Are we there yet?

This is the question TCS should be asking it self. Given the market size, its operating experience in Pakistan and the scale that has made it ‘case study worthy’ at Harvard; nothing notable besides a spade of layoffs has put TCSs in the limelight recently. That and hiring an ex-banker to lead its re aligned strategic holding company. At the face of it, some change any change, with a positive glow would make sense. But nothing besides an ad campaign and billboards that say “hazir” void of even the basic contact details of TCS like a phone number or URL have shown up.

TCS is/was poised for a lot of things, namely a large play to vertically integrate its logistics and warehousing to squash the other players in the e-commerce space, by owning the last mile logistics and delivery along with years of distribution experience. It seems, TCS has executed many uncoordinated strategies and like others of a lesser corporate/technical pedigree slapped around a quick and dirty “online site” without thinking through the end game.

There is a sheer market advantage to being in business since 1983, having about 2000 locations within the country and 5000 people to support a phenomenal business. A few easy steps would have ensured sustained top and bottom line growth in a space that could be dominated for years to come. TCS was an innovator, a one of a kind hall mark in Pakistani business that created things like Sentiments express, way before it was fashionable to send roses on valentines in Pakistan via courier. They had the pulse of the industry/country and always sensed it a mile out. So what happened? An outsiders view in would lead one to think that they became fat and happy. It happens to the best of us.

While this was happening at TCS, local, regional, international players all sizing up the opportunity of a 200M people population have jumped in to the space them selves. Their success in diversification/online e-tailing and distribution is varied. Not for the lack of trying but for the lack of the missing pieces. There is still no real online payment solution in Pakistan, there is still lack of trust buying online, there is further the dilemma of distribution and warehousing, the last mile where in exchanging goods for a fee from the client.

TCS would be on top on all of these fronts, had it only tried. They are as trustworthy as a brand gets in Pakistan (many years ago I was at a DHL center in Karachi and a middle aged woman walked in and said “bhai is ko London TCS karwana hay” )so that their first check mark. TCS also has its own delivery network and warehousing hence its own people making deliveries and collecting payments thus that’s three checks in one, So why haven’t they leap frogged in and left every one biting the dust? For one, lack of vision. Its not just them its every one around them.

Lets explore this phenomenon. Go to any mid/large sized Pakistani enterprise, ask the CEO to meet their Head of Strategy and or IT, you’d be shocked at the response you get and further shocked once you meet the typical Heads of IT. If the conversation already hasn’t gone to, “Zara IT walay ko boliyae ga, (please call the IT Person)” there may still be some hope.

The average IT Leader in Pakistan hails from one of 4 areas, A Bank, An FMCG, Pharma or at best a mix of all plus some Saith experience thrown in for fun. With a potentially solid operating background but 0 to imaginary exposure to real  e-commerce , technical proficiency and web 2.0 style agility. It’s pretty much a lost cause when it comes to scaling and building technically competent sales, delivery and distribution channels. Yet by owning the newest smart phone and attending every conference in Pakistan and Dubai on (tech) some how the perception and industry worship is evident for the old guard in this space. Typically followed by the Sahab title at the end of the name.

This old guard is doing a dis service on many fronts, first by literally holding back organizations and subsequently the country as they try to enforce their limited know how on to problems much larger than their own comprehension. Secondly by systematically weeding out and not hiring people smarter than them selves and marginalizing the talent pool. Last but not least putting out products and services that come pre-packaged (at a pretty decent price tag) and slapping them with their own logos. Eventually the owner operators of firms will figure it out, hopefully not before its too late.

Lets re-direct our focus to TCS once again. I would like to see them position them selves as a worthy competitor and eventual acquisition target for It’s a matter of time when Amazon comes knocking to Pakistan, that journey may be a few years out, but they are most certainly in India and they will come across the border.

The population density demands it and soon their shareholders will too for neglecting a market this size. Rocket Internet feels the same way, with nothing besides a marketing budget and an army of “Western oriented, 20 some thing marketing minions” they don’t have a lot going for them. But if TCS continues to disappoint, they have will every thing to gain. They have started consolidation wars within various channels where they were afraid they were loosing ground and on some not so honest to goodness advice from their minions.

TCS, you are almost there, I want to see Pakistani companies in the league of the best of the world, but you have some course correction to do. Don’t let traditionalist general managers run e-commerce and give strategic direction without having ever operated in the space before, take a leap of faith, don’t hire people you know and don’t put people in charge who come from the old guard. The Leadership should be asking some very hard questions, around break up value of the business units, the potential of an IPO , structuring for tax efficiency managing revenue leakages and things of that nature, way before any thing else. Last but not least, PR-Marketing-Branding need to be refreshed, the brand recognition is almost as good as Shaan Foods but its economic value hasn’t been cashed in nearly as much as Shaan. More on Shaan an other day, right now the task at hand is to really force some critical thinking at TCS not on just an e-commerce play but a host of other things. Advice is always free, so whilst we are at it some valuable services for TCS to consider:

  • Merchant to End client Delivery (Think Mall presence to collect, package and ship goods directly typically to overseas Pakistanis)
  • Using its expertise to get in to the food delivery business, using the same infrastructure to start with test markets in the evening.
  • Ebay-like store fronts for home based and other vendors to showcase via TCS and ship and collect cash on delivery via them.
  • Using its presence across Pakistan to be a true grass roots level survey company and data collection entity.
  • Hiring strategically at every level within the organization and taking hard decisions without emotions when it comes to right sizing

I neither have all the answers nor the course correction strategies, but as a fan of where the company started and how far it has come, only a well wisher who’d like to see this TCS in the same league as a company that’s shares its name across the pond.

Anatomy of an FMCGs Marketing & Sales function

It has been a very enchanting learning experience to interact and analyze FMCGs and the people who work within. There are 2 basic types of FMCGs operating in Pakistan. The foreign & the local. Today we will look at the anatomy of the foreign one.

Pakistan is a country with over 120M potential clients , where; by being armed with Nielsen style ratings and data along with structures similar to the Vatican and the Pope   the old guard and the new are marching to conquer the largest pie of the bread basket in the country.

It’s simple, they dip into their roster of either Swiss, Dutch or American bag of goodies apply some content marketing & sales strategy tips from India, Bangladesh, Srilanka and/or UAE , mix it with some good old fashioned ego , lo and behold you have the starting point for strategic marketing managers, brand managers, digital advertising pundits and sales executives at the average Foreign owned Pakistani based FMCG.

For good measure you ensure you only hire from the top 5 Institutions of higher learning in the country, further for diversity you ensure you develop a process that is forced to select socially mobile and financially upward candidates in their early and mid twenties. The idea being that they maintain the image of the company as progressive. In most instances the salaries on offer don’t even come close to the fuel consumption in daddy’s SUV that these 20 some things use. These 20 some things are victims of their own success (family’s social financial success) its not their fault, they are being groomed because they fit a profile and a check box for NA 250.

With minimal exposure and the reinforced belief that they now work for a leading FMCG corporation a few things happen, they are on track, typically to develop a god complex directly proportionate to the brand and its total sales plus its total marketing spend. As if, it were directly proportional to their novice ego and attitude. In reality they get planted in to a decent global brand, with massive production marketing machinery at the helm, they are just put in the driving seat of an auto pilot jet. If they were marginally trained they wouldn’t need to do much more than keeping up appearances.

This was great and worked in the semi digital, print, tv age. In the age of the Internet, the only thing digital and sales strategists in Pakistan know or are aware of are Facebook and likes. Cursory analysis based on data shows, that the top 20 brand for the top 5 FMCG players pay to buy likes from non-authentic users. The quest in the early years was to have a Facebook page with a million likes. The question to ask is, does any one go to NYC and buy a shirt that says I LIKE NYC? or do they go to NYC and buy the shirt that says I love NYC?

So we went through the like phase and craze, now the talk is shifting to digital engagement, mobile engagement and second screen. If we were to get a genie that allowed us a glimpse of the network traffic from the marketing & sales departments of these FMCGs we could probably attribute these buzz words to the searches being conducted to look cool and aware of the situation. Since we don’t have a genie, we have to rely on interactions, market sentiment and the thought process of the people in charge of these brands and their sales strategies and funnily enough their LinkedIn profile and other social interactions scattered around the web. So how and on what terms do these folks operate?:

  • The belief that no one ever got fired for hiring the biggest baddest global agency (so lets play it safe always)
  • Most of these Brand/Sales people have spent some part of their careers at one of the agencies thus a natural disposition to lean a certain way. *(Ensure future employment or a referral to an agency’s customer in Dubai or Malaysia)
  • Every body knows some body who has a friend in an agency who knows some body whose really plugged in to digital. Plus they recently came back from ____________( insert country here). Truth be told they probably worked at agency as an intern in the Western hemisphere but clearly they know how to market them selves and they ran into the CEO/CFO/COO/MD of the firm some where and come highly recommended because the dads play golf or the moms belong to the same gardening club.. You get the picture. Not all employees were created equal.
  • In this business its about who you know and how well you know them(and if you are already past the embarrassing stage of agreeing to figure out what their share of the total marketing spend is going to be, for going your way). Once past that, the agency of record is at least guaranteed a tenure equal to the person on the receiving end of the transaction. Take the total number of FMCGs and then list their brands, then list the number of tier 1 and 2 agencies with foreign affiliations, you can roughly see that there is enough room for every agency to sponsor employees within brands to develop a pretty decent book of business.

The flip side of this coin has Audit, Governance, Corporate Excellence, Ethics etc that each of the FMCGs & their hand books provide an annual refresher on, whilst in the real world more than half of the work the way its awarded to agencies and consultants  would never make it past the RFP stage. If it was purely linked to merit as opposed to whom you know and how well you know them. Clearly not every one is playing this game but a vast majority of industry and particularly the FMCG Marketing and Sales functions who make large scale whole sale spend decisions are surely guilty of indulging. You say, but every one every where else is doing it, so what if the ego maniac brand managers get a few Dubai trips out of this? I say, we are being anti competitive and we are teaching these 20 some things that its ok to act carelessly with their shareholders money, in the end its not their money to spend, its fiduciary and moral responsibility to spend it correctly with the best intent.

Given the vast majority of the professional schooling is around them understanding how valuable they are in the ecosystem and what it means to be a large scale advertiser, they never end up learning the raw business tenants of marketing or sales, in both cases majority of their leg work is done by slaves at the respective agencies or consulting firms, who will gladly do this outsourced thinking for their clients against a guaranteed retainer. Seemingly a win win for all.

The CEOs of these organizations are generally happy as they came from a similar pedigree and background, they them selves are typically a few years short of retirement and they aren’t going to fix a system that’s generating billions of rupees of top line every year. They want to be remembered as the CEO that was a great leader not a reformer. Clearly it doesn’t matter.

With this vote of confidence every sales person and marketer then becomes a subject matter expert from packaging design, to consumption numbers, to activation data, to market segmentation to competitive analysis & go to market strategy. Wow that’s a mouth full, but its true, the ego translates to a serious know it all state. That’s where the ever-pleasing agencies and consultants and corporate finance yes men come in. They say yes, what is being preached is like a gospel from the Vatican so it must be pure. What every one fails to see that the reason for the success of these brands are the brands them selves and their global/regional heritage and recognition and presence in Pakistan for years. It most typically has nothing to do with any of these sales marketing types. Perhaps if you completely eliminated them you would arguably do better by placing an AI machine that took decisions based on historical data or some real data for a change. Once again not all sales and marketing folks are created equal, its because of those un-equal ones still being in the fold that some semblance of real work does get done.

Next comes the reward phase, constant in house recognition, foreign meet and greets and regional learning sessions. Eventually throw in a regional rotation, job function change, keep the employee over seas for a few years then bring them back , reintegrate as one with a successful tour of duty and now destined to eventually run the corporation/function.

Repeat the cycle enough times and you are ensure that you keep on churning out similar people for the leadership fraternity. No one person in any of these organizations can change this, but it is a travesty to see our brightest minds get sucked in to this game. The really smart ones will break through over time and use this to catapult into global roles with other true global multinationals, not their plagued local counter parts. For most of the ones who remain, they will go through a 15 – 20 year rotational cycles split in to a few boxes, first they will go to an agency, then to a competing FMCG, then to Industry and then eventually back to FMCG most likely a local one where they may end up as the outsider who can teach the local FMCGs to engineer breakthroughs. Hopefully local FMCGs don’t fall for this, they are doing a host of things better, smarter and more well thought out than their foreign cousins. Onward  and forward.