We are frogs in a well: Lewie Diasz

Marketer Lewie Diasz explains why Sri Lanka’s marketing field is growing at a snail’s pace

Technological advances are changing the way marketers connect with audiences; consumers are adopting new digital platforms at a faster rate than an organization’s ability to respond to these developments. So, the question remains whether marketers have developed their skill set to take advantage of these transformative technologies.

Lewie Diasz has been at the forefront of the marketing industry as a leading practitioner and a tutor for the last 18 years. In this interview, Diasz foretells of an impending generational shift fueled by technology that would disrupt the country’s marketing profession.

Excerpts from the interview are as follows:

● Let’s talk about the state of marketing in Sri Lanka. What are significant turning points for local marketers today?
Marketing in Sri Lanka is very different to marketing in the UK or the US. In terms of geography, population and economic parameters, those are larger markets. Therefore, to a certain extent, we are like frogs in a well.

If you ask anyone under 25 whether they have read the newspaper or watched news on TV during the last month, not even one of them will raise their hands. They don’t know newspapers or TV channels, but they know the gossip sites and what’s published on their newsfeeds. Consumption patterns are changing fast, and dynamics like cost per person, other reach or circulation-related measures in the media industry are being turned upside down.

The problem is, there are many local companies with senior marketers who don’t understand this. They continue with traditional media like press conferences and TV ads, and those brands suffer both in terms of engagement and exposure.

You used the phrase ‘frogs in a well’ to describe the current state of the marketing profession. Is it because consumers are not dynamic and progressive enough to demand better from marketers?
I don’t see a problem with the consumer. It is up to the marketer. There are about five to six companies, that I know, that have a marketing budget of over Rs1 billion. There is a lot one can do. When I said ‘frogs in a well’, I meant that we are not exposed to certain technologies.

We need to understand that the game is changing. Virality is everything

What you see here is what I call ‘carpet bombing’ strategies. They work to a certain extent because we are a small market with little variation, but in markets like the US or India, which have different languages and even dialects, you can’t do that. In the West, you can’t afford TV or press because it’s expensive. Those marketers need to know their audience by address and postal code. You are not talking about 20 million people, but 10 times more. That’s why, even if you are a great marketer here, it doesn’t guarantee that you would be elsewhere in the world.

What areas need to be improved for local marketers to match up to top global marketers?
We need to understand that the game is changing. Virality is everything: How do you design a message that people would be intrigued enough to make it go viral? Platforms have changed from traditional to digital. The third is technologies like AI, virtual reality and 3D printing. They are not very expensive when you can scale it down. Furthermore, most decision makers in companies running marketing departments have not updated themselves on new technologies – they are not exposed to it nor are they willing to be exposed to it.

● Is the marketing old guard standing between the profession and its advancement?
There is a generational problem. Over the next 10-15 years, we will see many young people becoming qualified and skilled in areas like digital marketing, and taking over the jobs of senior marketers. It’s already happening in a considerable way because senior marketers have not changed their approach to understand how to exploit the opportunities of digital and social media.

● It’s unusual for a corporate professional to venture into writing textbooks, but you have written two. What was the thinking behind this?
I wanted to reach the highest points from both ends, as a teacher and as a corporate professional. As a result, I have also seen the flaws in specialists on both sides. There are corporate professionals with absolutely no academic sense, but who are very street smart. The flip side of that is hardcore academics who are extremely theoretical but have no idea how an organization works. I wanted to learn and excel in both avenues.

● Do you need to be book smart to succeed in marketing?
For anything from cookery to training a dog, you go back to the manual and follow the process. There is a scientific way and an experiential way of doing things. If you follow only the experiential way, you may end up going through a longer route as a result.

The question is, how much of these theories are used in the corporate sector. That’s an argument people bring in to circumvent their inability to know those theories. A person who is theoretically strong has the ability to analyse all possible options and selectively apply it to the given problem.

There is a condescending attitude when management jargon is used in boardrooms. What do you think about that?
Yes, you are absolutely right. Simply because you use the language of strategy, it does not always mean you are a great strategist. MBAs and qualified marketers with their theoretical knowledge need to perform and show that ability. It is then that one would believe that there is some scientific background to this.

However, it’s wrong to generalise that all successful corporate leaders have not borrowed from models and frameworks used in academia. Maybe they haven’t explicitly stated it in their business plans, but academic theories are always reflected in their decisions

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