#059 Creativity at work with Eshan Ponnadurai

#059 Creativity at work with Eshan Ponnadurai

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Episode Transcript

The transcript is computer generated. There may be errors.

Hi, everyone. Welcome to how to live a podcast that explores ways to live a good life. I'm your host Sharad Lal. This is episode 59. As we start the new year. Here's a question for all of you. How can we be more creative at work?

Who better to talk about than top rank chief marketing officer Eshan Ponnadurai. Esh is the vice president and global head of marketing for Meta. He's worked in the world's top companies, Google, Uber, and Airbnb. P & G and he's worked across the world from Australia to Asia, to North America. Forbes thinks he is top notch. They ranked him. World's top 50 CMO Twice. They've put him among the world's top 30 CMOs. He's booked on incredible marketing. Including Google's first ever brand campaign in India that went on to win two cons lines. Born in Sri Lanka and. Growing up in Australia. Esh currently lives with his two boys and wife in New York.

But before all this wonderful success. He spent a significant amount of time in Singapore. It's been a true privilege. Enjoy seeing Esh unleash immense potential and shine on the global stage. Despite all the success, he continues to be humble and real. You'll see that in our conversation. 

But before getting to the episode. Thank you very much for supporting the podcast. Folks in 125 countries, listen to us and we're in the top 5% in the world. Thank you very much for that. Do consider following us. And if you love the show, please do rate us. Now here's the conversation with the incredible Eshan Ponnadurai.

Sharad Lal: Hi Esh, welcome to the How to Live podcast. How are you doing this morning in New York?

Esh Ponnadurai: Happy to be here. So it's good to see you and excited to be doing this with you.

Sharad Lal: Wonderful to see you man and I'm so excited to do this with you. Congratulations on all the wonderful success you had. But before all of this, we shared an apartment together in Singapore, which feels like many, many years ago.

And one of the things I noticed about you as a roommate was you always had this creative bent in mind, whether it was music, the way you dressed or how you approached life. Where did this start and how did you develop it?

Esh Ponnadurai: Yeah, it's a great question. I know this podcast, you'd like to interview people, but I do want to share a little bit about yourself as I open up to this question as well. We share an apartment, in our mid to late twenties. And, in some ways they were the glory days.

Like we were all You know, a group, a small group of us were dreaming about who we become, what we wanted to be. And I, as I look back now, won't share how old we are now, they were very much the glory days. And to your point about my approach, we were shaped by each other.

I migrated to Australia as a four year old. And back then Australia probably wasn't the most diverse population that it is today. And so as a person of colour, you're looking around for inspiration and growing up, it wasn't around me in the physical sense, but. Yeah. It was around me in terms of the content I consume, whether it's sports, whether it was music, whether it was arts.

And as a person of colour, I was drawn to athletes of colour, musicians of colour, artists of colour. And what you realise is even if it's an athlete or otherwise, like the way they dress, the way they approach life, not just in the profession they had, but outside the profession they had became an inspiration.

One such person for me was Thierry Henry, he was a footballer playing for Arsenal. I was fascinated by how he played, but I was fascinated about how he dressed outside the game, for example, and how he carried his life outside the game. And then as I grew up people like Pharrell who, we use the term multi hyphenate now, and that's a common term, but back then we didn't know how to describe someone that was an artist, that was a fashion designer, that was a creative.

Those are the types of people that I identified with and saw as inspiration for what I wanted to be. And people that had professions but found their own way of approaching that profession or living their life. And, I think without realising it, in my head, I was trying to figure out a way for me to be like that in whatever profession I chose.

And I think that was an inspiration. I think the other thing was I fell in love with hip hop very young. You can describe hip hop in a million ways, but in the 80s and 90s. If you listen to most hip hop songs, they're really songs about dreams and someone wanting to get out of their current situation and dreaming of what their future circumstance could look like and taking a creative approach to it.

And I think that for me became something that I had in my head of okay, I'm here right now. How do I get to the next phase of my life and how do I start dreaming about that? And if I think back to the days on our balcony in our little apartment, I think there's a lot of time spent dreaming amongst us all about what we've become. So I think that was it, I think to some extent.

Sharad Lal: It's so interesting that all of us had our role models, but you were not only interested in what they did in their craft, but you were interested in who they were and how they chose to live their life. you looked at people who also had a creative bent in mind and that got you interested in, in, in this whole creative aspect. And at that time you were working with Procter and Gamble in the corporate world, where marketing was very analytical. What do you think of creativity and work?

How does that come together? And many of us think it's an artistic endeavour, but how does that come into work?

Esh Ponnadurai: Absolutely. I think the funny story about getting into Proctor and Gamble, we all ended up there for different reasons. I got advertising and marketing mixed up. I thought they were the same thing. So I thought I was walking into a creative field. I'm like, hang on a minute. This is a lot of spreadsheets and data, but I'm grateful for it.

I think for me, I've always been drawn to ideas and the potential of ideas to change whether that's behaviour, your mental state. Or change the business you're working on? And I think, coming into Procter and Gamble, some people took an analytical approach. What drew me there and kept me there and kept me excited.

There was this idea of like ideas. And, at the time there was a term inside the company about what is the big idea. And for me, that was something that always got me excited if I could be in the ideas business and the ideas business is a creative one and truly ideas can impact a business.

And I think the one thing I'm grateful for that experience in our lives is that it taught you the power of a really sharp and powerful idea that can actually have meaningful outcomes to a business.

Sharad Lal: Do you recall, if I'm just putting in the spot, any creative idea that solved a unique business problem during a time at P&G?

Esh Ponnadurai: I walked into Procter Gamble thinking I'm going to work on something really sexy, right? and then I got there and I got placed on a brand called Metamusels. And so for people that don't know what a fibre supplement is. Perhaps better known as a laxative and it and certainly when I joined the company it was known as a laxative and, a laxative is a single use type of item.

You use it when you've got a problem. And then, while I was there, we were able to reshape that product to be considered as a supplement and as a fibre supplement. This whole idea of a fibre supplement and reframing it as such and talking about wellness as a brand got people to see this product they put in a part of their minds and dismissed, it got them to reevaluate it completely. And as a result, people started consuming it more.

Because they saw the actual benefits and they saw a different way of using it. So that was like my first exposure to wow, if you get a powerful idea, it can have a true impact on the business. And at the time it led to, I think that's doubling or tripling the business behind that idea, but it also influenced every facet of the business.

It changed our packaging. It changed the types of products we were trying to make. It even changed the sort of internal culture of those who worked on the business to see that they were in the wellness game. They weren't in the health game. So that, that was like my first foray into and that it's a drug, if I'm being honest, like I, once I realised I got, this is what you could do. I was inspired. Certainly.

Sharad Lal: And I remember I was with you at the time when you were doing stuff on Metamucil, and I saw it as, in the P&G language, a problem solution kind of a thing, and it suddenly turned to fibre is a proactive thing that you need to have every day, and that adds fibre. Changes the way you look at it.

So very powerful stuff. Now that power of idea and creativity, how have you seen it sometimes make an even bigger impact from a societal trend or challenge standpoint, which is negatively impacting the business?

Esh Ponnadurai: Yeah. From P and G, I joined Google for the reasons I joined . One of my beliefs around creativity and business is that you can take a rational approach to solving a business problem and you might get an incremental result. If you take a perhaps an irrational or slightly irrational approach, which I think is the creative approach, you may get an infinite result or an exponential result. One of my first roles was actually leading a brand for Google in the region.

And this is circa 2010-2011. Where many people in emerging countries like India, for example, were jumping onto the Internet. They were jumping straight from nothing and like a telephone to like suddenly they've got a phone enabled with the capabilities of the Internet.

People were jumping to other products. Ironically, products like Facebook, where they were seeing that as like a life partner or a utility to help them navigate the internet, the people on the internet, their friends, their connections and so forth. And Google was just being relegated. What people didn't realise was Google had the ability to be a life utility.

You can search flights, you can find bus routes, you can book tickets on a train. You can find it. You can look at today's weather. Explaining that to someone in a rational way of Hey, you can do this on Google was probably not going to help us. So we tried to find an interesting way to create.

Almost a rebrand of what Google was to a population that was growing incredibly fast and adopting the internet really fast. What we tried to do was to hone it to a cultural moment and find a bigger moment to attach the reframe of this product and brand to the Indian consumer. And at the time we knew what was upcoming was the anniversary of the partition.

The partition between India and Pakistan separating as two nations. It's a fictional story. But the truth, the proof points in it are true of two grandchildren trying to reunite their grandfathers who had been separated through the partition. And that's probably a real story for many people.

Obviously, we made the fictional story up, but what was unique about it was all told through our product. It was the story of how these two kids use Google to find their grandparents, find each other and reunite them. It all starts with a jalebi store in Lahore. We went out to Lahore, found a jalebi store, made sure it was on Google Maps so that the product story could actually be real.

For example, then we looked up flights between Lahore and Mumbai and we made sure that we actually put those flights on Google search, for example. So it was this powerful and emotional story of this reunion. And it's a story called reunion of two friends reuniting after many years apart. But what really became powerful about that was that the creative was powerful, but it hit on a moment that hit the hearts of so many people in the country because Anyone of a certain age had remembered that moment where those two countries had separated.

And putting that out in a world where that story was resonant and important to the culture and the fabric of society, like it was, it gave us a flywheel that we couldn't pay for. It wasn't going to be the media that bought it for you. The conversation itself. Now we talk a lot about cultural conversation back then. That was maybe the original one where we fed into a conversation that was happening, and we were a proof point.

And an emotional proof point of what was happening. As a result, people start to reframe what they saw, Google, what was possible with Google. And that helped us compete in the market, particularly as people became mobile first internet enabled. So that was like, and to this day, I think it's the most watched Google ad on YouTube.

It's also funnily enough that the piece of content, they show all new hires at Google when they start. Which I think is like a really amazing thing because it captures the essence of the company.

Sharad Lal: That's such a wonderful ad. And I'm, it would have been a total privilege for you to be part of it. And if you can paint a picture of maybe this ad and even in meta, it was this big idea, this big creative, whether it was a cultural moment or a usage moment, which got cracked. And once that was cracked, then everything else fell into place.

So how does this idea get created in an organisation? How can this creativity come about?

Esh Ponnadurai: It's a good question. The thing that I've realised growing up professionally is that a big idea sells itself and you've got a big idea when you've got one, right?

I think it's easy to fall into the trap of explaining the rationale. Approach to creativity. So I'll give you the, that as an example, you can start explaining to people, Hey, this is an ad or this is two granddads and they're separated and the kids find them and you're not going to get the response you want from someone in, in that.

In that mode, because you're explaining what is a creative concept in a very rational mode to somebody and they're like, okay, cool, they're going to evaluate it at a very didactic and critical level. But if you go to someone to explain the thought behind the whole thing, which is Hey, it's the anniversary of the partition.

There's an opportunity for us to enter that conversation and talk about the value of our products in a way that resonates with the cultural conversation. Nobody's evaluating what this ad looks like anymore. People are evaluating the thought. And the idea of Oh yeah, okay. This is the big moment.

This is a cultural conversation. This is something people care about. We as a brand have a right to be there and talk about this and interject ourselves in the conversation. So what I've found is you've got to get people excited about the thought and what that moment is versus the actual thing you may create at the end.

And just being honest is my trick. It avoids people getting in your crap about what you're actually going to do and get some excitement about the end result. So hopefully that helps.

Sharad Lal: That helps. As you were speaking, what struck me is the objective is to hit them from an emotional standpoint. Something has to tug in the heart. That's what you need to do. And how you do it, like you mentioned, could be the context. You talk about the context of why this is important. There is stuff around storytelling, which is not necessarily storytelling for the TBC, but storytelling within an organisation. Why this is important is because of which it hits them emotionally. And once that happens, the questions around rationality go away.

Esh Ponnadurai: No, I think you hit it on the head. I think if you're somebody that sees themselves as that sort of creative thinker, he's got to be a really good storyteller. Because that's like as much as you can create good stories, you've got to be able to tell good stories. And I think you hit it right on the head. You've got to find the emotional way to capture your organisation around an idea. That's really important. Yeah.

Sharad Lal: doing that, of course, in organisation, there's the reality of organisation that some people are not. Too interested in the emotions, even though it might get them, they'll think, Hey, what's the business idea? What's the sales behind it? So normally we have so many stakeholders in these organisations with all types of stakeholders internally, we have external stakeholders. And then of course there's the end consumer. So there are many people who need to be brought together for an idea to come in place. How does that happen? Do you have any examples of how you've been able to do that with getting this entire bureaucracy in place?

Esh Ponnadurai: I think it's my honest answer. First and foremost is like it's a journey and it's a growth opportunity. And I thought that was the best way to look at it and I didn't at the time. But for anyone that's growing up in their career and wanting to be this person and coming along the journey. Just know that's also part of your growth and part of your learning.

Earlier on in my career, I'd now see it that way. But at the time I just found it frustrating and I would have gotten more out of the process if I'd embraced it, but it is part of the job. And I think, often what I coach my teams on is that if you want to be a marketer or a creative in your business, you're in the business of putting your feelings and your desires out there, knowing they may get criticised.

And you've got to know that's the function. What I've learned is if you're trying to sell an idea in a moment, that's really hard. if you're trying to land your intention before there is an idea, it gets so much easier if you're starting on something new, starting to galvanise people around where you're trying to take things ahead of time.

It's a far easier task to convince that said person or the said stakeholders you have without a gun to their head of Hey, I've got this idea now say yes. So I think what I've learned is like a big part of my job these days is getting people excited about the future earlier on. So when they are presented with the future in front of them, they've already come a long way with accepting that said future.

Sharad Lal: What a wonderful point, man. And I think all of us can agree with that, that we think of that as the shitty part of the job, if I can use that word. And we hate it. And then, the more we hate it, that energy is that we're somehow trying to convince the person, trying to be right, arguing with people. And that's not necessarily a great approach.

And I like the two points that you talked about. One, journey, and two, early. So if you can get people in early, Get their buy-in, get them to contribute a bit to create that idea and take them along the journey. This entire process and activity system is as important, if not more important than the idea itself.

Absolutely, man. Do you have an example of where you did that? Where there's multiple stakeholders you needed to get in place and then you got an idea through them over a period of time.

Esh Ponnadurai: Look, I worked at Uber circa 2016 to 2018. And so the story here was I was in the U. S. I got offered a job leading marketing for Uber in the back in a back place in Singapore. I was keen to get back to the region. And when I signed the contract, the narrative around the company was the world's most valuable startup, fastest growing company.

Everyone was like, this is a no brainer. I should take the job. Three months later, the narrative was very different around that company. It was like, bad ownership, misogynistic culture, horrible business practices. And, I was definitely in the mode of I've made a really big mistake here.

And at the time I'd left Google to come and do that. Uber had three, let's call it stakeholders, right? You've got, governments and regulators, you've got your consumer audience, but in Uber's case, you've also got Drivers, the people that actually drive your Ubers and who are incredibly almost the supply side of your stakeholders. And at the time, and then you've got the media at the time, everyone was negative about the company. in those moments, I think about that. I would encourage anyone to, go and listen to your stakeholders, go and listen to your audiences. And what we realised a couple of things in doing that was one, for most of the world, they just saw Uber as a better version of a taxi in terms of just a taxi company with an app. And governments and regulators and the media were just like, Hey, you're just like an illegal business operating in our countries without a licence to do so and creating an unfair market. And then when you talk to people at Uber, they see us as a tech company. That was creating innovation for people and that we were creating economic opportunity.

We were creating a new way of living and earning money and helping cities operate in a better way by sharing resources, particularly in Asia, where there's heavy congestion and so forth. So there's a huge gap. There's one school of thought here where you could try to convince everyone step by step that they're wrong. You could, you could do a campaign to people like we're not a taxi app, that could be a campaign, or you could go out to the government to go, Hey, we're not illegal. We pay taxes but that's a very rational approach. It's almost arguing.

Versus convincing and I think if you do creativity is the job of convincing not arguing in my mind And so what we realised was like the best way to do this is let's find a common enemy that helps people change their perception of the company and the big thing we realised was the common enemy for anyone In particularly asian cities, particularly southeast asian cities if i'm being honest is traffic.

Everyone hates traffic, right? And what people don't dimensionalize is how much the multifaceted problems created by traffic. poor urban planning, you spend more time in traffic for life less efficiently. impacts you economically because your life's less efficient.

The cost of transport is far more expensive as a result. So we're like, okay, we've got something here. This is something that people maybe get behind that reframes how you feel about us without us having to argue. So we went one step further and we actually did this study with Boston consulting at the time to quantify the impact of if someone took, if someone used Uber.

As their second form of transport, what would it mean to a city? How much less traffic would we have? What would be the impact quantifiably? And they came back with a study that in some places you can spend four hours, there'll be four hours of less traffic every day, or people would spend an hour less in traffic.

I remember in Singapore, it was like an hour less in traffic every day. To this idea of unlocking cities and that Uber's real purpose and intent. Its operation was to unlock cities and so cities could see a better potential for themselves or their full potential because if it is less congested, you can plan better, you have less traffic on the road, you have less pollution, you spend less time in traffic, you have better urban planning.

And so we came that gave birth to this campaign of unlocking cities so that was equal parts consumer, to convince people of Uber, but convince people of traffic, and how Uber was a potential solution to traffic, And that created a tidal wave of change for us because it reframed completely to people what Uber was about and what a company like Uber was actually solving for them. And it took them out of the base level argument of Oh, I'm paying too much for surge pricing or like all this kind of stuff.

And it took them up to wow. Okay. My city has a real problem with traffic. And this is what it's causing for my city and uber is potentially a solution to solve that for me And so that changed the way people saw the brand It definitely created a tidal wave of positive press which at the time we didn't have But it also helped us break ground regulators to get licences and actually operate In a way that was like deemed both fair for us and deemed fair for the cities and drivers and riders and so forth you know creatively how we dimensionalize this was It was this ad that we called Boxes, and it's, there's a song called The Bare Necessities from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

And we depictionized a group of people walking around the city in boxes. And it basically dimensionalized how absurd it was that every one of us has a box, aka a car, and we're trying to walk around a city in this car every day, and the absurdity of traffic. That was like a nice hook to get people interested in the concept that we were trying to sell them.

Sharad Lal: Man, so many dimensions to what he said. It's firstly this difference between convincing and arguing. I think that's huge. And the second thing, what I took away was, you have, it's almost, creativity is almost like an iceberg, if I can use that metaphor, where at the top you see the great creative visual of people in boxes walking around, which many of us in Southeast Asia would.

East Asia would remember. And that itself was a great visual that many people will recall. But behind it was so much work that went on where you had these multiple organisations come together. And over a period of time, you figured out the common enemy to go after is traffic. And then you figured out you also got consultants, BCG to do a report on how big the problem is, convince regulators, the ad agency's gotten in work, and then you finally had that big advertisement in place. So just for my knowledge, how long did that take and who were the key parties involved in this mammoth project.

Esh Ponnadurai: Look, I will say this at the time I had a lot of emotions wrapped up in this. Cause I felt like I made a really bad choice with my employment. So it was definitely an arduous time, but it was a good six to nine month process because, to our earlier point of like, how do you land the outcome and the intention with.

different parties because I was also dealing with internal culture where you had different groups of cross functional people who saw a different way to solve this problem. So you had to, I just spent a lot of time upfront getting people to believe we needed a unique purpose. Like the solution to this was identifying our purpose as a company, not arguing with all our stakeholders.

It took a lot of time to get the convergence that we needed to then go execute. The execution part was somewhat easy. Look, I was in Bangkok with 200 people in boxes running around the city, like that had its pros and cons to it. And definitely like its arduous moments, but that was the time it took.

talking about creativity, the point that you made earlier, where a creative big idea could change the paradigm. And many of us look at it. Apple and advertising that they do and like pathbreaking advertising. Everyone wants to do stuff like that. So according to you, what is the line between high creativity and just stupidity where we are just trying to do something very cool, which is not necessarily grounded on, on, on reality?

Sharad Lal: How do you see the difference in what's the way to figure that out?

Esh Ponnadurai: I think the difference is, and I've made this mistake. You can get really hung up on the thing you want to make versus the idea itself. I think there's a, there's been a bunch of times in my career where I'm like, I just want to make this ad. Or I just want to make this thing and I want to use celebrities and I want to use this celebrity.

And so you hung up on the execution, as we call it versus, versus optimising for the idea, if that makes sense. And I think that is the danger. I'll give you an example, man. I worked in SK two. I was at the time I was tasked with launching marketing. A men's line for SK two.

What we realised was for men that spent as much or if not more as women on skincare they saw this as you could go to the gym, you could buy really great clothes, but for them, skin was the best presentation of themselves.

And that was their most important asset versus how big they were, how many muscles they had, the clothes they wore, the car they drove. And for us, we realised there was an insight here like skin can be your most important asset. And that gave birth to this idea that skin is a new measure of a man.

But I got all these like ideas of grandeur with that idea, if I'm being really honest of ah, I'm going to get said celebrity that market this. And I'm going to, I'm going to make all these really cool ads around it. What we realised was to reach men at the time in Korea, we didn't even need to do it, we didn't need to do very traditional advertising things like print influences are going to work just as strongly. And that's an example of you, what you're talking about here. Like I had an ad in my head that I wanted to make going back. Then it was probably an ad with Pharrell, given how much I love the guy and admire the guy. And that was going to cost me a lot of money and didn't make a lot of sense. And I had to be talked off the ledge that the idea I had was strong and there's a way to do that.

And so I think that's just the paint, you'll pick the point you made. Focus on the idea, not the ad you want to make or the thing, how much money you want to spend on a certain specific part of this idea. The classic bit that we talk about creativity sometimes is elevating a brand. And I know with Airbnb, you worked with the luxury range of Airbnb. Did you have any experience on how to actually elevate a brand through creativity? Okay.

a part of the product called Airbnb Lux. And the challenge was and this may be obvious to people is that Airbnb is a great global brand, great global product. People use it.

But the luxury customer often dismisses Airbnb for a couple of reasons. One, they feel like, I don't know what I'm going to get. I could walk into a house and who knows what it looks like. Will the pictures look like the pictures on the website? I don't, I have other needs. I want to be able to book restaurants.

I want the concierge experience that a hotel gives me. And I want the assurity of if I go to a hotel, I know what I'm getting. And they say, hence Airbnb was like a thing they dismissed. But we knew attracting a luxury consumer meant meaningful things to a business, given how much they spend per room, per night, and their outlay was far more than, say, a millennial traveller or a budget traveller. And so the two schools of thought here and I were in charge of developing the product and developing our go to market and what would the offering actually be to a consumer. One school of thought was, hey, let's go launch a different brand for Airbnb. Which admittedly at the time was a sexier thought to me.

But if you start looking at the economics, it doesn't make sense. Cause you've got to acquire a whole new user base. There's a bunch of investment costs and setting up a new brand and creating awareness for it. But if we looked at the Airbnb platform where millions of people come every day, we start to see that there was a luxury consumer there.

That was spending at a level that was that you would equate to, quote unquote luxury user what their biggest pain point was they couldn't find accommodation easily that fit their bill. And there was a gap for them in terms of even if I can find this accommodation. There's a lot of other things I want that you don't give me whether it's like booking meals, booking a chef, booking all these things.

So that really gave birth to Airbnb Lux, where we realised if we can merchandise this thing properly, that's one big gap we're solving for a potential luxury consumer where they can go to Airbnb Lux within the Airbnb ecosystem and do that. We also came up with a solution where we can pre vet houses that we consider luxury houses or homes.

We can also offer people what we called a trip designer, which is someone that can book the ads that are the chef, the family outing, what have you. And that completely changed the brand. And again, to your earlier point, it didn't require advertising. It required really smart merchandising and product design.

Yeah. That elevated the brand. So suddenly you had this entity called Airbnb Lux. It was merchandised in a really prominent way in the product. It was a very bespoke user experience for people that were inclined towards it. And so that you started attracting this consumer. But secondly, if you really want a Lux consumer and created this desire.

For your everyday airbnb user of oh, wow, they got a luxury line now and one day we'll book an airbnb lux home So I think that's a good example of an idea translating to a product and a product strategy and a business strategy That didn't require advertising per se, you know in the traditional sense.

Sharad Lal: That's a great example, man. And sometimes it strikes me that when you're looking at a consumer, like a mass brand, and you're trying to upgrade it, it's always difficult for people to see it as luxury. But if the objectives are not too much, and if it's like, all right, we upgrade some users and we give others an experience, it could work out well. So interesting to know how it really worked out.

Esh Ponnadurai: Just on your point, I think you talked about the ingredients for creativity, right? What leads to great creativity in business. And this is going to sound so cliche, but talking to your power users or like your most loyal users, learned time and time again, irrespective of category, industry or product, they're the people that will give you the best sort of Ingredients or licence to be creative because they're using your product in a way that is probably so unique and so powerful You can get ideas out of them. And I think that's what we learned. I've learned if they've been experienced but others as well.

Sharad Lal: That's such a powerful insight, man. Even in my limited experience in consumer work, when you actually have the consumer, sometimes tells you what the television commercial should be as

Esh Ponnadurai: exactly right.

Sharad Lal: noW I know you're working with Meta and with WhatsApp. One of the biggest challenges is it's a utility product. How do you brand it? So how did you go about thinking about branding for WhatsApp?

Esh Ponnadurai: Yeah. So look, the context was when I was being recruited by Metta. I was being recruited for WhatsApp. And I look at the time, a third of the world probably uses WhatsApp. I'm a huge user of WhatsApp and, I said that knowing a lot of listeners probably are. My question back to the Metta was like, I don't think you need me.

Because you guys are doing fine. Everyone loves this product. Everyone's using it. But the question or the assertion I got back was, We have a huge responsibility now. And a huge reputation to think about given a third of the world is using this product. And over time, it might be half the world using this product.

We've got a real job to make sure it's not just a utility, but it means something to people. So this is a nice segue from our previous point. So I'm like, okay, there's a real job to be done here. You've convinced me now. How on earth do I, what should WhatsApp be about? What should it matter to people?

And I joined just after the founders of what's up at the part of the company, but like one of the biggest things they believed in was encryption and they were the ones that really pushed for encryption because they really felt that everyone had a right to their own conversations and the personal things they talk about and encryption protects you that for those that don't know what encryption is, encryption basically ensures that any conversation or data that is set between you and this person you talk to remains on your phones.

And so it's not stored on a server. And so I realised that was a powerful thought around this product and almost a tenet that had to be true about what this brand was going to be about going forward. And then we, as we talk to sort of power users, again, we realised like in my mind, the product WhatsApp was useful. Oh yeah. I sent messages. I talked to my mom and talked to my dad, talked to my friends, whatever. But for like parts of the world where people don't have a choice. This is often the one tool they have to connect them to their world around them.

They don't have a phone that can access the web in like super 5, 5G terms. They don't have ultimate bandwidth. They have a very limited cap on the data they can use. And in some ways, people were sharing a phone with multiple WhatsApp accounts. And what we realised with them was this was the most powerful and treasured internet product.

It was their connection to the world. But they had this true belief. It was a product that provided intimacy for them. And the fact that it was private allowed them to feel like they could have these really intimate conversations. And the privacy unlocked this sense of intimacy and closeness for them with people, whether it's their families far away, their husband or wife, while they're at work or what have you.

And so that became the thesis of the brand of that. The end benefit of privacy, which is the product function of encryption, was this sense of intimacy and closeness. And so the vision for us became, how do we build this brand around closeness and intimacy and what that gives people? So that's been how we formed the brand and how we built the brand over the last almost four years now.

And we've taken that to like pure traditional consumer advertising where we talked to, we've displayed the intimacy that can be felt by people. And the powerful conversations people could have with each other because they have a private conversation, but also with celebrities. Giannis Atitokounmpo is a very famous basketball player that has Nigerian Greek origins and then now plays in the NBA.

He actually came to us and talked about the fact that when he was in America, the one thing that kept him going was the fact that he had a WhatsApp group with his mother in Greece, his family in Nigeria, uh, and he's an immigrant and refugee. And even he had felt two things that the intimacy that he could still have with his family because of this product.

But also it was a way for him to recognize who he was on a multi, like in a multifaceted way. He's an NBA basketball player. He's also from Greece. He is Greek. He's also from Nigeria and has roots there. And how WhatsApp was the one place this could all happen. And so that's how we tried to shape the brand. It's one around intimacy and connection. It's one where you can see all the parts of your life represented.

Sharad Lal: Thank you for painting that picture. Now, man, as you're becoming better and better in your creativity, you're up there in your game. What is it that you do, let's say outside work to keep, to make sure that you're getting better and better at it?

Esh Ponnadurai: Okay. I appreciate you saying I'm getting better. I don't know if I'm getting better, but I'll take the credit. But look I think what teeps What keeps me going, and I, this goes back to the first question you asked me was that I think you've got to be a consumer, right? You've got to be a consumer of ideas, and you've got to be a consumer of content, and you've got to be a learner.

And I think what often happens, particularly as you get to the stage of my career, is you're like, okay, I made it. I'm good. I've got my bag of tricks. My bag of tricks are probably big enough to get me through whatever the rest is remaining of my career. And I think that's okay if that's what you want, but I'm not that person. if you want to build the muscle of creativity and be someone that's seen that way, you've got to keep, my thing is find content. keep following different people, keep consuming what they are doing to make yourself better. For me, I still, I'm still an avid reader.

I like weird Reddit threads and things like that. Just understanding what the kids, quote unquote kids are doing right at the, it is a younger generation that are often more. Creative and expansive and I work on products that you know have real relevance with younger generations right now So what i'm trying to do is follow a bunch of people that are in their 20s that might be creators or storytellers or documentary makers or Advertisers or creatives to understand what's making them tick and what's their inspiration because ultimately my business is in service of winning people Like that.

Sharad Lal: Who are your top three to five creators or magazines or content sites that, or Insta accounts that you follow?

Esh Ponnadurai: the one thing I'd also say is like To say go learn is like a it's a tough thing to someone I think learn about the things you care about the one thing i've learned is that i'm far i'm a far better learner when i'm focused on things that i'm actually passionate about Versus just learning in theory.

So for me, the thing that has always been true is that I love music. I love fashion and sports. And so the thing, but, and the weird thing is these three things have converged over the last sort of 10, 15 years. If you watch the NBA, the beginning of an NBA game, now it's basically a catwalk because now there's the game, but now it's, there's the players walking through the tunnel.

What are they wearing? Or what are they listening to? And so there's a account I follow called upscale hype that only just talks about what players are wearing to games in their outfits Which for me is a great way to discover new designers It's not about the clothes necessarily because some of them are i'm a you know A mid 40 year old man and some of them are not going to apply to me, but it's about understanding who are those designers?

What's so you can go down the rabbit hole like okay said players wearing x Why are they wearing that designer? Who is that designer? What is their ethos? What do they think about it? What is driving their creativity process? That is like one mode for me. Then on music, there's this creator called OK PLAY that talks about new hip hop and new R& B from different parts of the world.

So from Africa, from South America, from parts of Western Europe that I wouldn't discover. So that's another thing I do where you can start to discover artists that you wouldn't listen to on your Spotify playlist. Because the algorithm serves you up what you're already listening to. How do you expand that?

So those are just some practices. I don't think there's a specific creator or things I'm listening to, but those are practices I try to cultivate to ensure that I'm not staying within my own echo chamber of content or, quote unquote, what I think is creativity.

Sharad Lal: Very useful, man. And I would love to bring up that you were part of an Oscar movie

Esh Ponnadurai: That's right.

Sharad Lal: How did you get into that? What's the story there? How did you get yourself into that creative avenue?

Esh Ponnadurai: Yeah, so I think, look, there's, once again, it gives me too much credit, but it's a small little story.

So a very good friend of mine is a film producer who was working on a documentary that was about detailing a music festival that took place in Harlem. At the same time as Woodstock was taking place in upstate New York. And everyone knows about Woodstock. No one knows about this festival. But there's really amazing footage that my friend was able to get a hold of that the world had never seen.

And this is footage of Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and this amazing festival of soul and R&B and funk that took place in Harlem. But the story that everyone remembers is Woodstock. No one remembers this story. He put the documentary together and I helped him at the upfront level of like here's what you could think about Here's how you could approach some of the artists It was like it might have been an hour long conversation at best Lo and behold that documentary goes on to win an oscar.

My friend is the one of the first few South Asians to win an Oscar. I think only six South Asians have won an Oscar. He's one of them, which is really cool. And then I'm watching the film for the first time and at Sundance, he'll make sure you wait till the end. Like he goes, watch the credits.

I'm like, man, no one watched the credits. He's no, you should watch the credits. And we get to the credits and there's a thank you there. And there is my name first on the list of thank yous. And so that was a really cool moment, both in terms of our friendship, but also I've definitely screenshotted and sent to a lot of people like, Hey, look, I got my name on an Oscar winning documentary now.

But I think the big point there is you talked about what keeps you going and how you do. Learn, how do you, how does your creativity keep growing? The one thing I failed to mention was find a network, keep growing your network and meeting people that you think are more creative than you.

And use, and that becomes a really great avenue to open up your horizons. And this is a great example of that.

Sharad Lal: Great example. Networking is a whole new topic that we can dig into when we have time. That's probably the next podcast. But I love the one thing you said about networking, which is related to this. you don't look at people at this guy's going to help me. You look at people, he's who I want to be like, she's who I want to be like.

And that's a great principle. I may not have worded it but that's how it sat in my mind. Your principal for networking.

Esh Ponnadurai: I think that's it. I think when you look at people, think of networks, what can I get out of this individual? What value does an individual have for me personally? I look at it as Hey, you're doing something that I think I really admire. I just want to be in your orbit and absorb that from you.

And I will learn like that. Or I aspire to be a bit like you.

Sharad Lal: Very powerful. And we're going to, that's the preview. We're going to dig into that later. And as we wrap up Ishan. You've done so many good things in the creative space. How would you like to be remembered as a creative?

Esh Ponnadurai: Wow, man. That's a good question. I think I'd just like to be remembered as someone that was a good person that inspired a lot of other creativity. And that wasn't the sole conduit to that. What I'd like to do is we talked about the Oscar and the documentary, like it wasn't my film.

I would just love to have one artefact or maybe two artefacts that can last a test of time. And not necessarily because my name's out there or it's on people's minds, but I can, you can point to those things and I was part of that. I had a really big role in that and that's an artefact that has remained for people to point at for a very long time. That'd be my hope and dream.

Sharad Lal: I think the Google ad is that, if not almost that. 

Esh Ponnadurai: Yeah, that's true. That's true. So hopefully there's more to come man. 

Sharad Lal: I'm sure there is. Last one. I know I keep saying last, but this is the very last question. What's the one piece of advice you'd like to leave Youngsters with?

Esh Ponnadurai: If someone asked me who s was in his 20s or even his teen years, they'd say I was really restless And I think you might say that too charade and that's accurate I think there's an easy way to take that. I think you can see that as a negative and I think that's okay.

But I think I would just ask everyone, every restless youngster out there, think about why you're restless. And I generally believe it's probably because there's something you're trying to attain. There's a dream you have that you haven't got yet. So see it as a positive, see it as Hey, you're restless because of your body or your spirit.

Is telling you there's more for you to come and you haven't got there yet. So see that as a positive that there's more to come for you And that's why you're restless right now.

Sharad Lal: What a wonderful way to end this restlessness is hunger out there that you're going to go after later on. What a wonderful message, Ash. Thank you very much for making time for the podcast. You've shared some phenomenally good examples that everyone's going to enjoy. People are going to love your wisdom. Congratulations on all the good work you're doing, and I'm going to wish you all the very best.

Esh Ponnadurai: Thank you, man. This is a pleasure and an honour. Shout out. Thank you, man

Thank you Esh for such an authentic and insightful conversation. For more on Esh, I will share links in the show notes. He has an action step. All of us could consider. One of the big barriers of creativity at work or at home is convincing others to come along with us. So let's focus on that part. How do we get buy-in for our ideas? Firstly, we need to understand that this process, even if it sounds bureaucratic Is as important as the idea itself. I liked what Esh said about convincing. Often we end up trying to be right.

And I got caught up in a useless unimportant argument. We might end up winning the argument with losing support for the idea. I'm very guilty of this many times. So this is a timely reminder. Let's convince people. Understanding what's important to them and how creativity fits it. Best of luck. I hope you enjoyed this episode. The next episode will drop two weeks from now. Do join us for that. Till next time, have a wonderful day ahead.

Bye bye.