Karthik Sankar

Vice President - Marketing at Ozonetel

Karthik Sankar on Reinventing Content Marketing in the AI Era

In this conversation, Karthik Sankar brilliantly uncovers the shifting terrain of content marketing amid the AI era. He brilliantly underscores the significance of orienting content creation around the 'why' and 'whom' rather than becoming trapped in the mechanics of the 'how.' Amidst a sea of brands clamoring for scarce customer attention, he underscores the urgent necessity of delivering value, constructing narratives, and conveying riveting tales.

Karthik Sankar, Vice President - Marketing at Ozonetel, talks to Aanchal Khosla, Associate Director at Pepper Content, about his perspectives on AI's role in content marketing – spanning the augmentation of efficiency in content generation and dissemination to amplify the velocity and tonality of prose. Yet, Sankar cautiously directs attention to the essence of not forsaking the foundational principles amidst the hurried embrace of AI. For deeper insights into the future of content composition and many other subjects, let's explore his ideas further.

1. Please tell us about your journey.

I wouldn't label these as accomplishments. I think they're more like natural progressions in one's career, you know? I've been lucky to work with fantastic team members who have lent their support to uplift my team at every twist and turn of my career. Moreover, I've been truly fortunate to have peers and mentors who have generously guided me. Plus, I've had the privilege of leading teams that always have my back. It's remarkable how things have unfolded; it isn't easy to put it all into words.

My path has been chiefly within the B2B sector, and I've spent considerable time in North America and Europe. While I haven't explored the Northern regions as extensively, the latter part of my current adventure has focused on the Indian market. It's been an evolving experience, and I'm excited to see where the next steps in this journey will lead me.

As a marketer, you must put yourself in the correct shoes. Think of everything from how your end customer would look at it and deliver value.

2. Could you tell us where your journey in marketing began, leading to your current role as a senior leader in the field?

It all began with a lot of Unix shell scripting if I'm being honest. After completing my engineering degree in 2000, I joined Cognizant's business intelligence and information practice. During that period, my days were consumed by Unix shell scripting, creating reports, and managing data extraction from various systems and ERPs. My journey took me to the US for a couple of years, right after the dotcom burst and the aftermath of the 2000 World Trade Center incident. Amidst all the technical work, I realized that even though I was in the tech industry, my passion lay elsewhere. This prompted a significant decision: I decided to explore a different path. So, I set my sights on a B School program and returned to India in 2000, a move that went against the norm.

Skipping ahead to 2005-2006, I found myself at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad. Graduating as part of the class of 2006, those first five years at Cognizant were remarkable. Despite starting in the technical realm, I eventually shifted gears. After returning to India from the US, I transitioned from tech to the sales operations and marketing team. This pivot marked my entry into the world of business growth.

Between 2006 and 2008, while at ISB, I delved into analyst relations and the intricate task of moving the "dot" in the Magic Quadrant. I engaged in various industry awards programs and secured six awards in 22 months. This was when the startup scene gained momentum, though it primarily centered around services and consulting. I couldn't resist another counter-current move. In 2008, amidst the financial recession, I left a Nasdaq-listed company and set up shop in Bangalore, venturing into the intellectual property consulting space within marketing.

Following a fulfilling tenure of eight and a half years at Cognizant and a fruitful decade in a startup culminating in an acquisition, I opted for another change. My decade-long stint might seem unconventional in the fast-paced startup world, where people often jump between companies. Most of those years were dedicated to the US and European markets. Officially stepping into the marketing world in 2006, my initial focus was on US relations and industry programs. However, I took on the full spectrum of marketing activities over the next ten years, crafting strategies for global audiences. In 2013, during the acquisition phase, I was deeply immersed in all facets of marketing.

With five years post-acquisition under my belt and a wealth of experience, I embarked on a fresh journey, joining Y Combinator at Prisla and Matrix Partners and diving into the tech space. After around 18 months, I took a hiatus to care for my father. During this period, I explored the health tech sector, managing sales and operations. Digital marketing wasn't as impactful in reaching doctors back then, making face-to-face interactions crucial. Prior to the pandemic, I began anew at a seed-stage enterprise SaaS company in Bangalore. Despite the constraints of a seed-funded venture, I embraced the challenge. After about five months in my current role, I'm still adapting and learning, gearing up to tackle the ever-changing marketing landscape.

3. In your expert view, where do you envision the future of content marketing heading?

I understand it might sound cliché, but I genuinely believe it's a statement of truth. Content marketing isn't going anywhere; it's firmly rooted in the landscape, and I don't foresee radical changes. The heart of the matter is understanding what you must achieve and who you target. The vast array of content marketing tools might encourage automation, but let's not forget the essential principles. To me, content marketing boils down to this: step into the shoes of your audience and your end customer and offer real value. The foundation is considering how your message resonates with them.

Now, let's talk specifics. Who's your audience? Whom are you addressing? These factors determine your course. All the strategies and techniques that fill the space in between are secondary, though innovation in those areas can't be ignored. We've witnessed AI-generated content, refined distribution methods, and disruptive changes that alter how we approach content creation. But here's my take: I don't lose myself in the whirlwind of disruption and innovation. I keep my focus clear on the fundamental elements. It's about understanding your target audience, knowing the 'who,' 'why,' and 'what' of your content. The 'how' naturally falls into place once you've nailed down these critical aspects. It's like a puzzle—the picture becomes complete when you have the right pieces in place.

AI will only improve the speed with which you write it. But then you still need to decide on the voice, and tone is still your first principle.

4. What are your thoughts on the impact of AI on the future of content writing dynamics?

It's still relatively early to predict definitively. The discussion about AI within content marketing arises due to the substantial surge in content volume. Brands from various industries, whether they cater to end users, B2B clients, or B2C customers, are all vying for a slice of the limited mindshare customers possess. The competition is fierce to capture consumers' attention amidst the flood of information. The core issue is that there's hardly any time left for individuals to ponder the 'why' and 'what' of the content they encounter.

Undoubtedly, AI is here to stay, but there's a fundamental aspect it can't take away: the essence of storytelling. The narrative, the voice, and the tone—the things that contribute to the unique personality of the content—are still in the realm of human decision-making. AI can enhance the efficiency of content creation, speed up the process, and refine the tone, yet it can't replace the foundational decision-making aspects.

From my perspective, it's a valuable addition, although perhaps my outlook reflects my generational influence. I'm more focused on the bedrock principles, centering on the question of who the content is intended for. For me, content serves as a means to an end—shaping how a company is perceived, crafting its narrative and positioning, and effectively communicating its story. Devoting considerable time to positioning, narrative building, and defining the audience is imperative.

Even if AI isn't part of the equation, investing time and effort into these fundamental elements will lead to content that solves problems and resonates. However, once these cornerstones are firmly in place, the potential for creating remarkable content grows exponentially. This is when you can contemplate scaling up but with caution. Scaling too rapidly can risk losing the essence and purpose of your content. Ultimately, the last-mile connection is crucial. No matter how proficiently AI aids in content production, the impact might be compromised without that human touch and alignment with your core narrative. AI is a valuable tool, but I advise focusing on the principles underpinning exceptional content creation.

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