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    Q&A: Shekhar Mhaskar – Executive Vice President Isobar, India

    By Bobby McGill - Oct 9, 2018
    Q&A: Shekhar Mhaskar – Executive Vice President Isobar, India

    Isobar India’s Executive VP Shekhar Mhaskar has worked in the digital industry for more than two decades. Trained as a computer engineer, his career stretches back to the early 90’s developing Interactive CD ROMs – the initial steps on a path that would see him leading teams at agencies such as Ogilvy One, Cheil Worldwide, and Maxus.

    More: Two Ads I Like and One I Don’t – Isobar’s Anish Varghese

    Branding in Asia recently caught up with Mhaskar for an extended conversation on a wide range of topics including Isobar’s recently launched Commerce Practice in India, trends he likes and doesn’t like in the Indian market, the future of retail,  his take on Voice and AI and more.

     
     

    What’s been keeping you busy lately?

    Well, that’s a difficult one to answer with the last quarter looming large on our heads.

    Jokes aside, it has been an exciting time for Isobar thus far, with several account wins, and several awards too. It’s never enough for us. Therefore, raking in more business and new clients is what’s keeping me busy. Personally, I am looking forward to a much-awaited vacation to the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’, a.k.a New Zealand in preparedness of 2019.

    Isobar recently launched Commerce Practice in India. Tell us about that and how it’s going.

    Yes, it’s been roughly 6 months that we have launched the Commerce Practice in India. We are on a strategic path to making it a commerce center of excellence, delivering end-to-end commerce experiences for clients, through integrated platforms and solutions that are informed by local insight, since India is a unique market with diverse cultures of shoppers.

     
     

    While you do have the biggies like Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra, etc. who are well established, the consumers are always on the lookout of fresh ideas, fresh products, fresh experiences.

    The end-to-end offering includes commerce strategy and consulting, customer experience design, data intelligence, and technology implementation, along with platform management to ensure rapid growth for clients in terms of higher commercial value and customer satisfaction.

    Commerce is no longer about optimizing the “last mile” – it’s now the space where people interact and experience brands. We are geared up in that direction to deliver Brand Commerce solutions at scale, bringing brand experience and commerce closer together. While that’s internal, we are simultaneously in conversation with our clients to bring them in the fold and steer their strategic business plans towards being eCommerce ready, and partner with those who are already on the path of implementation.

    All in all, it is going strong. Look forward to some success stories soon.

    What are some trends driving e-commerce in India?

    E-commerce is set to boom in India with a young demographic profile, rising internet penetration, faster data speeds, and relatively better economic performance. Mobile commerce is increasingly attracting customers from Tier 2 and 3 cities, where people have limited access to brands but have high aspirations.

    Also, the fact that now we can reach out to them in vernacular languages is only going to increase their affinity for e-commerce. It is also the shoppers’ demand of one-of-a-kind experiences that cater to their custom needs and interests to get a tailored product selection, shopping experience, promotions, etc. that they will never get in the brick and mortar format.

    Rapid advancements in digital technology have blurred the prominent divide between online and offline retail to create a unique omnichannel platform by integrating physical and digital experiences.

    And, all that with the comfort of sitting at home and purchasing from multiple marketplaces. Also, the fact that chatbots and personal assistance apps have made transactions seamless, right from payment to exchanges, to refunds and customer service. Lastly, one gets to shop brands from across the border without having to spend on travel to distant countries.

    It is not only the customers that will drive this sector in India, but also the increase in digital payment methods; the Government’s Digital India Initiative; favorable FDI policy for foreign investment, etc. are also raising the bar for this sector.

    How are the local, smaller e-commerce players faring in the face of competition from large players? Do you see them carving out a bigger slice of the pie?

    Personally, I feel that there is room for everyone. While you do have the biggies like Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra, etc. who are well established, the consumers are always on the lookout of fresh ideas, fresh products, fresh experiences if I may.

    AI has made it easy to market to the millennials. Their consumption patterns are ever so changing, be it media platforms, devices, content formats, time spent, and all those various parameters which brands need to manage to attract their affinity, and make it stay.

    Niche firms that offer differentiated value propositions to customers that cannot be easily replicated by the big horizontal marketplaces, will continue to be successful. These smaller players who think innovatively, think niche, and are closer to the customers’ needs, will stand out and stay relevant. For example. an UrbanClap, PharmEasy, Nykaa, Peppefry, etc. They will only grow as time passes, until they stay innovative and relevant.

    Retail is suffering in a lot of markets worldwide. What’s happening in India and what advice do you have for retail brands?

    While online retail activity is still less compared to offline, it is expected to be at par with physical stores in the next five years, considering it has grown 23 percent in 2017.

    According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, India is expected to become the world’s third-largest consumer economy with a size of USD 400 billion in consumption by 2025. Growing disposable income, expanding middle-class, and rapid digitization through smartphone and internet penetration have contributed significantly to the development of such a scenario.

    I am unhappy about the laggards in the industry who, despite knowing the impact that digital advertising can create for their brands, continue to chase traditional media in a disproportionate manner.

    Rapid advancements in digital technology have blurred the prominent divide between online and offline retail to create a unique omnichannel platform by integrating physical and digital experiences. The entire retail space and journey have been redefined, while businesses, whether online or offline, are collaborating for mutual benefit. Shopping has not remained a matter of transaction anymore but has progressed to being an experience.

    Empowered by the strong contribution of technology, everything is on sale in India. With AI, machine learning, and other transformative solutions in the offing, now is the time to focus on constant innovation, adoption of technology, and identification of consumer base pressure points to create micro-targeted marketing strategies and expand the consumer base. E-commerce is creating the biggest revolution in the retail industry aided by the cutting-edge tech of the future.

    My advice to them would be – “It is already late, get on the bandwagon, NOW!”

    Where are we at with Voice and AI in 2018 and how do you see these two evolving in the future?

    The application of AI in almost every industry has already shown how it impacts businesses, brands, and people with the infusion of AI-based Chatbots. Especially in those that are purely consumer-facing. For example in the hospitality business which revolves around customer service and satisfaction, it has made a lot of difference. Wise implementation of chatbots helps them grow rapidly by offering personalized service to guests. And at the same time reducing human intervention and corresponding costs. Burger King and Taco Bell are examples of this implementation.

    Large corporates are even using AI to train their employees. HTC has transformed the way it trains salespeople, while driving greater awareness and conversation about its products, using a Chatbot in a B2B space.

    AI has made it easy to market to the millennials. Their consumption patterns are ever so changing, be it media platforms, devices, content formats, time spent, and all those various parameters which brands need to manage to attract their affinity, and make it stay. AI is the smart real-time use of humungous data points – be it personal, from the brand/category, ecommerce habits, historic, etc. to facilitate a personalised ecommerce journey just based on conversations, without any human intervention. It can also be extended to after-sales self-service; to promoting a suitable interest-based offer in real-time; to even launching a new product.

    There’s more to AI than just chatbots, when it comes to marketing, and one can talk endlessly.

    As far as Voice is concerned, I think in our daily lives we have already started talking to our Android and Apple phones to get directions, open applications, take notes, etc. We can command our Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers to search for content or know about our insurance policies. The day will come soon when our phones will no longer have a keypad.

    What are some overall advertising trends in India that you like?

    The change that I see evidently and am happy about is that the digital advertising budgets are on the rise. There’s increased awareness about the use of programmatic platforms to reach out to audiences and deliver personalized communication at an apt time, rather than bombarding people with the same message over and over again. There is a lot of stress on mobile first approach, from the perspective of media and content. As also the use of digital films in a big way.

    How about some you don’t like?

    I am unhappy about the laggards in the industry who, despite knowing the impact that digital advertising can create for their brands, continue to chase traditional media in a disproportionate manner.

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