From handing out CVs to HR consultancies to taking the top marketing job at OPPO India, Khanoria has spent an interesting two decades in the industry.
A fresh commerce graduate in 1997, OPPO India CMO Damyant Singh Khanoria’s first job was as an executive at a rice mill in Hisar, Haryana. A few months into the business of exporting polished basmati and parmal rice, he realised that it wasn’t really his cup of tea.
Without much guidance and a clear idea of what to do next, Khanoria went about distributing his CVs to HR consultancies in Delhi’s Connaught Place. “My father was in the army and I didn’t know many people who had worked in the corporate sector. I started applying left, right and centre.”
A consultant put him through to Capital Advertising, then an indie ad shop run by veteran admen Sunil Sachdeva and Prasad Subramaniam. Capital hired him (in 1997).
Khanoria has now spent over two decades in the brand marketing space. The first six years were spent at ad agencies. He then moved to the brand side by joining the sports marketing team at Adidas in 2004. Post Adidas, Khanoria joined Apple India as marcom lead. Most recently, he took over as the chief marketing officer of OPPO India.
“I had no sense of what advertising even meant."
“I had no sense of what advertising even meant. I joined Capital Advertising as an account executive and Spice Telecom was my first account... That was how I cut my teeth into advertising.”
Khanoria never really got a chance to pursue an MBA, and a marcom job was surely not on the cards. Post college, he had two options: join the National Defence Academy (NDA), or pursue his love for Economics. He chose the latter and enrolled in Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in Delhi. His boarding school in Sikkim had exposed him to a realm beyond the ‘army’.
“I was passionate and took my job really seriously. I remember feeling psyched in client meetings. There was a lot of anxiety about the brief, the challenge that needed to be solved.”
About a year-and-a-half into his advertising career, Khanoria, along with four others (art directors and copywriters) from different agencies, decided to put together an agency setup. They named it After Dark.
"We would work on freelance projects for really small startup clients after our day jobs."
“That was us trying to accelerate our learning, while making some money. We would work on freelance projects for really small startup clients after our day jobs. That was the whole notion of the name After Dark.”
Soon after, Khanoria joined Bates (in 2000), where he handled brands like Hyundai, which had just entered India. “I really learnt on the Hyundai account because of the size and scale of business. It was launching new products and was significantly changing how middle class India behaved. I was working on Santro, Accent (vehicle models) and the corporate account. It was reshaping the auto industry.”
At Bates, Khanoria was also exposed to leading advertising minds like (the late) Shovon Chowdhury, Shujoy Dutta, Hari Krishan and Radharani Mitra. “They kind of helped me fall in love with advertising. The mind grows with people who are brighter than you. Shovon was among the brightest people I’ve met, and there was always an effort to impress him and to extract praise.”
Khanoria’s last advertising job was at DDB Mudra, a role which he says was like an informal MBA for him. “I was working on accounts like McDonald’s (McD). I never had a formal MBA. The Mudra stint really helped me in shaping my marketing approach.”
"The DDB Mudra stint was like an informal MBA."
After spending a year-and-a-half at DDB Mudra, Khanoria moved on to Adidas, his first stint on the brand side. Sriram Darbha (with Adidas now), who was managing McD at Mudra, left the agency (in June 2002) and later joined Adidas. Khanoria took charge of the McD account after Darbha left.
In 2004, Darbha asked Khanoria about joining the sports brand. It was an instant ‘yes’ for Khanoria, a sportsman himself.
“Adidas was looking for someone who could handle sports marketing. In 2004, sports marketing was an underdeveloped sector. I am a football player and it was kind of known in the advertising space. For someone who had grown up in the Northeast, even wearing a pair of Adidas boots was a thing.”
Khanoria spent 12 years at Adidas and the fairly long journey, as he calls it, was in two parts. One was about the marketing campaigns and then it was about working closely with sportstars like (cricketer) Sachin Tendulkar. It was the latter that drove him.
He was Tendulkar’s PoC (point of contact) at Adidas and was part of the team that developed his (Tendulkar’s) footwear. One of Khanoria’s ‘pet projects’ was developing Tendulkar’s (cricket) socks.
“It had to have the right mix of acrylic and cotton, the sweat absorption had to be perfect and he (Tendulkar) was very particular about the colour. I remember agonising month after month. I presented stuff to Sachin and he rejected it. Getting to work with a person like that and the approach of ‘no compromises’, really transforms how you think.”
"Working with a person like Sachin and the approach of ‘no compromises’, really transforms how you think."
Khanoria’s last project was to help design the bat that Tendulkar played with for the last time for India. “It was really about the attention to detail and going into the nitty-gritty of what makes greatness.”
The major portion of Khanoria’s stint with Adidas was on the core sports side of business. It was around the time when sports fashion was emerging as a trend. He says that there are two parts of the narrative around sports.
Khanoria mentions that the early investments in sports didn’t bear expected results because of the lack of participation in active sports, despite the presence of active sportsmen around. “This is in line with what’s happening in the rest of the world. Street style is overpowering pure sports. People are buying sportswear for casual wear.”
He went on to add, “There was a balance between what we did with athletes versus celebrities (non-sport). Athletes were always the first priority. The challenge was wanting to do ‘style’, which, unlike sports, underwent cycles, cool today and uncool tomorrow. You couldn’t attach your brand only to one type of an outlook.”
"I was in my late 30s. That’s when you feel that you still have one big change left.”
The desire to explore brands beyond sports and India’s growing tech appetite got Khanoria to take up the role of marcom lead at Apple India. “There are limitations of how much you can do with sports. I was very happy at Adidas. And I was in my late 30s. That’s when you feel that you still have one big change left.”
In his latest role at OPPO, Khanoria’s prime responsibility is to help the company understand Indians better. “I joined the brand in the middle of the (COVID) pandemic and didn’t have the opportunity to visit the headquarter (HQ) in China. It has pushed back my journey of understanding OPPO a little bit.”
While he is still discovering the brand (OPPO), he says that it is less about ‘selling’. “There is a fair bit of discussion around what we feel Indian consumers will respond to best. It is also about figuring out what kind of OPPO’s global innovations would make sense for the Indian consumers.”
Khanoria mentions that the focus is less on what the consumers are currently asking for, and more on understanding the next path. And then, shaping the product narrative accordingly.
"Future innovations are going to come from us. Our patents will stop competitors from aping."
However, the world of smartphones is fast, with rivals actively trying to outcompete others with the ‘best’ combination of features and price. Khanoria mentions that OPPO’s heavy investment in research and development (R&D) will ensure that the brand stays ahead. “We applied for 1,800 patents last year (2020). This means that the future innovations are going to come from us. It will stop competitors from aping us.”
Speaking on the shifts in COVID era smartphone marketing that will carry on post-COVID, he says that it will be virtual launches. All smartphone brands re-equipped themselves with online product launches due to restrictions on live events. “It will stay on even when things return to normal for its wide reach. We have tasted a lot of success.”
On the big difference between how agencies behaved back then versus now, Khanoria says, “There was a certain level of commitment marketing partners had back in the day. That’s shaken up a bit. The feeling of passionate belonging, of owning and shaping a brand, does not exist very widely today.”