The TAS Story – Entry for Summer Saga 2014

That first corporate booked air journey from the city of Nawabs to the city of dreams, that sea-facing suite at The Taj Lands End, and that too immediately after a weeklong gruelling end terms at IIM Lucknow! It was the perfect start to the much awaited summer internship at the most revered group of the country, the Tata. TAS indeed had a lot more to offer than I expected.

The Hotel

The feeling of being a part of the global Indian conglomerate was just not sinking in in any of the 50 co-interns who had gathered for an informal dinner on the eve of our formal induction process. While we were trying very hard to conceal our excitement of being Shahrukh Khan’s neighbours for next two days (Taj Lands End is situated near Mannat at Bandra Bandstand), the next moment we found ourselves sitting next to stars like Shiamak Davar in the hotel coffee shop Vista at midnight. After a brief photo session with his crew, we retired to our rooms to have a sound sleep before a day long induction.

The Induction

After a lavish breakfast at the Taj, a bus journey on the Worli sea link in the early hours of a cool Tuesday morning, and countless April Fool’s Day pranks played by the interns on each other (yes our internship began on April 1!), we arrived at the Tata International premises for a formal induction before we headed out to our respective companies for a two month long stint. After a few motivational talks with some TAS managers and a sumptuous lunch at Copper Chimney, what laid ahead was the most interesting part of the induction – the Tata Gallery. It is a miniature version of the key Tata Industries brought together on a common floor. From the rich intricacy of the leather collection of Tata International to the luxury of Indian Hotels, everything has been captured in this masterpiece. Finally after collecting our luggage from the hotel we bid each other good bye and wished luck for the coming two months.

The First Day

The next morning greeted me at my guest house in the picturesque Powai, where I was all set to get ready and go to my new office in Andheri. Tata Chemicals Limited – Consumer Products Business (CPB) is the consumer wing of TCL and is the house of brands like Tata Salt, iShakti, Tata Swatch. Known for branding the commodities since last 75 years, TCL was the place where I was going to spend my two months working on one of the biggest and oldest brands of the group, Tata Salt.

The jitters of stepping into the corporate world after the gap of almost a year died down, owing to the relaxed and friendly work culture of the company. The project was standardization of consumer activations of Tata Salt in rural areas and included pilot runs followed by an all-India roll out in phases. However with a friendly mentor and a stalwart project reviewer, the enormity of the project too seemed to dwarf.

And The War Begins…..

The first week at work was concerned mostly with familiarizing with the setting, understanding the background of the brand, looking into the sales and marketing activities of CPB and gaining insights about the project. Though the exact cause and the subsequent planning for the project cannot be shared on a public platform, it wouldn’t be a justice to my story if I don’t share that the work involved a change in the system, initiated by the marketing division (where I was the intern), to be implemented at the ground level with the help of the sales team. The age old real world conflict between sales and marketing was what I was supposed to witness and handle in the next two months!

The Glass Ceiling

The existing decentralized consumer activations had to be centralized. It meant, taking away the power from the sales team; and, look how, by asking the support from sales team themselves for the new centralized system. What a double edged sword I was trying to play with! A team of 36 odd men spread all across the country, who had sales experience of at least 5 years in FMCG or consumer durables, had to be dealt with by a girl of 23 years, who had mere knowledge of the domain she was going to set foot into. But wait, if my mentor, a lady who is just 3-4 years elder to me, can be the brand manager of Tata Salt and co-ordinate and control that army of men known as the sales team, why can’t I deal with the same people? Truly, in the entire duration of my project, my mentor was my guiding light and my motivational source, as she was the lady steering the marketing activities in a stereotypically male-dominated sales arena.

Meeting the Stalwarts

The second week into the project saw me interacting with some great brands in the advertising world. Ogilvy Action, the rural activation arm of Ogilvy and Mather, was there in our board room to present a credential presentation (for those who don’t know, it is the presentation an agency delivers to a prospective client to showcase its work, which are its credentials, in order to lobby for a project from the client). Getting to know about the most famous rural marketing initiative in the country, Project Shakti, by the ones who had conceptualized and implemented it was an experience I had never imagined I would have during my summer internship.

And now came the turn of the advertising giants Madison and Draft FCB Ulka, the creative agencies working on the brands of TCL. Since they had served the brand for as many years as I am old today, there was not a second thought to the fact that they will share the deepest insights and learnings about the brand. Indeed the media induction with Madison and the creative induction with Ulka was an eye opener for me.

Structure. Restructure. Structure

With sufficient knowledge about the brand journey and the situation analysis of the current consumer activations, I was all set to design the action plan for a new system. However with no on-ground experience I resorted to analyse the best practices and benchmarks in the industry. The next couple of days witnessed my transition from an avid reader of Harry Potter to a person deeply engrossed in books like “Don’t Flirt with Rural Marketing”. With whatever ideas I could think of, I daily presented myself in front of my mentor for a brainstorming session; and this was the time of the day I loved the most since daunting realities of the marketing world were always ready to counter my ideas. Nevertheless by the end of the third week, after countless interactions with the marketing team, we finally zeroed down to the ultimate activation we were going to conduct.

Time is of Essence

A typical summer internship for management students culminates into either modelling excel sheets or foraying into the weirdest roads of this country for selling products, provides the opportunity either to design and implement marketing strategies or to calculate risks and returns of a venture. But what if a single two month stint bundles all these experiences? That was exactly what TAS offered me.

From drilling down the list of 2500+ towns in this amazingly diverse country to a list of handful ones to select the pilot market (that’s where Mr. Bill Gates helped me, by designing a tool as amazing as Microsoft Excel), to a sales beat in the scorching April heat to the slum areas of Kandivali; from designing the entire action plan for the activations to the calculation of its ROI; the next two weeks passed in a matter of second.

It is easier to stare at Kotler and mock at the wrong decisions implemented by some very big brands, but when it comes to designing your own strategy, it is very important to get your hands dirty. And that is where I decided to get into the root of the organization. From the tasks as simple as tracking the merchandise delivery (in order to select the courier service for my project) and drafting creative briefs to briefing and debriefing the activation partners, every task constituted the planning stage of my project. A myriad of activation agencies – merchandizers, tee-shirts, printers, equipment vendors and a dozen others were to be contacted, negotiated with and ultimately selected. The final plan was then presented to the senior management in the monthly business review meeting and was immediately approved.

And now I looked at the calendar just-in-time to realise that I was left with a very small window of three weeks! And a horde of tasks to complete…

The Challenges

While the signs of resistance from the sales team had started showing up in the beginning of the planning phase, co-ordinating between the agencies and the sales team was by far the most challenging part because both the stakeholders were strangers to each other; each thought that the other knew nothing of their business. Though the project was on paper defined as belonging to the marketing domain, I was now getting a feel of HR as dealing with change management was not a cakewalk.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that the activation partners were the apple of my eyes. Though sales team gave me a tough time, it were the creative agencies which took a toll of my life. To get the desired design in my mailbox meant drafting detailed descriptive emails, hours of constant nagging through endless phone calls and email reminders, reviewing the draft and suggesting changes and the subsequent iteration of above steps.

And The Final Leg

With all the planning completed, the last and the completing piece of the puzzle was yet to be put in place. It was the pilot run of the activations in the largest slum area of the world, Dharavi. Though the rising mercury was determinant enough to deter me from having a week long activation in the narrow streets of Dharavi, my confidence and zeal to complete the project was much stronger. After a pre-event dry run (called as recee in business parlance) on a hot Sunday afternoon in May, we were all set to go live the next day.

Barring a few initial operational bugs which were later resolved, the activation began on a sound note and engaged more than expected consumers. While the two months of labour was bearing fruit, I had no time to rejoice since the documentation of the activation manual for subsequent pilots and all-India roll-out was still not in shape. Hence the last week saw me spending sleepless nights to put the long document in place so as to preserve the knowledge within the organization.

The Most Prized Possession

After handing over the deliverables to my team and presenting the project to the larger business, I formally signed off from the project; but not empty handed. My mentor wished me good luck with a plethora of goodies which included Tata Salt T-shirt, coffee mug, bag etc. to name a few, which will remind me always of the good times spent in TCL.

The TAS Experience

From the youngest women CEO (Avani Davda, Starbucks) to the most revered man in the country (Mr. Ratan Tata), TAS has it all. And the myriad experiences the group companies have to offer are inexplicable. TAS lands you in a managerial position at a very young age where you need to administer people who are almost double of your age but that doesn’t warrant you to overlook the experience they have gained by serving the group throughout their lives. Hence humility is the most important virtue that I learned during the course of my project.

Additionally, big words like designing, conceptualizing and formulating a strategy look fascinating only on a one page CV which we prepare before our placements. However when it comes to execution and deployment, it takes much more pain and effort, which, at the end, is always worth it.