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Interview with Haroon Bijli – Digital Marketing Specialist/Expert

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Haroon BijliHaroon Bijli is currently helping a large organization adapt digital for its communication and brand outreach activities. He is also consulting with a few startups and SMEs in their digital marketing efforts.

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

Haroon: By accident. I was into many things when I got into the job market in the 1990s – one of them was an entrepreneurial venture in DTP, computer graphics, and training, while I was doing CA and later, a masters in journalism. Because of my comparatively better awareness of computers, I was picked up by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in 2000 who had just then acquired the domain tcs.com and wanted a professional writer in their team for the new website. Soon after I joined, the developer and the designer moved on and I took on their jobs as well. Thus began the digital journey. I left TCS in 2013 by which time I had spent five years as the head of digital marketing. In the thirteen years at TCS I had spent time at different jobs, something you might notice in my LinkedIn profile.

As you can see, I started working in digital much before it was called “digital”.

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?

Haroon: Answering the second question first, no, I don’t think Digital Marketing is a threat to conventional marketing. Let’s not be delusional. Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses – even in a market with advanced digital saturation like the UK, the purest form of “conventional” marketing like outdoor and print are still important. You still find brands paying a premium for TV spots during the Super Bowl in the US, and for billboards at major highways or the Times Square in New York. And for any successful mass marketing strategy, conventional and digital have to work together. Also, digital penetration in India is quite low. In no way is digital marketing a threat to older media of marketing.

It’s unfair to club everything which is not digital marketing as “conventional”. Having said that, conventional marketing has its advantages – mainly, skills are easily available, and you have fairly abundant talent and experience – the industry is fairly mature, with even TV being around for decades. You really don’t have the same challenges in obtaining and training talent in media buying, creative, production and other areas of advertising, as much as you have in digital today. The second advantage is reach. TV, radio, cinema, print and outdoor give you great reach, with internet adoption being very low in our country. It is also economical in terms of cost of reach. And we have a fairly established industry around mainstream advertising with ad agencies, specialist media planners and auditors, and firms specializing in audience research and measurement.

And a fact that many of my digital colleagues won’t be too happy to accept – “conventional” media buyers hold the purse strings in any marketing department.

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

Haroon: I don’t really have “best campaign case studies” to share, but take a look at the following businesses. There’s a lot to pick up from them:

  • GE: In 2015, GE made the big switch from a financial-centered company to what it calls the “Digital Industrial Company”. Observe how they went around doing this transformation. A google search is a good place to start. From there, look at their flagship website, the GE Reports site, the Instagram accounts and all their social media. You can easily see how the wheels are turning in this big, big company.
  • Adobe: If you are reading this, there are good chances that you’ve been an Adobe product user from the start. I don’t know if you’re old enough to have used the Adobe Photoshop product that used to come in CD-ROMs. Or worse still, when it used to come in several sets of floppy disks! The most fascinating thing about Adobe is how they’ve used the cloud to deliver complex products such as the Creative Cloud and the Marketing Cloud. The best example of business transforming into a digital-centered business, if there was one. You don’t see Adobe’s social handles play selfie contests, do you?
  • Virgin: I’ve recently become a fan of this brand. One of the few companies that have identified the raison d’etre of its existence and are bringing it out, consistently and sensibly. True, they’re centered on the Richard Branson brand, but look at the constant and continuous inspiration they’ve been providing to entrepreneurs and startups through their marketing? Nothing of this is accidental – everything is crafted with great attention to detail and executed as perfectly as possible. Start with their website virgin.com.

The other company I’d like to mention here is my former employer Philips. Observe Philips at a global level, on the web, mobile, social (Twitter, Facebook, Insta). They’re doing great work at the global level. Also follow Airbus,AirBnB, Emirates and NASA.

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

Haroon: 

  • Short term approach:

Mostly, companies look for short term gains and are fascinated with getting CTRs, Likes, Impressions, and vague “engagement” on social. Most companies don’t invest in understanding what digital can bring to them, and make little or no investment in measurement. Hence, they spend money, get achievement numbers from free sources like GA, have little clue what it means besides what the agency tells them, and continue with their life. In the end, they’re either too happy with their achievement, or are disappointed with the ROI.


  • Broadcast mode:

If you observe most Indian companies, they look at social and digital as an extension of advertising. They are just not interested in connecting with customers, and post-sales consumer care is hived off to an industrialized social-CRM team which is, at best, the digital equivalent of a call center agent with a script in front of him/h34. You’ll see most companies responding to customer queries in cookie cutter fashion, and hence losing the plot. If you respond to a customer with honesty and grace, you are actually marketing the brand, because others are reading it as well. This was not possible when you had only telephone or snail mail as the medium of consumer service, but now you have the very real possibility of talking to a customer publicly. Why not have a conversation with him and get him/her to be a fan?

  • Too unnatural: 

I like the way most brands talk on social media. They’re unintentionally funny when they try to be too cool. So what you see is a lot of “Hey, wat’s up guys! Are you ready for a fantastic contest!!!” which reminds me of Ravi Shastri doing commentary, or worse, Rameez Raja. 

And then you ask the wrong question to them right then – “my product isn’t working” and notice the switch to “please give us your contact number and we will have the concerned reach you soon”.

So what’s my point? Figure out what your brand personality is, and speak a consistent language that reflects this personality. If you are a grandpa brand who doesn’t talk in three exclamation marks, don’t. If you are a young, hip brand, do so, but don’t “escalate to the concerned team” either. You can be humorous in a polished way if you are a mature brand, and humorous in a wacky way if others see you as such. Be natural. Remember, you aren’t a brand on social, you are just another user of the medium.

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

Haroon: The best answer for this question is “it depends”.

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

Haroon: This is not an easy task. Most of digital’s problems arise out of how it is perceived internally. Organizations which have been successful in digitizing themselves (in marketing or otherwise) usually have one thing in common – the commitment to digitization flows from the top. If your leadership is committed and visibly so, your job is much easier.

It is important that you quickly gain credibility and trust of the marketing organization of which you are a part. Go out of the way and make yourself useful. Take responsibility of anything that is “new” and be the torch-bearer of innovation. Crack jokes. Be the one who people look at when the projector doesn’t work. Be the nerd or geek.

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Which are your 3 favorite Digital Marketing Tools?

Haroon: The Adobe suite, Google tools and the coffee machine. Take good care of the coffee machine.

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

Haroon: 

  • For Entrepreneurs: depending on the business you are in, digital marketing can help you target and reach your most valuable customers. If you are on an internet-led business, this is bread-and-butter – how you gain traffic and convert traffic into sales is critically important. You would need to understand how to optimize spend, and for this a theoretical background is necessary.
  • For Professionals: If you want to become a CMO one day, you’d better understand digital!
  • For Students: If you want to become a CMO one day, you’d better understand digital!Ditto.

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

Haroon: Comfort with analytics – this is the only skill I would really look for. Everything else can be learned, but in terms of attributes, I would look for someone who is:

  • unafraid to experiment and make mistakes
  • insanely curious
  • looks under the hood / gets comfortable with code and technology easily and
  • doesn’t take oneself too seriously

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

Haroon: Be curious, be unafraid to make mistakes, and try and do a lot of pro-bono (volunteer) work, or help a family/friend digitize a business.

Why pro-bono or free work? While you are doing a service to a NGO and/or a friend or relative with a small business enabling him/her to go digital or set up ecommerce, you automatically learn a lot, and you tend to become a bit of an all-rounder in digital.

Around five-six years ago, many of us had the opportunity to gain a well-rounded entry into digital – the function had not matured and we did everything ourselves, right from analytics, to writing/content, to coding and even design. Now, you have the opportunity to specialize in verticals within digital marketing, like you can earn a livelihood doing SEO/SEM all your life, or Content Marketing, or Social Media. The digital function has grown.

However, this also closes as many doors – it is rare to find young digital specialists who have an above average awareness of other disciplines. For example, you will find a lot of people “managing” social media accounts, but with little or no knowledge of analytics, web sites, or content. That’s the gap a volunteering assignment will help you fill. Taking full ownership of digitization of an NGO, an individual (maybe a politician?!), or a family/friend’s small business will help you gain an all-round exposure, something you will find increasingly difficult to gain in today’s large organizations or agencies.

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?

Haroon: I usually educate myself by following people who share valuable content on social media, mainly LinkedIn, since I am not active on Twitter and Facebook. I also try to be deliberately curious. I look up things on a whim, and quite unpredictably. I don’t even know what I might search for next. 🙂

I also learn a lot from many people, very few of whom I have met. I follow Scott Monty, Shel Israel, Jeremiah Owyang, Mitch Joel, Maria Poveromo, Lisa Barone, Tina Abayomi-Paul, Augie Ray, Raju Narisetti, SreeSreenivasan, Robert Scoble, Ray Wang, Tom Goodwin, JP Rangaswami (jobsworth), Horace Dediu, Avinash Kaushik, Rand Fishkin, Neil Patel, among others – whose tweets and updates I follow and learn from. Not all of these people give you easy-to-use or how-to content, but then that’s what Digital Vidya is there for.

There are also sites like Hubspot, Moz, SearchEngineLand and others. I subscribe to emails from Google, Hustle, Wired, HBR, Asymco, and many more.

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

Haroon: If I were to name three, it would have to be Blake Cahill, head of digital at Philips whose digital transformation program I was privileged to be part of. The other two are not really digital marketers – Harish Menon from whom I learned people management and Gautam Ghosh from whom I continue to learn social media, even though he is a HR transformation practitioner. 

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

Haroon: 

The best way to understand the future of digital media is to follow two industries – one is news and the other is entertainment. These two industries are on the leading edge of digital are most affected by technology. The commonality here is obvious – these two industries are in the business of distributing content, which is key for digital marketing.

The top three – well, I see a lot of us digital marketers worry about their professions. That’s the first trend. The career path is very clear for those who have started their career in digital in the last three years. Not so for those who started 15 years ago! The newbies will probably have full careers in the digital space, as the discipline grows and matures. But for those who started their careers more than a decade ago, we’ve hit the ceiling. There’s nowhere to go but sideways and that means picking up a non-digital skill or moving into a digitization practice which is more than just marketing. The marketing department of today is ruled by the media buyer. But the marketing department of tomorrow is well and truly the digital marketer’s arena. I am also seeing a lot of my colleagues getting disillusioned with their organizations’ reluctance to accelerate on digital, and therefore setting up their own ventures.

In terms of innovation, there’s going to be a lot of live and deferred video out there, with lots of emphasis on audience or crowd-generated content. This has already started happening in the news media industry – if you have paid attention, news organizations such as BBC and others have already set up news rooms and tech to source, organize and disseminate crowd-generated news video content via Facebook. Inevitably, marketers are going to be doing that very soon.

The other trend I see arising out of India is internet-based radio, which is going to be led by BOP or rural markets and going to be essential for BOP and rural market reach. It is cheap, accessible and ripe for exponential growth. Very few brands have taken advantage of this so far, but watch ITC, Unilever and the Telecom brands using this more and more.

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

Haroon: 

I am privileged to have taken classes from your faculty, and all three of them were excellent. However, I think we now need to increasingly look at emerging channels such as chat and live video, and also the industries that are growing around digital and social – such as Social CRM, Influencer Marketing, Managing Digital Agencies and Vendors, How To Hire For Digital, and so on.

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 :).

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  • There are 3 comments


    • 11 months ago

      Jasleen Kaur   /   Reply

      Thanks Haroon for your contribution to our community through this interview. Really happy to know your feedback about the work we are doing in spreading digital (marketing) vidya :).

    • 11 months ago

      Rohit Kumar   /   Reply

      What are various aspects of digital marketing to learn for career growth?

    • 9 months ago

      Arundhati   /   Reply

      Very insightful and honest responses Haroon. I am one of those who was bit by the digital bug over a decade ago and but soon realised that there was no option but to widen my skillset. Digital technology, adoption and marketing continues to be slow esp in B2B sector (other than ITES companies) and is quite frustrating. It has been one of the fastest evolving technologies and as you rightly said, it is the news and entertainment industries that thrive on content who are adopting digital widely. Newbies should focus on quality experiential content for getting best out of digital solutions. I still keenly follow digital confident about the impact it can make.

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