Discovering the Unknown

S. Subramanyeswar
CSO APAC MullenLowe Group

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I work as the Chief Strategy Officer of Lowe Lintas, India. In addition to my work at Lowe Lintas, I also lead the Brand Consulting practice of Lowe Lintas. Teaching, training and writing are my other passions. 

I’m a fervent believer and practitioner of ‘Purpose-inspired’ brand building. My mission is to bring purpose to the world of brands through the breakthrough ‘Brand Stand/Brand Point of View’ thinking that we have developed in-house. This methodology and frameworks have been adopted successfully by many of the brands that Lowe Lintas steers in India.

At heart, as a strategist, I love being an explorer. Discovering the unknown rather than planning with the known. Essentially, leaving no answer unquestioned always stimulates me. 


What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?

Before joining Lowe Lintas, I used to be the National Planning Director of Publicis. For any Planner, moving into Lowe Lintas India is like joining a University. One goes to the University for higher learning. Lowe Lintas is an ‘ecosystem of marketing’ and not just another agency. That’s why we call it the ‘University of Lowe Lintas.’ At Lowe Lintas I got the best opportunity to work or lead brands that disproportionately influence culture. Most of the brands that I work on here have attained ‘cultural authority’ and not just ‘brand authority’ in the respective cultures/ markets that they exist in. And the other key aspect here is the fierce obsession to finding solutions to business problems and not communication problems. The place gives you a feeling of being the fulcrum of marketing. And genuinely a lot of clients too believe that for us. And when you plunge yourself deeply into this (institution)alized approach to solving business problems, there simply is no limit. At Lowe Lintas, it’s about how high can you jump to clear the bar and once you do that you raise the bar and jump again. It’s an unending commitment that can take you anywhere. Something akin to pole vault in the Olympics. I do believe that opportunity, freedom to express and wholehearted backing from the top management in addition to my fierce desire made a real difference got me to where I am.


How would you define the role of a strategist in your agency?

For us strategy (or otherwise referred to as planning) is a belief and not a job or a function. We look at our strategists as 'Explorers'. More than the qualifications, the qualities of the strategist matter. We encourage them to be motherly and yet be an explorer, team player, hunter, lover and a chameleon. As Digital is changing everything, there is a far wider access to tools and consumer understanding. We have more big data than you know what to do with. With so many tools at their disposal, strategists are like Swiss army knives now. We expect them to deploy any combination of skills to enlighten creative folks/work, clients and sharpen or shape brand/marketing strategy. There is a thrust today to expand their skill sets to include design thinking, strategic content creation, media behaviour analysis, business ideation/consulting, trend spotting, work-shopping and creative research. And all unrestricted by channels, mediums, forms or formats. Rather than create rules and laws, great strategy, we believe, lies in imagination, innovation and creativity. Increasingly, it will help clients choose and believe in an entirely new future for their brands.


How have you seen the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?

If one were to look at the brief history of strategy/planning, it essentially started out as a discipline, being a sort of representative of the consumer union, as well as being metrics driven by virtue of its linear and research-centric approach. It then evolved into a specialist subject, setting out the science of the brand and what a brand could or couldn’t do and say. And today, this highly specialized field has transitioned into a more instinctual type of planning that has both art and science embedded into it.   

In a fast-changing world, where a lot of variables are unpredictable, the old models have created stifling brand bureaucracy and have now become either confusing and contradictory or completely defunct.  Traditional strategists who are masters of filling the spaces between things, connecting the dots through deductive logic, are finding it hard to play in the new consumer republic. They may not like change that has happened but they are going to like irrelevance even less.  

And the threat to strategy/planning looms large today. It’s not from within the industry. Consultants have mushroomed everywhere. There is no drought of trend spotters. The media does a great job of tracking and reporting trends much faster than agencies can. Besides, there is enough and more information available on the ubiquitous web. Then there are the media contextual planners and research planners, and companies that blog, connecting directly with consumers. Even creative today functions on its own many times.  

As the inspiration engines of the future, I believe, strategists need to move beyond – from being a servant of the creative product to being the leader of the new agenda for brands/businesses. From being an analyst to an innovator. From methods and means to being a catalyst for the creative community. From defining the next step to creating new fertile grounds for brands to play in. From insight to foresight. From promotion to the other 3Ps of marketing (even the coolest integrated, digital, social media thingy isn’t as cool as creating a Nike + Fuelband idea). And finally, from being a strategy manager to being a strategy entrepreneur.


In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?

No barriers. I believe only in possibilities. And every one should. All you need is an open mindset and not be subjected to any conditioning.

Let’s focus on the now. Improved communications and diverse media are constantly shaping the perceptions of the world and even the identity of consumers. Tomorrow it is guaranteed that smart devices and high-speed connectivity will have become pervasive among almost all consumer groups without any exception, and media consumption will have continued to fragment, turning today’s remaining mass audiences into a set of smaller, more atomized and more on-demand groups.  

The simple reality is that every brand will be a media brand, requiring everyone to consider how they produce, distribute and manage their content ecosystems. Informing, educating and entertaining audiences will happen through channels that are controlled by the brands themselves, rather than channels they pay to advertise on. I believe civilization has entered the age of marketing, where everyone and everything communicates with a marketing filter, mimicking brands. Brands need to be super human, delivering extraordinary performance and control.  

Strategists entering today, to my mind, are best placed to be the gateway to this new world. Not surprising, considering strategists, by nature, are virtually ‘human software’ specialists (immaterial of the background they come from) with a deep understanding of human motivations, fears, anxieties, dreams and desires. They are unique in that they can access human creativity and imagination for the cause of business.  


In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?

There are many one can say, like possessing an x-ray vision, sonic ears, imagination, instinct, curiosity, observant, open mind etc. but if I have to pick one that beats everything any day and is fundamental to the rise of any great strategist is – HUNGER.

Great strategists have the hunger for every aspect of strategy, and not just for a while but for the entire length and beyond. They’re always hungry to learn, hungry to grow, hungry to master things and hungry to make things happen the way they believe in, without any fear. They have the desire to continually hone new skill-sets and gain fresh insights and it’s more important than aptitude. And even as important as intelligence is for any strategist, they have a great drive to maximize their intelligence. Mediocre just don’t have the hunger.


How do you avoid getting stuck in a cultural bubble and stay informed on the needs and desires of everyday consumers?

There are many ways to do that in an enlightened method that is appropriate to the world in which we live in now. Let me share some of the things that I believe in and practice as much as I can. Read and Study (I don’t mean just books, web sites, blogs, articles etc.) everything or every situation around you. You just never know what you’ll learn when you look in unusual places. Just Do It, and do it often in seeing the familiar in a new light or on making the new look familiar to self and others. Exercise Your Right Brain to stay in touch with your creative soul and to nurture it. You never know what you’ll be inspired by or where inspiration will come from. Inspiration, clarity, or a new perspective may materialize unforced as you climb that hill, paint that portrait, photograph the setting Sun, write that romantic piece, walking alone, or letting your guard down in a nightclub. Get Out as ‘out there’ is where the learning occurs. Get out of your office as nothing great will ever happen if you stay in your comfort zone. Lessons Are All Around You and it’s just a matter of seeing, everywhere that we find ourselves in. Lastly, the key is in knowing that It’s Within You Already. Do not let mere habit and habits of others dictate your decisions. Have an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to learn and even to make mistakes in the process.

Above all, always have the consumer in your sight. The best definition of ‘consumer insight,’ I genuinely believe, is to always have the consumer in sight. Even a moment of that is a life’s experience.