design, digital, india, industry, ux

What I’ve Learned About Digital Design In 2015

digital-design

won’t bore you with a deep introduction talking about how technology is shaping an emerging India. We’re all familiar with the startup explosion, the firestorm that is social media and the inexorable rise of digital marketing. We’ve all been part of the smartphone revolution and the emergence of the app economy. So I’m not going to bore you with details of those.

Instead, I’m going to try and articulate some key principles that could help you while designing for Indian audiences. Principles that could help shape the next website or app you design.

And, just because Star Wars — The Force Awakens is out in theatres, I’m going to do this in the key of R2.

Come back to the Light Side, father!

Functionality is a great thing. But more functionality means a heavier app. Not the greatest idea for a country where a majority of smartphones offer between 4 and 16GB of internal storage. And what’s the first casualty when users run out of space? Apps! The same holds true of heavy websites that invade and occupy users’ caches faster than Darth Vader could occupy Cloud City. So, put your code on a crash diet and build light.

Corollary: To do…or to do not? (There is no try!)

Sometimes, the best way to make sure users don’t uninstall your app when they run out of space is to…not build an app at all! Not every app can fulfill needs that are daily or monthly needs. A beautiful, feature-rich mobile website (like the one Flipkart just built with Google, #shamelessplug) will often serve you better.

Take their hyperdrive offline, Commander!

India’s mobile infrastructure is like a Stormtrooper’s aim — kinda spotty. In an environment of fluctuating mobile connectivity, it’s increasingly critical that some core aspects of your app work offline. And reconnect automatically upon detecting a connection.

Leave the feasting to the Sarlacc

You know what users hate more than smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser? Apps and sites that feast on data. Just yesterday, I counted 4 rich ad units above the fold on a news site (which serves as many as 11 units on its desktop home page). Not to mention the horde of images that slow down loading time and swallow data packs whole. This in a country with some of the highest Internet costs. Enough said, I think.

Chewbacca had the right idea

Technology is changing rapidly. It’s critical you keep up. Keep tinkering. Optimise everything, from UI to page load times to CTAs. You never know when a small fix could help you win your own Battle of Endor.

Never underestimate the Ewok

Small can be beautiful. Only a fraction of your eventual users probably have the kind of screen real estate you do. And new formats — wearables, cars, to name two — are shrinking traditional screens even further. Design to deliver a beautiful experience across screen sizes.

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campaigns, challenges, industry, influencer marketing, social media

Making Influencer Marketing Credible Again

Is influencer marketing as influential as it used to be?

This post is probably going to rake up some controversy, but I’m going to write it anyway.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching social media closely. I’ve been hearing whispers from agency folk and brand managers. And everything points to one irrefutable fact.

Influencer marketing just isn’t as credible as it used to be.

I’ll go out on a limb, one step further.

Influencer marketing just isn’t credible any more.

And here’s why.

One. Brands aren’t being discerning enough. Anyone with enough followers or readership qualifies to be an influencer. No matter how tenuous the connection between the influencer and the brand promise.

Two. Influencers aren’t being discerning enough. Most influencers today seem to be happy to work with any brand that is willing to work with them (read: pay them well). Rather than the brands they really love. The faked enthusiasm shows in every overexcited tweet, in every hard-selling blog post.

Three, following on from my previous statement. People today are becoming more and more aware that people who randomly start promoting a brand are being paid to do so.

Having been one of the earliest exponents – and practitioners – of social influence marketing in India, I can’t help but wonder – whatever happened to the influencer marketing we used to know and love?

For those who came in late, here’s how it’s supposed to work.

  1. Brand identifies potential influencers. These are usually people who are perceived experts in a particular field (related to the brand’s sphere of operation), or die-hard brand fans.
  2. Brand contacts influencer. Influencer agrees that the brand is a great fit for them.
  3. Brand and influencer work together to co-create content.
  4. It’s a win for both, the brand and the influencer. In the truest form of influencer marketing, there is no money exchanged. The brand gains credibility. The influencer gains readership/following/indirect revenue through their association with the brand and wider exposure. And/or merchandise and/or products and/or an exclusive experience.

So here are a few thoughts on how to make it better again. Very simply, going back to the basics.

Brand Managers, be picky about the influencers you work with. Frankly, there’s a limited pool. And every social media agency has pretty much the same list. Look for a few really good and relevant influencers, rather than a wide pool of irrelevant (to your category) influencers. Or work even harder, and discover someone who could become an influencer through your campaign. Your campaign will look and feel more authentic. And you’ll save a few bucks too.

Brand Managers, avoid your instinct to hard-sell. The more sell-y the content you co-create, the more people will avoid it. Don’t be lazy. Find a way to subtly weave your brand promise into your influencer’s natural content. It’s a brand-building exercise, not a sales one.

Influencers, stay true to yourselves. If music is your passion (and the reason people follow you), you have no business working on a food brand. And if you love rock music, don’t pick up a campaign related to Bollywood pop. If you’re an iPhone fan, don’t work with an Android OEM. If you’re a jeans-and-tees person, avoid the business/formal clothing brands.

Influencers, don’t do every campaign you get. I’ve seen people tweet for OLX one day and Quikr the next. The agreement you sign with a client may not be exclusive. But being loyal to the brands you actually respect or use will win you more credibility with your audience. It’ll also keep your client loyal to you. Money is always tempting. But eventually, you’ll end up diluting your brand equity. And your follower count.

Influencers, be transparent about your engagement with the brand. There’s no need to pretend that you wrote a post out of sheer love. Talk about how you’re engaging with the brand. It’s also ok to tell the world that they paid for your trip, or paid you to write the post, and leave it to your followers to judge for bias. It’ll just help you build further credibility.

As usual, I’d love to know what you think. Do leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

Footnote: I want to touch upon the issue of brands paying an influencer. I personally believe that paying an influencer to engage is antithetical to the concept of influencer marketing. It’s no different from hiring a celeb to endorse your brand. I do also believe that influencers work hard to create content and build a deeply engaged following, and deserve to be rewarded for the work they do. It’s a grey area; so in the end, you should just do what seems ethical to you.

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content, creative, industry

Creativity In Content Marketing

I was recently invited by DMAi to speak at Global Marketing & Advertising Week (#GMAW15), on creativity in content marketing. Below is an adapted version of that speech.


A few years ago, when I was working at one of India’s most well-known content marketing agencies, life was very different.

Back then we really struggled to sell the idea of content marketing to clients. The idea of engaging audiences all-year-round with words, pictures and videos, with metrics that were tough to define, was always a struggle to sell.

We failed more often than we succeeded. But we succeeded just often enough to help bring content marketing into mainstream conversation.

We’ve come a long way since then, I think. We’re all working hard to come up with content to engage audiences in a connected world. To ensure that we look at all our communication through a content lens. To make it part and parcel of our marketing communication DNA.

We now have a few years’ experience behind us; we’re learning through trial-and-error and experiments that often fail; we’re learning from markets that are ahead of us; we’re getting better at this game.

So what do today and tomorrow hold for us?

A couple of years ago, I’d begin every brief by sitting down with my pen and scribble pad and saying, “Right. Let’s lead with with a blog post. That means I’ll need some social media posts to get people to it. Ooh, a hashtag would be nice, let’s do one of those too! #IsThisHashtagTooLong”

On my worst days, I’d even write down “run a contest” on that sheet of paper.

I could then walk away feeling pretty satisfied, pretty nice about myself. Time for a coffee break.

But today, when I’d look at that sheet of ideas the night before a presentation, I’d start sweating.

Because all of these have become hygiene. Because having a blog, or creating a hashtag, or running a contest, isn’t a content marketing idea. It’s become a format, another box you just tick.

Today, brands like yours are churning out this kind of content day in and day out. The Internet is flooded with it. As are my social media feeds. We’re already churning out content calendars and figuring out how to spark brand conversations during the Cricket World Cup.

It’s come to a point where each brand sounds absolutely no different from the next…and I can’t tell which is which just by looking at the content. Which, as you’d all know, is really not a good thing.

And so I ask myself, “In this sea of infinite content, where on any normal day of the week, 8 of the top 10 trending hashtags are brand conversations, where each headline is more click-baity than the next, what the hell is going to make my brand and my content really stand out?”

I’ve always believed that content is the ‘pull’ of marketing communications, rather than the ‘push’.

I believe that good content gets people coming back because it entertains, it inspires, it touches an emotional chord, it makes them rant and rage. Or it simply provides a utility or gives them information or education that they weren’t getting before.

Good content is also immensely shareable – because of the reasons I mentioned just now.

One huge, and often ignored, role of content is to generate positive earned media for the brand. There are huge synergies emerging between content marketing and PR, not just in terms of story dissemination but also in terms of story packaging.

I also believe that one can’t restrict content to words, pictures and videos that just wash over people sitting in front of a screen. Interactivity is key. And technology is the answer to immersing audiences deeper into a brand. Apps, games, platforms, devices – they all have a role to play in creating great content.

So, with all those filters in my head, I go back to “How do I stand out?”

The answer I’ve got to over the years is this:

Actions speak louder than words.

It’s a simple human truth, right?

We judge people – our friends, our leaders, our doctors, our wedding photographers – by that yardstick. By what they do, not what they say.

It’s the same for brands.

In a parity environment, what a brand does matters more than what it claims to do.

So, at this point in my life and career, I look at it this way:

Advertising is what you say.
Content is what you do.

Now, what do you mean by ‘do’?

I could, as a content marketer, ‘do’ a video. I could ‘do’ a blog post. I could ‘do’ an influencer engagement or ‘do’ a tweetup.

But that’s not what I mean. That’s just playing with words, right?

To me, ‘doing’ means refocusing on your core brand promise, and then living up to it in front of your audience. In whatever manner works best.

It means proving, every day, that you’re true to your words and promise. That you mean what you say.

It means focusing less on changing perceptions by making a claim; and more on changing perceptions by fulfilling or exceeding expectations.

It means being less of an interruption in people’s lives; it means positively impacting people’s lives through your products, services and brand.

One way brands can stand out in a cluttered, parity environment is to create content that proves – honestly, credibly and creatively – what they stand for. And thus start owning that space.

Across any screen you can think of.

Let me show you a piece of work from one of my favourite content marketing campaigns. Chrome Experiments were begun to push the limits of Web technology, to push the limits of Google’s Chrome Browser. And, to noticeably demonstrate how good the Chrome browser is.

The Chrome team didn’t just talk about being faster, or having more features, or being more developer-friendly. They just kept creating pieces of content that proved it. Over and over and over again. And today, many Chrome Experiments are being created every day by developers all over the world, who are not Googlers. Just people pushing the limits of what the technology can do.

One of my favourite content marketing brands in the world is Red Bull. Everyone knows that they stand for giving wings to athletes. But they don’t just support these athletes morally, or emotionally or financially. They create platforms for them to shine. They identify athletes, work with them and then co-create content that makes those athletes world-famous.

It’s easy for a food industry brand to stick to the conventional food industry metaphors. Blendtec has always been different. They have a core brand promise; they stick to it; and then they deliver on it in the most amazing, culturally-contextual ways possible.

India’s favourite beer is known for their baseline – The King of Good Times. Kingfisher have embraced technology to create content and experiences that offer a memorable good time to their fans.

It isn’t just B2C marketing that can benefit from this kind of an approach. Every year, around Christmas, the Publicis Groupe create a Christmas card that they put up online. Last year’s card was an interactive experiment designed to entertain – and also to subtly prove Publicis’ strengths in creative digital marketing.

I’ll end with a story that’s very close to my heart. Everybody’s talking about the great Indian e-commerce boom. Billion-dollar valuations, transactions-per-day, the payment ecosystem and an ever-increasing user base. Nobody – I repeat, nobody – was talking about the wheels that make this economy turn. Last year, during GOSF, we decided that we should do something special for people nobody cared about. To get them into the conversation and recognise their efforts. Because we believe that the web exists to improve the lives of all people.

So, the next time you brief your agency on a content marketing campaign, don’t ask them what you can say.

Ask them what you can do.

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digital, industry, opportunities, trend

Predicting 2014, aka What I Want To Do In 2014

The tough part about leading an agency creative team is that you have to set the direction and the vision for the work that you will do.

The great part about leading an agency creative team is that you get to set the direction and the vision for the work that you will do.

Digital marketing in India has come a long way since I defected from traditional advertising in 2009. Fewer marketers are talking about digital being the future; they’re beginning to see it as a de facto way of life. I, for one, believe we’ve entered a post-digital age, and that all marketing efforts going forward need to accept and leverage that reality.

I think we need to go beyond looking at digital as Internet and mobile. I think we have to look at digital marketing as an intersection of three worlds; and that intersection doesn’t always need to reside in the virtual world.

What Is Digital Marketing

Digital marketing is an intersection of three previously distinct worlds.

Forgive me, but I’m going to repeat three buzz-phrases you’ve been hearing for a while. They’re the absolute truth.

  • Content is the new communication. You can’t be a marketer and believe that you’ll achieve brand engagement with a 30-second TVC.
  • Data is the new oil. Because digital allows us to capture what people are actually doing, versus the focus groups that capture what people claim they’re doing.
  • Mobile is the new TV. It’s belittling to call the first screen you look at every morning, the only screen you carry wherever you go, and the last screen you look at every night a “second screen”.

The other thing we need to practice is data-driven marketing. If you’ve managed to get past information overload and get someone to actually click through to your content, you aren’t doing yourself justice if you aren’t setting up to reach that person again. Every piece of engagement that you run needs to help you understand something more about your audience.

The Marketing Circle Of Life

Marketing today isn’t scientific unless it’s driven by data.

If one understands these shifts, it’s not difficult to see where digital creativity is going in 2014. Here’s my bucket list for the year to come.

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careers, creative, industry

Note To Self

Over the course of my eleven-odd years in advertising and digital marketing, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the greatest bosses one could ask for. They’ve taught me not just how to do better ads, but also about how to be a great boss. So, every now and then, I find myself recollecting – and scribbling down – their words and deeds, trying to constantly teach myself how to be a better leader. Here are some of the notes I’ve written over the years – from my bosses to myself.

First: don’t worry about the boots you’re stepping into. You’ve been hired for a reason. Either you’ll continue where your predecessor left off. Or bring a new, much-needed perspective to things.

Be happy with what you’ve inherited. Change comes later.

Not every role needs you to change things around.

Give yourself time to judge the people you’re working with. Understand them first, form opinions later.

Spend time with each of your team members in your first couple of weeks. Have several meetings – with the whole team; art; copy; ACDs; ACDs + teams. Understand how they work and what work they do. Allow them to decide how they work, so long as it isn’t too out-of-sync with the way you work.

Get to know your team at a personal level. Have those non-work conversations. Every day.

Remember your own ambition: to build India’s best digital creative team.

Lead by example. Don’t waste a minute of your day. Work harder, think smarter.

Remember your principles:

  • Every brief is an opportunity to do great work for a brand. Aim for a great idea in every piece of work that crosses your desk.
  • Chase perfection in execution. Every word of copy, every element of art.
  • Every post, every tweet, needs to be perfect. Be ready to pick fights about this.
  • Aim to crack a beautiful idea every time. Something that people have never seen before. Something that’ll blow their minds.
  • Corollary: Sometimes the simplest ideas work best.

Compromising with yourself kills greatness. If there’s even the slightest hesitation in your mind, speak up. Take work to the client only when you’re thoroughly convinced by it. You aren’t here to win a popularity contest – you’re here to do great work.

When you’re assessing work, be frank. Be honest. Be brutal. But be constructive. Your team looks to you for the solution. Provide it.

You’re in digital marketing. And more often than not, you will need to move the client along to where you are. Be ready for fights, heartbreak, disappointment and long hours. You’re getting paid to deal with that kind of shit.

Don’t get trapped in your cubicle. Get up. Move around.

Shut the lid of your computer when you’re working on something. Twitter won’t do your thinking for you.

Get out of office to brainstorm more often.

Follow your own creative process. (Below is mine.)

  • Re-read the brief.
  • Do some research online. Soak in the world of the brief.
  • Make the words collide. Don’t stop making the words collide.
  • Refer to the Wall Of Tech.
  • Think visually.
  • Your idea needs to make people laugh or cry or whoop or feel ashamed – basically, evoke an emotional response.

Find inspiration around you. Open your mind to people, culture, design, technology, art.

The quickest solution isn’t necessarily the best. Wherever possible, take the time to think through your actions.

Put yourself in your client’s shoes when working on a brief. But don’t keep those shoes on for too long.

Drink lots of green tea at work. It calms you down. And reduces your cholesterol 🙂

Keep the focus on the work. But remember it’s talented, motivated people who can give you that. Focus on the people and the work will take care of itself.

Stay calm. Don’t yell. Unless you absolutely have to.

Praise in public. Criticise in private.

Don’t overdo the praise. Avoid the superlatives. Because when you then use a superlative, it’ll mean so much more.

When you’re interviewing a candidate, interview them like Google would. It’s easier to wait three months to find the right candidate than to hire the wrong one in a month.

Try to get people to work during office hours. Rather than before and after them. Creative people get inspired by the life outside the agency doors. And deserve to enjoy their personal lives too.

Be strict. Don’t be rigid and inflexible.

Your door always needs to be open.

You succeed when your team succeeds.

You need to protect your team.

Trust your team to get the job done. But be ready to step in at any point if things go wrong.

Collaborate. Get to know tech, media, search and everyone else. They’re just as special as you think you are.

Delegate. But always know what’s going on.

Run a weekly job stat meeting with the team. And daily ones with the ACDs.

Continue to give credit where it’s due. You don’t need to be seen as the writer on every job. And remember, your name appears on the credits by default – so make sure the work is brilliant.

And, lastly: if you’re not having fun, then you’re not doing it right.

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creative, digital, industry, trend

What’s Dead, And What’s Not

It’s become fairly fashionable in digital circles to pick on trends and describe them as ‘dead’.

And if you were to listen to every doomsayer out there, you’d probably believe that the digital marketing world was populated by brain-eating zombies.

Fortunately, to misquote Mark Twain, the rumours of certain deaths have been greatly exaggerated. So here is my take on what’s dead and what’s not.

The Digital Dead

The Digital Agency Is Dead

Doomsayers here, here and here.

Well, there’s no question digital agencies are the need of the hour. Unfortunately, not every digital shop has the ability to really think from a brand and business point-of-view. Most are still in the ‘engagement’ business, and spend their time coming up with different ways to give away iPads on Twitter.

The challenge is that the independent digital agencies in India have become acquisition targets for mainline agencies. Given time, mainline agencies will probably begin to truly integrate digital thinking into their mainline processes. Which means that digital shops may end up becoming nothing more than digital production houses.

The big “Unless…” here is that integration may happen the other way around. Where the digital shop may integrate video production, PR and event capabilities. They may start thinking from a brand and business perspective. And suddenly, they’ll be eating into the mainline pie.

Verdict: The digital agency isn’t dead…but unless they change their medication quick, they will pass on peacefully in their sleep.

The Full-Service Agency Is Dead

Obituaries here and here.

Sure, they’re coming under pressure from digital shops right now. But see above. Eventually, integration – whether driven by traditional agencies or digital agencies – will win out – from a creative, brand, business and economy point-of-view.

Verdict: The full-service agency is visiting the doctor regularly, and the pills are bitter, but the long-term prognosis is still good.

Email Marketing Is Dead

Eulogies here, here and here.

Yeah, look. As much as I choose to send most emails I receive straight to the bin, I have to admit that email marketing is far from dead. Gmail tabs notwithstanding.

Yes, open rates have dropped. But here’s another way to look at it. I was recently tracking Open Rates and Click Rates across a bunch of brands, and sure enough, they’d all declined to some level after Gmail tabs. However, Clicks Per Unique Open were up. Which showed me that I was engaging with my most meaningful customers.

Across all our brands, email marketing continues to drive conversions, cross-sell and up-sell. Based on smart analysis, segmenting and targeting. And it’s working for our clients.

Verdict: Alive and kicking. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Real-Time Marketing Is Dead

Evidence here, here, here and here.

Oreo screwed us all. What started as a single, beautiful (if opportunistic) tweet has snowballed into a flood of desperate attempts to capitalise on news. What Amul did in India on hoardings decades ago, brands are doing now on Twitter and Facebook.

And, let’s face it, 99.95% of all real-time marketing tweets are crap.

They’re a force-fit. A desperate attempt by a brand to sound cool and ‘with it’ by jumping on to an event that the brand might have absolutely no connect with. An event that may not even gel with the brand’s personality. And with creative that will most likely suck.

Verdict: It’s alive, but I wish it were dead so that brands could focus on what’s relevant to them and their audience.

Social Media Marketing Is Dead

Opinions here, here and here.

My take here is really simple. The last great innovation I saw on social media was Skyrec (Google it). Right now, I see brands busy spamming News Feeds and Timelines with “engagement posts” and, worse, contests. (More about that here.) It’s still driving clicks to e-commerce, but…

It’s become a numbers game instead of a quality game. Instead of following a funnel from broadcasting to narrowcasting, brands and agencies are sticking to broadcasting. 5 million fans? I have 10 million. And 30,000 Twitter followers to boot. Fuck you too.

Most importantly, Mark Zuckerberg has proved thrice in the last two years what I’ve been saying for a while longer – that social media cannot be owned media. Because you, as a brand, don’t set the rules. First, Zuck reduced the reach of Posts and made advertisers spend money to reach an audience they’d already spent money to acquire. Second, he introduced Timeline, and put paid to all those Facebook apps brands had spent crores creating. Thirdly, he gave image posts the maximum reach last year – and, this April, chopped that down, sending social media managers into a tizzy.

Over time, Facebook will become a brand’s RSS feed. And Twitter will become a brand’s influence marketing platform, once (if) agencies realise that contests are doing sweet fuck-all for a brand’s image and bottomline.

Also, from an agency standpoint, social media management is pretty much a loss-making proposition. Lots of man-hours, piss-poor retainers, ultra-easy to screw up. So yeah, it’s not exactly a bed of roses.

Verdict: Yeah, social media is dead, and I’m kicking the corpse on the way out.

Content Marketing Is Dead

Tears shed here and here.

Again. It’s a question of creativity. Most of the content going up on brand blogs and websites is repetitive, redundant and boring. There’s no newness, no novelty, no differentiator. Often, there’s no focus on a brand’s tone of voice. Most content is just clutter.

But, that said, we’ve just begun to explore content marketing. And, every now and then, brands like Red Bull will come along and do a space jump and content marketing will once again be the new darling of the crowds.

Verdict: Content marketing is alive, but just a toddler, and needs some hand-holding to grow up.

Banner Ads Are Dead

The shortest take yet. Yes they are. When was the last time you clicked on one, eh? Or failed to get annoyed by a pop-up, a pop-under or (that new darling of publishers) auto-play video?

Verdict: Save yer money, cut the life support, let banners die. And look for more organic ways to engage.

This kind of a topic sort of demands a poll, so I’d love to know what you think.

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design, digital, industry, insight, trend

Digital Thinking. Design Thinking. #SameThing, I’m Thinking.

The real insight that came out of Kyoorius DesignYatra 2013 was, simply, this:

Digital and Design have a common goal – to solve human problems.

The notion occurred to me sometime on day one, during DigiYatra. It could’ve been sparked by the conversation that I had with a colleague on the flight to Goa. Or by the conference theme itself – Create Change. Or by something one of the speakers on the first day – Sanky, Joao Cardoso Fernandes, Laura Jordan Bambach – said.

You’ll find the proof in any products, digital or design, created by a brand or otherwise. As illustrated briefly below.

Granted, the scale of the problem may vary wildly, from personal to societal. But the essence is the same.

Identify a problem. Then build something to solve it.

The theme was hammered home on day 3, when Raj Kurup forcefully put a message across.

Everybody is a designer.

It’s true. In our world, you don’t need Photoshop and Illustrator to be called a designer. It’s not about what you do, it’s about the problem you solve.

In fact, tomorrow’s creativity may be all about identifying the crux of the problem, for the solution is often obvious.

The best digital and design agencies do exactly this. Identify a problem, design something to solve it. As do the millions of startups that churn out product after product, hardware and software, to address problems they think are worth the effort.

If those solutions can also solve a brand’s needs, then you have truly great marketing solutions.

It’s all about a human-centric approach rather than a brand-centric one.

Not a bad way to attack your next brief, no?

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