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Kotak Mahindra Bank’s exiting president and CMO Karthi Marshan on long tenureship in marketing

Karthi Marshan shares what being a marketer at a leading bank is like; the need of IIT and IIM graduates in advertising; and more.

By  Priyanka NairDec 7, 2022 10:34 AM
Kotak Mahindra Bank’s exiting president and CMO Karthi Marshan on long tenureship in marketing
Kotak Mahindra Bank’s exiting president and CMO Karthi Marshan

Karthi Marshan has worked at a bank brand for 16 years. Marshan, president and CMO of Kotak Mahindra Bank, recently announced that he is moving on to push himself out of his comfort zone. At Kotak Mahindra Bank, his responsibility was to look after the marketing efforts across all verticals including insurance, banking, brokerage, and asset management.

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

Read on.

You are moving on from Kotak Mahindra Bank after 16 years to take an advisory role in the company. What made you take this step?

You know, before Kotak, I was the proverbial rolling stone. I couldn’t stay longer than 3 years in any role, some I left within 9 months as well. I was the headhunter’s nightmare and I never got a job through one, for that reason, perhaps. 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 cherry on the cake is that every single colleague has a voice, no matter our role or place in the pecking order. Having said that, I felt that it was time for me to challenge myself now, push myself out of my comfort zone and try my hand at a few new things. I’m keen to see if my experience is of use to start-ups, SMEs, NGOs, students, etc.

16 years is a lot of time. What according to you are the key success areas for brand Kotak Mahindra Bank under your leadership?

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

Talking about long tenureship, there are constant debates and discussions around why marketers don’t stay too long in a company these days. Why do you think that’s happening?

The global mean tenure of CMOs when I last checked was an abysmal 20 months, to my almost 20 years. For the short-tenure CMOs, there’s a lot of wisdom that people don’t quit companies or brands, they quit their bosses. Marketing professionals are no different. What perhaps exacerbates it is that CEOs need to have either deep knowledge or great conviction about marketing to believe in, and invest in the discipline, since the pay-off is usually apparent only in the long term. When employers show a lack of patience, employees are bound to walk to the next best option. On the other hand, there is also an unfortunate malaise of employees job-hopping to pad resumes with the shiny new objects, of course. To both, my submission is as follows; you seek loyalty from your customers. First show some to the cause of the brand yourself.

Having spent so much time managing the marketing aspects of a bank. What according to you are the big marketing trends that are shaping up the banking sector?

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

The second thing that is happening at warp speed is that product and experience design, which used to be the turf of the business and IT functions respectively, now sit equally in the marketing function’s lap. Because the realisation that the buying experience is as critical as the product itself, has finally dawned on BFSI companies. So app and website design, form design, branch design, ATM screen design, are all now as much a marketer’s job as they are the coder’s and the bean counter’s.

The confluence of these two trends should lead to an inevitable consequence, one I am proud of having played a role in at Kotak, viz to turn marketing into a mindset, not a department.

There’s a lot of wisdom that people don’t quit companies or brands, they quit their bosses. Marketing professionals are no different. What perhaps exacerbates it is that CEOs need to have either deep knowledge or great conviction about marketing to believe in, and invest in the discipline, since the pay-off is usually apparent only in the long term.

Also, what are the challenges that marketers in the category are trying to solve?

Challenge number one for BFSI marketers is that our products are commodities, and thus differentiation is practically impossible. While we might differentiate on network presence to some extent, all other Ps of marketing tend to be regulated, and hence commoditised. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done. At Kotak, we did, quite successfully, with the PVR credit card, nearly a decade ago, and more recently with a PVR debit card as well, focussing on the great Indian love for cinema.

Similarly, building on the other great Indian passion, cricket, we did disruptive work by offering customers debit cards with their favourite IPL teams’ insignia on them. Thinking beyond your category cues, but finding things that connect customers to your category in refreshing ways is key. Even within the constraints of the category, we broke new ground with campaigns like Grt 2b 25 and Kona Kona Kotak, telling stories that leverage key attributes like age and network presence, but in refreshing ways that made a bigger point than the banal one. BFSI marketers must learn to differentiate, despite the constraints, if they are to get customers to prefer their brands for reasons beyond price and reach alone.

The second one marketers in my space are plagued with is the Windsock Budgeting Method. Crude oil, Interest rates, GDP, inflation, recession any of these can just sneeze and our budgets could get chopped. To operate in an environment with the goalposts moving so erratically, and to be able to make each rupee stretch to feel like a hundred, is our typical challenge. But I see this as an opportunity to be agile, nimble, and super creative.

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

Every employee is a brand custodian, and a brand spokesperson today. In a world where the CEO can read the customer’s complaint on twitter as fast as the customer care unit can, everyone is now in the service business, as well as in the brand business. This alters the dynamic of marketing communications dramatically, in my view.

You started your career as a copywriter. You also spent a good number of years in advertising before switching to the client’s side. What were the learnings from ad shops that helped you as a marketer?

I learnt to value the power of the right words from Roger Pereira, my first teacher in advertising. I learnt to eavesdrop on users of products in my time serving Procter & Gamble. There is no more fertile ground for insights leading to better products or better communications. I learnt the value of great design by watching masters like Alok Nanda agonise over the layout long after their copy had been approved. I also learnt agility from being in ad shops, where client briefs arrived on Friday evenings, and output was expected on Monday mornings. But most of all, I learnt that an advertising creator’s job is quite akin to a great leader’s. We have both the opportunity and the responsibility to move people, emotionally and forward, with our words and pictures. The right few words can stir a nation into action.

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

Advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, as they say. I used to be in advertising before I went to business school, and I thought it but natural to return to it after. I think advertising has the power to mould minds, just like a great orator does. It’s the opportunity to make a positive impact in society, without running for public office, using other people’s money, with just the right words and pictures at the right place, right time, that drew me to it, and kept me engaged with it all these years.

Do you think the advertising world needs IIT and IIM graduates just like how it used to be in the good old days?

Yes, certainly. But I think today it also needs social scientists. People who have a deep understanding of culture and psychology are equally important. The future of advertising and marketing is in grave danger if we surrender it to data scientists alone. Even analytics is a half-baked discipline if rich and novel human insights can’t be teased out of the patterns thrown up by data. When everything is done by the numbers, everyone’s picture will look the same. What would be the point of that? The whole point of great communication is to move society forward. And you can only do that with breakthrough 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, arts, music, and are also students of history. So the IIM and IIT graduates are welcome, but I think we need as many people from the humanities, and the social sciences to join advertising and marketing.

First Published on Dec 7, 2022 10:34 AM