Shoma Narayanan is the Executive Director – Group Strategic Marketing & Communications at DBS India.
Shilpa Jain: As Executive Director- Group Strategic Marketing & Communication with DBS Bank, India- what does your role entail?
Shoma Narayanan: I manage the Marketing and Communications function for the bank – this includes brand and product advertising, media relations, internal communications and sustainability. Put more simply, I help build the bank’s external and internal brand. To do this, my team and I need to understand our target audience – this audience includes customers, prospects and external stakeholders as well as staff. We then need to create messaging that is simple and relevant but also reflects the bank’s capabilities, strategic priorities and core values. And most importantly, we need to put this messaging out consistently and through multiple channels so that it reaches our target audience and builds brand awareness and preference.
SJ: For our young women desirous of pursuing a role in marketing, is an MBA a pre-requisite?
SN: While an MBA does help, it’s not the only path to a successful career in Marketing. I’ve seen extremely successful marketers from a variety of different educational backgrounds. My own first degree was in engineering – I followed this up with an MBA, but most of my marketing knowledge comes from on-the-job learning, reading and a deep interest in consumers and brands.
SJ: Does a role in marketing also include marketing communications? And can you de-mystify what marketing communication means?
SN: Marketing communications/ MarComm is the use of a combination of channels (advertising, events, direct marketing etc) to build brand awareness and drive sales. A role in Marketing however, is not necessarily a MarComm role – Marketing teams can include data scientists, writers, filmmakers, graphic designers, project managers, and a lot more. To build a long-term career in Marketing, however, experience in core brand/ marcomm roles is essential.
SJ: What are the various segments within marketing which one can specialize in? Or it is largely generic?
SN: There are a lot of areas one can specialize in, eg: customer insights, events/sponsorships, content creation, performance/search engine marketing, MarTech, social media marketing, media buying and so on. In smaller organisations with lean Marketing teams, some of these roles may be combined, but in larger companies, there is a lot of scope for specialization. In really large marketing-led organisations, you may even find people who’ve narrowed their specialization down to a particular platform, eg: someone could be an expert on marketing through Instagram but may not know much about marketing on Twitter or LinkedIn.
SJ: How important is the digital medium in marketing in today’s world?
SN: Given that our audiences have gone digital more than ever before, understanding the medium is a critical skill. Covid has accelerated the speed of digital adoption – people who were earlier uncomfortable with transacting online have been forced into becoming online shoppers. It’s important to understand the role digital plays in a consumer’s decision process (for those interested, the concept of a ‘zero moment of truth’ is one you should definitely read up on). However, using digital alone is not the best solution. The best Marketing strategies use an integrated multi-channel approach with digital playing a key part.
SJ: Do you see a lot of diversity candidates in your field or is it male dominated?
SN: In India, Marketing and HR teams are usually well-balanced in terms of gender ratios. There are a lot of women in advertising and PR firms as well as in the Marketing functions of most companies. Overseas, especially in Asia and Europe, Marketing teams are often female dominated. A very senior colleague in my previous organization used to say “Diversity is a property of teams, not individuals”, and I couldn’t agree more – an all-woman team lacks diversity just as much as an all-male one. A successful Marketing team needs to have diversity of thought and experience in addition to gender diversity.
SJ: What are the challenges one can face whilst pursuing a career in marketing?
SN: As long as you’re passionate about marketing and ensure that you keep learning and experimenting, there is no challenge that is insurmountable. Measuring the business impact of marketing (eg actual sales or revenue generated from an advertising campaign) is perhaps the most challenging but also the most important aspect of Marketing. If you are able to quantify impact and demonstrate value to your stakeholders, you’ve won half the battle.
SJ: Would you like to highlight some of the things you have done differently in your career which has made you successful?
SN: I started off in Sales and have done multiple business roles – what’s held me in good stead is that over the years I built up a strong understanding of banking and how the p&l works. I’ve also invested a lot of effort in learning and staying up-to-date with current trends and technology. I take feedback seriously, and though it’s sometimes difficult to reach out to people and actively ask for it, I’ve found it really helps to improve the quality of my work. What’s most important though is understanding consumers and what makes them tick – the best consumer insights I’ve gathered have not been from traditional market research but by talking to people and interpreting data.
Another very important factor has been consciously making time for things that matter to me. Family is of course the most important, but I also make time for hobbies. I took up writing seriously a few years ago and have published 9 books (light fiction) that have been released across India, UK, US and Australia and translated into multiple languages. I don’t get enough time to write now, but I truly feel that the years I spent moonlighting as an author helped me become a better marketer – brand building at its core is a form of story-telling.
SJ: Why is being financially independent important to you?
SN: Women are often conditioned to think that wanting to be financially independent is selfish or wrong in some way. This is not just unfortunate, it is tragic. At a macro level, it impacts our GDP by keeping a large, young and talented cohort out of the workforce. And at an individual level it makes women vulnerable to a host of issues ranging from a lack of self-confidence to an inability to get out of abusive relationships.
I was lucky to be brought up in a family where it was taken for granted that I would have a career when I grew up – my mother and all my aunts worked, and conversations were always around what kind of career I wanted, not whether I’d have a career at all. Being financially independent has meant that since I became an adult, I’ve taken all major life decisions for myself. Sure, I’ve taken advice from my parents and my husband, but the final decision has always been mine. It’s also helped my family in many ways. My parents weren’t very well-off, and I was an only child – I was able to get them the best quality of medical care as they grew older; I was able to buy my mom a house in Mumbai after she retired so that she didn’t have live alone and away from me. And of course, for my kids and husband, my career has meant that our standard of living is a lot better than what it would have been with a single earning member.
SJ: Any message to the members of Aspire for Her?
SN: ‘Aspire for Her’ has had a fascinating journey so far and I’m truly inspired by what the team has been able to achieve in a relatively short period of time. I love the idea of a peer community and guidance from experts, and I wish I’d had a network like this to reach out to when I started working! My message to the members of Aspire for Her would be: “Don’t limit your dreams – make the best use of every opportunity that comes your way and do reach out to other women for support and encouragement whenever you need to.”
Question: One person, fictional/real and dead/alive that you want to have dinner with
Answer: Carl Sagan
Question: A book on your career field that you would recommend to or readers
Answer: “How Brands Grow” by Byron Sharp
Question: 3 things on your bucket list
1) Learning to swim properly
2) Writing a murder mystery
3) Living in another country for a few years