Shreyas Kulkarni

Seeking Kunj Shah: the chief of Amazon India’s creative empire

She speaks about her experience of working across ad agencies for 18 years and then joining the tech behemoth amid a lockdown.

The world always champions a great duo.

Tom and Jerry always have an audience, Batman and Robin still make for great flicks, and Sherlock and Watson are yet to see a better detective pairing on pages and screens.

Adland, which afaqs! covers for a living, has often paired a copywriter with an art person to dole out work as clients demand. It takes two to tango sounds quite the fact than an adage.

These duos usually bring their unique strength to the table. One is often the creative enforcer while the other makes sense of business realities and chooses the right path for the enforcer or for the both of them to lay down a trail of bodies, of creative work. Remember Jobs and Wozniak and the fruit they built?

Kunj Shah may never fit this bill. She is the executive creative director of India creative at Amazon. However, she says “her designation is also of a marketing manager in the capacity of an executive creative director.”

She helms the creative mandate at the tech behemoth but her first responsibility is aligning herself and her team to the business vision and the goals of the company. “It's not only about raising the bar on creativity.”

Shah spent 18 years working across agencies like DDB Mudra, Ogilvy, Grey, and McCann before joining Amazon in the September of 2020.

The creative soul now had to learn the ropes of business thinking at Amazon. The left and right sides of the brain had to assimilate, there was no duo, it was just Shah.

She spent her first year at Amazon doing things over and above the core creative function… planning and calendar cycles, growth, goal tracks, data decoding, and financial... “I was like, sitting in meetings, feeling like a first standard kid giving a 10th standard exam,” says Shah.

The nine stages of Amazon

Shah had never thought of joining a tech firm. She, in 2019, was in Seattle and had visited the Amazon sphere at the Globe Building with a friend who worked for the tech giant.

She found the installations inspiring and asked her friend, “Hey, why don't you find me a job at Amazon?” When posed such a question, a common response is to first visit LinkedIn. That is exactly what the two did and Amazon had a job posting which suited Shah. Talk about serendipity.

Shah, however, did not apply right away because her friend advised her to work on her resume. She did and she spoke to a variety of people and built her resume. “I took some time because I didn't have much of an exposure to the corporate way,” she admits.

India’s advertising world is tiny where everyone knows each other. A couple of conversations, a writing test, and you are set. The interview process at Amazon flipped Shah on her head.

She, with her 18 years of agency experience, sat through nine interview rounds in which the final round was, of all things, a writing round. “I was unsettled,” reveals Shah on the last round but explains it was such because the company has a big writing culture. “It's not about creative writing. It's about being able to express your thoughts in a structured manner.”

The reason for so many rounds at Amazon, she tells us, is because the company wants to test you against its leadership principles.

Working for the empire

One can imagine the inner sanctum of an Amazon to comprise of workers immersed in their screens planting seeds of code which sustains this technological garden.

It is that and yet so much more. As Shah puts it, Amazon is “vastly different from the very unstructured style of working that the creative industry thrives on.”

She says she had to learn how to use a calendar and send an invite, something she had never done because she had never planned her day in such detail; ad folk are notorious for living life on the go. In another instance of being alienesque to agency life, Amazon abhors PPTs because “they are considered as inefficient.”

However, there is some similarity to agency life at Amazon. The technological giant like many agencies loves to use acronyms. It possesses an Acronym Central which anybody can glance at a second’s notice on their device to make sense of what someone is saying in a meeting or while reading a document.

It was then not surprising to learn Shah had built her own acronym central because “she found Acronym Central not exhaustive enough.”

What Shah missed at the time of joining was the water cooler conversations (read chai and tapri). My interactions for one and three quarters of a year were just over Chime, a meeting tool. “… the personal touch was missing. I missed that more than anything else I worked on in the first one and a half years at Amazon,” she admits.

Setting the tone

Amazon doles out a combination of tearjerker festival spots as well as regular communication. If the former makes little to no mention of the brand, the latter plugs it with gusto.

When asked about who and how they set this tone, Shah says it all comes down to expressing the warmth of Amazon as a brand in the grammar of their communication.

Explaining the balance of making two different kinds of communications, she goes back to agency life. “I can be Vodafone at one end and I can be Ponds at the other end and I can still be Kunj Shah writing for both, thinking for both. Once you get under the skin of the brand, it flows from there.”

Amazon plans its creative calendar at the start of the year and one of the most important aspects of the company is affinity. It is something Shah and her team take very seriously. “We do work that appeals to the head and work which appeals to the heart. Both are important.”

Shah says “they have owned the Raksha Bandhan space and it is now Amazon’s territory.” How? The work still gets comments on the YouTube page, which she thinks is powerful work, it has a life outside what it was meant for.

Staying updated

Because she no longer works at an agency, she is missing out on different kinds of creative work being made. Does this worry Shah?

Not at all. She and her team work on the Amazon app and website, Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay, Amazon Fashion, and grocery… she constantly keeps an eye out for what the competition is doing as well as consuming creative work on social media. “In today's age, really good work makes its way to WhatsApp or an Instagram feed one way or the other.”

Another way, Shah and her team stay updated are through regular sessions with platforms. In the context of what is new, how to use the platforms, how to get creative with tools the platforms have… “The platforms come to us and that's a great window into the world as well,” says the ECD.

And lastly, it is jury work which keeps her abreast of what’s happening in the creative universe. She was a jury member for digital at the Kyoorius awards and she was amazed at the quality of her work.

Amazon’s agency

Turns out, Shah and her team do not do all the work for the tech giant. “A lean internal team up cannot match up to an external ad agency.”

For onsite (everything done on the Amazon app and website), Shah’s team set the guidelines for all the graphics and communication. Ogilvy and Leo Burnett are Amazon’s agencies on record for mainline work, and the WPP-owned agency handles all the Diwali work.

What is interesting is that Amazon’s “marketing chiefs experiment with either pitching, hybrid, or planned allocation between internal and external at the beginning of the year depending on the project.” This means Shah’s team which is called D1, pitches ideas along with Ogilvy and Leo Burnett when it comes to mainline work, and wins. The most recent victory being the Amazon Alexa.

Amazon, for its digital duties, has partnered with Blink and Social Kinnect. “Here is where we do a bit of hybrid because my team is lean and ramping up on digital, we lean on the experts and where we compliment them is our strong brand thinking,” mentions Shah.

The magic of D1

D1 is the name of the team Shah leads. It stands for Day One and it is an ode to the day one startup culture of Amazon. The team is a motley bunch of UX designers, writers, and art directors.

“When I joined, I brought in mainline people and now I am building a digital-first team and looking for folks to drive digital intelligence,” reveals Shah.

Is it hard to find supremely talented people? In this case, a big yes because even if Shah manages to find someone, he or she has to be a cultural fit for Amazon.

“There have been times when I have come across extremely talented person but I feel they are not the most acceptable fit for the team so I may as well use them as a freelancer for a project or two,” she reveals.

Shah completed two years at Amazon right about now. She was a freelance consultant before she, fatefully, asked her friend to get her a job. All one needs to do is ask and doors will open. Maybe, this could become the next campaign idea for Amazon Alexa.

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