An Hour of Advertising with… Storythings' Anjali Ramachandran
Anjali Ramachandran ends our Hour of Advertising conversation by very kindly stating that she found the chat a lot of fun, ‘because it’s nice to look back and reflect’.
It’s something I’ve heard from a lot of Hour of Advertising subjects, but I imagine it’s particularly pertinent for Anjali, because she spends so much of her time looking forward at what’s to come.
She’s literally made a living as being the go-to person if you want to find out ‘what’s next’. Her career has been a diverse mix of massive brands (Nike), digital agencies when digital agencies were still rather mystifying (Made by Many), innovation chief at a media agency giant (PHD) and now she brings stories to life at one of the industry’s most intriguing content outfits (Storythings).
But Anjali’s work outside of her traditional ‘job’ roles is just as important. A keen advocate of better working practices, driving diverse thinking and giving women a better platform to thrive in tech, she’s one of the industry’s key figures when it comes to affecting meaningful change.
We go into how to do this, why it’s important and much more during our chat – but still start with the same cringe-inducing opening question…
Part one: hitting the ground running at Nike, the power of brand building and the future of advertising degrees…
Do you remember the first time in your career you really fucked up?
It might not have been the first time, but a time that really sticks in my memory was when I was working at Nike in India. I was a product marketing coordinator, which meant I had to work with everyone on the ground as and when the products were flying off the shelves. There was one time when a store was doing really well, a particular model was selling great and I knew I had to replenish it. I went to the ops team to make sure we could get the product from the central warehouse in time, and on the system, I filled in something wrong. And the wrong shoe was shipped. A lot of the wrong shoe found its way to this store.
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I went and ‘fessed up. And my boss was wonderful and said ‘that’s fine, mistakes happen’. I was young and, in my excitement, I didn’t check everything. I was lucky that I had a boss who didn’t want to shout and scream at me or make me feel bad. And since then I’ve always double-checked everything I’ve ever sent out. Because my boss wanted to help me learn, rather than make me want to quit my job.
Because you must have actually felt like you wanted to hide the mistake instead…
Of course, there’s a natural reaction to do something like that. But it was really important to hold my hands up. And I think the reason I really felt comfortable doing it was because I had a manager who was very understanding and gave me the confidence to push myself. I actually think she had more confidence in me than I had in myself at that time. And so now I’ve always tried to make sure that I’ve had trust in my teams too. To put in place an atmosphere where it’s fine to make a mistake.
Nike feels like one of those brands that the people who work for it are truly passionate about. Was that the case?
Nike is absolutely that type of brand. I loved it when I worked there and I still do now. I think if you’ve ever worked there, you’ll love it for life. To this day, if I wear a sports brand that’s not Nike, I feel like I’m cheating! People who work there are genuinely passionate about sport. I got into sport when I was there. Not because I had to, but because I loved being around people who loved sport. Who loved feeling fit. That’s what the brand wants everyone to feel, and when you work there, you do.
Do you have to love the brand you work for? Does it help?
No, you don’t have to love brands at all. Many brands just don’t have anything about them that makes you feel. Nike is one of those unique brands. It’s like a Coke or an Airbnb, where it has an aura about it. I actually think that most brands today struggle to make people feel a passion for them, in the way that Nike’s able to do. When I was there, I knew the ins and outs of the brand like no other. I started as a product specialist – the role was called an ‘ekin’, which is Nike spelt backwards. And you literally go to each store and educate people about the technical benefits of each model.
You know the history of the company, you care about it. I was always picking up new little nuggets – whether that was about Phil Knight (the Nike founder), or other things within the Nike family. I learnt how to measure people’s shoe size just by looking at their running gait. I was part of a team that recommended the ideal running gait, and what the right products were to correct any issues. Some of those things you think that it’s probably just part of ‘brand laws’ that you forget as soon as you leave a business. But a lot of it sticks with me even now, and I think that’s testament to Nike’s power, strength and storytelling capability.
Was working for Nike a clear plan?
Not at all! Honestly, it was purely by chance that I got that Nike role. The story sounds unbelievable, but I was working for a non-profit and I was out for dinner with a friend. We were having a chat about studying abroad, and whether we should work in India or not. And the person on the next table worked for Nike and was actually recruiting. She overheard us, came over and gave us her card. She said they were looking for people who had an international outlook, and if we fancied working for Nike in India we should go in and have a chat. That’s what I did… and got the job!
And a role in marketing was even less in the plans?
I didn’t study advertising. I didn’t really ever think that I wanted to be in advertising or brand marketing. It just so happened that everything I’ve done since Nike has led me to where I am now, and it almost feels like I’ve come full circle. I’m able to apply what I know in a very different way. And things have moved on. The internet has exploded – I started my career as Facebook and Twitter were coming on the scene, and I benefited from that.
Do you think you benefited from not studying advertising?
It’s a good question. I think so, yes. I know that a lot of people who work in advertising have studied it, and I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing. Because advertising needs creativity and creativity comes from anywhere. In fact, the less homogenous people you find at an agency, the better the ideas are.
From what I do know about the current overall curriculum, I think there are things that mean people are coming out of school with skills that are useful. Being able to code, for example. Increased data literacy. An awareness of how to ‘act’ online. So there are positives in the way that education is positioned today to set people up for this industry, but I don’t necessarily think you need a degree in advertising specifically.
Part two: first forays into the advertising industry, the most pivotal moments in digital marketing and trying to predict the future of tech…
When you chose agencies, what most attracted you to them?
I went first and foremost by the work that they did. But I was also consciously looking at how they understood digital. Because that’s what I was most interested in and that’s where I felt the future would be. But they needed to be creative as well. I wanted them to want to experiment and be creative with tech.
So why Made by Many? It was quite a unique agency in many ways…
That’s why I joined them! It was a brilliant bunch of people, experimenting with the internet and what was social media then. And they were clearly having fun. They enjoyed what they were doing. They weren’t very precious about it all – they had an open, ‘learning’, studio-like atmosphere.
And they had a good relationship with BBH, which appealed to me – they were based in BBH’s bunker and it meant we could have really good conversations with people from BBH Labs and work with them on some really interesting stuff for big brands like British Airways.
What were the clients themselves like that you worked with? Was it a bunch of marketing directors who didn’t really know anything about this new world?
It was mostly marketing people who knew they had to do something with this thing called the internet, but still weren’t quite sure what. A lot of the time they were coming to us for advice about what their online strategy should be, then on the odd occasion we’d actually be asked to build something!
I think a lot of clients at the time were curious, but they were still unsure. And because we were in the absolute trenches we really did know more than them at this point, and so they did see us as being worth taking a risk on. It allowed us to do stuff with the likes of Burberry and Skype. Some really groundbreaking stuff.
This was around the late 2000s, where digital marketing and digital marketing agencies were obviously growing at a rapid pace. Did it feel like constant evolution, or were there actually some moments that really stood out?
One was definitely SXSW. And I think when you spoke to Mel (Exon) for this series, she mentioned it too. Around that time this festival became a huge thing. There were people from all over the world, who were working in very different but all very interesting ways with technology and the web, coming together in one place. It was where you knew you’d find people who were geeks like you, where you wouldn’t be considered an oddball, where you could go and learn. I remember when Foursquare was launched there. Around the time we were all so passionate about it. It was a great time to be there and on the web!
Then I’d say it was when Facebook bought Instagram. Instagram quickly moved from being this really niche, unique, independent, more personal platform, into this corporate machine. For us geeks who had been there from the start, it really felt like a massive commercial moment.
Doing the ‘innovation’ roles that you’ve done, do you constantly feel like you have to ‘check yourself’ because your understanding and use of technology is so far ahead of the rest of the public?
At the risk of sounding pompous, absolutely. At PHD, one of the things I used to do was write White Papers about things that were happening on the web that could have an impact on brands. Things like ad blocking, for example. You’d go into the technicalities of it, then you’d have to translate it for an internal team who don’t want or need to exactly understand how ad blockers work.
But I think it’s important to know what’s going on and important to know that things won’t always come off. I was very aware of that. And having worked in Innovation at PHD, I was constantly being asked ‘what is the reach of this technology?’ And again, if you’re working with innovation and tech, when things start out they don’t have massive reach – that’s why they’re innovative! It forced me to do a lot of research to find out what something was really about and what it could do for your supply chain or marketing.
How hard is that to do?
It is hard. Because a lot of the facts are not very clear. There’s not always a lot of research for a new piece of technology. You just have to speak to as many people as you can – I was always speaking to startups to get their views and give me the supporting material so I could make my case. And then I’d still have to constantly re-evaluate. The interesting thing when you work in media is that a huge chunk of an agency’s money comes from programmatic, but you can’t just turn a blind eye to things like ad blocking. You can’t pretend things are not there if they’re not convenient to your business. So it is about knowing what’s going on with new technologies and being able to make a case, but also being quick enough and open-minded enough to re-evaluate when things change so quickly.
I imagine there’s a lot of pride-swallowing…
People constantly say ‘but you said this (other thing) last year!?’ and I have to tell them, ‘but things have changed since last year!’
Has there been a particular piece of technology that you really bought in to and ended up being surprised when it really didn’t take off?
I’m thinking of things like brand applications around the internet of things. There was really interesting technology around at one point called Evrythng. I spoke to them a lot, and I tried to sell them in to a lot of our clients. And actually there were some good brand case studies using them. You could use it, for instance, to actually track how a can of drink was manufactured through the supply chain. And I thought that would do better, but it hasn’t really taken off.
I suppose it’s a hard sell but it’s also hard to do at scale. Because there’s an education piece that needs to be done – the consumer needs to know about it. It’s fine that I know, but I’m a tech evangelist. You have to offer something really compelling, and most brands don’t have the interest or energy to think something through the entire pipeline.
If you have something truly interesting at the end – I don’t know, maybe you win tickets to go backstage and meet Beyoncé – then you need to think about being customer-friendly at every stage of the journey. Most brands don’t have the patience to do that. They want to see results quickly, before anything can actually be proven. So a lot of technology ends up dying quite quickly. Evrythng is still alive, to be fair, but yes, I’ve seen a lot of them not fulfil the early potential.
Part three: what a ‘head of innovation’ actually does, finding agencies that embrace tech and the power of long-form storytelling.
So becoming head of innovation at PHD – how many times did you have to explain what that meant to people?
Lots! Head of innovation at PHD meant a lot of things, and I was taking over the mantle from a really, really smart guy called John Willshire. He’s absolutely brilliant. But I had a very different take on the role, predominantly because I was coming in at a different time – it was a different time for the agency and a different time for tech – so it needed the role to be done differently too, and that needed explaining.
So what did the role mean to you?
So when I had the role, it involved a lot of stakeholder management. Educating the agency about these new technologies and how they could be applied. You’d be coming up with ideas for our clients to potentially use them, and making sure that client teams could proactively have conversations with their clients about them. The other part of the job was representing the agency at conferences, doing lots of speaking engagements and being a ‘thought leader’, holding inspiration sessions and workshops for clients...
Can you quickly tell if an agency truly embraces innovation and new technology?
Yes. Having seen so much of agencies and having worked so much in this area over such a long time, you can definitely tell. I’d actually say it boils down further to teams. You can go into an agency and go into a room with 10 people in, and you know quickly who is and isn’t on board with what you’re saying and who has a spark when they talk about innovating and using new tech. It’s a relationship that grows between individuals. There’s an energy there.
In some agencies, you know you’re just there for the sake of it, to do a so-called ‘creativity talk’ or ‘innovation session’. And you know the minute you’re out the door, they’ve forgotten everything that you’ve just said. It has to do with culture – the people who bring you in need to really truly want to change their thinking, to respect your ideas and really want to learn.
So it’s person-by-person rather than agency-by-agency in some ways?
In every agency there are people who are just ‘better at it’ than others. I remember I used to organise lots of trips and events and there’d always be the same people coming. Weirdly, the bigger an agency you’d be at, the less people you’d get, because the cohort became so unified. Which is why somewhere like Made by Many was amazing because you’d have this whole group of people who were so passionate and vibed off each other. That’s much harder to get right in bigger agencies, I think.
How do agencies try and change that then, without them getting smaller!?
Well it’s to do with the hiring process, it’s to do with the training process, with the leadership development process. It has to do with a lot of these things, which I think companies still feel are not that important. They put a lot of emphasis on business development, and that’s great because businesses won’t run without business development, but equally if you have the wrong culture and you won’t spend time on developing the future-thinking of the people that make your business, you will lose that special spark that makes your people who they are. And before you know it, it’s too late. The smart people are leaving, that affects who’s left and who wants to join. It’s all interlinked.
You left PHD in April 2016. What was the reason for the move?
PHD I left simply because it felt like the right time to do so. It was a great place with great people, but the agency was restructuring, and I just felt like I’d reached the limits of what I could do with them and for them. I think that’s the way most people leave companies in general – things naturally come to an end.
You then took a very different role at Storythings. Which is another move to a very different type of place. How did that come about?
I was then just freelancing for a bit, wanting to see what was out there and do interesting work. Storythings apparently read the newsletter that I did (about emerging markets), and they were doing a project in India at the time. So they asked me if I was interested in working on it. It was about digital identity in emerging markets – exactly what I wanted! So I took it on as a freelancer and started working with them. I really enjoyed the stories they were coming up with, I really enjoyed doing work I was truly passionate about. Because very often, when you’re at a bigger company and you have a roster of big clients giving you millions, you’re not often in a place where you can say ‘that’s not quite right’ or ‘I don’t want to do that just because it doesn’t interest me’.
Storythings is very agile, very passionate, and crucially, they believed in the importance of giving diversity a voice in their stories. They intentionally make sure that not all their stories are about white middle-class men! That’s important to me – not just for personal reasons but because I think that then produces better stories for our audience too. So when they came a little bit later and asked me to join them as a director, it was easy to say ‘yeah, let’s do it’.
Storytelling can mean very different things to different people – what does it mean to you?
It’s a very misunderstood word. We do what’s called ‘complex storytelling’. Which means we talk about complex issues that aren’t easily communicated in a tweet or 30-second ad. We take the time to explore these issues over a series – the format changes depending on the issue, it could be a podcast, it could be narrative journalism, it could be documentary film, it could be animated film, it could be data visualisation. The challenge there is to keep people’s interest over a sustained period of time.
But we’re at a really interesting period in media and attention. Matt Locke, my co-director, talks about the ‘attention-pattern spectrum’. The logic is that we started off with newspapers and TV shows and films. You can read a whole newspaper back-to-back in about an hour, depending on how fast you read and how big the paper is – and how much time you have. A film is roughly two hours, or closer to three in some cases. And then you came to this point in the mid-2000s where Facebook posts and Tweets and Vine videos started to become the rage. That meant you could take in information in 30-seconds. You could read a tweet in five seconds. A Vine video was six seconds. And we’re now at a stage again where people value and enjoy – where the story is right – binge-watching Netflix, or playing Minecraft and Twitch for hours. Real long-form storytelling. So what we do at Storythings is help people understand real issues that can’t be easily communicated at the short end of the spectrum.
Part four: the importance of ‘side-hustles’, how to find diverse talent and the rising power of flexible working…
What are some of the key storytelling devices that help you tell amazing long-form stories?
Well we have to make sure people come on a journey with us. And crucially, that means having protagonists who can move the story on themselves. Not as unwilling or unwitting characters who have something happen to them. This is a mistake many brands make. Very often, they talk about someone and give them very little agency over what is said. So people rarely feel invested in that character or issue as a result. Whereas if you have the person tell the story in their own words, people are instinctively more empathetic. They want to find out why the person is as they are, what’s going on with them, how they may or may not be similar to themselves. There’s more investment.
And at the end of the day, that’s what branding and marketing is about. It’s about trying to teach people something new. About an issue that you feel passionate about. You’re bringing them on a journey with you and landing a point in people’s hearts and minds. The days of people being ‘talked to’ or just ‘spoken at’ is over. And a lot of what we do is allow people to tell their own stories. We give them a platform and a voice. That’s what we find most interesting. And that’s what a lot of companies, non-profits and even governments talk to us about.
Are there occasions where you have to say to clients ‘this approach probably isn’t for you’?
I think if ‘pure reach’ is your only concern, then in many cases something like a podcast is just the wrong decision. If it’s just reach and nothing else, then maybe go to a media agency. I think you have to know that as a client before you start the process. We talk to our clients to understand their requirements so we can get the very best out of them. Because sometimes with client/agency relationships, clients can’t get a handle on what they really want until a few months down the line, and then it’s often too late.
You have a lot of outside passions – side hustles and initiatives you work on. Is that important?
Unequivocally yes! I do have a lot of side projects, I’m trustee for a couple of places, I’ve got work and then there’s family – it means I’m very busy but it’s all very important to me! But the reason why it’s like that is that’s what helps me do my best work. That’s what gives me the basis for more interesting conversations. It’s what leads me to interesting people who I might work with in the future. Creativity feeds off that. It comes from exposure to different people and different environments.
One of the passion projects that really took off is Ada’s List. How did that come about and why do you think it caught such imagination?
So we started it in 2013, originally just as a couple of dozen people we’d invited to get together. It was originally a Google Group, but when it grew to about 200 people, a Google Group alone wasn’t fit for purpose! So we moved to a different software platform, and through word of mouth there’s now 7,500 women from all over the world supporting each other and providing an environment where women can ask questions that they may not have felt able to otherwise. It’s a powerful network. Women hire each other off the back of it. Journalists ask questions and invite comment from others in the group. There are people looking for co-founders…and there’s a lot of peer-to-peer learning that goes on.
I think all these things make the industry better. It makes the community more successful. It’s very active and people feed off that energy. They’re constantly asking us for more events, more conferences. But I think it’s because you provide something that adds value to a group of people, it solves a very particular need – especially in an industry where you’re often not in the majority. That feeling and ability to link and reach out to people in a similar place is what I think people thrive on. When you have something good and are giving people what they want, then you mainly just want to enable them, take a step back and let the magic happen.
Do you have a lot of dialogue with agencies and brands around exploring societal issues? What stage is the industry at?
The industry is not very mature when it comes to understanding complicated issues, and knowing how to best communicate those issues. A lot of brands have good intentions, they have massive budgets, but they may not see the value in investing in comms around issues that might be contentious. The better clients do understand this and want to experiment and see whether there are stories that can help them to be seen in a positive light. And we do work with a lot of them.
But overall I think there’s a lot of pressure. I don’t envy marketers today, where the ‘big four’ – the GAFAs – control pretty much everything that you do. You do it on their platforms. They own the data. They own the people. Most brands don’t have the control, they’re worried about GDPR, cyber security, they need to own their corporate responsibility – what was known as CSR can now often be seen as ‘the brand’. There’s so much for them to think about.
So when you tell these stories, how do you find the storytellers? And how do you ensure there’s a diverse mix – which is obviously something agencies are struggling with…
That’s a really good and important question. It’s something I’m very passionate about and very conscious of. At Storythings, we tend to work mainly with freelancers, and we make sure that every single team we work with is diverse. We ask specific communities that we know are diverse for recommendations. That’s always a good idea. We have connections with specific niche communities – whether that’s a podcast community for example, or a graphic art community. We have contacts who are experts in their field and therefore have specific networks we can tap into too.
And when people apply for jobs, we make sure that we interview a diverse line-up. It’s about diversifying networks, being very explicit about what you are looking for, and making the effort. That final part is key. And it’s the biggest problem for many. You need to do a lot of research, spend a lot of time, put in the legwork. There’s no quick-fix answer.
And then when you hire these people, how do you make sure you put in the processes and cultures in place that works?
We’re lucky because we’re mostly a remote team anyway, but even then we’re very clear about respecting people’s time. People aren’t expected to work out of official hours, for example. But then, having said that, it might be that people with very young kids may find that they work better at night, so we facilitate that too. Letting people work in the way that suits them best has never been a problem.
As a team we make sure we try and meet about once per week, we have regular calls and we’re all on Slack very often. In fact, we rarely use emails anymore, so I suppose in that sense Slack has become a gamechanger. But between phone calls, Slack and a weekly face-to-face meeting, it works.
And clients are ok with this?
Our ways of working are never an issue with clients. I know that that’s what scares agencies, but in fact most of our clients have appreciated the reach that we have because we’re not tied to a specific office or way of working. Clients are pretty good on this – we’ve found that and we hope others will too.
Artwork by Guy Sexty
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