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Interview with Hari Shankar, Managing Director, Ecselis Asia & Head of Paid Digital Strategy, Havas Media Group

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Hari Shankar

Hari Shankar has been in digital marketing for over 16 years now and has seen the multifarious evolution stages of digital both in India as well as the region. As the Regional MD, Asia  for Havas Media’s performance marketing unit called Ecselis as well as the Head of Paid strategy for the region, Hari is tasked with building out the APAC network for Ecselis as well as to build capabilities across adtech, data, processes & people across the region – in short, acceleration of digital capabilities with the clear aim to lead Havas Media to a leadership position in the industry. What this means is that he plays the role of mentor, advisor, catalyst and driver when it comes to all paid media aspects of digital in the agency. 

How did you get into Digital Marketing? What interested you in learning Digital Marketing?

Hari: The journey that started in those early days of internet as an affiliate of VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd.), Bangalore in 1995, selling the Shell / TCP-IP accounts along with dial up modems to corporate & individuals alike has been as breath-taking as it has been challenging to say the least. The experience of being a wandering sales man evangelizing the WWW on the one hand and hooking India up to the web on the other hand launched me into the digital career that within a short time led to me being witness to the dot com boom and bust – a lot of ideas and brands that came before their time and had to bite the dust eventually. Those were the days of immense learning and self-discovery of everything from digital space selling to setting up an online marketing practice that included 3rd party ad serving on the supplier side, Onsite & Offsite SEO, Content seeding and curation, Email list management and digital planning – working with the largest IT portal of those times CIOL, that belonged to the largest IT publisher of those time – Cyber Media India Ltd.

Chapter 2 of my career started when I was head hunted by the then leading international media / creative agency network, Euro RSCG Advertising to set up a digital media practice in their Bangalore office, working with iconic brands – Intel and Dell – all of this when digital media planning was truly the Wild Wild West, where there were no ground rules, no charted territory and absolutely no firm ground. Suffice to say that these humble beginnings led to far greater things in these 16 years including setting up the largest digital performance agency network in the region – Performics Singapore APAC center in 2010, setting up the Paid media practice at PayPal APAC RHQ in 2014 and finally coming back to Euro RSCG, now called Havas Media as the M.D of the digital offering or APAC. I do feel a sense of achievement in coming back to the same agency where I joined as a Digital Media Manager in 2001, this time as the Regional Managing Director for digital services; not to mention the awards and recognition that the industry bestowed on me along the way.

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According to you, what are the advantages of conventional marketing over Digital Marketing? Do you think that Digital Marketing is a threat to the future of conventional marketing?

Hari: Conventional marketing and digital marketing exist in the minds of the marketers and brands which are constantly at war trying to capture the ‘minds and moolah’ and not in the minds of consumers who are going about conducting their busy lives. End of day, whether conventional or digital, these are all touch points or windows of opportunity for brands to occupy the ‘black box of the consumer mind’ (as Al Ries and Jack Trout put it in their famous book – Positioning – Battle of the mind) in a relevant fashion, in a bid to start a hopefully sticky, long-term relationship with the prospect. But to answer your question, conventional marketing when on a personalized basis – like tele-calling, pop-up stores, POS, trade shows /seminars et al – still has a personal touch to it that can drive positive opinion & immediacy versus digital marketing and this is potentially the singular advantage that it has over digital marketing. Conventional marketing in general is more of ‘push’ marketing but digital, powered by data, insights and technology is evolving more and more as a ‘pull’ medium where brands can create immersive experiences native to the user experience as they move from one screen to another screen – what Google calls Micro-moments that are moments in lives that have great potential for meaningful ‘pull’ driven engagement.

Share about your 3 favorite Digital Marketing case studies. What did you like most about them?

Hari: I don’t have any that come to mind off-hand but from my own experience, there is one that I have been involved in recently, which I thought made a real difference to the bottom line – and that is all that matters versus the 100s of case studies that have the singular objective of winning awards & creating PR.

Digital acquisition for a leading international bank – This is a paid media solution that we had created for our partner at Ecselis. All the paid media sources – SEM, Display, Programmatic, Affiliate – were linked to a central technology stack through a custom solution, that was able to track not only online applications for their products but also OFFLINE approvals of those products, which could then be used for highly efficient media optimization. This caused the acquisition volumes to go 4X and costs to be halved.

According to you, what are the top 3 mistakes committed by organizations today in leveraging Digital Marketing?

Hari: 

  • People gap – not hiring the right people – growth hackers who are domain experts – to accelerate digital adoption. Even if they do hire, these experts get lost in the corporate matrix / mayhem and finally are rendered ineffective. If an organization is really interested in evolving, then the growth hacker needs to have strong backing from the top leadership – so that the corporate politics, hidden agenda & power struggle does not hamper the noble initiative. This is the most rampant practice in most of the large corporates and this, unfortunately is also the reason why most of them do not grow as they ideally should.
  • Platform gap – most organizations do not have the right targeting / tracking / measurement / analytics technology platform and even if they do, they are just a maze of technology from multiple vendors that do not talk to each other. Result – loss of data, lack of understanding the full picture, wrong decisions. This is once again, a function of the people gap that I described above.
  • Matrix Structure – this is a well-known one across any corporate set up you can think of. Where there is a matrix structure, any decision – be it the most obvious one that takes a few minutes to the most complex one that might take a few weeks – takes ages simply because it has to go through the dynamics of the ‘matrix’ where no one person or set of people have the remit to take a holistic decision. This results in unending rounds of deliberations & discussions that ultimately cause the final output to be not only frighteningly delayed but also sub-optimal.

Between Agency and In-house, which approach would you recommend for maximum value of Digital Marketing? Why?

Hari: There is no right approach per se as it all depends on the market, industry, environment, organization’s evolution stage so on and so forth. Even if there is that right recipe for digital marketing success, it cannot be skewed towards any end – to a complete reliance on the agency or complete reliance on an in-house tea.

The so-called right formula is to farm out areas where there is a lack of capability and/or resources within the organization so that the marketer can retain areas that are their forte – generally the Website related aspects, some of the digital acquisition related aspects and all aspects on the post-acquisition phase – CRM/LVM etc. With a good partnership in place that complements the strengths of the organization, digital marketing value can certainly be maximized. Over a period of time, if the space that the brand occupies lends itself to creation of such an in-house team, then the organization can slowly shift the mix from external to largely internal, keeping potentially the most menial tasks (like display ad ops / trafficking) alone outsourced.

Of course there are some brands that have the might & muscle to do everything in house – Online Travel agents like Agoda, Expedia etc and space sharing platforms like Airbnb – but this warrants creation of a large in-house team ( an in-house agency of sorts) which has its pros and cons.

How do you ensure increasing Digital Marketing’s relevance and influence in the organization?

Hari: Once again, this depends on what sort of organization you are alluding to here – a corporate brand type organization or a publisher type organization (who could also be a client – like Google of MSFT) or the massive agency land. If it is relatively new age organization then the chances are that they are already a ‘digital-first’ organization and only in cases of brands that have been around for a while, which have bloated work forces and jaded traditional thinking, does the question of ‘increasing digital adoption and relevance’ come in to picture. In such organizations (I have worked with many), it is certainly a crawl-walk-run approach where there should be growth hackers within the organization working in unison with external experts from the agency land to slowly and painfully create the transition from the old to the new. Commitment from the top leadership is a crucial variable (or a constant?) in the equation towards course-correcting such leviathans steeped in arcane ways of working.

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Which are your 3 favorite Digital Marketing Tools?

Hari: Again, digital marketing is an ocean and so to ask what are the most colorful shores would be a moot point in my view. Having worked with paid media most of my life, amongst the vast array of tools within this vertical itself, I would give the top position to Google Analytics, the web analytics platform that powers half the websites (if not more) on mother earth for its simple yet awesome capabilities, followed by the new Google 360 suite which comprises of an array of digital marketing measurement platforms – a DSP, a DMP, an attribution modeling tool, an A/B content experiments tool, an app analytics tool, a universal tag management tool, a 3rd party ad serving tool, a 3rd party SEM bid management tool, a dynamic creative optimization tool and finally, a great digital marketing dashboard. I would also give special mention to DeltaX, a great digital marketing platform founded by a Havas alumni that allows seamless, simple, cross-channel campaign set up, management, measurement, optimization, reporting, analytics and tracking.

Why do you think it’s important for entrepreneurs, marketing professionals and students to learn Digital Marketing today?

Hari: 

  • For Entrepreneurs: To create a winning business, to extract maximum bang for the buck, to understand where the opportunity lies, what it looks like, how & when to talk to the right people and finally, what are the right strategies to drive sustained profitability.
  • For Professionals: To stay relevant for the times, to enhance their understanding of the world, to be better at their profession, to understand their customers well, to aid in KPIs, to be future-proof in some sense.
  • For Students: To develop an edge in the present and be future-ready. 

What are the top 3-5 skills you look for when hiring a candidate for Digital Marketing profile?

Hari: Passion, Curiosity, Enthusiasm, Want to learn, hard work, analytics / numbers driven, lateral thinking, problem-solving approach, pragmatism – these are core behavioral attributes that I look for while hiring talent. Hard skills can be mastered over a period of time through training, especially when it comes to the more junior profiles. At senior levels, it is clearly mastery over the discipline, hands-on experience (SEM, Display, programmatic, paid social, affiliate marketing, web analytics, data etc.) and great attitude. I am not going to get down to a JD-level here but all other softer skills like prowess in excel etc. is a given.

What is your advice for newbies, who are looking at building a career in Digital Marketing industry?

Hari: To develop / have all of the above components if they need to stand a good chance to go anywhere with a digital career.

How do you stay updated on the latest trends in Digital Marketing? Which are the Digital Marketing resources (i.e. blogs/websites/apps) you visit regularly?

Hari: There are 100s here and so it would not be a good idea to list all of them down – digital is made up of a large number of smaller vertical disciplines classified broadly across paid, owned and earned media and each of these have a huge number of sub-domains that are specialities by themselves. .Hence the first step is to choose a broad area of interest like Paid or Earned or Owned and then zoom into that particular branch. Once this has been decided upon, a good starting point would be to download Flipboard and add all topics of interest to it. Yes – Avinash Kaushik’s blog is a singular great resource for people interested in Google Analytics / Web Analytics related topics. Mary Meeker’s Internet trends report that is released annually is a brilliant report to understand where the world is going generally in the internet and mobile era.

Share the names of 3 people you respect when it comes to Digital Marketing.

Hari: Avinash Kaushik is the only name that comes to mind. There are tonnes of others but the key here is to understand what you are expecting out of them – is it the broad-based theory / academics or hard-core, hands-on knowledge that can be applied to one’s profession / life.

How do you see Digital Media evolving in future? What are the top 3 trends do you foresee for 2016?

Hari: Digital media is ever-evolving and so from the point we are at today, the clear path is that of digital media driven by data, technology and analytics. From a consumer standpoint, there are a few – explosive growth / adoption of mobile, adoption of programming over the web (Netflix, hulu etc), evolution of virtual reality based programming, growth of voice based services (Amazon echo), monetization of messenger services (WeChat model soon to be followed by Whatsapp), Internet Of Things (IoT) adoption are some of the biggest trends I can think of.

Would you like to share few words about the work we are doing at Digital Vidya?

Hari: 

In a world where there was absolutely no form of organized & planned learning streams in the oceanic world called digital, it is only in the recent few years that there started emerging, a few training organizations that were focused on developing & nurturing talent for the good of the industry. Amongst them, Digital Vidya is definitely a leader with the sheer scale and quality of content available to aspiring digital marketers & also the commitment with which it is being delivered, as far as I can see from my perch.

Coming from an era where there the only guidance one could get was one’s own hard work, I believe today’s youngsters need to be thankful that there are courses available in this field that can help them shape a great career in digital.

Are you inspired by the opportunity of Digital Marketing? Start your journey by attending our upcoming orientation session on Digital Marketing for Career & Business Growth. It’s online and Free :).

[Sr. Associate - Content Marketing] A content passionate, Jasleen handles the content writing and marketing activities. Additionally, she leads Digital Marketing Internship Programme. Her deep passion and enthusiasm for writing guided her towards being the Associate Editor in English for her college magazine. Only deep passion and zeal can guide a person towards a professional writing career. Apparently, Jasleen is one of those persons. She is in the content writing and marketing fraternity for 5 years now. A top-notch individual, she is proficient in writing content for multiple requirements including blogs, articles, books, brochures and social media. She embraces practical knowledge of WordPress CMS. Besides this, she is also highly engaging in Social Media Marketing activities.
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