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Outgoing Kotak Mahindra Bank Chairman and Cmo Karthi Marshan have a long tenure in marketing

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Karthi Marshan shares what marketing is like in a major bank; the need for IIT and IIM graduates in advertising; and more.

Karthi Marshan has worked in a banking brand for 16 years. Marshan, President and CMO of Kotak Mahindra Bank, recently announced that he was going to step out of his comfort zone. At Kotak Mahindra Bank, his responsibility was to handle marketing efforts across all verticals including insurance, banking, brokerage and asset management.

In an exclusive interview with Storyboard18, Marshan shares many of his untold stories. He tells us that before joining Kotak Mahindra Bank, he was “the proverbial rolling stone”. He didn’t stay long in any role. He considered himself the “headhunter’s nightmare”. So why did he stay at Kotak Mahindra Bank for 16 years? What’s his secret sauce for a long tenure? He answers these and other questions about his life in the good old days of Indian advertising.

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You are leaving Kotak Mahindra Bank after 16 years to take up an advisory position in the company. What prompted you to take this step?

You know, before Kotak, I was the proverbial Rolling Stone. I couldn’t stay more than 3 years in any role, some I left within 9 months as well. I was a headhunter’s nightmare and never found a job because of it, maybe for that reason. But at Kotak, in the blink of an eye, I had crossed the 16-year mark. Largely, I think, because it was like seven roles in one. The icing on the cake is that every colleague has a voice, regardless of their role or place in the pecking order. That said, I felt it was time for me to challenge myself now, get out of my comfort zone and try a few new things. I look forward to seeing if my experience is useful to start-ups, SMEs, NGOs, students, etc.

16 years is a long time. What do you see as the key areas of success for the Kotak Mahindra Bank brand under your leadership?

I would put fearlessness, openness and empathy as the ingredients that helped us get to where we are. We’ve always been a bold brand, because challengers have to be bold. We have always innovated, even if it was not clear that things would work, whether it was with hashtag banking, DriveLikeaLady, 811, KYC video, et al. At the same time, there is a powerful culture of openness at Kotak, where everyone is willing and eager to receive critical feedback or new ideas, even from the most junior resources, as well as customers. Ideas for our marketing interventions came from all directions. We also operate on a high level of empathy, with both customers and employees, and this is a great recipe for designing superior processes, services, products and experiences.

Speaking of long tenure, there’s constant debate and discussion about why marketers don’t stay with a company too long these days. Why do you think this is happening?

The global average CMO length when I last checked was an abysmal 20 months, at my almost 20s. For short-term CMOs, there’s a lot of wisdom that people don’t leave companies or brands, they leave their bosses. Marketing professionals are no different. Perhaps exacerbating it, CEOs need to have deep knowledge or belief about marketing to believe in and invest in the discipline, as the benefits are usually only apparent in the long run. When employers show a lack of patience, employees are forced to walk to the next best option. On the other hand, there’s also an unfortunate unease of employees switching jobs to fill resumes with the shiny new stuff, of course. To both, my submission is as follows; you are looking for the loyalty of your customers. Show yourself to the cause of the brand first.

Having spent so much time managing the marketing aspects of a bank. What do you see as the major marketing trends shaping the banking industry?

The number one trend is that every employee today is a brand custodian and a brand spokesperson. In a world where the CEO can read the customer complaint on Twitter as fast as the customer service unit, everyone is now in the service business, as well as the brand business. This dramatically changes the dynamic of marketing communications, in my opinion.

The second thing that’s happening at lightning speed is that product and experience design, which used to be the domain of the business and IT functions respectively, now sits in the lap of the marketing function as well. Because the realization that the shopping experience is as critical as the product itself has finally dawned on BFSI companies. So designing apps and websites, designing forms, designing branches, designing ATM screens are now as much the job of a marketer as they are a coder and bean counter. .

The confluence of these two trends should lead to an inevitable consequence, in which I am proud to have played a part at Kotak, namely making marketing a mindset, not a department.

Also, what challenges are category marketers trying to solve?

The number one challenge for BFSI marketers is that our products are commodities, and therefore differentiation is virtually impossible. While we can differentiate network presence to some degree, all other Ps in marketing tend to be regulated, and thus commoditized. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. We at Kotak did this, very successfully, with the PVR credit card almost a decade ago, and more recently with a PVR debit card as well, focusing on India’s great love for the movie theater.

Likewise, building on India’s other great passion, cricket, we have done a breakthrough job of offering customers debit cards bearing the badge of their favorite IPL teams. Thinking beyond your category cues, but finding things that connect customers to your category in refreshing ways is key. Even within category boundaries, we’ve innovated with campaigns like Grt 2b 25 and Kona Kona Kotak, telling stories that leverage key attributes like age and network presence, but in a refreshing way that has makes a point more important than the trivial. BFSI marketers must learn to differentiate themselves, despite the constraints, if they are to get customers to prefer their brands for reasons other than price and reach.

The second marketer in my space is struggling with the Windsock method of budgeting. Crude oil, interest rates, GDP, inflation, recession, it can all sneeze and our budgets could be cut. Operating in an environment where the goalposts move so erratically and being able to make every rupee stretch like a hundred, is our typical challenge. But I see it as an opportunity to be nimble, nimble and super creative.

For example, we ran sixteen 10-second commercials in a single week in 2010 to announce our 25th year as a brand, and the half-life of that isn’t over even now. Likewise, we launched a children’s product called Junior with a movie that only lasted a month, but we still have kids walking around our branches every weekend, imitating the actions of the movie’s protagonist. And most recently, in 2015, we announced our merger with ING Vysya Bank with a campaign whose slogan… Kona Kona Kotak is replayed to me in every gathering I attend, social, professional or otherwise and this film also did not only lasted one outing. The learning is that we need to be more nimble than FMCG marketers, more frugal than well-funded start-ups, and more creative than Netflix and Bollywood combined.

You started your career as an editor. You also spent many years in advertising before moving to the client side. What lessons have been learned from ad shops that have helped you as a marketer?

I learned to value the power of the right words thanks to Roger Pereira, my first professor in advertising. I learned to spy on product users while working for Procter & Gamble. There’s no more fertile ground for ideas leading to better products or better communications. I learned the value of great design by watching masters like Alok Nanda agonize over layout long after their copy had been approved. I also learned agility by being in advertising stores, where customer briefs arrived on Friday evening and the release was expected on Monday morning. But above all, I learned that the profession of advertising creator is similar to that of a great leader. We have both the opportunity and the responsibility to move people, emotionally and forward, with our words and images. The right words can spur a nation to action.

You are an IIM graduate. What fascinated you in advertising?

Advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes, as they say. I was in advertising before going to business school, and I found it normal to return to it afterwards. I think advertising has the power to shape minds, just like a great speaker does. It’s the opportunity to have a positive impact in society, without running for public office, using other people’s money, with just the right words and the right images in the right place, at the right time, which attracted me and kept me engaged with it all these years.

Do you think the advertising world needs IIT and IIM graduates like it did in the good old days?

Certainly yes. But I think today it also needs social scientists. Equally important are people who have a deep understanding of culture and psychology. The future of advertising and marketing is in grave danger if left to data scientists alone. Even analytics is a half-baked discipline if rich and new human insights cannot be extracted from data-generated patterns. When everything is done by numbers, everyone’s image will be the same. What would be the point? The point of good communication is to move society forward. And you can only do that with revolutionary ideas. Which can only come when you have the ability to look into people’s souls. And that will only happen if we are voracious consumers of contemporary literature, art, music, and if we are also students of history. So IIM and IIT graduates are welcome, but I think that as many people as possible from the humanities and social sciences should join advertising and marketing.

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