Kolkata Diaries: Learning With ITC – Roshan Desai, XLRI Jamshedpur

Late April 2018, Gurgaon:

I was browsing through Facebook while the employees of the design office I was there to interact with, had lunch. I was being given all the royal treatment that a client visitor gets- a speciality from the best restaurant nearby for main course and sweet words justifying the delay in the project for dessert. I was getting used to the drill.

This was my third day at the design office of the company that manufactures display systems for top-notch FMCGs in the country. My summer internship project with the Personal Care Products Business Division of ITC involved some aspects of in-store promotion and display, and my superiors felt that it would be a great learning experience for me to understand the processes involved in designing and manufacturing the simple standees and FSUs we hardly care to notice in a regular Kirana store. And a learning experience it was, teaching me the nuances of negotiation, the tactics adopted by different stakeholders to delay your work and still add costs. I had a simple objective- to show them that I was made of sterner stuff.

While browsing, I came across a post by Humans of Bombay. It described a chaiwallah’s happiest moment when a big event at a hotel nearby ended up with everyone coming to his stall for a cup of tea. He made more than he’d usually make in a month that day. He took his wife and children to McDonald’s for the first time and when his kids got their own burgers with the toys, they looked at him like he was their hero. And he probably was. I could not resist sharing the post. I took a screenshot and put it up as my WhatsApp status too. Little did I know about the cruel irony that awaited me.

With their lunch done, the design guys got back to their respective projects. I was given a spacious chair in an AC boardroom while the designer working on my project completed the changes I had communicated to him. The process basically involved my superiors in Kolkata conveying to me, all the design and structural changes to be implemented, after which, I would sit down with the designer and make sure that they were executed quickly. ‘Quick’ was a very subjective term of course. The project had been running for weeks now. Time passed by and with every render of the design that I mailed to Kolkata, I would get a reply asking me to get more changes implemented. The designer clearly looked overworked, but I was helpless since I had to get the design changes done the same day. I tried making small talk to ease the situation until I realized that small talk does not work when it sounds like..err..small talk.

It was 8 pm in the night when the last employee barring the two of us, left office. It felt awkward. But work had to be done. Getting back to the other skill that every employee there seemed to possess, the designer asked, “Sir, aap kuch khayenge, main neeche se kuch manga leta hu?”

I had a rehearsed reply ready, “Ye kaam pehle khatam kar lete hain, fir kuch kha lenge”

The designer got back to making changes while I went over my notebook jotting down the schedule for tomorrow. It was almost 9 PM.

“Mere bete ki cycle ka training wheel nikal gaya tha. Bohot dinon se puch raha tha ki Papa theek karalo, maine socha aaj kara lunga, par ab toj 9 baj gaye hain”, he said.

I had spent enough time with salesmen, distributors and vendors to recognize slyness whenever it presented itself. There was none in the designer’s words. That night, it took me a long time to fall asleep.

Summer Internship Placement Process, XLRI Jamshedpur:

That night, it took me a long time to fall asleep. I could feel my heart churning at all the possibilities that awaited me the next day. The GDs had been hectic. Different topics, different people, the day had worn down even the best of the lot. I can never forget the GD PI underwent as part of my process for ITC. Basically, an ethical dilemma, the small case-based discussion had multiple characters and we had to take the collective decision that involved choosing one of them as the employee most suitable for a particular incentive.

The discussion had been heated. All of us vociferously put our arguments. These were my friends I was arguing with, but I realized that the situation demanded an unbiased, objective and focused attempt from my side. On an ordinary day, if we were having the same discussion over lunch, I would probably give in to what my friends had to say. But not today.

As we walked out of the room, the emotions were still palpably visible. It was a process after all, or so we said to ourselves, perhaps to let go of the built-up tension and focus on what lay ahead. Later that day, I was called for my interview and although I had heard about ITC being academically demanding, I was thoroughly unprepared for what transpired inside. Deeply theoretical questions on branding and marketing left me clueless. The disaster lasted for about 20 minutes before I could walk out and catch my breath. A golden opportunity gone down the drain, I cursed myself for not having prepared diligently.

The next day, I had my second interview and at that point, just before I stepped in, for a brief second, I knew I had made it. Strange though it may sound, I was cool as I answered the questions. This interview was relatively easy as I was asked about my interests, a few behavioral questions thrown in and some formal questions about my education and family. It went by like a breeze and although it was quite some time before I realized it, that was to be my last interview for the process. When it eventually sunk in, I was delirious! I had made it to ITC as a Sales and Marketing intern for the summer of 2018. That night, the party lasted long!

Early April, 2018, Bangalore:

That night, the party lasted long. It was the end of our induction program. For over 2 days, speakers from multiple divisions, working in different functions spoke about the organization and their work. While the talks were interesting and insightful since they were delivered by people working on some of India’s best brands, the highlight of the induction programme would remain the dinner party that followed.

Although I had friends from XLRI with me as co-interns, I loved going around and meeting students from other institutes. KITES, as ITC’s internship programme is known, had brought some of the finest minds from premier institutes across the country under one roof. And if they know working hard, they surely did know partying harder. While the need for hitting the bed early, to catch the flight next morning kept us from staying up all night, we thoroughly enjoyed the party. The icing on the cake was perhaps, a chance to meet alumni from XLRI who were now working in the organization. The two-day induction programme was a great beginning to what was to be an eventful internship. Oh, and did I mention we were put up at ITC Windsor with all its luxury at our beck an call?

Early next morning, we were to head to our respective locations and get acquainted with employees at our offices, settle into the accommodation provided and just get to know the place. I boarded the flight to Kolkata with 4 other interns. We were going to work in the same division, the Personal Care Products Business division, out of the Head Office at Kolkata. Our HR coordinator briefed us about the day’s schedule. We were to land, head to our accommodation, get settled and come to office in the afternoon for lunch with our guides and meet the Divisional CEO later. We landed and were directly taken to meet the Divisional CEO, with our bags in tow.

Lesson #1: If you’re in Sales and Marketing, you might just jump from A to D, missing out the B and C in between. But then that’s how it works. The speed of execution is much appreciated.

We were anxious as we stepped into the CEO’s office with the trepidation of a newly-wed daughter-in-law (or son-in-law for that matter). He ushered us in and made us feel comfortable, enquired about the projects we were going to work on, our hobbies, interests, passions and before we knew it, the meeting had turned into a free-wheeling discussion where he asked us what we felt about marketing, took our opinions on a product that was to be launched in a few days. At one point of time, he placed before us, two bars of soap, different sizes, one a cuboid and the other a cube.

“Which one do you think weighs more than the other?”, he asked with a glint in his eyes.

We took the bars in our hands, felt it, tried feeling a difference in the weights. If you’ve watched a lot of movies or read a lot of books (or faced similar situations with your teachers in school), you can probably guess that this would be a trick question. But you somehow don’t think of movies when the CEO of a leading personal-care brand stands before you waiting for an answer. All of us blurted out one or the other alternatives.

“Both of them weigh the same”, he smiled.

Lesson #2: Don’t be intimidated by the situation. Go with what your intuition tells you (but do have data to back it up).

After meeting the CEO, we were to meet our respective guides. My guide, however, was on leave and was to join the office a week later. I met the Assistant Brand Manager for the brand my project was related to. She gave me an introduction to the brand and asked me about the research I had done. Quite interestingly, the suggested reading I was assigned for my project was ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell.

I had read the book already and although I wasn’t sure about how it related to the project, I had a good time reading it again. The Assistant Brand Manager suggested I visit different retail outlets and understand the market first. I was supposed to work on independent self-service outlets but for the initial exploration, I tried to cover everything from smaller Kirana stores to modern retail outlets.

For anyone who finds it difficult to initiate a conversation, fieldwork in a sales and marketing internship may prove a tad bit difficult. Right from the language barrier to the reluctance, some store owners show, getting bits of information is a rather uphill task, especially if you do not have any authority as such. But being resourceful and improvising on-the-go are valuable skills, not just in marketing but in any sphere of life.

The third store I went to was a prominent example of just how wrong things can go if you aren’t prepared with reactions to different possibilities of a situation. It was a local self-service store and although I had rehearsed the sequence as well as performed it in the previous two stores, I was not prepared for what happened. I started with the usual venturing around, checking products, prices and different promotional exercises done by companies. I looked at how competitors were placed and compared it with products of my brand. It was while I was going around the store that the manager threw some Bangla at me. I could not comprehend what was being spoken. I tried my defense tactic.

“Sir, student hu, marketing project ke liye dekh raha tha”, I said.

*Indistinct Bangla words, which basically mean ‘Get out’*

I got my cue and made a respectable exit before things could get worse. But it made me realize how difficult the project was going to be. A year of B-school life had probably made me immune to feeling stressed or scared and an inherent sense of jugaad that all of us seem to possess gave me a few ideas to get work done systematically. The next time I went to a store, I made sure I had a basket in hand, with a few random products thrown in and a phone in the other hand, with a Google Form to note down the details I wanted. The moment I felt the manager suspected something fishy, given the inordinately long time I would stay in the store, I would head straight to him and ask him about a product. That also gave me the opportunity to strike a conversation and if the manager happened to be conversant, get a few details about how things worked in a retail store.

Lesson #3: Have a plan. Rehearse it. Use technology. Be prepared for all possibilities.

I covered a lot of stores in this fashion and reported back to my manager with whatever insights I could get. On some days, I was appreciated. On other days, I realized how I could have done it better. Those were the days I learned. But I knew this was going to be tedious.

May, 2018, Kolkata:

I knew this was going to be tedious. It had been a month since I had started my internship in all earnestness. I had visited retail stores across Kolkata. After my disastrous initial attempts, I had become adept at moving across a store and making a note of all the information I wanted. While I had collected enough to analyze and understand the consumer behavior pertaining to my category in such stores, the most important task of my project, which was to formulate a model and launch a pilot had remained untouched. At the end of the day, the final deliverable of my project was the deployment of an alternative sales model and I was far from completing it.

I had had the opportunity to spend a week in Delhi, primarily to get the display system manufacturer to complete our order quickly. What I assumed would take me around 3-4 days ended up taking around a week. My superiors felt that it would be a great learning experience for me to understand the processes involved in designing and manufacturing the simple standees and FSUs we hardly care to notice in a regular kirana store. And a learning experience it was, teaching me the nuances of negotiation, the tactics adopted by different stakeholders to delay your work and still add costs. At the end of the visit, I had emerged wiser in the art of getting work done.

When I had read about Murphy’s Law, it seemed absurd. That was until I could see it manifesting itself in my internship. The pilot I was supposed to launch was dependent largely on the display system manufacturer completing his order. Like most things in a typical Indian organization, the display system firm had FRAXed big-time (FRAX stands for Free Riders’ Association at XLRI and is used to refer to anyone who procrastinates on his/her work, which is basically what most of us do at different points of time). Moreover, some of the stores I had finalized for running the pilot had started demanding a rental more than what was agreed upon. The others simply refused to allow me to put the model in place and the few remaining ones already had their shelves full.

Eventually, I had to coordinate with the Sales team, that legendary group of people who grind through the month to get the figures on the board. As a part of the deployment process, I went around stores with merchandisers and salesmen to fix the display systems I had locally developed. This was the phase where the quintessential Bollywood protagonist is shown working hard, getting work done and rising up the ladder while a motivational song plays in the background. While I did work hard and got the work done, the only thing that rose up was the mercury in the hot and sultry Kolkata.

Along with clicking pictures of the various display stands, patterns, products and discounts on offer, I also got selfies clicked with the store managers and merchandisers. I was inclined towards putting them in my final presentation.

“Kitne selfies kheechega?”, my co-interns would ask.

Final Review, Kolkata:

I was inclined towards putting them in my final presentation. The calculations would probably not suffice to validate the entire model, but the limited data on offer was enough to prove a certain point which would eventually be the highlight of my presentation. I was nervous as I stood with my laptop in hand. My Guide was absent and hence, unable to accompany me in front of the VPs who took my final review. He helped me iron out the flaws in my presentation over a long-distance call.

As I went inside, the VPs looked at me intently. I started with the work I had done, from where I had left during my mid-review. I had also done a couple of field trips to study the markets in Siliguri. I presented my findings about the consumer behavior in the channel and related to the category to which my brand belonged. I then proceeded to the crux of my project, which was the development of the parallel sales model. Although I had successfully deployed in-store display elements, I had not had enough time to track a noticeable change in the sales trends. However, I did have one store where I had a month’s worth of data to prove my hypotheses. For the rest, I put in some estimations and tried to evaluate the model in terms of the returns provided. The review lasted for around 40 minutes, with the CEO asking me some pertinent questions. Eventually, with the review done, the atmosphere turned casual and the VPs remarked on the work I had put in.

“You clicked so many selfies man”, one of the VPs joked. The entire panel erupted in laughter. I wasn’t sure about how to react to the situation. Hence, I joined in.

I went back to my place besides the other interns and heaved a sigh of relief. The review had not been as terrifying as I thought. I was about to get out to catch a breath of fresh air when the assistant brand manager called me outside.

“Come Roshan, let’s go upstairs”, she said. Upstairs, in this case, referred to a coffee machine kept on the terrace of the 11th floor of the building, where people went to unwind. As we stood near the edge, with the Eden Gardens on one side and the outline of the Howrah Bridge at the far end of the horizon, I was worried about what my manager had to say. Previous occasions at the same place had not been very pleasant meetings.

“I think you did well, good job”, she said.

I was left speechless for a moment but I gathered my wits and thanked her for the appreciation. She appreciated my efforts towards getting visibility elements deployed in the stores. Although it would be some time before the profitability of the model can be ascertained, the brand was happy about the work done in introducing it to the channel. We then discussed about ITC and the various opportunities that existed there.

Upon returning back to the cabin allotted to us, I had a similar conversation with one of the VPs. The attention that he paid to my experience and my aspirations made me feel valued. Later that night, all the interns went out for dinner with their guides and the team, we were also joined by the VP. With fancy food on our plates, we had an open, no-holds-barred conversation about what we felt about our projects and the internship. While I did speak about my experience objectively, it was only when I returned back to my accommodation that I started thinking about the two months I had spent.

Work had been challenging and hectic at times, and fun otherwise. Personally, I had a great deal of learning not only about the branding side of a major FMCG player but also the sales and distribution side of the spectrum. More importantly, I had a helpful guide and an extremely passionate assistant brand manager with whom I corresponded on a daily basis. Their work ethic is something I would take back with me. I looked at the papers lying on the table in my room and the accompanying charts and planners. I had planned to head home after this. Although my co-interns had become as thick as family over the two months, it was now time for me to actually head back home. I looked forward to good homely food, pleasant company and the freedom to relax. My mind was filled with the infinite possibilities that existed.

That night, it took me a long time to fall asleep.

Roshan Desai

Roshan is a Business Management student from XLRI Jamshedpur with his own set of 4Ps- Poetry, Poor Jokes, Patience and Persistence, with the first two Ps overpowering the other two more often than not. When he's not sharing memes by the dozen, he can be found sharing them in scores!