Friday, August 26, 2016

The lure of strategy over other functions

The other day I endorsed a friend on LinkedIn for 'Business Development'. I did this because, having observed the stellar role he played in developing a new category in the Indian marketplace, I had been thoroughly impressed by his perseverance and effort which had resulted in an above par performance by his company, financially.
No sooner had I done this, pat came his message: "Business development??? not strategy?"
I can understand his perspective. 'Strategy' looks great on one's profile. Business development or Operations appear foot-soldierly. And this is a problem that has seeped into professional life: Valuing strategy over every other function. So when a company meets their client, it's not uncommon for the client to seek out the planner for special treatment during the meeting, while the operations team are given the last 5 minutes to discuss all pending work. This reinforces the unstated belief that strategy is most important and this over time becomes a part of the organization's and the industry's culture in which operations, business development and execution are considered 'not-cerebral' and dismissed as hygiene even as fat pay-checks and plum posts go to strategic thinkers.
This post is not to negate the function or need for strategy, no way. It is simply to draw attention to the fact that other functions too are equally important and in some situations perhaps more useful than strategy. It's also time to separate the genuine strategic thinkers from the non-performers who adopt the guise of being strategists to escape performance evaluation criteria. I've had the good fortune of working with genuine thinkers. They're as business oriented or operations focused as anyone else. For genuine strategists know that the real mettle of great strategy is not applause for a power-point presentation but market-share gained in the real-world. Genuine planners are unafraid to roll up their sleeves and jump into operations for that very reason. Which is why strategic function needs to perhaps be the last stop in a professional's career and probably not their first. Strategy needs to be built ground-up, only when market-knowledge and consumer behavior is understood from years of first-hand experience.
This made me reflect on the reasons why strategy has been given pride-of-place over other functions. It's probably a mix of many reasons some of which are: The view that strategy is the genesis for all businesses. MBA courses are lopsided in their focus on strategy. The belief that strategy requires brains and so anyone in that area of expertise has more of them than the others. Lastly the role of popular cultures in which we credit sages, ascetics and visionaries as being know-it-alls due to their deep strategic understanding of things.
Perhaps its time for us to clear this erroneous perception and acknowledge the importance of other functions too. That strategy does not get in the bucks alone. In fact it gets nothing. Last of all any guarantee of success. A great strategy needs a great business development, operations, finance, systems and other functions to get to anywhere close to implementing its plan. However, quite a few organizations have succeeded based on the strength of their other functions as well without any great strategy.
Lastly in support of business development, I'd say, take a survey of any number of CEO's asking them what would they consider their most important need-of-the-hour...I wouldn't be surprised if it's unanimously in favor of business development and growth. For all of them would know first-hand how difficult it is to sustain growth and business in tumultuous times.
(So my dear friend, you've got your answer, I suppose :) )

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

No medals, high spirits: The Indian psyche.

There's a famous Nike ad that goes, "You don't win the silver. You lose the gold."
As the Rio Olympics draws to its conclusion, India may well finish without a single medal in its kitty. Strangely this hasn't dampened the enthusiasm levels in the country. Most Indians have taken this loss in their stride and are celebrating their athletes who lost.
The people at Nike and their ad agency must surely be scratching their heads and wondering what they've missed and where they went wrong in understanding India. Even as American, Australian, Chinese, German and Fijian athletes weep at the loss of a gold medal, we're happy with nothing. 
"We participated and did our best. It's fine if we didn't win." is the common refrain.
I'm not commenting on the right or wrong of it. I've only been wondering about why we Indians have a different attitude to winning and losing from every other country. The answer perhaps lies in our very philosophy of existence.
Westerners believe life is linear. You only live once. Therefore it's important to make the most of it. Their ultimate ambition is immortality through achievements and deeds that are remembered till posterity for the record they created or broke. Hence since time immemorial they've recorded their achievements for posterity, cherished and awarded them.
But in Indian philosophy we believe that life is circular. I.e we are trapped in this cycle of life and death. Whatever you do, there's no escaping it and you will only return to this world to perform your earthly duty once more. Only those mahatmas who rise above their materialistic desires are freed from this cycle.
So what's great about an Olympics record or a gold medal? For it is not the end of the world. There will be many more Olympics; countless, infinite number of Olympics in the lifetime of the universe, which is still expanding. And in that  infinitude, there will be many opportunities and situations for us to win countless medals. So why fret about this one?
After all we're all just energy that get converted from one form to another, trapped in this same universe. Which itself will expand, then contract into a dot and explode with another big bang again. Then again and again continuously. Forever.
Neither you, nor I, neither Dipa Karmarkar, nor Michael Phelps will escape this. So eventually we'll catch up. For now, lets celebrate. Jai Hind.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Lessons I learnt from R Balki

In the late '90s I was an Account Manager at the Lintas Mumbai office, which at that point didn't have a creative leader, the lack of this critical function subsequently reflected in the work it put out across it six 'units'. The Bangalore office of Lintas though, was seeing a resurgence of sorts in its creative output. This was credited chiefly to its creative head, R Balki.
As the rumblings from our clients in Mumbai increased, it was felt that perhaps Balki could help us out. Given his tight schedules he agreed to drop in for a day to solve the logjams at the various units before proceeding to Delhi where more problems awaited him.
It was one day that I'll never forget. Balki reached the Lintas Express Towers office very early in the morning and began with the first unit on the 13th floor long before regular office hours began. With a notepad in one hand, surrounded by each brand team followed by the next from each unit, Balki began giving creative solutions of every nature for all the problems that were thrown at him. 
Remember this was not a fun exercise. This was real business, real work for unhappy clients, impatient clients, confused clients, accommodating clients. Clients who had trusted us to come up with creative, clutter-breaking solutions for their problems. And Balki patiently, quickly and without fuss, delivered the goods along with each team, resolutely, creatively and to the brief.
This went on, hour by hour, team by team, unit by unit, floor by floor. He didn't pause for a moments break, never raised his voice, never undermined anyone. He simply absorbed the pressure and came up with nothing-short-of-brilliant solutions.
It was late evening when he reached our unit. I expected him to stick with the senior management of our unit, but that was not to be. He insisted that every unit member contribute. In fact when I hesitatingly stated a contrarian view, he championed my cause, telling my unit head that since I was the Account Manager who daily interacted with the client, I was best equipped to provide information about the situation at the ground level.
We were struggling to come out with a script for a TVC. He re-aligned the brief and asked our unit CD to work out one, on the spot, even as he attempted his own. Our unit CD (a phenomenal creative person by all accords) came up with a great script which was based on a different strategy than Balki's own.
For a few minutes they argued over which script was more apt - notice neither evaluated the scripts on their creativity. Then our unit CD, told Balki that he believed in the one he'd written.
I turned to look at Balki, who smiled, tore up the script he'd written and simply said, "I agree, you're right. We'll go with that one. Call me if you need anything." Then he left us, rushing off to catch his flight. The partnership he forged with various creative folks, including our unit CD remains true to this day.
I've heard a lot of young creative dudes subsequently wanting to be like Balki. The only thing I always tell them is that to be like Balki, you must first adopt his incredible work ethic:
1. Hard-work, hard-work, hard-work. Then more hard-work. Never say no to work
2. Involve everyone, listen to everyone. Remember insights come from people and anyone working on the brand can come up with the right one
3. You become a leader by solving problems and taking on responsibilities
4. However good one is, the mark of a true leader is to build the confidence of his team because together we can achieve even more
5. The only attitude worth having is a solutions-oriented one
Mullen Lowe Lintas is a great organization and I'm sure Balki would've ensured it is in safe hands and will continue to grow. I wish him and the team at Lintas the very best.