselves with meanings. If you are a shaper of meaning, you must know how meaning is made. What is becoming important is symbolic and virtual. Marketing opens up new ways of seeing the world.
Q. Community-owned brands vis-à-vis company-owned brands. You had pointed out that brands of the future need to understand that their communities will manage them in the future. In such a scenario, what do you think brand owners should do?
In marketing theory, the brand is owned by consumers. But, in reality, brand owners feel they are responsible and are sometimes afraid. It has been a tentative, hesitant and fearful relationship that companies have had with consumers.
But the world is changing in the digital world. Brands and manufacturers have lost control over the narrative and there’s a new sophistication that has come in, wherein consumers talk of brands as part of their lives and feel a sense of ownership.
Brands are struggling to keep up with and adjust to the new world. We’ve spoken of brand building, but you must now know about ‘brand dissolution’. From a centralised situation, you move to a decentralised, scattered view of brands… that’s the shift that has happened.
Q. You had given a call for marketers to bring the ‘bazaar’ back to society, as it was traditionally. What did you mean by that?
Now, there is an artificial schism between markets and society. Traditionally, the bazaar was part of society, and the community also was part of society. By invoking the ‘bazaar’, I meant to make the point that commerce has always been part of society. We need to be inspired by our understanding of history and strike a redefinition of what community means and why markets need to be integrated with society.
Q. Being an alumni of IIM, Ahmedabad yourself, do you think MBAs have an edge over others in the world of advertising?
Not anymore. In the 80s, MBAs came into advertising and put in some good work. Advertising was then a very elite occupation. People from all backgrounds came together, put together some business sense, and research was used too, which made it more professional and serious. It depended less on the brilliance of some individuals.
Then advertising became more mainstream. Over the years, it hardened into a formula with prescriptions and rules on both sides. Then it needed a breakthrough, which happened in the last few years. Today, advertising cannot afford top-level MBA school pass-outs, who are joining banks or software companies.
I’m not a believer in the power of the MBA; they haven’t taken note of what the world has changed into. MBAs do not have any automatic advantage in ad agencies; in fact, at times such as during training, it can be a hindrance.
Q. What was advertising like when you joined in the 80s and when you left and switched to the other side of the table?
When I had passed college, I wanted to join advertising. But my first job was with a company called Niki Tasha, which was into home appliances and TVs, where I spent about seven months before joining an ad agency. In the 80s, advertising was different; the old spirit was very much there. Business orientation was just coming in. You didn’t have international agencies and link-ups. It was a wonderful place where you came in to make friends; you could describe it as a place that was serious, but you had fun too. The first agency I joined was Ulka, which was brilliant. At Mudra, it was outstanding.
When I left, I think product advertising (I mean creative) had improved. Today, the role that advertising plays has diminished. The value of the agency was on the creative ideation. It is ironical that bigger brands have come in, but the industry has lost some of its lustre, while the product has a ‘creative sparkle’, which is an improvement from the 80s.
Q. How was it becoming a client? Was it a new learning curve?
It’s not much of a learning curve. At a senior position in the agency, you are part of the creative process, plus you are the internal client. I’ve been part of the advertising scene too long to ever stop considering myself as an ad person!
Q. What are the challenges that you have faced at Future Brands?
At Future Brands, we have a portfolio of brands, plus there is the advisory, consultancy role. The experience with the Future Group has been a fabulous one. Kishore Biyani has an original mind and is interested in the larger Indian picture; he is a person who sees commercial value in intellectual capital.
And the footprint of influence is larger, which I find very interesting and satisfying. To me, the most interesting part is to create new brands. Apart from that, there’s brand maintenance, there’s consumer anticipation, wielding different facets to create brands, also, the consulting and advisory roles, which is pure fun. You’re at the heart of their biggest worry and the biggest opportunities, and it is exciting.
Q. You don many hats. How do you juggle between the different roles?
I think they are all part of the same. Looking at the understanding to create more connected advertising – the brand creation process; my writing is about India – society initially and then politics, which was a natural evolution; and as a speaker, it comes from an interest in brands and what they mean. All these activities allow for all hats to be worn. And, everything comes down to the same base. Therefore, you deal with these questions at the level of a curious amateur.
Q. What do see your journey ahead as?
I’ve been fortunate enough, and whatever I’ve done is to answer the questions in my head. Future Brands is a wonderful platform, which allows for a diverse level of activities. Being part of this wonderful team is deeply gratifying, and I see this continuing.
The new world is throwing up new big questions… whatever allows me to engage and answer these questions, is exciting for me.
Q. Last but not the least, how has the experience been while writing your book ‘Mother Pious Lady’? Anything new in the pipeline?
The first option would have been to call it ‘India Remixed’ or something like that. But I wanted to capture the trivial and quirky… to capture the spirit of the book, with a certain amount of affection. In advertising, it is a good thing to create curiosity and I guess I acted out my advertising instinct!
I am now working on another book on the last two years in India as seen through cinema. It’s a comment on the society, but to find time to write has been a struggle.