Soak it up like a sponge

Powerful conversations can become absorbing lessons

I have been a marketer for over three decades now. And one of my most valuable learnings along the way has been the power of meaningful conversations in generating and shaping marketing ideas. This insight has been articulated brilliantly by veteran advertising man Ambi Parameswaran in his recent book ‘SPONGE: Leadership Lessons I learnt from my Clients’.

Through 25 vivid, real-life stories, the author illustrates how powerful conversations with his clients and customers have provided him invaluable learnings because he soaked up these discussions like a “sponge”.

SPONGE is actually an evocative acronym coined by the author. It stands for: S - Super active listening, P – Probe and question, O - Observe and note, N – New behaviour to emulate, G – Getting to a goal, E – Expand, enlarge and share. These six actions constitute a very useful framework that can help marketers learn from virtually every meaningful conversation that they engage in. I recommend that you read this excellent book, because it contains beautiful and inspiring anecdotes of the Sponge framework in action. The book has made me reflect on how best marketers can sponge off their interactions, and here are some of my suggestions for practising marketers and students of marketing.

The author recounts stories of his learnings from iconic business leaders such as Ratan Tata, Azim Premji, Dr. V. Kurien, S. Ramadorai, and Karsanbhai Patel. He learns from an interaction with Ratan Tata how a leader’s passion to visualise and meticulously execute a plan is critical to success. From Karsanbhai Patel, he learns the value of razor-sharp focus on the customer and her expectations.

Learn from everyone

But all such interactions are not confined to iconic leaders alone. There are also stories of wisdom gleaned from people such as company driver Ghousebhai, a young unnamed advertising executive and his office attendant, and a brash brand manager.

The message to marketers is quite clear — if you are keen to sponge, you can learn from anyone you interact with, be it your team mate, customer, boss, distributor, or taxi driver. There is no hierarchy to learning, none at all.

Nurture ties with agencies

Most marketers interact quite regularly with a wide range of agencies that support them — advertising companies, media agencies, digital boutiques, market research firms, etc. In many cases, conversations with these agencies tend to become quite transactional, focused on the next advertising film, how to reduce media costs or how to structure the upcoming brand track survey. Ambi Parameswaran’s book highlights to marketers how there is rich value in broader, deeper discussions between the marketer and her agency, which go well beyond the transactions at hand.

Some of his stories narrate how new brand ideas and new communication concepts were born from the diverse perspectives shared by marketers and agencies across the same table. For this to happen, marketers have to genuinely regard their agency colleagues as true partners, and not as mere vendors. The boundaries have to dissolve for learning to flow.

Be open to dissent

As the famous adage goes, parachutes and minds only work when they open up. This is particularly true for marketers, where many decisions are eventually based on intuition and judgement. If a marketer is unwilling to listen to a dissenting viewpoint, then a conversation can never lead to learning. On the other hand, if a marketer has an open mind, despite having a well-formed point of view, then new ideas can flow freely and help shape an optimal solution.

The book illustrates how iconic marketers and leaders such as Vinita Bali of Britannia, Anand Kripalu of Cadbury and Verghese Kurien of Amul were very open to a different perspective, despite being experts in their respective domains.

My own experience has been that marketers who are confident of themselves are always open to opposite points of view in any conversation, because they know that these thoughts may well help them to learn and synthesise what is best for their own brand. On the other hand, insecure marketers, whose desire is primarily to validate their own viewpoints, are unlikely to accept or even tolerate dissenting viewpoints, because it threatens their “expertise”. To learn, be open.

Formal conversations and debates in conference rooms have their own value. But some of the finest exchange of ideas and trends happens over informal conversations, over dinner in a nice restaurant, or a cup of coffee in a neighbourhood café. Such relaxed settings encourage easy listening, and in these locations marketing jargon is somehow effortlessly replaced with normal English language.

The book refers to the author’s own penchant for such informal conversations, and the enormous learning they have added to him over the years. Taking inspiration from this, marketers who are keen to learn should actively pursue such easy-going, casual conversations with their colleagues and agencies. And if you are keen to maximise your learning, then expand these conversations beyond your usual networks, to interesting people who work in diverse associated fields — such as sociologists, writers, trend researchers, journalists and scientists. Often, the best marketing lessons and ideas blossom out at the crossroads where these fields meet each other.

The 25 stories contained in “SPONGE” are certain to provoke you to think on all the above lines, and also in many more useful directions. The author also implicitly makes the point that marketers can carry on conversations not just with people, but also with the books that they read. Here, he helpfully suggests a compact list of books, and in many of his stories, he calls out key lessons from these books as well.

I asked Parameswaran if there is one compelling lesson that he would like marketers to take away from his new book. His reply: “Marketers have to develop an ability to constantly learn from their associates — the retailers, agencies, vendors.... Everyone who is a part of their supply chain. And, of course, their consumers. Only by constantly learning new concepts, new ideas and new processes can a marketer be ready to face the challenges of the future. Be a SPONGE to become successful.”

That is wise advice, my friends. Soak it up like a sponge.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and author of “The Curious Marketer”. These are his personal views [email protected]

Published on July 12, 2018
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