Shreyas Kulkarni

Meet Aparna Mahesh, Great Learning's new chief marketing officer

She talks about how she joined the edtech company, her working style, and the risk of overexposure to the point of annoyance.

The year of the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns has been one of great unexpected change and for working professionals, nothing screams ‘change’ louder than a job change amid such stressful times.

“It happened at a time when I was least expecting it; right in the middle of COVID…” revealed Aparna Mahesh when we (afaqs!) asked her how she joined Great Learning, an edtech company as its chief marketing officer.

She joined the edtech company in September after a 31-month stint at BankBazaar, a fintech brand. A glance at her career and you will see over nearly 15 years of experience in digital and brand building – she grew her career with the steady rise of digital in our lives.

She mentioned the huge trajectory change the edtech sector has experienced with COVID and how it’s got an amazing transformational power. And when you join an edtech company at a senior level, “it’s very important to understand the vision, the short-term as well as the long-term prospects,” remarked Mahesh and these points made it easy for her to take the decision.

Also Read: Edutech firms are barely scratching the surface, says Great Learning's Hari Krishnan Nair

She, like everyone else, did good research about the seven-year-old company (conceived by Mohan Lakhamraju and Hari Krishnan Nair in 2013) and had a series of conversations with them which were “no-pressure kind of discussions and it moved fairly fast, it was just recognition of what I brought to the table and where the brand needed to go from here.”

About the topics under discussion, they “were primarily around me making it very clear that there are certain things marketing can do and certain things marketing can’t. And it was sort of about them trying to see where my head was and how important education was for me,” said Mahesh.

Tweaks to the working style

A new job means new colleagues, new processes and most importantly, a new work style. Said Mahesh, “I don’t think I had to change my working style,” and added that she favours a hands-on approach so lots of calls, video calls, and messages… “That’s always been my style and I feel comfortable in my space and that has not changed.”

While work from home has become the norm, the chief marketer preferred face to face interactions as “it is so much easier to build rapport with one’s team or across teams for that matter and it’s more efficient,” and added, “The one advantage of joining a company where everybody is in the office is that you get to meet a lot of people outside your limited function and that’s how the bridges get built.”

As per Mahesh, these interactions gave you more social capital and that stands you in great stead as you move ahead in the same company.

Today, when you're working from home, you will have to work a bit harder, put in the extra time, ensure more video calls are happening, and do your bit to reach out… It’s easy to get into a comfort zone while trying to accomplish various things remotely that do not need to happen.

The challenges she’s sketched

Great Learning had launched a new ad campaign with Virat Kohli on 18 September 2020… “It was in the pipeline before I joined, I sort of have been part of the ideation process and the production process,” revealed Mahesh and further told us that the brand’s main focus right now is to build awareness… “Just ensuring enough number of people get to know about Great Learning, build curiosity and make them come and check what we have to offer…”

She said that in the seven weeks since she’s joined Great Learning, most of her time was spent in understanding where the business is at and ensuring the brand campaign sees a smooth launch.

“We announced our partnership with Virat on the 14th of September, and after that, we’ve been on the associate sponsors of IPL on Disney+ Hotstar and so till the mid of November, we’re ensuring to get the maximum of what we’d planned for when we made the investments”

The audience you want to reach

Each company has a niche target audience (TG) and it turns out Great Learning’s TG is early to mid-career professionals. Its CMO told us that it has different courses that would appeal to professionals at different stages of their career progression… also have senior professionals who find some of our courses to be of great value.

The risk of overexposure

Thanks to the explosion of brands and communication mediums, there’s always a chance of overexposure that can annoy people than pique their curiosity. Said Mahesh, “I am not sure that’s a concern for us, we’ve been fairly conservative in our marketing spends and there’s a plan we are sticking to…”

For instance, we are only on Disney+ Hotstar for IPL, it’s about ramping up slowly so that at all points, the quality metrics we’re so razor-sharp focused on continue to stay at the same level and get better. Our media plan is very focused and targeted at where we think our audiences are and we’re making sure to tell our story well and build affinity with our audiences.

Future tie-ups with content creators and OTT platforms

Speaking about the brand’s plan for such tie-ups, she said it all goes down to what her audience is watching and if her TG today is young to mid-career professionals, "whatever best way we have to reach out to these people and help credibly build our brand, we’re open to exploring them."

On marketing course content versus placement

Most people who’re looking for an online course either choose one based on its contents or the placement records, we asked what Great Learning is aiming to do. There isn’t one story that fits all replied Mahesh and said the brand right now isn’t selling any course but aims to provide the consumer with the knowledge to pick the correct course choice from its line-up and offer stellar support to all learners.

Mahesh, at this point, remarked that one of the reasons (if not the main) why Great Learning chose Virat Kohli as its brand ambassador was because of his relentless pursuit of excellence and the amount of disciplined effort he embodies.

She said, “With COVID, edtech is buzzing, it also comes with the realisation that learning as such has become important in our collective consciousness. It’s about learning new skills or going into deeper knowledge areas you have…”

Agency partner conundrums

On her conversations with the agency partners, she made it clear that the brief to agencies was “Jo seektha hai woh aage badta hai”… magic happens when you follow one thought to its absolute depth than trying to put five different things into a message.

What are the angles of it? How do we bring this more clearly? How are we highlighting our success stories? How are we breaking down messages for different career professionals as each has different concerns were some of the questions she asks her agencies.

She said, "It’s about the unified message but how do we get to its granular so that it is reaching out to individuals in a manner where they say it makes sense to me."