Karthi Kumar Marshan

Former President and CMO at Kotak Mahindra Bank

Conscience Driven Marketing Will Drive Future Narratives for Brands

In this age of data abundance and technology prowess, many experts are questioning the need for a budding content professional to have immersive learning. It may be akin to saying whether we need to go to schools at all. It is the educational and experiential learning that hones the talent of a marketer.  It is this learning that comes to the fore when faced with tech-driven fast-changing trends.  

It is always enlightening to engage with a seasoned professional on diverse topics related to the content marketing ecosystem. Check out our conversation with Karthi Kumar Marshan, Former President and CMO at Kotak Mahindra Bank.

Here are some distilled gems:

1. Can you share with us how your past two decades or more in the marketing space have been?

I am a writer, producer, and consultant. I started my career as a copywriter, working for a half-agency, half-PR agency. There, I learned the craft of writing both long-form and short-form copy from a doyen named Roger Pereira. After getting my MBA, I transitioned into account management at Trukaya, where I learned the art of scientific advertising while working on clients like P&G.

Despite my success in the financial services industry, I never lost my creative bug. I founded a production house where I created and produced TV shows, some of which aired on Sony. I even ran a DTH distribution company in Sydney that catered to the Indian diaspora in Australia and New Zealand.

My friends and I co-founded Share Khan, which aimed to democratize wealth in India, inspired by companies like E-Trade and Schwab in the US. I knew nothing about stocks before this venture, but I made it my job to make Share Khan look and feel like an FMCG brand. We launched the company with a disruptive creative campaign, which involved buying out the whole of midday, a Mumbai public tabloid, and 200 bus shelters in Bombay for ten days. This created a palpable buzz in the city, which quickly spread throughout the country.

At Kotak, I worked with two dozen clients every hour of every day, which is like running an ad agency. The exciting part is that we have to be frugal yet impactful, which is a skill I've learned well over the years.

2. Are the formalities and rule books on marketing still relevant in 2023?

I recently had a conversation with someone who was questioning the value of school education, and it reminded me of my own son's existential angst about the subject. He asked me, "Trigonometry or calculus, isn't it all just Excel?" While it's a fair question, I remembered a conversation I had with Pulkit Jain, the founder of Vedantu, a tech startup. He too had questioned the value of what he was teaching his students. However, he realized that while the things they were learning might not necessarily be applied directly in their careers, they were still valuable. They taught the brain how to think and learn, and how to deal with abstract concepts. Additionally, learning creates neuroplasticity in the brain, enabling it to handle more complexity.

Looking back at my checkered career, I can see the value in all the experiences I've had, whether they were educational or experiential. Knowing how television is produced, writing copy, executing apps, and selling DTH boxes in a fairground in Sydney all contributed to my knowledge and skillset today.

I've heard from advertising greats that you can break the rules only if you know what the rules are. Knowing how to work with the rules allows you to experiment and try new things. It's like learning to swim. If you jump straight into the pool without knowing how to swim, your chances of success are slim.

I'm not here to discourage young people who want to jump right in and try new things without any prior knowledge. The world is evolving, and our brains are evolving with it. But I have found value in both experiential and educational learning. It's all cumulative, and everything you learn contributes to your knowledge and skills in some way.

3. Can you share your insights on how the marketing industry has evolved in the past 20-25 years?

I come from an era where we used to handle rubber solutions and phototype set artworks that were pasted on boards. We would make positives out of those and deliver them to newspapers. As an account executive, if we found a typo at the last minute, we had to pick up the skills to cut that one letter or word and paste something else overnight.

Today, we have come a long way from the dark ages to super automation within a very short period, and I think that's liberating. But again, there was value in knowing all those nuts and bolts and all those steps of the journey. I have been deep in the trenches with it, and I believe that was important too.

Print advertising used to be a long-form copy, clever headlines, and we would even do split run lines. I see almost none of that anymore. I see all print advertising typically being like a hoarding transplanted onto the print, and I don't see the point of it. I have been a very sad mourner of the death of magazines and magazine advertising. I've been a big fan and advocate of magazines because I think their long-form reading content and their long shelf-life content are valuable. It has broken my heart that they have essentially withered away practically.

Even now, the poor quality of measurement frustrates me. To be able to tell who's reading the newspaper that I'm buying the ad in, who's watching the TV shows that I am buying the ad on, who's listening to the radio show I'm buying the ad on, the quality of the measurement continues to be debatable.

While digital promises lots of data and lots of measurement, I think there are still a lot of gaps. A lot of it is presumptive or attribution-based, and it's not confessed viewer demographics and so on.

That continues to haunt us because when we spend our brand's money, we have our conscience to answer to. Even now, a fair amount of buying is ending up having to be on the gut, and that means unfortunately that either you have a deep gut, and you will be very clever, or you'll end up doing the big blockbuster like IPL. Nobody ever got sacked for buying IPL.

4. What are the key challenges that marketers face today in their day-to-day work?'

Marketers have been increasingly pressured to produce viral content in the boardrooms!

5. Do you think virality can be engineered?

Nope. As a marketer, I believe that the idea of "going viral" is not solely based on luck. Of course, luck can play a role, but preparation and strategy are essential elements to creating content that resonates with audiences. To achieve success in marketing, I always ensure that I have a well-thought-out plan and program for at least a year. This includes having a team of skilled individuals who are ready to work tirelessly every day to execute the plan.

For preparing for a physical fight, you have to be physically fit, strong, and skilled. In marketing, being ready means having a team that can react to any situation and can leverage opportunities when they arise.

The Oreos Dunk-in-the-Dark story is a great example of how luck can meet preparation. While the event was unexpected, Oreos had a social media war room that was prepared to react to any event. They were timely and topical, which allowed them to take advantage of the situation and create a post that gained significant traction.

I remember when Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram went down one night, and I immediately woke up my team to brainstorm ideas for capitalizing on the moment. We ended up putting up a post that said, "What's common between Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Kotak home loan rates? We're all down!" The post did get a lot of traction and engagement, but in retrospect, I regretted it. It wasn't an elegant thing to do, and it wasn't right to use someone else's troubles for our gain.

The next morning, we tried to make up for it by putting up another post that congratulated Facebook on getting back up and running, but the damage was already done. The temptation to ride these waves can be strong, but it's important to consider whether it's relevant to our brand, our target audience, and our customers.  While it may seem tempting to join in on trending conversations, it is essential to consider whether it aligns with the brand's values.

6. What is your opinion about these new-age technologies like Chat GPT?

I believe that digital and technology are just tools and enablers to the same end goal. They are weapons for us to use, and it is up to us to decide how best we want to use them. Undoubtedly, they will improve efficiency and make us do our jobs better. However, it is important to remember that using tools like Canva or Chat GPT should not be seen as a replacement for human creativity.

As brand managers, we should be disciplined in thinking about what we are trying to communicate and use these tools as prompts for creativity.

One of the best creative minds I know shared a great strategy when it comes to the briefing. He instructed his account managers to mock up an ad and give it to the creative team as the brief. This strategy forces brand managers to have discipline in thinking about what they are trying to communicate, and it sets a clear benchmark for the creative team to surpass. It's like using prompts for creativity, and Chat GPT is just another tool that can contribute to breakthrough ideas.

It is essential to remember that tools like Chat GPT should be used to minimize drudgery and repetitive jobs that humans cannot do well. They will add efficiency to the table and allow us to focus on more high-value tasks.

7. What is your prediction for the future of the content marketing ecosystem?

I believe that we are all contributing to the creation and production of vast amounts of content that both feed and exploit the existing biases and prejudices in society. It seems that we have forgotten that advertising has the power to mold attitudes, not just exploit them. Peter Drucker also emphasizes the need for marketers to have a conscience, and I couldn't agree more.

We are in a unique position to influence culture and inspire people into action. We can teach our companies to design products and services that uplift people and benefit everyone, not just the companies themselves. Brands also have a responsibility to do their part in creating a better world. If not us, then who?

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