Anirban Roy Choudhury

“Cutting noise out of data is the biggest challenge today”: Gaurav Jeet Singh, Unilever

The breadwinner of an Indian family that washes clothes with Wheel and uses Lifebuoy to shower, travels to and from work by the local metro. Five years ago, the commuter killed time on the long and boring journey by reading newspapers; today he is glued to the mobile screen. Does he notice the billboards enroute? Or listen to the radio any longer?

That is just a small example of the enormous change in media terms that has swept India in cities, small towns and villages. And what does that mean to Hindustan Unilever (HUL) (turnover: nearly Rs 40,000 crore), which needs to communicate with virtually all Indians for its long list of brands, including Brooke Bond, Fair & Lovely, Kissan, Kwality Wall’s, Lipton and Pond’s, among others?

This challenge of media planning lies squarely in the court of Gaurav Jeet Singh. He has spent more than a decade in the company. After joining as the regional sales and customer manager in 2008, he became a branch sales manager before taking over as marketing manager for Pureit, the water purifier. In 2014, he was moved to the media function and is now the general manager - media for Unilever’s entire South Asia market.

Before joining Unilever, Singh had his own logistics business, which he had started after a brief stint at L’Oréal in 1998.

At the recently concluded Mobile Marketing Association’s convention, Impact - 2019, Singh spoke on ‘Leveraging data for precision marketing’. On the sidelines of that event, Singh gave an exclusive interview to afaqs! Reporter. Edited excerpts:

There is so much discussion around data. What do you think about that?

Marketing has always been data-based. We have used sales data, marketing data, data from studies, we have used data in terms of brand pyramids. Again, TV has demanded hardcore data-based planning.

What is drawing a lot of attention these days is the scale at which data is being generated. That’s because the consumer is spending a lot more time on interfaces where you have the ability to generate return-path data. That is where digital 2.0 has become so powerful. It has allowed data signals to pass back and that, for me, is a very big change - the sheer scale of data and how we leverage it. That scale opens up an opportunity to market to consumers in a more relevant fashion.

We need To find a golden mean on all mediums to be able to use data irrespective of which platform it gets generated on
Gaurav Jeet Singh

TV, Print and Digital: which of these poses the greatest challenge in data terms?

The challenge is quite paradoxical. In TV and print, there is a certain lack of consumer-level data, but there is enough of it for you to use it powerfully in an actionable fashion. In the case of digital, the irony is that there is so much data that you get data-lost and you don’t know how to use it emphatically for business results!

Hence, the core opportunity sits in balancing this paradox of a lot of data in digital but very little actionability as against very little data but a clear course of action in other media. The reach numbers are clear as are the readership numbers. There aren’t too many variables thrown at you.

We need to find a golden mean on all mediums to be able to use data irrespective of which platform it gets generated on.

With digital spewing so much data, do you wish you could get more out of TV?

The issue is not more. In a country of our size, the opportunity lies in figuring out if we can get larger representative samples for all mediums and not just TV. We have more data today than we have ever had in the history of marketing and this allows us to take more informed calls and decisions. Like it is always said, data is a glass half-full or half-empty, I look at it as a glass half-full as there is enough data for you to leverage and do meaningful marketing. The lack of data is certainly not stopping us from doing so.

“Cutting noise out of data is the biggest challenge today”: Gaurav Jeet Singh, Unilever

How do you view the client-agency relationship and what binds the two together?

I firmly believe that you get the agency you deserve and the agency gets the client it deserves. Every client defines its agency relationship in its own fashion. The way I see the relationship in terms of media agencies is that it is essentially a partnership that you need to leverage fully. That is also true for the agency. It needs to leverage the opportunity that the client provides.

There is debate on whether an advertiser should try to route communication through one agency or whether it should be through a slew of specialised agencies.

Specialist agencies and boutique houses are the bane of marketing and media! I say this because marketers are increasingly looking for an integrated view of consumers and media investments, an integrated view of how consumers are interacting.

For me, the real value is when someone can give me a medium-agnostic route to grow brands. The bottom line does not care about how that growth came; what it cares about is that for the investment we made, what returns did we get. From a media perspective, growth is when you get an effective reach around your campaigns with the most relevant audiences. That’s a science and it is agnostic to all mediums.

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Is in-housing a good solution?

To my mind, it is a lot more complex than what we make it out to be. In-housing or out-housing is the lesser question. The bigger fact is that there is no agency or organisation which has the wherewithal or the deep expertise (to do it all).

That is why the future is all about partnerships. These could be cross-functional within the organisation, these could be partnerships with competitors in some cases or perhaps with startups. Hence, I don’t see the old world of owning the entire interface as being the answer. It will be about how you create platforms where you can leverage the skill sets and value that any new partner could bring into the mix and then take it to scale.

What about the rural parts? Has the way in which you reach out to consumers there changed?

We are looking at that audience very differently. We have access to that audience through media, which was not the case before. In the last 10 years, there has been an evolution in how consumers are using media in rural areas. Because of the deep penetration of mobile data, mobile devices are selling there and opening up media platforms. We see the role of voice in that consumer set. It is a completely different audience that engages with digital in a very different fashion to what we thought. It is a new opportunity that has now opened up, and one which was not available before.

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Have you managed to gather enough data from rural areas to understand consumer behaviour in those markets?

Every time digital goes into an interface you get more data. There is no dearth of data. The dearth is in data intelligence. What the data is saying is more critical to understand rather than just having more data. This is the case not only for rural but right across all markets.

And programmatic advertising? Do you have enough tools in place to ensure it’s safe and addressable?

Is programmatic a greater opportunity to really serve audiences? The answer is yes. But it is again the responsibility of the media buyer to get the right kind of media partner on to that programmatic platform. For example, in our case, we are very clear that we first look at the viewability and verifiability of audiences before deciding if we must engage with a platform or not. We have third party trackers that we insist on while bringing somebody on board. We are not going down the vector of nonviewable, non-verifiable platforms just because the price is attractive. We must have three elements above all else. One, are the impressions viewable by everyone? Two, can we verify that they are catering to the set target audience? And three, is the environment brand-safe?

In this time where almost everything is data-driven, what are the challenges according to you?

The bigger challenge is to be able to differentiate between what data is valuable and useful compared to what data is noise. With so much data around, there is a possibility that you might get lost in the noise and miss a powerful insight. How do you cut out the noise and keep the valuable insights and use it to grow your business is the single largest challenge today.

Editor's Note:

"There is an English expression, ‘Too much of a good thing.’ If you want a great place in which to use that turn of phrase, consider data.

Marketers, publishers and pretty much everybody else is inundated with data. Because technology allows us to capture it, data must be stored. And because it is stored it must be analysed, often to death. And that’s where the fun begins.

You will find this fortnight’s cover story interview with Gaurav Jeet Singh, Unilever’s boss man for media for all of South Asia, insightful. He talks candidly of the paradox of having far too much data in digital vs just enough of it in traditional media like TV and print. How to cut the noise out of the data is his big concern.

And mind you, this is HUL, with all the resources as its command and experience that spans the world. Even it struggles with extracting the insights from the mountains of data. How do lesser companies manage? The answer: poorly.

The first issue is finding insight in the noise. The second is that information within a company is normally assembled in silos and integrating it all usefully can be difficult.

It is also surprising how much of the data companies maintain so lovingly is plain wrong. (The commonest is that the contact details of clients or customers are outdated) Three, changes in technology mean that the way in which data is organised has to be updated constantly. And, lastly, companies have quite a job getting data analysts good enough to interpret the information and make business sense.

To end with another old English expression: if you can’t come to grips with data, you could end up missing the woods for the trees!"

Sreekant Khandekar