The Story Rules Podcast E22: Karthik Srinivasan – Communications and Personal branding Expert (Transcript)

E22 Karthik Srinivasan - Communications and Personal branding Expert
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E22: Karthik Srinivasan – Communications and Personal branding Expert (Transcript)

This transcript has been created using a combination of AI transcription tools and (some painstaking) human effort. Please excuse any typos, grammatical mistakes, inaccurate time stamps, or other errors. Specifically, the time stamps would not account for the intro portion of the podcast.

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Intro Hook (around 25:30)

“When I do the corporate workshops, most people start from this point of view. They are about 35 to 50. They are probably in the peak of their career related progress, they are doing well, they can easily get their next job. It’s not a big deal. They are very well connected offline or online. They’ve networked well, they attend industry events; perfect. Everything is going swimmingly well. My only concern or the only point that I start with is, think of personal branding as an insurance. When would you take life insurance or car insurance? When things are going well; when you have money, you will take insurance.”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Karthik Srinivasan, a leading communication and personal-branding expert. 

I started following Karthik on Twitter some time back and was gobsmacked by his productivity. I would wonder – how is he able to create such high-quality analyses of ads and other media content so frequently?

I have found something of value from almost everything he puts out – and Karthik puts out a lot of content!

In this conversation, we start with what the habit-stack that makes Karthik so productive – starting with his reading habits, content curation, simple note-taking process, reflection habits and finally how he articulates his thoughts. The surprising takeaway – Karthik relies on the simplest of tools to ship his work. For those who are stuck figuring the ‘best note-taking tool’, stop searching. It doesn’t matter. Go with any tool. Just get started.

In fact, if you are a mid-career leader who is not actively putting out specialised content out there, this episode will hopefully serve as inspiration to get started on your personal branding journey. 

Personal branding is not just about promoting oneself, it’s about being genuine and sharing your unique knowledge and perspective with others who can benefit from it. And as Karthik says, you will be the biggest beneficiary of this effort. I loved the frame that Karthik gives of looking at personal branding as career insurance.

During the conversation, Karthik and I also geek out on the evolution of advertising as a means of storytelling – especially how adverts have transitioned from being forced on viewers to being on-demand.

We then discuss some common tools used in advertising– such as the element of surprise to hold the audience’s attention, using emotions to form connections with the audience, the use of framing, analogies and the need to start from where the audience is. Each of these are discussed in the context of actual ads from brands such as Brooke Bond, Asian Paints, Birla Pipes and Jaquar Lighting.

Finally, Karthik shares his nuanced thoughts on the emerging use of AI in advertising and marketing, using some relevant examples. 

It’s a must-listen conversation for anyone keen on personal branding and modern advertising trends.

Let’s dive in.

Ravi (00:00)
Hi Karthik. Welcome to the Story Rules podcast.

Karthik (00:03)
Thank you so much, Ravi, for having me on the show today.

Ravi (00:07)
Karthik, I’ve been speaking to many guests now – I think this will be the 22nd conversation – and I must tell you this has been some of the most fun I have had in preparing for the conversation. In fact, I was half thinking “Can I have more time please?” because this is too much fun! Looking at all these ads, looking at all the intelligent ways in which you analyze the ads…the only request I had (was for) more time to do this research. In fact, I am going to continue to read the stuff that you (have put out). There is almost nothing that you’ve put out that is not entertaining, engaging or useful, and it’s been great. Thank you for that.
Of course, I want to talk about ads as a medium of communication and personal branding. But before that, I want to talk about something that has piqued my curiosity the most: how are you so productive? Because I do post on LinkedIn and Twitter, and its incredibly difficult to first get an idea, then to take the time and figure out how to word it well, and to put it out not just with regularity and consistency, but also with the right quality. It is very difficult to do what you are doing.

I want to know the tips and hacks you use to maintain this level of productivity, please. If you can give me a sense of how your days or weeks are structured. I’m sure you have client work and the workshops that you do. Despite all of that, how do you find the time to be so productive?

Karthik (01:39)
I mean, if I asked you how you manage to brush your teeth every day in the morning, you would say “It has become a habit”. If you don’t make it a habit, it will never be called ‘productive’ by somebody else at all. The only difference is that brushing happens alone in your bathroom, but saying something on LinkedIn or blogging a piece once a week happens in front of other people. It’s like broadcasting your thoughts to an audience. To make it a habit, you need to have a set of processes done before, so that it just flows with your day-to-day work and life.

And another thumb rule I have, which is also something that I explain in great detail in my personal branding workshop because they are tied to each other, is that you have to read 10x more than you share. If you don’t read that much, the things you share and the things you grasp in terms of whatever is happening around you would be as limited as it can be. If you read 10x more, you may think most of what you have read is wasteful or not productive at the time. But it will make sense eventually. There is a famous quote by Steve Jobs which says, “Creativity is nothing but connecting the dots”. Unless you know that the dots exist, you will not be able to connect them. And to know that the dots exist, you need to go beyond your immediate comfort zone and read as much as possible. Towards this end, the thing I have been hammering on time and time again is to read newspapers. Because newspapers are a great source of broader knowledge where many intelligent people put 10-20 pages together every day, per newspaper. You don’t even have to read them in detail because that would take a lot of time. You can just skim through the pages. I skim through about 20+ newspapers every day. Some of those, like the Indian Express or the Hindustan Times for instance, I take more time to read because they are slightly more readable. But most of the other newspapers like the Times of India or Deccan Chronicle, or Tribune, etc., take only a minute or two for me to skim through. So within about half an hour, I am done with about 20 newspapers. But there is no immediate value in this. I do not gain any pleasure or fun or entertainment at all from this. But at some point, something will connect.

If I am reading something a month later, I will be able to notice a connection, “Oh! There is an update I’ve noticed with that brand. They’ve done something now. Okay, there is a connection.” This connection still will not be of any use for me immediately, but it will become useful sometime in the future when I’m doing client work or giving a presentation etc. Most people think whether they should waste their time accumulating these dots in hopes of knowing they exist, or should they only go after what they want to know or what is useful currently, today or tomorrow, or day after. That is actually wasteful. You need to go slightly beyond, so that you are able to gather more perspective. Perspective is what I’m looking for and that is also what I write. You mentioned that my posts are intelligent. But in fact, I would not call them intelligent. They are just ten percent more intelligent or useful than any other post. The only thing I add is perspective. The ad is available to every single person in the world. It’s on YouTube. It’s on TV. Everybody can watch it. My only objective is to show them that there is a slightly different way of looking at things. If you enjoyed something, if you really liked something and you thought it was clever, what exactly (about it) is clever? What made you enjoy it? Which are the points that made you think “Hey, this was smart”? That is the art of storytelling; that is the nuance of storytelling. If you are able to understand this day-after-day, people will realize that it is not rocket science. I can re-engineer this in my communication and storytelling also, which is what I do. It’s just mildly above-average intelligence. Not too intelligent (at all).

Ravi (5:54) 
But the bar is quite low, unfortunately, on that one…especially in this (field). It does add some value to the intelligent layperson, I would say…which is great. Unpacking some of the elements that you mentioned, one is the content curation piece, another is read a lot or consume a lot of content. And I was actually surprised when you mentioned newspapers as one of the core elements, because there are some people who (suggest letting that go.) There’s a book by this gentleman by the name of Rolf Dobelli who says “Stop reading the newspaper”. Because it’s filled with a lot of clickbait and a lot of fear mongering, unfortunately. But you’re saying that there can be value in that also, especially in ads…. (overlap)

Karthik (6:33)
….(ads) Actually, that helps.

In fact, I agree that there is bias in reporting; there is bias in journalism; everything is there. But when you read more than one newspaper, you are able to see the pattern, because you will see the same news being reported in the Tribune vs Statesman vs Telegraph vs Times of India vs The Hindu vs Indian Express vs Hindustan Times etc. You will see the same news being reported with varying words, sentences, and headlines. Then you will automatically notice in your mind that there is a pattern. (One must) remove the fluff and then get to the heart of it. You’ll be able to see the actual truth when you see seven different versions of it. The problem with people is that they see only one version and they think that’s the absolute truth. When you see more opinions and more perspectives, you’ll be able to rise above the cacophony and then see the heart of the story. That is what matters.

Ravi (7:26)
Was it always like this for you Karthik, or did this process develop (at some point)? And when (did it happen?) Did somebody inculcate this, perhaps in your childhood?

Karthik (07:35)
No, not in my childhood. It’s because of my career. I started my career in public relations and corporate communications. One of the first things they teach you in Public Relations is to read newspapers, watch news channels on TV, and to look at ads.

Newspaper reading became an inculcated habit in my PR agency days because you are supposed to be on top of the news regarding the clients’ industries. For this, the number one source is the newspaper. So, I started reading about 10 different newspapers in the agency because they used to just land there. I used to be the first one to come in, in order to avoid the morning traffic in Bangalore. And I used to spend at least one hour going through all the newspapers, quite literally. And that habit has carried over and I find enormous value in it. I do not even buy a printed newspaper. Only e-papers. It’s easier to skim an e-paper. It’s easy to get lost in a printed newspaper – When holding it, you start reading something irrelevant. The e-paper has only one screen. You can strictly skim over only the headlines. If you find something interesting, you can zoom in and read, recall some prior context, etc., and move on. Simple. 

Ravi (8:38)
That’s fascinating! I was about to ask the same thing, because I didn’t realize that you meant e-paper. It makes a lot more sense now. So, apart from newspapers, what other elements do you use in your content curation?

Karthik (8:48)
This is something that I teach in my personal branding workshops. You need to have pipelines of relevant content coming to you. Now there are two elements to it: One is the pipeline. Second is the relevant content. The relevant content comes first.
You need to first define what you want your personal brand to be about. It’s a very simple thing: when people hear your name, what should they remember about it and about you? That is the basic thing. It can be just photography; it can be that the traffic is bad, it can be Bangalore the city, it can be food, it can be advertising, communication, whatever. But once you have identified the brand definition of you – the individual, which could be a number of things – you then need to build your pipeline. It has to act like a funnel. From the world of so much news and information, how can you build funnels? There are various tools you can use. The one I use is Feedly, which is an RSS reader. Not the Nagpur wala RSS. This is a really simple syndication wala RSS, of course. Then there is Google Alerts, Twitter lists, email subscriptions; there are quite a few tools that you can keep on you. On top of all this is the newspaper skimming habit. Because in newspapers, you can’t build your own pipeline. Actually, you can with RSS readers, since you can subscribe to the branding and marketing section of Times of India alone. There is a feed which you can subscribe to. But since I am skimming through the newspaper anyway, I go through all the newspapers completely.
So, the newspaper gives me a broader context to form perspectives and these more focused sources of content give me a more focused understanding. So, at any point in time, I don’t go to Google and think, aaj kya padhna hai mujhe?(What do I have to read today?) There is more than enough to consume that I just put it in the back of my head. If I forget it or if it goes above my head, it’s perfectly fine. At some point, there will be some connection. And the best part is that you make connections between disparate things that are not related at all, which is most fascinating. It keeps me up at night and makes me say “Wow, that happened”. It is amazing. It makes me really happy. 

Ravi (11:03) 
I think there was an ad of Asian paints, the wall colouring one where a mother was marking the son’s height. The point of the ad was that walls are meant to get dirty…. (illegible) And you connected that to an old Tamil movie.

Karthik (11:26)
Two movies, actually. A Tamil movie and a Telugu movie. Both of them used it as a plot point, which is a very interesting one. The basic thing is quite simple, something that happens in all our homes. When kids grow, you mark their height on the wall, and you always do it in the same place of the house so that you can compare. And that is what Asian Paints had used very cleverly.

Ravi (11:50)

I find this skill of yours great. Do you have some technology to tag something somewhere? How are you able to remember it all? It is physically difficult to remember so much, right? 

Karthik (12:02)  

No tagging at all; I don’t use any tagging. I just use Google Keep Notes, because I’m on an Android phone. On the Mac, I’m on the Mac anyway. So I use Google Keep notes. Any time I read something that interests me for more than a second or a minute, if I think I need to read more about it, I need to know more about it, research more about it, I just make a note. And those notes are all I open if I want to write something on LinkedIn, or a new blog, etc. That is where I do the dot connecting part – It’s on Google Keep notes. I don’t open a blank page and start writing something. I go to Google Keep notes and I notice various things that are there.

Ravi (12:40)

And you can do a quick search on that keyword, and if there is something that (hits the mark then you can use it)

Karthik (12:43)

Easily. It’s all completely there. That’s the basic idea. 

Ravi (12:47)  

Very nice. And there is of course, the content that you’re consuming, in terms of general content. Then there is a whole universe of ads that you consume, right? 

Karthik (12:56)

Ads and branding, because there are there are quite a few sites that I’ve bookmarked and go through on an everyday basis for new ads that come through. These are available to everybody in the world, the only thing is that you need to invest time to go through them.

I go through it the same way, skimming through them first, looking for something that interests or evokes (a reaction in) me. 99% of that goes without having any impact (on me) at all. It’s that 1% which makes a difference. And there are ads that others have praised a lot and written about, but it doesn’t make any dent on me at all. I’m looking at perspective; at what they have they done to attract my attention. Is there something unique that they have put in the script or the narrative that attracts my attention? If yes, I write about it. If that helps others, so be it. 

Ravi (13:42)

I was looking at some numbers. You said that you have watched 927 Indian ads in 2022. 

Karthik (13:51)


Ravi (13:52)

And around 2500+…

Karthik (13:55)

Yes. Global ads

Ravi (13:57)

So that’s almost 3500 ads, which is roughly 10 ads per day. And that’s including all the days. Like holidays etc. 

Karthik (14:01) 

Yes. More than that. Correct. 

Ravi (14:03) 

So that’s a lot of time you invest in in this, Karthik.

Kathik (14:07)

(It’s) thoroughly enjoyable, actually!

Ravi (14:09) 

Yes, I can imagine. For me, when I think of the creative process, there is the three ‘R’s that I talk about. The ‘reading’, the ‘reflection’ and the ‘writing’. So ‘W’ but whatever. And so, I think what you’re talking about is in the reading part is to be very deliberate and very conscious in curating a pipeline of good content. And whatever works for you. You have curated (things) over a period of time and each individual should try and do it for themselves.
I’m curious to know about your reflection process. Do you have a separate time, or it just happens on the fly when you’re taking a walk, etc.?

Karthik (14:44)  

It happens on the fly. Most of the reflection just happens and I’m not consciously reflecting on anything at all. It just happens in the background. The only difference is I quickly go and make a note on Google Keep so that I pursue this thought, this idea for when I’m making (stories) so that I don’t lose the thought and I pursue this thought; so that I’m able to research it later. And it could be just an opinion that I want to go deeper into to confirm my biases or lack of biases, or do I need more dots to connect this opinion back to something, is something that I do. That’s the reflection part. And it keeps coming when I am sleeping, when I wake up the morning, when I’m having a bath, or when I’m running in the evening, watching something on the phone, or whatever it is, it just keeps coming all through the day. But most of the hands-on reflection – so there is a difference between reflection and articulation of reflection. Because articulation is done towards the third ‘R’, which is ‘Writing’. Other than that, you don’t need to articulate your point of view at all, because it just resides in your head. So that’s the line, basically. Once you consume content, which is the first ‘R’ that you mentioned, consumption happens like a cycle, like a habit every day. Like how you brush your teeth every day, you just keep consuming content. Relevant, irrelevant, both together. The next part is the reflection. There are two ways of looking at reflection. One, you reflect to understand what you’re reading more and probably enjoy – not just understand – enjoy, and really go deeper into what you’re consuming more. And from that, you remove things that you want to articulate upon. There are 100 things that you’ll be reflecting on. But based on your personal branding definition, you choose to talk about one or two of them. For instance, I could have a very controversial opinion on Sudha Murthy’s current meme on spoon and pure/impure vegetarian, (but) that’s reserved only for my wife and my parents or my group of people. That’s about it. I won’t want to share that with the world at all. That’s about it. But there are other things like (my opinions on) ads, which I want to share. This is where personal branding really helps. Senior leaders ask me, “What if I say something wrong, it goes viral and I get hounded or trolled online?” So, my question is, why do you want to think that you want to start on the wrong thing? (inaudible) You are a mature adult. You need to know what to say in front of public and what you say in front of people you trust and who trust you. There is a difference. How can you lose that difference when you’re a grown-up adult? “No, but it’s on Twitter”. But Twitter, of course it’s there. The whole world reads Twitter. It’s like standing in the middle of the street and sharing your opinion on XYZ. Why would you want to do that? Reserve that for the people you trust. In offline, private zones you share those opinions, (and it’s) perfectly fine. But if you still want to share an opinion on a controversial topic, read as much as possible on the topic and then form a perspective that is more rounded, instead of just jumping on it. For instance, this whole Sudha Murthy thing is rubbish. If you actually see the video, she’s not saying what was in the headlines at all. She’s saying something else completely. They’ve just made it into something very juicy and everybody is just going after it with multiple points of view. It’s a total waste of time. 

Ravi (18:08)

People are looking for controversies. So, what you’re saying or the reflection process is to figure out times and to have a capturing process ready. It could be as simple as Google Keep. I use Evernote. And whatever be your tool of choice, pen and paper toh pen and paper but kahi toh capture karo, (even if its pen and paper, just capture it somewhere); it won’t stay in your head all the time. I think that makes a lot of sense.

Now, the writing thing. Tell me about your writing process. Both, how you go about it and also how you keep a deadline and say that “I have to publish once or twice a day”. How do you manage to do that?

Karthik  (18:46)  

No deadline at all. It is not like I’m working with a journalist or an editor or a media person where you have to send something. There’s nothing at all. It’s just that I keep a bank of text and content ready. I don’t have any pressure that I need to write today’s post today itself, it could be 10 days old. Or if there is something that happened today morning, then I capture my thoughts immediately and write it. But it’s never impulsive or instinctive; it’s always thought through. I do enough research, go through it again and again, try to question myself. There is a thumb rule I use: Be your worst critic cynic before you post it online. Question it threadbare; thoroughly question it. Start from the point of view of your own antagonist. And then say “This is all complete rubbish. How can you say something like this?” Somebody could say that. And then try to come to a middle point saying “yes, it sounds like rubbish. I need to read more. I need to research more. I can’t share it right now.” But for some reason, the articulation and writing part comes more naturally to me. I have no idea why. I’m probably slightly privileged on that front because of the PR zone, or dot com career (inaudible), whatever it is, it just comes (to me). I’ve heard many senior people saying “I can’t even figure out a way to draft an email. I’m so scared. What will people think?” I have absolutely no issues like that at all. Text just flows. If I have a point of view, text flows. I just need to edit it, put it (down) and then it just works, I guess.

Ravi  20:10  

Do you keep a certain time of the day or the week like Mondays, or this time to this time? What’s your best time for writing?

Karthik 20:19 

There is absolutely no (particular time). I just write all through the day in bits and pieces. In fact, I actually break pieces, basically one paragraph in the morning, two or three paragraphs just before lunch, a couple of paragraphs in the evening; go back and then re-edit the first paragraph, which is all over the place. There is no specific time at all. It’s just a part of my everyday life. It just works very well that way.

Ravi (20:40)  

Do you publish it on some other platform, apart from LinkedIn, and then it stays there? 

Karthik (20:50)  

Absolutely. All the drafts stay in Google Keep, colour coded, saying this is a final draft to post and this is an early draft not to meant for posting at all. Everything is on Google Keep, quite literally.

Ravi (21:02)  

Very interesting. I’ve heard you say “don’t directly start writing on Twitter or LinkedIn”.

Karthik (21:08)

Absolutely not. That is impulsive. Yeah. 

Ravi (21:11)

And somebody might say that Google Keep is quite basic. It can’t even give you too much formatting. But you think that’s good enough?

Karthik  (21:18)  

I don’t need formatting. In fact, to write I don’t even use Google Keep. I copy paste on Google Keep. I’ll tell you what I use to write. It’s a very outdated thing; it’s called Writebox, Just a website, basically. It gives me a plain text writing screen on the browser itself, because it’s connected to the web – it’s not even offline. And it gives me a word count below. It just keeps counting the words, and that’s very important. Because LinkedIn gives you only 3000; Instagram gives you 2,200 characters; Twitter gives you far less characters unless you are a verified candidate. That is really, really useful. The word and character count keeps on increasing below and that plain text is what I use. 

Ravi 22:05 (overlap)

No distractions.

Karthik 22:05 

If I had Windows text pad, no distraction at all. Completely plain. If I had windows text pad, I would use it, but the Windows notepad doesn’t give you a live word count. This one gives you a live word count, which is very useful.

Ravi  22:18  

I like the simplicity of the approach that you’re using, Karthik. A lot of people over analyse and over think about what should be the right time to write; “I should get up early in the morning, I should have Scrivener, I should have this kind of a typewriter”, none of that is needed. 

Karthik (22:35) 

Most basic free tools, easily.

Ravi (22:40)

And there are, of course, the videos that you tag along with it. Do you ever think that you should add some visual or graphic, or something? Or is just text and the video good enough?

Karthik (22:57)

That’s more than enough for me, because everything else is just shoo-shaa, as they say. For instance, I see a lot of influencers online who create very nicely crafted videos. There is on-screen text and they are talking to the video. I mean, people have asked me “Why don’t you do video reviews of ads? Why don’t you do video reviews of the music that I do on the weekend? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you put yourself there?” My only concern is how to take it live at the soonest, in the easiest way possible. If I start doing videos then I need to do video editing. I might not be happy with that one part. I’ll need to re-edit it, re-record it, edit it, blah, blah, blah. That’s the same problem with video and also audio podcasts as a medium. I just don’t want to waste time at all. Text works perfectly for me. It’s editable, you can edit it if there is a problem or change that you want to do, it’s perfectly fine. And the video is already there. And if it’s just a visual that I’m using then text perfectly works very well. Why complicate things by adding this or that?
And most people say that video is the best consumption format for most people today; don’t (bother to) write text at all. I call bullshit on that. People read text if it’s interesting. People read what interests them, regardless of the format. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s a short video or long audio, anything. If it’s interesting, they will consume it.

Ravi (24:21)  

This has been great, Karthik. There’s so much that a person who might have a lot of ideas but is hesitant of sharing them can take away, at least from the sense of saying that you don’t need to overthink and create a very big process to do this. It can be done really simply.
And I think it might be a good thing to segue into this whole personal branding thing. A lot of founders go ahead and put themselves out. It’s also a recruitment tool or investment raising tool for them. But for a lot of others, especially a lot of people working with organizations or corporates, they feel “Why do I need to do it at all? I’m there. I’m happy I’m working in a good job. I’m doing a good job working there and I don’t really need to put myself out there. If the need comes for me to look for another job, I can make a CV and do it”. So, if a person tells you that, what’s your argument to them to actually consider putting their personal brand out there?
Karthik (25:26)Most people say that to me. When I do the corporate workshops, most people start from this point of view. They are about 35 to 50. They are probably in the peak of their career related progress, they are doing well, they can easily get their next job. It’s not a big deal. They are very well connected offline or online. They’ve networked well, they attend industry events; (everything seems) perfect. Everything is going swimmingly well. My only concern or the only point that I start with is, think of personal branding as an insurance. When would you take life insurance or car insurance? When things are going well; when you have money, you will take insurance. You won’t take insurance once there is an accident. You won’t take insurance when you’re sick. That’s not the time to take insurance; that’s the time to cash in on the insurance. You take insurance when things are going well.

You think about a time when things won’t be going well, because life is a cycle. it just keeps going up and down. There is nothing steady at all. And most people don’t even want steady, they want either a high or a low. That’s what they’re looking at, basically. But it’s like an insurance. You need to invest in your personal brand when everything is going swimmingly well. That will be the time when your attitude and mindspace is at its best. So put that out across, and do it.
And the second thing that you had mentioned, most people use the same phrase – “Do I need to put myself out there?” That’s exactly what they use, which is a fair phrase…but I question that phrase threadbare. The thing is, you’re not putting your 100% out there. You are putting only a fraction of yourself out there, which is not faking it; it is still part of you. Think of it like this: You are on the stage talking to people, or you are one among the audience. On the stage, you have a slightly different persona. You are aware that there are about 2,000 eyes watching you, they are listening very keenly, they are paid money to come and listen to you. You have a very straight posture, you make eye contact with specific people, you throw your voice, you use your hands really well. It’s a bit of a dramatized performance, but it’s still you. You understand where you’re standing, and you perform for the stage. But if you’re with the audience, you don’t need to perform to the person sitting next to you. You just talk to him normally. You reduce your volume because you’re conscious about others listening to somebody on stage. Both are you, but you change according to the situation. Similarly, with personal branding, the 100% you is reserved for people you trust, like your spouse, your kids, your parents, your immediate neighbours, that’s about it. Or your friends and peers; your colleagues and workers etc. That 100% trust. That’s you 100%. But for the world on LinkedIn or Twitter, you don’t need to be your 100% at all. You just need to be just the 10% or 6% that you are sharing. The rest is reserved. I use a simple analogy to explain this even more easily. Imagine you’re living in a house with 100 windows. If you shut all 100 windows and live, that’s the people that you’re living with. Because only they can see you inside the house. If you choose, consciously, to open only 6 out of the 100 windows, whenever you move in front of those six open windows, people can see you. That’s about it. So, you’re not actually putting yourself out there. You’re putting a fraction of yourself out there. Because you’re an adult, ensure that things don’t go wrong. Because you’re putting only a fraction of it. Don’t just blurt out anything and everything that comes to your mind on Twitter or LinkedIn. That’s not the point of these tools. These tools are enormously powerful. It’s the same analogy. For instance, if you have a car that can go 200 kilometres per hour, would you immediately drive at 200 kilometres per hour? No, you look at where you’re going, why you are going, how you’re going and then you increase speed accordingly. Exactly the same thing. Ditto.

Ravi (29:12)

I love these analogies. I think insurance is a great analogy. Now we’ve been conditioned through various elements of communication, that it’s a must. You must take it. Although some people might argue it’s fine – I’ll keep saving money. And I will somehow manage to meet my expenses. We’re conditioned to believe that. I think personal branding as insurance for your career and for your work is a great frame. I love that. I also love this analogy of the house with 100 windows and that you don’t have to “put 100% of yourself out there”. Just showing what you feel is your strength and what differentiates you so that other people can learn from it, and hopefully also mark you saying “Hey, if we have a problem in x and y this is a person that I will remember by name.” I completely get that.
I also like the analogy about the stage about us having different authentic selves. There’s no one authentic self that we have. Yes, with a friend you’re a different self. With your spouse you are a different self. With elderly relatives, you’re a different self. And so, on the stage, you’re a different persona. But it’s not a fake persona. I mean, unless you’re faking it, which is different. But if you’re being authentic, it’s still part of you.
This is very important, Karthik. A lot of people unfortunately do that. We can see that they are playing for the gallery in some of these platforms. In fact, I’ve spoken to some of my friends about it, and they immediately say, “Hey, look at X and Y” and they will give the worst examples, and say, how icky they make you feel in terms of the cringe worthy posts. But why should you only look at X and Y? You do you. You don’t have to drive that car at dangerous speeds.
Do you also get that pushback? That “I don’t like this cringe worthy content” on various platforms?

Karthik (31:10)

It comes. But, as you just mentioned, playing to the gallery is very easy for anybody. In fact, I wrote about it recently. You don’t need to try and game the LinkedIn algorithm at all. The lowest possible (effort) way that everybody has learnt now is to post a selfie and anything above it. It has nothing to do with the selfie or why you are looking at the camera or whatever action you’re performing. It’s nothing. Because many people have said that having a selfie helps the post gain traction, they post a very useful piece of text and then post a selfie. I completely remove the selfie from my mind and look only at the text, whether it is useful for me in some way or other. I have never posted a single selfie on LinkedIn. Even though I have posted a couple of selfies on Facebook and Instagram. Never on LinkedIn. Even when I go to a workshop or a college to do a guest lecture, the college photos is what I post. I don’t put photos of myself on stage. That’s not the point at all. I mean who gains from seeing my bald head and mugshot? There is no use. What value I bring with my point of view is more important. If there is a value in my t-shirt, I’ll probably put a selfie. But it doesn’t say anything; it just says (name of t-shirt brand, inaudible) and there is no point. I don’t see any value in a selfie. I’m not in the beauty business or the fashion business to post a selfie. I’m in the business of creating perspectives and making people think in a slightly different manner. For that, text works perfectly.  

Ravi (32:40)

I completely agree. There is so much to be gained by sharing your unique perspectives on whatever area that you know. A lot of people say “Oh I don’t have anything”, that cannot be. You’ve been working in an area for 10, 15 or 20 years. You’ve got something for sure. If you’re working in the pharma industry and you’ve been working on deals, comment on the latest deals that have happened and what makes the deal interesting. 

Karthik (32:09)

Absolutely. There are so many deals that are happening. Exactly!

Ravi (33:12)

And the other perspective that I tell people is “Don’t think of it as doing it for yourself. Think of it as doing it for others.” What can others gain from your expertise?

Karthik (33:26)

Actually, I would question that. The first gainer of what I post is me. I gain from it because it helped me think of something in a specific way, because I deliberated on it. In fact, the kind of audio reviews I do on the weekends – I have a blog which is about 18 years old right now. I started it in about 2005 and it’s still going on in another blog – I do music reviews. And I have absolutely no training in music at all. Nothing. I can barely sing above average than the next person, that’s about it. Just a common man. I’m just passionate about listening to music of all kinds. And I do common man music reviews. And the first gainer of those music reviews is me. I want to know what to listen to this weekend. What are the new songs that I should spend my time on?  And I thought if ten more people will gain from what I am sharing, let me just share it free of cost. But I need to gain from it first.
All the posts on LinkedIn, I am the first gainer. I am so happy that I discovered this ad and I discovered why this works for me. Of course, there will be a hundred people who say “This doesn’t work for me”. Fine. Okay. It doesn’t work for you. But if they come to my LinkedIn post and comment saying “This is why it did not work for me”, that is a very intelligent, interesting conversation. I am able to see their perspective. I am able to put myself in their shoes saying “Oh, this didn’t work for you because of this, this, this. Okay so there is a different way of thinking here”. Which helps me with client work again. 

Ravi (34:53)

I love that. Often, when we read something, we form opinions. And the process of writing stress- tests that opinion. “Are you really sure about what you’re saying?” You’re right. I have frequently found myself starting to write something and realizing “this is not tying up. I am not clear about this myself”.
I think you’re right. The first gainer, in that sense, is yourself. And sometimes, to push the logic on this one, if you’re icky about posting something, just write and keep it to yourself. That will be better. 

Karthik (35:28)

Correct. Just get it out in an offline mode. Don’t take it online. That’s about it.

Ravi (35:33)

Of course, putting it out there is great because you get that feedback. I like one line that you used, Karthik. Don’t optimize for attention, (instead) optimize for outcomes. 
Karthik (35:45)And the outcome is not immediate, the problem is that only the output is immediate. Which is the comments, likes, the views that LinkedIn or Twitter gives you, those are the outputs. They are not the outcomes. People think they are the goal. They are not the goal; they are not the outcome at all. Output is what we notice. Outcome takes time. You can’t see it immediately; you can’t force it immediately at all, because of which people think output is outcome. But that is just a visceral reaction you see from people. Most of the platforms have made it so dumb to give reactions. At least earlier you had to comment. But now you don’t need to comment. You click on comment, and you get seven icons. Click on one icon and people just do it. It’s such rock-bottom nonsense, but that’s the way it is with social networks.
Outcome is long term. And that depends on many factors – whether you are an employed person, an independent person, whether you’re not looking for any jobs; outcomes happen much later.

Outcomes need not be professional alone. It can be completely personal. For instance, if you are just an amateur photographer, and you go on a weekend trip around the city and take photographs of birds or lakes or whatever it is, the connection that you can potentially make with somebody like you for the next weekend’s trip; you find some kindred spirit who is also thinking along these lines, that is an outcome. It has nothing to do with profession. You won’t make any money from it at all. You just find another soul who thinks like you when it comes to bird photography. You exchange notes, you exchange which cameras to buy, or which shorts to wear, everything matters. These are the connections that you make. It’s not just professional at all, it is also personal. It’s just life-oriented, quite literally. 

Ravi (37:24)

I like this hilarious example you had given in a talk about this goatherd who had done a tiktok video on this song (from the movie) ‘Hum Aapke Hai Kaun’ wala song, the Mitwa song. Can you talk about that? About how it’s very difficult to game for attention. 

Karthik (37:48)

So, this is probably an illiterate goatherd. And all he knows is how to make TikTok videos. Why? Because it doesn’t force him to articulate his thoughts at all. He just throws his phone in front of him, it goes 3, 2, 1 and he needs to perform. Even the music is given in the background. Its copyrighted music, they have already got it. He doesn’t need to get any music. No editing on Spotify or YouTube, nothing at all. Automatically the music starts, and he performs. That is far more entertaining to watch than the original damn video itself. Of course, you have seen the original, but that is (an) acted out (performance). This guy, in all his innocence…..

Ravi (38:27) So raw, it’s beautiful.

Karthik (38:29) 

He and his goat, and his expression when SPB is smiling or laughing, the way he matches the same wavelength is goosebump inducing. I’ve watched that fifteen second video so many times and every time I see it, I am marvelling. I would not have seen this goatherd at all in my life except for TikTok. I feel bad that TikTok is not there (now). Of course, there are much larger geopolitical considerations to it. But TikTok was a gamechanger when it comes to creating more content originators. I always keep saying that on the internet, there are three kinds of people. First is content creators, second is commenters, and third is lurkers. They don’t create any content at all. They just consume and move on. Most people are obsessed with the second ones, which is the commenters. The commenters are only about 10% of the internet. The creators are only about 5 or 6% of the internet. The biggest seventy to eighty percent are just lurking. They don’t even click an icon to tell you that they have read your post or appreciate your post. Nothing at all. That is what you should be focusing on. Which comes, to some extent, under impressions and views. Only two platforms give you that. LinkedIn gives you views and Twitter gives you impressions. Facebook doesn’t do that. Threads doesn’t do that so far. No other platform does it actually. So that really helps. Instead of that, we are focussing on the 10% number. How many people liked my posts? How many people commented on my post? How many people retweeted or reshared? But your entire universe is much smaller. The universe in the last one is much larger. Look at that. That’s far more interesting to look at actually. 

Ravi (40:07)

Going back to this example, the implication that you pointed out was that, there are so many great creators out there. You don’t try to compete with them for attention. Because it’s a mug’s game, right? Focus on your outcome. Even if I don’t get as many likes or retweets as the others, enough people are reading it and you’ll find your audience eventually. 

Karthik (40:39)

Enough right people are reading it, based on your personal brand. That’s the more important thing. For instance, you can argue that the ones who are broad influencers whose main goal is to work with brands for a fee, they need to amplify their total reach. Not just the right people reach, the total number of reach. So, for somebody who has 2 million followers trying to get over 1 million views on a post, it makes sense from their point of view. Because they want to become the newspaper or television equivalent of internet influencers, which is perfectly fine. But I consciously say that personal branding is not the influencer game. In the influencer game you hack and game all the algorithms to amplify your views, impressions, and reach as much as possible. In personal branding, you don’t optimize for reach. You optimize for value, quality and the right kind of audience. 

Ravi (41:33)

In finding out what somebody could write about and post, one framework that comes to mind is something called the skill stack, where you try and combine elements that you are good at and that combination is what makes it unique. One example that comes to mind is Scott Adams, the complicated, controversial creator of Dilbert. 

Karthik (41:59)

Yes, I quite like him. Except for his (current sense?). 

Ravi (42:02)

Yeah, but he had his share of interesting ideas. In one of his books, he writes about the fact that when he looks at himself as a creator, he is one of the most successful comic strip creators, but he says “I was not the funniest guy in my group. I’m not the best at drawing. And I’m not very good at corporate life and observational skills, etc. But the combination of these four skills is something that is reasonably unique. I’m able to use that combination in a way that stands out”.
Maybe you’re a dentist who is good with humour that you can combine with something else. You have to find your niche. Is there a way you tackle this idea? 

Karthik (42:54)

This is actually the definition of personal branding. If you don’t define what you want to stand for or to be known for, what will you write about? You can write about a hundred different things. But when you define, you can sieve through those hundred things and find six that are worth talking about in public. You can still have a point of view on the remaining ninety-four, but that is not meant for public discussion. You find it.
I recently wrote about it; I look at it as three concentric circles. The closest circle is what your immediate profession or work area is. You could be a chartered accountant, politician, football coach, schoolteacher, anything at all. If you are a schoolteacher, teaching, school, and students becomes your immediate thing. The next one is the larger imparting knowledge as a space, of which teaching is a part. Many people impart knowledge, not just teachers. Politicians, parents, religious leaders and even advertising impart knowledge. Everything imparts knowledge. That is the second layer.
The third layer is where teaching and imparting knowledge, as a function, fit into the current world that you live in. Is there a context? That is the larger role. If you look at me, I look at things from the point of view of communication, which will probably be the second one; and PR, advertising, digital marketing, social media, this would be in the immediate space. Branding and positioning is what I look at in the immediate space. The slightly broader one was how this applies to the larger communications ecosystem. Politicians, teachers, religious leaders, they all communicate. People communicate with each other. Plants communicate with each other. Birds communicate with each other. Everybody is communicating with each other. That’s how I’d look at it. The third circle is how communication affect the world that I live in immediately, which is where my interest in speaking the truth to power comes in, particularly on Twitter, not necessarily on LinkedIn. And I constantly look at how things are being misused or obfuscated. I keep looking at it again and again. 

If I can raise my voice to some decibel on some point and somebody changes their mind, (that’s) good enough; that really helps me. 

Ravi (45:08)

That’s incredibly powerful. I love the three concentric circle (framework), especially the third one. I thought of the first and the second ones intuitively, but this third one is very useful. I would love to take that as a segue to the world of ads.

We see ads all around us. At some level, the world economy is run by ads. If you look at Google, Facebook, and Instagram, everybody is completely ad driven.  But ads have not been around with us for too long, if you look at human history. When I was widening the frame, and going back into history, what has been around for the longest time are stories. Stories are primal and they’ve been around for the longest time. And I like how Yuval Harari writes about that in Sapiens, where he says that the one thing that makes humans very unique is our ability to cooperate at scale. There are some animals who can cooperate flexibly at scale. Ants can cooperate at scale, but not flexibly. Bees can cooperate at scale, not flexibly. The wolves can cooperate flexibly, but in small packs. Humans are the only animals who can cooperate at large, and billions of them can come together for something, in a flexible way. For me, storytelling or communication is the glue that builds this cooperation or this flexibility. 

Karthik (46:49)

I will just put one small perspective difference. There is a difference between storytelling and storytelling for the sake of persuading an action. Both are different.

For instance, first part of storytelling can just be passing transactional information. If you look at why we have Mahabharata and Ramayan, it is not necessarily to persuade any call to action or anything. That is immediate call to action. It is to create a way of life and then believe in the way of life and understand why that way of life is good for you. That’s about it. Whether people follow those instructions or not is a different thing.
Advertising is slightly more pointed. It’s not just passing functional, transactional information in entertaining manner, which is what storytelling is all about. It ends with a persuasion effect. It has a call to action, whether the call to action is to go to the shop and buy, remember my brand positively, forget other brands, remember only my brand, whatever it is. The call to action defines why advertising is different storytelling. Storytelling as a tool can be used in advertising, but it has an end goal to persuade an action. If you don’t persuade an action, it can be just a PSA (Public Service Announcement) also, which is perfectly fine. But even PSA is actually persuading a call to action. Most people misunderstand persuasion and the call to action as buying something. No. Even remembering a brand is a call to action, which is what most people do. That’s the difference. Passing information is one (thing); passing information entertainingly towards persuading a call to action is advertising. That’s more focused and niche, and slightly different. 

Ravi (48:24)

No, I agree. How I would like to tie these two things together is…the goal of humankind is to get other people to do their bidding in some way, right? And the OGs of this were the politicians and the religious leaders. Who realized that “I want these guys to follow me” so (they’d tell them) “pray to this god”. In a way, this is persuading. If you do this, or if you don’t do this, you will attain salvation and stuff. And if you vote for me, I’ll do this. Of course, voting happened very rarely in ancient times, except maybe in Greece. Even a king saying that “If you don’t pay me taxes, my guards will kill you” (ties in with this). Now that threat is finally a story that he is telling. Politicians and religious leaders have been doing it for a long time. Entertainment, as you say, has always been there with us. And a lot of stories were just about entertainment. Some of them may have had a lesson in them. For example, I went to the forest, I saw this bear and climbed the tree. And then I came down. In that, there is a lesson. And the call to action is, don’t go to the forest or be careful if you do. To me Karthik, the stories like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Iliad, Odyssey may not have had clear calls to action, but it’s subtle. And it’s there. Like “Be good”.

Karthik (49:46)

It is subtle and it is long term. It’s not immediate. Buy this, remember me, nothing like that. But it’s live a life, which is a very complex thing. 

Ravi (49:54)
True, true. But to me, if I look at a common thread for story, it is the connection between desire and action. Which is where (the) call to action comes. That if you want x, then do Y. Broadly that is what almost every story boils down to. This has been going on for a long time. And for the longest time, we did not really need advertising as a medium. If you go to the 1500s and say ‘advertising’, they’d say “what does that mean?” Because people consumed locally. They would grow what they want to eat, maybe from the local market, maybe from the next town. But with the industrial revolution, suddenly production started to happen. And you’ve got surplus of various things. Now you have to sell and that is when you know this new science and art started coming into play – sorry, this a long, rambling point! But I’m just getting to a question, which is that – today we can’t imagine the world without ads. It’s basically the gateway to all consumption. And consumption is only increasing. And globalization is only increasing. So, the power and importance of ads, in whatever form, is only going to increase. Plus, the final (element fuelling this is the) hosepipe of social media, where everybody is a creator. It’s democratized completely; the whole advertising-storytelling equation has been completely democratized. So now, the question.

If you were a curious Martian looking at this entire story play out over the last 20 to 50,000 years, where initially it was very raw, and then suddenly in the last 200 odd years, it’s taken off in this way. How will you look at this medium of ads in this entire context of storytelling? In terms of how is it different from the type of stories that we’ve been always telling? How is it similar? And you talked about some of those points, but I’d love to hear a more detailed answer.

Karthik (51:58)

One stark difference is that, at least from the world of advertising specifically, is that we were tuned to understand that we have to consume advertising. There is no way to skip advertising at all. That is the prior period; whether it’s in print, whether it’s in television, whether it’s movies, or wherever it is, you cannot ignore advertising. It is just there. You are supposed to sit through it, whether you can get out from it and come back is different, but you can’t skip it at all. That is advertisement being forced on you, literally. You need to live with it. Which gave rise to strategies from the early 80s when TVs came first to India, which gave rise to the groupthink. Everybody’s thinking the same thing, everybody’s talking about the same serial, same ad, same jingles. Which is why jingles also became popular ads. You remembered the Doordarshan ads very clearly. There was only one thing that everybody was consuming together and there was no way to skip it. And you felt left out if you didn’t understand something that somebody else was talking about.

Now, ads are on demand. You don’t need to sit through ads at all. Most of the people see ads on demand. Somebody said this ad is good, they saw it. The only exclusion from that is live events. Live cricket matches or live shows that come only one time and you need to tune your life to sit in front of TV, or the internet to watch them. Then when there is an ad, everybody sees the ad together. But how many people watch a cricket match? Of course, millions do. There are equally millions who don’t care about a cricket match at all. Whether it’s India – Pakistan playing, it’s something they don’t really care about. They want something else (related to) their interest. They will still feel left out saying, “I missed that new Apple ad that came during this show or during this live match.”, there is no groupthink; it’s completely fractured. But because it’s on demand, ads and any kind of communication need to work much, much harder. Earlier, it was taken for granted. We’ve made an ad, and it will be on the TV. Everybody will watch it. As the famous line from Seinfeld goes, “Why am I watching it?  Because it’s on TV”. And the guy says “Not anymore”.

Now, even if it’s on TV, it doesn’t matter. Who’s going to watch it? Nobody. On YouTube, you need to consciously look for the ad, and then watch it. Even when you start watching it, if it doesn’t engage you in the first five seconds, you will switch it off. Finished. You are so brutal with communication these days. It has to engage. And to engage, you need to understand what makes the audience tick; what makes your product tick; what is the narrative difference that you can bring in the first 10 seconds, which will make them sit through the next 10 and finally, one minute or three minutes, or five minutes. Of course, you’re optimizing for your audience’s attention. There are many short-cuts that people take, which are hook or crook, like clickbait. You start with something dramatic, but you don’t follow up on the promise and go completely in another direction. There are ads that make you think, “What the hell am I watching?” and towards the end they show some lungi brand. (You’ll think) “What a bizarre combination! I saw something and then ended up with a lungi brand, what nonsense is this?” – that’s also optimizing in a very click bait-y way for attention. Because it’s being done for the first time, it will be talked about. But if you keep on doing it 10 times, people will start losing interest. They’ll say “This is clickbait; I’ve already seen it with a lungi brand. I’m not going to watch it 10 more times.”

So, it has to engage. If it doesn’t engage, people can switch it off – and they will switch it off.

Ravi (55:30)

Very much, yeah. One cool thing I find is that – from the story mediums that we talked about, like politics, religion, and entertainment – ads have had a lot of constraints. It is, by definition, short. Very rarely will you find a half an hour or three-hour ad. It’ll be in seconds, mostly. Because it has to be crisp; it has to have a call to action. You can’t just make an ad saying, “I’m just going to give information”. In this very short period, it has to engage, it has to entertain, and it has to make you do something. Plus, that difficulty is only increasing over time with the fragmentation of attention. I feel that if somebody is going to learn the art of storytelling in today’s day and age, probably the vanguard of this skill is being practiced in this profession. It’s quite remarkable and unique.

Coming to the tools of the trade, so to speak, what do they do? I want to talk about specific tools like how they use surprise, framing, and tone. But going to a deeper level, there is one framework that I use a lot when I teach storytelling, which is Aristotle’s three parts of persuasion, where he talks about ethos, pathos, and logos. For the listeners who may not know it, Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, would observe people making arguments in Greek courts; “should we invade this neighbouring nation or not?” And then he would see what kind of arguments do well, what kind of arguments don’t do well. He finally boiled it down to saying you need a combination of three things – Logos, which is logic. Pathos, which is emotion. And Ethos, which is the root word of ethic, is the credibility or trust of the speaker. I constantly find that ads are very well attuned to this. They’re always using a mix of this. Of course, more on the pathos and the ethos side. From your perspective, how do you think ad professionals use it? Which ones do you think are more relevant or more powerful? How have they been changing?

Karthik (57:57)
These three are still relevant. But I wouldn’t focus so much on these three, because we are in a zone of on-demand advertising; on-demand communication. These worked very well prior to the on-demand period, where you are assumed to be sitting through the ads and you used things like credibility, urgency, fear, or happiness; you infused it with some sentiment or feeling which appeals to people. Now I will say something slightly different, which is more relevant. There is an ex-Ogilvy guy, named George Tenenbaum…I don’t know if you follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn. He’s also got a blog – He was kicked out of Ogilvy because he was too old, 60 plus. And he talks about ageism again and again. He’s the most vocal critic of Ogilvy and WPP Group these days, in spite of having spent a lot of time there. The only connection that we have is we both were on the IBM account when I was an Ogilvy, he was also, actively. I look up to him very often, and he’s the most abrasive opinion maker or opinion sharer in the world of advertising and communication.

I follow his blog. He writes every single day, including weekends; every single day. He blogs every single day. And he’s been doing it for about 10, 15, 20 years. Amazing guy; he is my inspiration from a consistency point of view. He actually pointed out this one –it’s not his own stuff. He learnt it from somebody else in the advertising industry – He clearly articulated this way, “Your next big idea for a client can come from page 95 of their annual report”. Which literally means, know as much about the client or the industry as possible, even much more than the client themselves. Read, read, read, research, research, research. Something will strike you, saying this has never been spoken so far at all. I’ll give you a practical example of this with me…What is that new age insurance brand?

Ravi (59:59)


Karthik (1:00:00)

No, not ACKO. The other one, from PhonePe.

Ravi (1:00:03)

Coverfox? No, not Coverfox. 

Karthik (1:00:06)

No, no. PhonePe also has vehicle insurance. I think they’re also starting with life insurance or health insurance, but the vehicle insurance they have. And they have this ad campaign featuring Alia Bhatt, Aamir Khan, and it’s been going on for some time.

At some point, they had mentioned that you can get instant insurance renewal if you just use your phone to do an instant insurance renewal. That’s what they’ve mentioned. I mean, I have been renewing insurance for a very long time, year after year for my car, or my health, or whatever it is – I’ve been doing it. And I’ve always had instant insurance. What is the delayed insurance? Where is the delay coming from? What are they even talking about? And then when I noticed all other insurance ads, nobody is talking about instant insurance at all. And if you’re already insured, if you need to just renew the insurance, it is always instant, it’s default. But nobody has talked about instant insurance at all. These are the only damn people who actually made it into a specific positioning saying, “I have a car. The insurance is expiring today afternoon. What do I do?” Most people already know you go online and renew that insurance that will happen instantly. But they make it look like there will be no person from the insurance agency coming to look at your car; it won’t take one day, two days at all. That only happens in very few use cases. If you have a claim, somebody will come and even that doesn’t matter at all. Even if it’s a claim, it’s taken for granted that it’s actually a legitimate claim and nobody comes. But if you’ve changed cars in between, or if some details have changed, then somebody comes and checks. Health insurance is also similar. But for most people, nobody even cares. Everybody understood it’s insurance. But nobody’s talking about instantaneous insurance renewal. These are the only damn people who noticed it and made a hoo-hah about it, saying that if you have a car and you have plans for the weekend, don’t wait for the insurance renewal guy to come and see your car at all. You can instantly renew it. And they were talking about it. After they started talking about it, Policybazaar started talking about it, and probably some other brands started talking about it. This is an example of how your next idea will come from page 95 of the client’s annual report. Read, and there will be some fine print which nobody has exploited yet, and you can exploit it as a point of distinction, even if it’s not an actual distinction. People will remember that your brand is that insurance brand with instant renewal. For instance, look at ACKO. ACKO has been consistently saying, “if you’re buying a vehicle, the first insurance you need to check is ACKO”. Of course, there will be an insurance that the that the dealer himself will suggest, saying “please take it from us”, etc., but even if that happens, (you should) open ACKO and check what the price is. See the difference and then do it. ACKO has been consistently doing it. The first insurance you need to think of is ACKO before buying any vehicle. Now, they’ve also gotten into health insurance. I don’t know what they’re going to do because health is something you take only once. You don’t buy health like a car or a vehicle at all; I am really curious to know what they say for health. But for a car, it’s a great deal. You don’t even think of any other insurance before ACKO because they’ve drilled it into your mind. First insurance to check for value = ACKO. That’s what they do. That really helps. That’s a very remarkable positioning in spite of the fact that that position is the same as everybody else, but only ACKO said first; nobody else said it at all. And they have been relentlessly focusing on that. The actual services are exactly the same. The fees probably match even HDFC or ICICI. It doesn’t matter at all to you. But now ACKO has put it in your head, and they’ve done it relentlessly again and again. That has become their distinction, even though it’s not actually a distinction at all. 

Ravi (1:03:54)

It’s quite fascinating, Karthik.  It’s almost like an insight hiding in plain sight. It’s obviously not (displayed) on a hoarding somewhere, but it is not hidden. You can easily find it. 

Karthik (1:04:08)

If you research enough, you can find it. The only thing is that other people are not as relentless as to try and find it. They’re probably lazier than you in not wanting to find it and going with easier narratives, easier combinations. But you have done your research and you’re able to find something that can be a distinction, even if it’s not a distinction because others have not. 

Ravi (1:04:30)

I’m just trying to apply this as a lesson so that somebody who is not in advertising could take away from it. In your work, you might sometimes get jaded and what is seemingly normal may have a very interesting deep meaning there. I think Prakash Iyer uses a system term called Vuja De – which is the Deja Vu is where you find something familiar (in the new), but in Vuja De, you find something new in the familiar. You see something and think, “Oh! I’ve never looked at it from this perspective.” I think that’s a great skill to develop, instead of getting jaded and saying the “haan ye sab pata hai”(Yes, we know this already.) Like Policybazaar ssaying, “Of course we are the first. What is new in that?”

Karthik (1:05:27)

Interestingly, it is not necessary for advertising alone. For instance, I’ll give you a life example. We had actually taken my son – when he was the only son, now I also have a daughter – to a zoo. I think it was Bannerghatta Zoo, or something like that. And we enjoyed it. He saw everything and then he came back home. And then my son said “I’m going to draw a crocodile, because I saw a crocodile when I was at the zoo.”

Now if you ask anybody to draw a crocodile, they would start doing like this (draws one horizontally) . But what he drew was like this (draws one vertically). I was wondering why, and then I remembered that we saw the crocodile from above the bridge. His perspective was the top of a crocodile, which is right below. Everybody, we have always thought and seen a crocodile from the side angle because we saw it in the books. And even when you see it live or from a top angle, we remember the side angle of a crocodile, which is a flat crocodile. He saw it like this.

Ravi (1:06:26)

From the top. 

Karthik (1:06:26)

Exactly. His only perspective was from the top. And he drew a crocodile. A vertical standing crocodile rather than sleeping. The thing is, since the crocodile doesn’t stand that tall, you don’t naturally put it in your brain saying I need to draw a standing crocodile. It’s not standing. It’s just a top view of it. It’s a perspective difference. It depends on where you stand – literally! If you stand there, it happens in the simplest way. You close this eye, what you see with this eye is different from when you close the other eye. There is more that you see from this eye. It is very simple. But again, if you think like a horse or a cow, it seems they can actually see only one side because their eyes are on the side; they are not in the front. If the horse were to close one eye, its whole world is halved. Our world is not like that at all, we can still see much of the other side also, because our eyes are on the front. There is a book that I recently read, which was fascinating. It spoke about how animal intelligence is so vastly different, yet how humans undermine animal intelligence severely. It’s at our own peril because we just don’t realize how much more fascinating it is.

Fish has eyes on both sides of the head like a horse or a cow. Now it seems fish has an extra power where it can see both above and below water at the same time.

Imagine that! And in two different directions, so it has got four different viewpoints. Two above and below water, and another two above and below water on the right and left. Imagine! Our eyes – we are we have such limited vision from that point of view. We can only see straight ahead. We can’t even see behind us; nothing at all. Cows can actually see behind their heads because their eyes are on the side.

It’s a fascinating book and I always think that we are severely undermining flora and fauna intelligence at our own peril. We are nothing in this world! The plants are even more powerful, the animal segments are more powerful. It’s just that we have the sixth sense which we abuse and misuse phenomenally, and think we are the kings on this bloody planet. We are clearly not. The plants will probably outlive all of us completely. We will die and just become mulch. Plants will outlive all of us. That is far more important. 

Ravi (1:08:48)

Do you recollect the name of the book Karthik?

Karthik (1:08:51)

Yeah, I shall share it with you, if you’re interested in science-fiction. Because I’m very interested in science-fiction. I read science-fiction day in and day out. Very few science fiction books talk about plant intelligent life. They all speak about animal intelligent life or some form of animal-ish, human-ish, quasi human, or AI and etc. Very few talks about plants. There is only one book that I recently read, it’s called Semiosis. That book, it’s actually fiction. It’s a fascinating book. It’s one of the rare science-fiction books that speaks about intelligent, sentient, sapient and plant life. Now, when it says intelligent plant life, we might think that it’s a fly-trap. It’s called the venus fly-trap. But that is just an insect eating plant, it’s not intelligent per se. It knows when the fly comes and is able to catch it. But imagine a thinking plant. Generally, (I’m not sure) if you know that plants think. For instance, imagine the white coloured flower that only blooms in the night. For instance, look at tuberose. Tuberose blooms only in the evening and night. I mean, it blooms all through the day, of course, but the fragrance is emitted only when it’s evening and night. During daytime, there is no fragrance at all. Imagine a plant which almost has a brain-like thing, which tells the plant saying, “Emit fragrance only in the evening; don’t waste it during daytime.” Why? because they’re trying to attract specific kinds of insects that can come and pollinate in the night and evening only. They don’t want morning butterflies; they want night butterflies, night insects, night spiders, that’s exactly what it is. So, they’re trying to attract attention, and their call to action – take my pollen, spread it across so that more plants can come. That’s a form of storytelling.

They know how to attract the right kind of audience, get them to perform a call to action. Come to me, sit with your legs in the pollen, take it and then spread my seeds everywhere. That’s also storytelling. Most people don’t realize that plants can also tell stories, they’re doing it real time. But we’re just so busy, we don’t realize how fascinating plants can be. 

Ravi (1:10:56)

I love this skill that you bring, Karthik, of being able to find insights in the most unlikely of places. And I think it’s a useful skill for everybody, as you were saying – not just for ad people. One example that this brings to mind – that you had pointed out – was an ad, which is by Brooke Bond, where it’s not a completely new insight, but the way they presented it was beautiful; where they position chai not as a drink, but as a social network. Which is a great insight, and it clearly would have come after some thought or connection that somebody built after looking at it. Not just at chai, but looking at the entire world, as such.

How do you personally try and come up with these insights? The value of these insights? And how can anybody try and generate more such insights which can help them at work? And of course, you can maybe start by explaining the ad a little bit for the context of people. 

Karthik (1:12:01)

Yep. This ad is very nice. The Brooke Bond ad was made by Ogilvy. They literally framed tea as a social network. Why? Because what’s the purpose of social networks at the end of everything? If you remove all the complexity, (any) social network’s purpose is to bring people together. That’s about it. ‘Bring like-minded people together’ – That’s the aim.

Even though social networks in current days are very different. They’re splitting people away from each other, saying there is one group here and one group there – let’s fight now! It’s unfortunate. But the original intent of social network was to network like-minded people; bring people together. Chai brings that day in and day out. Or even coffee. Any beverage that is consumed by the masses brings people together. If it’s an office water cooler, the water brings people together. There’s a water cooler, and you move towards it.  There is also chai next door anyway, of course. It’s always there.

But because it’s India, tea brings people together. It’s a nice analogy to say tea is a social network by itself. There is fragrance that it can bring, the taste it can bring, the chats that you have when you have tea together. (They tend to be) very brief, actually. It’s not like you’re making a life level bond. You’re just making a bond for five minutes and moving on away to the rest of your life. Perfectly fine. It’s okay. But the tea was the instrumental glue that brings people together. That’s a very lovely insight.

Now you could wonder this was Brooke Bond, what should Wagh Bakri do now?  They are also tea. Other teas, what can they do? What insights can they find? Where can they get these insights from? This (particular) insight has already been taken. You can’t take anymore at all. Again, I would go back to the same thing. This insight didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s actually a remix of something. It’s somebody who actually consciously thought of saying, “We four are sitting here. We don’t really know each other, but we are sitting here and talking for five minutes. And the connecting glue looks to be tea, because everybody’s drinking tea. And we are standing outside this tapir(tea shop) and all four of us are talking about what’s happening with yesterday’s match or what’s today’s match. And the connecting glue seems to be the tapri which sells tea. Which is why we came here.”

And then they didn’t just drop the thought – the thought percolated in their mind – and I’m using percolated without any pun intended, because that is with coffee and this is tea – the thought percolated in their mind, and one of them happened to be an ad agency guy or girl who said “There is an interesting thought here. Can we build upon it?” This is the dot-connecting that I spoke about in the beginning. Steve Jobs talking about dots. Dot-dot-dot-dot…Brooke Bond is the last dot in that segment. You connect it to get this ad.

Everybody can do it, provided you infuse yourself with many dots. If you infuse yourself with only 2 dots, saying “I have Wagh Bakri. Wagh Bakri only has these may flavours,” these are only 2 dots. You need more dots and those dots need to go beyond the tea industry. It needs to go into the life of the people who consume tea. Then you will have some 20 dots around, which is where you’ll be able to connect various things. Some connections wouldn’t work at all. You’ll say, “Nah. It doesn’t fit at all.”

But something from there, you drag it here, there will be a connection.

It’s a simple thing to do for any client. Read, read, read. Arm yourself with as much information as possible, and then you will start looking at the dots and you will find the pattern. But to reach the pattern, you need to have 20 dots. Not two dots. Or 200 dots. IfF you don’t have 200 dots, what will you make a pattern out of?

Again, I come back to the same thing: Your next idea will come from page 95 of your client’s annual report. Who will read annual reports? The are as boring as paint drying, nobody wants to read it! But you will find something fascinating on page 95; it will be there. That can become the central idea for your next campaign. But you need to do the hard work and read it in the first place, or at least skim it in the first place, quite literally.  

Ravi (1:15:50)

I love this. It goes back to that earlier thing where you just take in a lot of information and reflect on it and don’t think that “Oh, today, by 12 o’clock, I need to generate an insight.” It doesn’t work like that. It’ll come, just trust the process. 

Karthik (1:16:10)

Again, it’s like insurance. The reading and skimming is insurance for future. At some point, it will come. Everything is like personal learning insurance.

Ravi (1:16:20)

Very much. You’ve mentioned that in most ads, most communication has to be built around the central insight. But the insight is one thing. And now the biggest challenge that you’re facing when you’re trying to tell a story in 30 or 45 seconds is how do you get people to go beyond the five seconds? How do you get their attention? And how do you continue to have their attention?

I want to talk about the use of surprise as a crucial tool in in getting the audience. Connected with surprise are humour – because humour is a form of surprise for me – and curiosity. I put it like this that if you want to get somebody’s attention, you surprise them. But if you want to hold their attention, then you make them curious as to “where is this going?”

Maybe we can talk about two ads which did that really well, both of which you have talked about. One is the Spotify ad which features one person listening to music and a headphone and there’s some other dialogue happening but (there’s still) the song, and how they beautifully melted moulded that in. And there is an ad you talked about for Birla Pipes, where there is a plumber whose name keeps changing and you’re really wondering what is happening here. And in the end, that beautiful insight brings it out. So maybe you can talk about these three things: surprise, curiosity, and how to hold attention.

Karthik (1:17:49)

I will connect surprise, curiosity or humour or intelligence, holding on to everything towards one specific goal. When I say interactive as a word, people think digital interactivity. That is, you need to touch; you need to go to the next step; you need to scroll, right scroll left scroll, blah, blah, etc. There is a far more, base level interactivity that happens only in our brain. For instance, if you look at the Birla pipes ad, it is an interactive one. It is saying something. For instance, the guy is being called Mukhi by the mother. He says “aaj Mukhi nahi, Sukhi”(It’s Sukhi today, not Mukhi.). Then your mind goes why is he saying not Mukhi, Sukhi? A person has only one name. Is his name Mukhi and Sukhi? And in the next step, there is a third name; the next scene there is a fourth name, fifth name, sixth name. And at every point you are interacting with the ad at your brain level. Why are there three names? Why are there four names? You keep asking; you’re just not vocalizing it. You are not touching the screen and interacting. But you’re still interacting. And you want to know what ends this interactivity. Where will this interactivity end? That’s when the final jolt happens at the 45th second. You understand, “Oh, this is why he’s been changing names”. So, there are 20 different names for this guy. But it’s interactive.

If you’re able to make audience interact at a brain level, you’ve won completely. Of course, there are many click bait-y examples also. There is a clickbait example that makes you say “What the hell is this ad for? Why am I watching it?” But it needs to have a logical conclusion. The payoff has to be really, really good. If the payoff seems middling, then you will probably hate the ad all over again from the beginning.

For instance, I recently spoke about a Thai ad. Thai advertising is probably one of the most bizarre and most entertaining way of communication or storytelling. There was a recent Thai ad where the husband buys a ready-made pack of chicken and keeps it on the table. The mother and the daughter are doing their homework. And then suddenly the mother and daughter start making weird sounds. The daughter says 9-8-7-6, there’s a countdown like a rocket launch. And the mother finally says, “launch sequence ready” blah, blah. She closes one ear and says launch sequence ready. You’re wondering what’s happening. You are already interacting with the ad, without any explicit signs. And then you go back and the house starts going up in the sky like a rocket. It just keeps flying. It goes out of the atmosphere. It goes into space. Suddenly you’re wondering “what the hell am I watching? They showed chicken already. It’s supposed to be a chicken ad. Why are they going to space?” And they’re actually floating because it’s zero gravity. Then comes a guy in an astronaut suit. He gets this chicken from the mother and goes off. And then they finally explain saying “CP Chicken, the Thai brand, has worked with NASA and a couple of other – I think SpaceX by Musk, etc. – to send their brand of chicken to the ISS.” The only premise is that if our chicken is safe for consumption at the ISS level, that’s the same chicken that you’re getting at a consumer level. It’s that safe and that good.

It’s a slightly tenuous connection…But the entertaining way they have explained (is great). Of course, advertising is the art of exaggeration. They have exaggerated to a phenomenal level. But the ride has been so fun that you’re okay with overlooking (the bizarreness). I mean, it’s not a clickbait. There is a story. They have worked with SpaceX, it is going to space, there is the safety and cleanliness angle. Everything is being said. It’s just that they’ve dragged the benefit to that level to make such an extraordinarily bizarre video that you cannot forget the video at all. Once you’ve seen it, you can never forget it. Who would have thought to connect the fact that we are actually sending it to space? They’ve already read the press release, it’s done. But to actually put it in this coating, with this framing and showing that the house flies…that can happen only in Thai advertising. They think like that; they think in such an expanded kind of format. Everybody else thinks in a more crunched format. And this is obviously a three-and-a-half-minute ad. It’s not a one-minute ad, not even 10 or 30 seconds. So, you have the luxury of telling an interesting story. And I’m sure it’s not for TV; it’s for digital consumption only. Because Thailand has a phenomenal number of Internet users and they’re all online at the same time, basically. It’s internet-specific. They have the luxury of time and story. But there is a payoff. The payoff is based on actual insight and actual truth. It’s not fake. It’s not clickbait-y, and the story is mega entertaining. You watch it once, you will tell 10 people immediately.

Ravi (1:22:28)

Yeah, surprise can be an amazing tool. When I teach storytelling in my workshops, I keep talking about it, that you don’t have to go to exaggeration mode; you don’t have to necessarily make it humorous. But if you can surprise the audience by showing – in your own data or your own work – if there is something that is different from their expectation, then just make that very simple and clear to the audience. There’s an example that comes to my mind, which is very boring and dull from the world of finance and numbers, but it follows a similar logic. This is Hindustan Unilever, and this is their financial numbers they are presenting for 2015. They’re talking about how “in 2015, in four quarters, we tracked our volume growth numbers, and it was positive in all four quarters”, and (they’ve attachedshown) just a simple graph showing March, June, September, December in four columns, all are positive. Okay, fine. You look at that and say, “Oh, March is actually relatively less than September. You could have done better, blah, blah”. But that’s not the full story.

Then, they show this. And then the rest of the slide is basically just saying that this was a difficult year for us. Because it was a year in which we had a lot of competition in the market. Of course, they’re selling Rin and Surf, etc. And there are competitors, who will try and sell at a lower price and undercut them. And it was a year in which commodity prices had fallen, so suddenly a lot of new competitors mushroomed. And those guys tried to under-sell based on the price. And what HUL did in 2015 was that they reduced their prices significantly. They were very quick (about it.) For a large company, it will (usually) take time, (with all) the approvals to go ahead and get the price reduced (and all that), but they got that. And because of the fact that they changed their price, they managed to arrest any volume decline. In fact, volumes grew. And they maintained and grew market share, and they managed to do it profitably. That’s the story of 2015.

The magic for me was that in most financial presentations – this is an investor presentation – if you’re showing me 2015 data, you will show me 2014 as the benchmark. That’s what I’m asking you to show. You don’t have to show anything else, maybe 2013, but they didn’t show 2014, not 13, not 12, not 11, not 10, because they realized that none of those years saw a similar fall in commodity price, which had led to their competition growing. They went back in time and said 2009 was the year in which commodity prices had fallen. And at that time, also a lot of competitors mushroomed. But in contrast to this, we had actually not reduced prices; we were very slow to change our prices. Because of which, the same graph from 2009 shows a significant fall in volumes for 3 out of 4 quarters. That contrast is what is surprising for the audience and they’re able to say, “oh, this is great”. It took that effort to contrast with the last six years.

In all ads, they are playing with your expectations, and saying “Hey, you will not expect the house to take off and fly into space. You will not expect a conversation in a saree shop, where two women and the saree are singing a song.” – And that breaks your expectation. 


It’s totally bizarre. 


It’s bizarre. So immediately you start paying attention. I think that ads are so good at breaking expectations; making something surprising. Rahul Dev coming in wearing nothing but an underwear into the room and then saying “I’m the body language translator”. It’s brilliant. I think that principle is something that all of us can take and apply. I find that very cool.

Karthik (1:26:22)

There are just two small things here, because of what you just mentioned. The surprise element is one thing, obviously. Something very bizarre; but it’s not necessarily for advertising alone. For instance, to engage an audience in simple storytelling, one of the standard starting points for a story when you tell kids is “Long ago in a faraway land, there lived a King”, that’s a starting point for many, many, many stories. To hook their attention. If you say this, they will say, “I have heard the story already!”

But if you say “long ago in a faraway land, there died a king today morning.” (They will say) “What the hell, he died?” And then you just draw their attention in minutes. “Oh, he died? This looks like a new story. I will sit through it”. This is one thing to do, remember. And it’s simple. Basically anything you do, if you just tweak it slightly differently, people will start paying attention. Which is exactly what happening in that Thai ad and the Spotify ad. Slightly unusual; you tweak it so people look at them. But the tweaking should not be done for the heck of it. For instance, I am very caustic about the CRED ads. They are purely driven by the surprise and shock value. But it didn’t land correctly from payoff point of view. Because all they ended it with is just ‘download CRED’. It has nothing for CRED, against CRED, why should we download CRED, nothing at all; they just got the celebrities to play against their type. At the end, they said click to download CRED, which is where it ended very flatly for me. It didn’t leave on a high with something that I can remember. All I remember is Rahul Dravid making a fool of himself on the road, which is not good for CRED; it is not good for Rahgul Dravid either, of course. But at least he was more versatile; he can showcase. So that’s one part of it. That’s the unusual playing-against type, trying to get attention in the first place.

The HUL example is interesting because that’s an example of framing. You put the context in a way that your center core shines, Ravi. One of the best examples of living in advertising was for the launch of Tommy Hilfiger in 1985, when he was an unknown designer. He had just launched a new store, his first and only store in New York. And he was trying to promote himself in a world of men’s fashion that there are some stalwarts. He got a legendary ad art director and gave him a print ad on a billboard. One billboard in Times Square. That billboard had a headline saying, “There are four great designers for menswear in this world right now. And it had the names it the first one was C_ _ _ _ _ _ K _ _ _ _. That was for Calvin Klein. I mean, anybody can fill that in, but they can’t mention Calvin Klein at all. And it had a couple of more names like, first alphabet dash dash dash, next alphabet. And finally, T dash dash dash, and H dash dash dash dash. An unknown first-time men’s designer, put himself in the gallery of the greats of men’s designers. And then it ended with saying the least famous of the four is Tommy Hilfiger, now available to you. It is accurate. He’s actually the least famous of the four. But he is making himself part of the haloed entity of the greats, and then himself. That’s aiming for the framing.

Similarly, I’ve read this recently…Bumble, which is a dating app. When they launched first, they had limited money for marketing. So, they made signboards outside colleges, and all those lecture halls. This was back in 2014, or 2015. When they launched for the first time, they said, “Apps like Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and Bumble are not allowed inside the lecture hall.” Bumble was brand new; Tinder was old, Facebook was older. Twitter, everybody was using it then. (But they placed themselves among those names) and people thought, “Well, I’ve not heard about that at all amongst these four, let me try and do this.” That is framing. That’s literally what HUL did. They didn’t compare with the prior years, they looked at a different tier that made the contextual sense to boost this year’s numbers in a better way. It’s just a perception game. The most basic way is to do it for the last three years and then compare that with the present. But that doesn’t make sense here, because you have to trying to create a perception that we have not gone wrong at all. We have done well, actually. That framing correctly.

Ravi (1:30:48)

I love that. And when I also talk about framing, I say it’s like in photography. You’re widening your lens, instead of just capturing immediately, which is called framing. 

Karthik (1:30:59)

There is more to see the centre better. 

Ravi (1:31:03)

(It depends on) what angle you’re taking. The Bumble and the Tommy Hilfiger examples are great because you’re positioning yourself in the right company. I call that ‘competition driven framing’. Just like how Netflix says, “our competition is not Apple, or Hotstar. It’s sleep.” You’re framing it at a very, very high level.

Of course, HUL is one example of the other framing. The angle or the parameter for framing – for me – is time. You can go back in time. This is a lovely example of an article that I came across by this guy called Jim Grant. He studies interest rates in the US. Recently in 2021-22, is when interest rates started going up. Everybody would say, “okay, it’s an anomaly, it will go up, and come down.” That’s because you’re only looking at it saying it’s been low for the longest time, it’s an anomaly. And it’ll come down. But this guy really widened his lens, and he framed it not in the form of 10 to 60 years, but almost 150 years. He had data from 1850, 1870, 1880. And the interesting trend that he picked up was that interest rates remains high, and remain high for a long time, then it comes down and remains low for a long time. Basically, it is the cycle. And we have been at the tail end of one of the longest cycles of low interest rates, (that had started in the) mid 80s, or early 80s, till now. And so, when somebody who’s been entering the finance world in the 80s, or 90s – they’ve only known low interest rates. They cannot even imagine a world where interest rates could be high. Of course, you can never predict the future, but it’s an interesting perspective. Ads also do that in some way.

You do talk about framing devices. I’d love to know a little bit more about whether any of these are what you would call the framing devices. Or what do you call framing devices?

Karthik (1:33:00)

They are all their own framing devices. They’re nothing but the basic example again, about how you look at a crocodile from whether you’re standing on the bridge, or standing alongside the crocodile, or are you seeing hundreds of crocodiles together? That is framing. Framing is from photography. It’s the frame that you build to see a core from or with. It’s best that you, as a Brand Manager or an ad agency person, look at it from multiple frames and then pick the best to frame to showcase it to an audience. That frame – if it interested you, if it made you really interested and curious and it was interactive for you, it might also work for the audience. But you need to understand the audience’s mindspace also. If they are not as intelligent, as evolved, or as knowledgeable as you, they might completely miss it. Then it might not work at all. So, you need to understand that level also. Audience research is important. But framing is more important. First get the framing right, and then look at the audience point of view.

Ravi (1:34:36)

I love this. The example that we shared earlier of Brooke Bond: chai as a social network is also for me, in a way, not looking at it from the typical angle.

Another tool that you have mentioned in your new work is the importance of tone. And this was a little unclear to me in terms of what exactly, in your mind, does tone mean? What are the different types of tone and how do you choose the right tone?

Karthik (1:34:38)

Tone is very simple. Tone is to evoke a human sentiment in the audience. For instant, just consider which categories of ads or industry uses fear as a tone?

Ravi (1:34:54)


Karthik (1:34:55)

Even insurance doesn’t do that very often. Because they think fear is a negative sentiment to evoke. I don’t want to use that tone.

Ravi (1:35:00)


Karthik (1:35:01)

Correct. Byju’s says that if your child doesn’t use it, then it will become a failure in life. That kind of stuff; which is a very alarmist kind of tone. And they are paying the price for what they actually sowed back then, they are reaping it right now. But the tone is important. For instance, if it’s humour, you are actually engaging the audience in a positive frame of reference for the brand itself. For instance, Spotify. It hardly talks about their product features or USP in the ads that you see. And the features are very, very generic. You go to Spotify or Jio Saavn or Apple Music, it’s exactly the same features. Same songs, also. At least earlier, there was a category thing. These songs are available only on Apple Music, or these songs are Spotify exclusive. Now there is no exclusive, everybody has everything else. And the fee is slightly different. Spotify is slightly expensive; Apple Music is cheaper, etc. But those are basic, incidental details. Otherwise, product wise, features wise, no difference at all; everything’s the same. The only differentiation you can bring is what emotion you can evoke in an audience.

Spotify uses and mines humour in an intelligent manner. And you’re able to relate to it because these are very natural, day-to-day, relatable scenarios. Somebody’s talking to you, you’re wearing headphones, all you can see them saying is what is playing in your head. You cannot listen to them at all. To mine humour from this, somebody from the agency side would have gone through this as an experience once in their life. They just extrapolated it in 10 different ways in 10 different scenarios – human scenarios – where people can relate to it in a way. Spotify doesn’t talk about the value Spotify is bringing; nothing at all. But all you’re left with is a positive frame of reference to think about Spotify. The next time you are in the market for a streaming service change, or a renewal, Spotify will come to the top of your mind. As simple as that.

 Ravi (1:37:01)

In this case, what you feel is the tone that’s used is humour. Other examples…if you look at  ethnic wear or jewellery kind, the it’s very complex emotion of making you feel good about togetherness, or progressive values –

Karthik (1:37:20)

Or they make you cry, which is very popular in Thai advertising. They just sap your heart. And then you really feel very, very heavy in your heart.

Ravi (1:37:28)

That “awe-shucks” kind of thing. 

Karthik (1:37:32)

Exactly, all that kind of stuff. But all that should be done in service of a call to action. If it’s done for the heck of it, the call to action goes for a toss; the product remembrance goes for a toss; everything else goes for a toss. It has to be done at the service of something. If it’s not, then you’d be talking only about the story. You’re not talking about the product. It’s like you’re saying that the product doesn’t exist on its own. 

Ravi (1:37:54)

CRED mined humour, but then the product did not really come out. That, in your case, is tone. Does it have any implication outside in the normal non-fiction world? When you’re making presentations at work? 

Karthik (1:38:11)

Yes, absolutely. Just look at this the way you introduce something even when making a work presentation. You don’t immediately start with slide number five, where you show a chart. Because people will sleep; people will tune off immediately. You need to warm them into the point that you’re trying to make. You need to make analogies, saying “I’m going to show a chart that looks like the mountain outside this window. See, that’s a mountain see this chart is exactly the same. You know why it happened? Because of this kind of stuff.” That is a slightly more engaging way to get your audience to understand the point you’re making than going straight to chart five. And saying, “Look at this chart. We have done very badly this year”. They’ll say, “I know, but make me care, man!”

To make them care, I need to couch it in the form of a story. And to bring story, I need to have relatable points as a human and I need to understand my audience. What do they relate to as a human being? Then I’ll need to incorporate that in my story. Without that, it just won’t work at all. I mean, it will work at a transactional level but you’re not making an emotional connection at all. They won’t remember your presentation; they won’t care for what you make the presentation. They will just work like robots. They will do the work probably, because they are employees, but it won’t work at an emotional level. You need to persuade people to make them work.

Ravi (1:39:36)

And this part is tough, Karthik. When I’ve worked with people, the part of converting something which is complex to clear is in itself a challenge, but some people can still get it.

Karthik (1:39:50)

There is a technique for this. I always use this, regardless of what topic I’m talking about. There is a concept called ELI5. It actually came from Reddit first. It’s called Explain to me Like I’m Five. If you want to explain something really complex, like rocket science, you want to explain how rocket flies to a five year old child, you tone down the complexity, remove all the extra fittings, jargon etc. and explain to the five year old child. I explain to myself everything as a five-year-old self first, and then I build complexity depending on the audience I’m communicating to. I’m obviously not talking to five-year-old children, of course. I’m speaking to 35-50-year-old people. For them, if I start from 50 it might still be complex to them. But if I start from the bottom, start from five and then build gradually, it becomes universally understandable. The reason why these ads that I speak about on LinkedIn appeals to a lot of people who are not in the world of marketing, communications, advertising, in spite of the fact that they could be HR people, they could be finance people, they could be legal people…they also appreciate it because I start from ELI5 level. I explained the ad threadbare. And I also got lots of brickbats for this, actually. People say, “Why do you explain the ad? I can see that myself and understand.”

But they are not the audience at all. The audience is people who might miss some of the smaller nuances. Many people have spoken down to me saying, “You’re wasting your time trying to explain what is already there. Why do you explain this? Why bother? Just put the ad. We will understand it ourselves”. That will be probably only 5% of the world. Rest of the 95% of the people are too busy to care to see the nuances. There are more people who are commenting saying I didn’t notice it from this point of view at all, thank you for posting it. That is audience that I am talking to. Not the five percent who are already involved and very knowledgeable.

Even people who are knowledgeable, they could probably see 10 things but miss the 11th thing. If I add the 11th thing, they will gain something from it, because I gain something myself.

Ravi (1:41:45)

Very much so. One thing to add here is you should write for your audience. If your audience knows the jargon, then it’s fine; then it doesn’t matter. But often, you will be presenting to audiences from different teams, senior audiences, clients. 

Karthik (1:42:12)

A classic example is LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, you can’t pre-decide your audience. You can’t say that a college student will not be reading your post. He or she could be reading your post. But would they gain something from it? Or would they tune out saying “this is not for me”? Then you have lost your audience. That college student can join a client after five years. They could probably contact you, or point your finger towards someone saying “that person is looking for a consultant, please contact him” or they will point that person to you. They need to do that, it works.

The best example from my own working life is – I did a personal branding workshop with about 10 or 15 people. A CEO took me aside after the workshop and said “Karthik, do you know how I reached you?” I said, “You would have read my post on LinkedIn, or your HR would have connected with me or somebody knows me…” He said, “My 16-year-old daughter follows you on Instagram for your gardening related posts and tweets, not for personal branding. But incidentally, because you also speak about personal branding, she said to her mom over the dinner table that there’s this guy who speaks about gardening, I follow him. But he also speaks about something called Personal Branding. I don’t know what it is, but it is very interesting.” One thing led to another, and it just landed me there.

Who could have guessed the 16-year-old daughter of a CEO would connect me to that CEO? You can’t guess it at all. But it works. 

Ravi (1:43:31)

This audience piece is very important. I’d like to take one very cool ad example that you had highlighted. One of the tenets of storytelling that I talk about is start from where the audience is, not from where you are, which is also what we are saying here…that you’ll have different audiences and there’ll be a different (approach?). So, ELI5 is a great starting point because most audiences will get that.

The other principle here is that, if the audience already has a preconceived notion about a topic, don’t ignore that. I’d love for you to talk about this Jaguar light fittings, not the bath ones. How they started with the campaign which did not work out. And then they went back, and they said, no our audience is currently here. We need to start from there.

Karthik (1:44:16)

For about five years, they only said “Jaguar lightings are now available. They are good, they are nice. You can buy them, buy them, buy them”. But the Jaguar brand was so intrinsically associated with bathrooms, nothing else at all. So regardless of how much they were communicating, it didn’t matter at all. Finally, in 2022, they took the bull by its horns. Let’s first acknowledge whatever the current perception is. We are a bathroom fittings maker. It’s okay, it’s fine. Let’s not shun that identity. Let’s do that. But let’s play with it. Let’s start there, and then turn the table completely and pull the rug from under the people. People now understand, “haan yeh toh bathroom fittings hai(yeah these are the bathroom fittings people), and oh, they also make lighting? Now that makes sense.”

It took a long time for them. But once they did, it worked wonderfully from a communication point. You need to acknowledge what your current perception is – don’t run away from it. But for that, you need to do market research as to what the perception is, what do people understand about your brand? If you do that, you will find your insight for the next time. Instead of just directly saying “We have lighting now”, you will have a better framing to put where the lighting came from. There is a history, and it came from that.

Ravi (1:45:26)

We can go on about all of these techniques, but I want to wrap up the advertising skills piece with one recent, very thought-provoking article that you’ve written, Karthik. (It’s) about the impact of AI and how advertising has already started using AI, but it is still taking baby steps right now, and how it’s going to be an interesting, exciting, wild ride into the future. Maybe you can just give a quick gist of what might be a few takeaways for people who are looking at the impact of AI in advertising.

Karthik (1:46:03)

Got it. I see AI as 100 times more powerful than Photoshop. Photoshop looks like the bare minimum; like nuts and bolts. It’s child’s play and AI is right in the sky. It’s enormously powerful, but we still haven’t grasped how to use it in an interesting manner in advertising. For instance, Cadbury launched a new campaign called My Birthday Song. The basic idea behind it is very smart. It says that the world over, if there is a birthday, everybody sings one tune. There is one single tune for the Happy Birthday song. (Karthik sings the first 2 lines of happy birthday). That’s the melody of the happy birthday song. Is there a way that we can customize every single person’s birthday song with its own lyrics, own tune, and different kinds of stuff? So, they made an AI based tool online, Cadbury’s mybirthdaysong dot com, where you input a couple of details about this person, their gender, what they like and what they don’t like, and a couple of other details and you select the musical style, melody layer, male singer or female singer, the genre, everything. And then you will get the customized lyrics using their name first, and then you will get the customer’s song. Now, in theory, it’s a fantastic idea. But in execution, it falters so badly because the kind of song that appears finally looks like a mishmash that nobody would want to sing at all. The beauty of the happy birthday song is that anybody can sing it in their sleep. They just incorporate the person’s name at the right time, and that’s done. It’s universally known and familiar. That was the beauty of it. If it’s an alien sounding song which you’re hearing for the first time, why would anybody want to sing at all? Nobody would want to sing that at all. The execution level falters.

If the song was extremely melodious, it would be nice. But the end result you get from the AI generated piece is just one rap. At least with the lyrics, they’ve done something slightly interesting. But the way the melody sounds…it falls quite flat.

And that’s the example I gave for the Oreo example also. Starring Farhan Akhtar, they have a new campaign. The campaign says if you are stuck in some situation in life, ask Farhan’s help and you will get a voice note of how to deal with that situation. First, why is Farhan Akhtar giving me life advice? He’s not a life advice person at all. He’s a great director, and a very good actor. I quite appreciate this  guy in life. But he is not the advice-giving type! If they had done it with, say, somebody like Arshad Warsi in the voice of Circuit, I would love to get it. I mean, his own Mumbaiyya dialogue! He actually gives me advice on life? I would love to share it with 10 people. “I had this tough situation, so I asked Arshad Warsi AI and he gave me fantastic advice. See, here is the audio.” I’ll share it with glee.

Farhan Akhtar, I have no idea at all about that. The execution is even worse. It is just two lines of rhyme with no wit at all. And it comes as an audio file! What am I going to do with an audio file? Send it to 10 people?  No, it’s addressing me. It’s not even addressing the person that I need to speak to. I don’t think they’ve thought that idea through.

The first Cadbury example I wrote about is even worse, actually. The idea is great, but it’s not thinking the right way. For instance, print ads have a dealer panel at the end. There is a product, deal, USP and towards end if you’re in Kannur, get this phone number; if you are in Kottayam, then call this phone number; if you’re in Thrissur, call this phone number. It’s all Kerala-related. In Karnataka, it’ll be all Karnataka phone numbers, (and so on) for each state. They have done the same thing in video. So, there is an ad for Cadbury starring Shahrukh Khan. He is saying ” Diwali pack for Cadbury; buy this and that, etc. And then towards the end it says buy from Roopa Fruits and Stores, Chinchpokli, or whatever is the store. But if you’ve already seen the ad once, why would you wait till the end where Shahrukh’s mouth is changing based on AI and saying, “Buy from (inaudible)Roopa Sweets and Stores”

And how does it matter? There is no compulsory call to action to go to Roopa at all. If I can buy it from a nearby store, I’d rather buy it there.  I will remember only the product. I won’t heed the call to action on where to buy it at all. But that’s the way they used AI. It’s unfortunate that they are not thinking through the appropriate use of AI, which is why I went back to the Old Spice campaign.

The Old Spice ad was brilliant because it used human intelligence – not artificial – to create 185 response videos. People ask questions to the Old Spice guy, they created smart-aleck responses, which people shared left, right and centre. Can AI do that? It probably can. It can really do that. It can create the thing. But it is not 100% sure that the ones that go live will be the best ones.

The 185 (responses) that went live on Old Spice were curated and handpicked by a set of people with human intelligence. They probably wrote 300 versions, but they didn’t take all 300. They took only 185. That’s where things differ. Right now, AI is good for doing the grunt work. They can do the grunt work. But you still need a human to pick the best from the grunt work and put it out in front of people. But AI is doing the opposite. I recently read that it has recently doubled the number of songs on Spotify already. All the songs on Spotify have been recreated by AI in different voices, different songs, and it’s only increased the number of songs on the internet. It’s just throwing random shit on the internet! We are already overexposed to content. Now with AI, it will double. You won’t know what not to watch, what to watch, or to consume. It has become even more difficult.

I hope AI will become helpful, saying “Watch only this. It will be useful to you.” But you can’t trust AI to do that either, unfortunately.

Ravi (1:52:10)

Dystopian times, it looks like. I think that a lot of initial experiments will be gimmicky. The dystopian power of AI is scary to think about, where it can go.

Karthik (1:52:29)

It will be gimmicky, but I’m sure it can improve. It’s both promising and scary. It depends on how we use it, unfortunately. 

Ravi (1:52:34)

Karthik, what have been some of the books and movies or any form of entertainment or content that have completely changed your life?

Karthik (1:52:46)

The one thing that I always say is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I’ve read every single thing by Douglas Adams, including his non-fiction books. There is a book called ‘Last Chance to See’. It’s amazing. It’s far more interesting than the funnier books he’s written. It’s so engaging. You just go right into his perspective in life. The thing that attracted me with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is how he thinks. The thinking is so unique and the way he articulates is extremely (funny).

There is a Tamil writer named Sujatha Rangarajan. He is a famous Tamil writer. He has written fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, everything. I see him as a Tamil version of Douglas Adams! The way he articulates in Tamil is the way Douglas Adams articulates in English. Sujatha is a genius, basically. He’s written a lot of non-fiction also on science, because he used to be a scientist. He was one of the people involved in earlier days of electronic voting machines. I think he was working at BHEL, in Trichy or somewhere. He was involved in the background of that. He’s an engineer; a hardcore scientist. So, he’s that like that.

It’s about perspectives. It’s not about the content of what Hitchhiker’s Guide is. Of course, it’s phenomenal, interesting content from an entertainment point of view. But it’s how it is articulated (that appeals to me). The way he communicates thoughts that are actually good.

Apart from that the other book I highly recommend is Scott Adams’ “How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big”. That book which you spoke about. It’s a fascinating book! I don’t currently subscribe to his politics, but that book is almost like a life story as to how you can hack your life in a more interesting and productive manner. That book is fantastic. I highly recommend the book to all. 

Ravi (1:54:33)

Any movies that that come to mind?

Karthik (1:54:36)

Nothing specific at all. I watch a lot of movies. I go after science-fiction movies a lot, and I enjoy the crowd-pleasing entertainment kind of stuff. Nothing specific that stands out that I’d say you need to absolutely watch. Books, I would say (there are some). But not movies or TV shows, actually. There’s too many to note. 

Ravi (1:54:56)

Where can people find you, Karthik?

Karthik (1:55:00)

LinkedIn, of course, I’m there. Search on Google, ‘Karthik Srinivasan’. I will at least be there on the front page, as the joke goes that the best place to hide something is in page two of Google, that nobody goes to at all. If you are on page one, you are generally safe. Or, you can just do a Google search. Google works quite well that way, actually.

Ravi (1:55:23)

And on twitter you are @beastoftraal?

Karthik (1:55:26)

Right. Beast of Traal. My blog is also I blog occasionally. 

Ravi (1:55:30)

Are you also on Instagram? 

Karthik (1:55:33)

I’m on Instagram. I joined much later…I joined after the whole world had joined, because I’m not a visual-first person. I’m a text first person. I think words first, not visuals first. It was very difficult for me to adapt to Instagram, forcing my way saying, “First you need to share an image or a video. Only then you can add text. Even if you don’t add text, its fine.” It’s very constraining.

I didn’t want to join the platform at all. But I find a lot of value in it now. I contort my thoughts to ensure that the text is really long. The visual is just for the heck of it. They force me to put a visual. Okay, I’ll put a visual, fine. But at least I make it as relevant as possible to the text. The text is more important to me, not the visual at all. Ironically.

 Ravi (1:56:13)

I hope you continue to keep entertaining us, educating us, and giving us more and more insights, Karthik. It’s been great following you. For the longest time, I have been reading your work and thinking “how many Karthik Srinivasans are out there putting out this kind of work?”

It was great talking to you and getting all these insights. Thank you so much for coming on the Story Rules podcast.

And that was Karthik Srinivasan, one of India’s foremost experts on advertising communication and personal branding.

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation:

  • The need to look at personal branding as career insurance
  • The role of surprise, analogies, framing to make a point with impact
  • The need to be clear about your audience and objective in communication and not use tools – including AI – for the sake of it.

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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