“For me, going out of your comfort zone is what propels you to future success.”
This week on the ClientSide Podcast, our host Nathan Anibaba talks to Raj Kumar, former Brand and Reputation Director at Aviva, about the challenges of marketing in the pandemic era. Raj, a long-time marketing expert formerly employed at Nokia and Siemens brings his experience of global e-marketing to ClientSide. Nathan and Raj tackle the difficult subjects of maintaining an international branding presence in the era of COVID-19, and talk about how Raj has adjusted – both personally and professionally – to this challenging business environment.
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Nathan Anibaba: Raj Kumar is the group brand and reputation director at Aviva Plc the largest UK insurer. Prior to Aviva he held leadership roles in Asia and Europe with companies like Siemens, Experian and Nokia. Raj believes that high-performance comes from focusing on building a positive, open, honest, and inclusive culture that embraces change. He is on the board of trustees of the Prince’s Teaching Institute one of the Prince of Wales charities, helping teachers rediscover the love of their subjects, inspiring them to bring the latest thinking into classrooms across the UK. Raj Kumar welcome to ClientSide.
Raj Kumar: Morning and thank you for having me.
Nathan Anibaba: Absolute pleasure having you on the show. Your background and history is really, really fascinating. You get your BA in economics from Delhi University before getting your MBA in 1999. And your first job after graduation was a sales role with Siemens. How did those early experiences influence the way that your career subsequently developed?
Raj Kumar: I think first I would say is that coming from India, your parents have quite a few expectations of oneself. So you can either be, as they say, in India, a doctor, an engineer, or a failure and I ended up being the failure, so an economics degree was just not good enough. But looking back at this I was really happy that Siemens was my first company. I didn’t know anything about technology as such. And it was a very technical company it was telecoms, the telecoms division that I worked in. Sales included sales and marketing it was sort of the same function over there, but I quickly started owning one of the largest accounts that I had built up actually over there it’s called Airtel’s one of the largest telecom companies in India actually.
And what it taught me was that yes while I may not have the technical skills and I went in there feeling a bit unsure about myself, ultimately it’s about satisfying a need. And ultimately it’s about if you could express that to your customers in the right way, explain it to them, build the big relationships you will succeed. So it taught me that I didn’t need to know everything and have experience in everything to succeed. And it also taught me actually the importance of having a great team around you because the team is then balanced and that balanced team helps you across many, many hurdles. So for me those were the two big things I took across actually.
Nathan Anibaba: Really interesting philosophy and we’ll see how that plays out because your career spans both telecoms, Aviva obviously insurance very different industries. So that philosophy on how you think about your own personal development really comes through. And we’ll talk about that in more detail as we continue, but you became head of marketing Europe for Nokia in 2010, in 2011 you moved to Experian as head of marketing for a EMEA very different business to Nokia. What factors led to that decision and how did you adjust to that new role?
Raj Kumar: So for me it’s about I’ve always been a bit of a curious person at heart and it’s led to a lot of changes in my life moving continents, whether it was from India to other places in Asia to Europe and working across really Africa, Europe, Asia. I’ve always been interested in the cultural sides of things, how different people view different situations. It always amazes me how you can view the same set of data and come to completely different conclusions. So it was that curiosity and that understanding is what actually motivates me in one sense. So I also liked the feeling of being able to challenge myself and Experian was a quite different business it’s a very good business. I looked around in the world and about what was it? 2010, 2009, 2010, and said I see data and analytics being booming and being so critical to what we do.
And Experian was the biggest company. One of the best companies in that field, a really innovative, good company. And I was lucky enough to have a chance to go there. And what I said in the beginning helped me in great stead, which was I didn’t know anything about… Well, I did know more about data and analytics, but not to the degree that which Experian deals with. And again, it was the fact that we were trying to distill that into a proposition that mattered across a huge variety of geographies and companies. And for that you need to start from the customer and that’s where my ability comes into being and that was it really.
Nathan Anibaba: Really interesting. So tell us what Experian looked like at the time when you joined in early 2011, what problems were you trying to solve from a marketing point of view? And tell us a little bit about what the company looked like at the time.
Raj Kumar: So it was a new division actually which was the EMEA, Europe, Middle East, Africa division it was a completely new division they were setting up, it was a new management team. And I was brought in to set up the marketing team as well. And it covered a fast geography really from Russia to South Africa. And as you might imagine the data assets varied quite significantly in quality from the Nordics to other countries in the Middle East, to other countries in Africa. So what we were really looking for one was to set up the team, to set up the basics. We had countries where we didn’t even have a web presence where we were trying to set up. So it was from the real basics of setting up a website, doing the SEO, making sure that you have some decent content flowing through and not the Google translate to actually building the teams in those countries.
And finally looking at a value proposition that could go across that. And that’s where the it’s the importance of a great team and the chemistry again. So our CEO, Charles Butterworth, a really great guy and he was great at setting that vision. And I learned looking at him as to how he took people along, which was almost a transformative journey actually. And Experian is quite an innovative organization, their constantly looking at how data and analytics can improve people’s lives, at what new data could make sense and be added on. And really I learned from that agility of the organization and how it collaborated across it’s many units and functions to execute really quickly. A lot of companies I’ve seen are really good at strategizing and identifying, but very slow at moving. Experian is very good at agility and staying ahead of the competition because it ruthlessly focuses on the customer needs.
Nathan Anibaba: So we’ll talk about your time at Aviva in a moment but you’ve mentioned building teams a number of times now so far in the interview. And I’m curious to understand what you’ve taken away from all of the experiences that you’ve had, all the roles that you’ve had in terms of how best to think about building teams, the skills, the attributes, how best to hire, motivate, and build world-class teams that are capable of executing your vision. What have you learned from all of your experiences so far?
Raj Kumar: It’s a very interesting question. And you find yourself in different situations. And I think for me, a lot of the times you don’t have the luxury to hire massive masses of people in different kind of teams. So I think for me, firstly, it’s equally about you as a leader, building the culture with your existing teams. So setting the vision, getting the buy-in from the people, getting them excited to be part of something. And the culture cues I believe are always set from how leaders behave. So bringing your authentic self really is quite important and the way you behave, the way you behave under pressure, under stress especially is quite important because that’s when your value is really a matter to you, otherwise it’s easier to just put them up on a board. So for me, that, and within the… I’ll come on to the hiring teams also, but within that existing teams, talent development is so important, succession planning.
And by that I mean talent development for the whole organization. Too often when people think about talent development they only think of future stars or they only think of succession planning, “So who’s going to be my successor and I’ll sort of help them. And who’s high potentials and I’ll help them.” Well, that’s well and good but ultimately to grow the organization you should develop everybody’s talent. And that is key for me that everyone has the opportunity to progress, not just the high potentials. You might spend more on them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t spend anything on anybody else. And as far as I think hiring goes, I think, yes, of course, if I the technical sides out of it really, what we’re looking at is a match in our values and behaviors. And also it’s what you need.
So some people are really good at looking at the past trends and coming to a conclusion of what you could do today. Some people are much more future oriented, they look at today and they go, “What could this be tomorrow?” Some people are really good to be given singular tasks and they do it well. Some people absolutely hate singular tasks and want to be involved in five things at the same time. Some people are a little bit more competitive. Some people are a bit more collaborative. Some people appreciate you directly telling them what’s wrong. Some people go, “Oh, that was really blunt and hard. I don’t like that at all.” So I think there’s so many different ways in which people behave and people expect you to behave that the team when it comes together, it’s not only just good skills but I think it should match each other’s up.
So if you have some people who are good at multitasking, you probably might need some who are good at single-tasking and getting that done also. So it’s all that and understanding the kind of people you require in your team is key. And not just from a skill sense, it is from this sense of how will they fit in? What is their view of the world? What is their view of how they make decisions? Do they make snap decisions based on experience or do they require loads and loads and loads of data and analytics and all these are really important. And what you need is a good mix a very diverse team of a good mix because it helps you, it propels you to go out of your comfort zone. And for me going out of your comfort zone really is what propels you to future success.
Nathan Anibaba: Really interesting. Are you responsible for seeing that within all of the people that you hire or do you rely on a team of people to identify. I’m really interested in the process that you go through to uncover what skills and behaviors match up best to bring a high performing functioning team together? Are you responsible for doing that? Do you sit down individually with each of the people that come into your team to figure out whether or not they have the right skills and attributes, or is it are you relying on a wider team or a process to uncover that. Because some leaders are more hands off when it comes to bringing people into their organizations and some are very hands-on, but depending on the size of your organization, the size of your teams, it could be very time consuming doing that. I’m just interested in your process on how you think about that.
Raj Kumar: I think yes I do like to speak to everyone as such, may not be an interview per se but just to get to know them. We do rely on a process as all large companies do. We do have our people function with us in interviews. We’d also do colleague interviews. So people should be able with their peers or who would be their peers if they joined the company. And they’d be able to figure it out a little bit about the person and what is their view on perspectives on many different things, and that formed the picture.
And then when you go to a another round of interview, you’d probably have a little bit more scenario planning and a little bit more challenging on how you certainly think about situations that you might find yourself in. And finally for me it’s just to have a chat really. And it’s not such an interview at the end of that day then and to just get that chemistry between both of you, me and whoever the person is and just to get a feel of them. So even if they wouldn’t work for me directly it’s just nice to know the team even before they start take that opportunity right in the beginning.
Nathan Anibaba: Let’s talk a little bit about your time at Aviva in 2019, you became group branded reputation director for Aviva. What does the group brand and reputation director for Aviva do?
Raj Kumar: It does what it says on the team really. So I’m there to build in protective the Aviva brand and compel the business basically to action to achieve this. Because if you look at business today, the expectations of business have risen manifold were expected… Businesses are expected to have a view on societal topics, on social causes, not just turning a profit. And it makes a sense to look at that brand in that broader spectrum, because each brand as it builds up, has a reputation, not just in the marketing sense of what our customers think about brand, but broadly what do people who are not our customers also think about Aviva. And it could be what do the NGOs think, it could be what to what the employees think obviously, it could be also on what do our partners feel about us and think about us, whether they are supplying to us or whether we are supplying to them.
And if you look at that holistically, you start to see really how your company is perceived, how your brand is perceived. And the marketer’s challenge is always to look at ways in which you can engage with your customer and make sure that you’re satisfying those needs. The broader reputation side of it brings in the rest of it, which is as a package how are you looking at, what are you focusing at and what are you building, are you building a good legacy across the board? And that’s quite important. And that’s where I think for us also we look at our behaviors, we look at our policies, people policies, we look at our values, we look at how we communicate internally. And it all goes in all those moving parts go into making a great brand and for me it’s that holistic picture.
Nathan Anibaba: Aviva’s purpose is with you today for a better tomorrow. What does that mean to the way that you treat your customers and wider stakeholders?
Raj Kumar: I believe purposes are always lived rather than talked about. So for us if we’re talking about it then we’re not doing something right, because it’s the actions that will define whether your purpose is being held up or not. And like I’ve said before it’s when you’re truly under pressure that you realize whether the values and the purpose that a company has are worth anything. So for me it serves as a guide personally and this past year has shown whether we live up to it or not. And when we say, “Are we with you,” whether it was getting all our employees home as quickly as possible looking after their safety, whether it is making sure that they have good chairs to sit on equipment, et cetera, when they’re at home. We’ve given a well-being day off, for example, right now, whether we were flexible in our timing so for our employees.
Are we with you? Yes. For our customers were we with you? Absolutely. We saw a surge in people wanting to know more about the policies they had, what they were covered for or not they were working from home now, what about their home insurance policies, what about health, et cetera. How we went out of our way to help with the cover for critical workers, NHS workers too. And how we’ve contributed funds to the ABI to help out with businesses who have suffered. So for us it is are we with you? Yes. I can see that and people can see that without us having to say, “Oh, look, look, we’re acting in line with our purpose.” Because people see it. People feel it. Are we in a better tomorrow. Absolutely. We’ve been talking to the government after auto enrollment of pensions, where everybody had to start putting some money for their pensions.
All those people, those monies goes into what we call default funds. Most people don’t change where they put their money. And we’re saying all those funds should be invested in companies that are doing well better for the environment. Are we looking at that because that’s the better tomorrow we want to achieve. So for us we see it in the actions, so we don’t have to talk about it because we’re living it and people realize that. And if we don’t the feedback is immediate and that helps us keep us on the straight and narrow.
Nathan Anibaba: Really interesting. So, as you say, today’s consumers are really they are looking for value in the marketplace. They’re looking for suppliers and companies to provide them with a quality product or service at a reasonable price. But their also looking for the companies that they spend money with to also do some good in the world, as if our job wasn’t hard enough just satisfying our customer’s desires, that makes the marketer’s job even harder to satisfy not only their commercial needs, but also the wider environmental or societal ones as well. Talk about that in the context of 2020, when we had so much tumultuous change and social strife. There are so many different stakeholders for you to satisfy. How do you make sure that you’re satisfying all of the different stakeholders requirements, but also staying true to your brand?
Raj Kumar: For me, you’re absolutely right. There are so many stakeholders and different views on one’s company. It starts with our vision and our strategy. Everybody needs to understand Aviva’s vision and our strategy, that’s the starting point what are we going to do? This clarity gives all the stakeholders the context, the context behind what actions we’ll be taking. It sets the expectation of what we’ll be doing, not just in a very business sense but across the board. So yes there may be times when you choose to invest somewhere and the investors are thinking, “Oh, that money might rather be spent in a dividend or do something else.” But if they can see it is aligned to the overall vision and strategy they understand the context and they understand why it’s happening.
So when we talk about what happened in 2020 with Black Lives Matter, DNI, I think that was a great example of how Aviva works really. Because, well, to be honest, when we first started off we didn’t know how to react. I’ll be very honest and candid about it because it came in such a wave both internally as well that people said a lot of people were not aware. And it was not aware, when I mean not aware I mean not aware of the feelings within the minority communities that it evoked me personally included actually. So what Aviva was doing is we listen, we will listen to understand, and when it would be so easy to just listen and respond, we took the time to really listen and understand what were the key issues and how our people were feeling about it. Indeed how the minority communities were feeling about it but also how the other people were feeling about everything.
Whether some white people who were saying, “Oh, I don’t know how to even approach this subject. I don’t know how to talk about it.” So the awkwardness or the awkwardness equally of the minorities communities going, “Ooh, this is not something I wanted to really talk about at the workplace. There were some people like that too. So I think it brought that openness and that honesty and the fact that we encouraged it really helped us. And thereafter we have listened and we have policies in place and we are doing stuff. We’ve got our communities across. We’ve got six communities across whether related to aged care pride, carers, et cetera. So we’ve got our communities and we’re really working with them to understand and make sure that we’re doing right by everybody and that’s key actually, that’s key.
Nathan Anibaba: Really interesting. How do you reflect on 2020 yourself from a personal and business perspective? 2020 was hard for all of us, not only for Black Lives Matter, but a certain pandemic that is still raging that it’s still raging. How do you reflect both personally and professionally on 2020?
Raj Kumar: On the positive side? I feel anything is possible within two weeks.
Nathan Anibaba: Because we had to.
Raj Kumar: Because we had to. Ultimately if anybody had said, could you get 10,000 plus people working from home, including the call centers, et cetera, in two or three weeks time we’d go, “Why should we do that? We’ll never, it’s not possible.” But we did.
Nathan Anibaba: Amazing.
Raj Kumar: Could we make all our offices COVID secure, make all the safety arrangements in case anybody wanted to work in the office for whatever reason, whether they had no space, mental health, et cetera. Yes. We could. Whether we could switch our systems completely online including everything. Yes. So I think for me the positivity of that is that you can do everything, you can do it in two weeks if you really put your mind to it.
And that’s a real positive thing, right? I also want to make sure not just to Aviva, but across the board that we don’t forget these new links and these new processes that we’ve built for the better. So because we have to really change so much at pace because we have to do things so differently. We built these new processes, these new almost neurons going across, going, this is how it could be done. And when things go back to normal whatever normal is, we should retain that memory. We should retain those processes because a lot of them have been helpful and they should always be there. That’s something that we shouldn’t forget. I think on the negative side for me it has been a complete personally speaking really a change in mindset. When you think about work-life balance in particular.
Nathan Anibaba: Sure.
Raj Kumar: For me the working life is quite demarcated by the office and you would judge it by that time, except maybe on a Thursday or Friday or whatever when I decided not to go into office which is okay. But now it’s all blended into everything and it was really causing me issues going, “I don’t know if this is imbalanced anymore and I don’t like it.” And I’ve changed my view on that and it’s helped me immensely, which is I used to think about, “Oh, I’m going to stop work, get up from this chair and in my spare room at six o’clock and go for some exercise.” And if that happened at 6:30 or 7:00 I get really upset and that started getting, “Oh my God, I haven’t been, I haven’t been-
Nathan Anibaba: Interesting.
Raj Kumar: Oh my God, at seven o’clock I need to spend time with kids that’s not happening. I’ve missed it.” It’s like missing deadlines. And that was just adding to my tension overall. So I’ve changed my whole outlook and I said, “You know what? It’s all one life. There’s no work and sort of personal and… it’s one life.” And in that life today Raj, on a week by week or a day by day basis you’ve got an exercise for an hour, spend time with the kids for an hour playing, help them with their homework or schoolwork and that can happen anytime in the day. And I can’t tell you just that little switch is such a relief for me that I don’t have to go for exercise at 7:00 AM in the morning every day because there might be an early morning call.
But I might go for a walk at 10:00 AM because I have a break in the diary, or I can take a call while I’m walking or I might go at 7:00 PM in the evening. So just flipping that on its head and saying, “These are the things I’ll do. And I’ll fit them in my day.” Is more than enough rather than assigning times to something which I used to do before.
Nathan Anibaba: Really interesting. So you exercise for an hour a day is that every day?
Raj Kumar: It is every day.
Nathan Anibaba: What do you get from that? Do you find that you have greater clarity, greater energy throughout the day to complete all the tasks that you need to complete? What do you get from exercising seven days a week that would be gargantuan and surprising to a lot of people?
Raj Kumar: Well, when I say exercise it is mostly an hour’s walk. Yes.
Nathan Anibaba: But still.
Raj Kumar: Don’t imagine me in a gym.
Nathan Anibaba: Okay. It’s not CrossFit or swimming across a lake.
Raj Kumar: It’s not a Peloton.
Nathan Anibaba: It’s nothing with a Peloton.
Raj Kumar: To be honest for me it’s a change of scenery. I desperately need that being stuck in one room or at one house is not healthy for anybody. I take the kids out maybe for an hour’s walk with me on that too. So for me it’s an hour of getting out, having a complete change of scenery and shutting off from anything else, because I’d like to enjoy the moment whether it is work or other be fully concentrated on that. And that helps you enjoy it and that helps you finish the task in my mind. So when I am walking, I am walking and I’m enjoying what is around me and I’m taking in what is around me and not really thinking about work so that for me is that recharge. When I’m with my kids I am a 100% there I don’t have the phone with me, and I don’t quickly check a football score or check an email or anything like that.
Nathan Anibaba: You’re much better than me then.
Raj Kumar: So I think for me it is that you should enjoy the moment you should fully concentrate, give your whole to that particular task.
Nathan Anibaba: Sure.
Raj Kumar: Even if you’re multitasking at least for that one hour you’re going to building these three or four things that might happen but be immersed in it.
Nathan Anibaba: Really interesting. Raj, final question before we get into a speed round and then I’ll let you go. Let’s talk about choosing an appointing agencies. You must have worked with lots of agencies over your career at different organizations. Selecting an agency partner is probably one of the most important decisions that any client can make, it’s very easy to pick up the phone and hire an agency on the spot. It’s far more difficult to really find an ideal partner to reshape your approach to the way that you think about marketing and really propel the business forward. What’s the best way in your mind of choosing and finding an ideal agency partner?
Raj Kumar: So I think for me people make the agencies as such and whether it is a small independent or you’re talking about larger agency. In the small independence you get the advantage that you might have the founding partners with you, less likely so in the larger more successful agencies. But the key to it is know your day-to-day team not the ones who are going to be the jazz hands when it comes to pitch, but who is going to be key there day to day, who’s going to be on it.
And that chemistry is so important. I like to speak to them directly, informally, not in uncomfortable meeting rooms through officials be too officious about it. But look at the work they’ve done and know a bit more about them what inspires them. What kind of work inspired them that that didn’t happen and why is also quite important. And if you have some common ground even if you are awarded that luxury and it’s not a big pitch that has to be just done, work on some small live projects paid of course. Don’t ask them to do it for free, which I hate. And then see if you can work together, share similar perspectives then you know the team, you know they’re thinking, you know whether they can stretch you, they know that direction you can go, that chemistry is so important. I think that’s what makes it.
Nathan Anibaba: Raj I can talk to you all day, but we’re fast running out of time. Let’s get into a speed round. I’ll fire some questions at you and you can fire some answers back, that would be great. These are more about you the person behind the brand sort of questions. What’s your guilty technology pleasure?
Raj Kumar: Oh gosh. Well overall my phone obviously but for multiple things, I don’t know who would give me a different answer but my phone. And otherwise I think that’s the one that immediately comes to mind actually.
Nathan Anibaba: Great. That’s fine. it’s probably very similar answer for a lot of people as well. What’s the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
Raj Kumar: The kindness thing, given me direct feedback.
Nathan Anibaba: You don’t like when people are more squishy.
Raj Kumar: I think kindness doesn’t mean for me personally kindness doesn’t mean weakness, it means that even when things are going wrong you should tell people upfront about it because you’re just looking at somebody fail, or looking at somebody who could develop but not. And for me, I’ve had a couple of bosses in my past who have told me, “That’s not right,” or, “that’s not going very well at all.” And I see that as kindness. I think if you’re not performing well you should be informed immediately. And you should have that discussion of what you could do better. That’s what I mean by direct, it doesn’t necessarily mean the way you deliver is… The tone in which you deliver it is quite important for me.
Nathan Anibaba: Sure.
Raj Kumar: So for me that’s some of the kindest things that have been done for my career professionally speaking.
Nathan Anibaba: Which CMO in your opinion has the most difficult job in marketing right now?
Raj Kumar: I couldn’t name one, but I would say I would say whoever’s looking after the travel tourism, hospitality kind of businesses. My hats off, they have a real tough time between for obvious reasons, but also when they when things come back, when people are allowed in it’ll be such a scrap for short-term targets versus brand building and both are so important for your success going forward. I think they have a really tough job right now.
Nathan Anibaba: What excites you most about your current role and position?
Raj Kumar: The challenges it brings, the people I get to meet and the impact I get to have. Three things very simply. It is just you could face something that you’ve never heard of thought of before. The other day, I had a very interesting conversation about soil composition, which I was not expecting at all. It could be something like that to the kind of people you get to meet, such amazing people who you can learn from every day. And finally it is of course, the kind of impact that you can have.
Nathan Anibaba: My final question, Raj, what advice would you give to a recent college graduate or university graduate who wants to start their career in marketing and brand development?
Raj Kumar: That’s a good one. I actually just had a piece in the marketing week about three questions I’d ask myself as a junior marketer saying you can go read that and here’s a little plug in for that. Because it was just a couple of weeks ago, I think the one thing I would say is go out of your comfort zone and by that I don’t mean even role-wise. If you’re not a confident public speaker speak, if you want to learn about some new platform or some new analytics go on a project even if it’s side of the desk and it takes a lot of hours, do it. If you want to move industries, do it. If you want to move to a country, do it. Go out of your comfort zone, stretch yourself because it will help you in the long run.
Nathan Anibaba: Really good advice. Raj thank you so much for doing this.
Raj Kumar: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.
Nathan Anibaba: If you’d like to share any comments on this episode or any episode of ClientSide then find us online at fox.agency. If you’d like to appear as a guest on the show, please email email@example.com. Our media production team are Zoey Woodward, Jennifer Brennan and Ben Fox. I’m Nathan Anibaba you’ve been listening to client side from Fox Agency.
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