Masterstroke Interview with Deepa Thomas, General Manager, Group Communications at Mahindra Group

Deepa Thomas
Deepa Thomas

Deepa M Thomas is a corporate communications professional with 19 years of expertise over external & employee communications. She is leading the communications mandate for Mahindra Group Companies – Mahindra Holidays, Mahindra LifeSpaces & Mahindra Partners. In an exclusive and candid interview with Richa Seth, she shares her experiences and insights, please read on the interview below.

1. As you manage the communications mandate for two diverse Mahindra Group Companies – Mahindra Holidays & Mahindra Partners, what is the kind of role that PR (traditional media) has played in building the brands?

I am actually the sector anchor at Group Communications for three diverse sectors at the Mahindra Group – Mahindra Lifespaces (our real estate & infrastructure sector), Mahindra Holidays (our hospitality sector) and Mahindra Partners (our private equity sector which incubates the business of tomorrow for the Group) and lead the Communications mandate for all of them. Mahindra Lifespaces & Mahindra Holidays are listed companies as well.

Communications plays an important strategic role in helping to drive business impact both on the corporate and consumer front at the Mahindra Group and is recognised by the Leaders as a Strategic function. To design effective communications strategy, we first understand the Business Goals, the vision & what challenges it faces. This immersion process includes site & facility visits, learning sessions and conversations with multiple stakeholders and immersion into the brand. We then create the Communications Objectives, Key Messages & the measures via a Scorecard.  Along with our agency partner, the sector teams and Group Communications (my function), we identify the key strategic & tactical events & opportunities and identify the tactics to communicate them effectively. We also swiftly tackle issues preferably before it becomes a crisis. Here we interface with diverse functions including legal, customer service, marketing, leadership, operations etc.

To illustrate with a few specifics, the mandate for Mahindra Holidays including building & popularising the category of vacation ownership, for Mahindra Lifespaces, one of the mandates is to position it as a leading player in real estate & urban infrastructure.

2. How do you device the communications plan, what is the spend on earned, owned and paid media?

I have responded to the Communications plan question in the first response.  Most of the content we create is for earned media, we occasionally provide advertorial content for paid media and collaborate on owned media with teams running digital & internal communications.

3. What are the challenges that you have faced in your current role and what have been the learnings from them?

I would prefer to think of any challenge I have faced as a learning opportunity, to learn about a new facet of business and to collaborate with multiple stakeholders to jointly arrive at a decision or tackle an issue. Given that the Leaders I work with look at Communications as a strategic function and look to you for strategic advice, you need to step up and provide the right advice keeping market dynamics and the regulatory environment in mind. That means you need to keep abreast of developments in many different industries and micro markets.

I have also had the opportunity of working with Mr. Mahindra & other GEB (Group Executive Board) leaders on prestigious events like the World Economic Forum (India & Davos), Indo-US CEO forum etc which involved working with international media both based here and based globally. Not all of them are as familiar with the Mahindra brand and Group and hence one needs to evangelise it to them.

4. Can you please elucidate your experience of unveiling eBay’s new brand identity across APAC (especially in India) via PR?

This was a very challenging assignment where I was one of 3 global communications employees chosen across the world to lead the confidential roll out of the new eBay brand across External, Employee, Seller & Social Media. I was assigned the responsibility of the roll out across Asia –Pacific in the 8 markets eBay operates in. This involved briefing each of the inCountry communications leads who would then in turn be the point of contact for each of the internal teams in their market and being the interface for the central Global Comms team rolling it out both presenting localisation requests from each diverse APAC market while being part of co-creating the global roll out. Loads of international calls early morning & late at night to cover all the timezones, zillions of email exchanges marked the experience and this was made even more challenging that it was confidential and hence I could not even discuss it with my then Country Manager. I used to hole up in  a conference room as we had an open office to make the calls, preview the logo and other creatives. It all went very well finally and my role was appreciated by global leaders. Definitely, one of my memorable experiences & one for the biography should I ever write one on my many experiences 🙂

5. Since you have worked on consultancy as well as corporate side, what are your top expectations from consultancies that manage your account?

Firstly, I believe in treating the agency as a partner in the organisation’s communications mandate and ensuring a transfer of knowledge so they can add value to our communications plans. I also believe in transparency in goals & scorecards by ensuring we all chase a single aligned goal. Hopefully, the teams & agency partners I have worked with at Marico, eBay & Mahindra will bear me out on this.

Here are some specific expectations from the agency partner (in no particular order):

  • Keep us abreast on Media developments & Movements (publications opening or closing, key media we work with leaving or joining new roles)
  • Share industry best practises or learnings from other clients with us so we can adapt it to our context. This is because agencies have a huge diversity of sectors and clients they work with.
  • Have a good high calibre senior professional who can Media Train spokespeople
  • Challenge us when you feel strongly that a course of action is unlikely to work or will be counter productive to the agenda we are trying to drive
  • But also be open minded and sound off media on new & radical plans we may suggest, it just may work
  • Immerse yourself in my business, when possible use the product or service, read, ask questions
  • Share non-communications ideas or campaigns
  • Facilitate introductions with partners or clients (Two of your clients co-create a campaign thanks to you, that’s a win-win all around)
  • Be professional – the basics, minutes, JSRs, on time for meetings, respond to emails, return calls or texts.

6. What has been your success mantra and what is that you would like to recommend to youngsters who are planning to join corporate communications?

Corporate Communications offers a rewarding career to those professionals who are passionate about what they do, have an always learning attitude, immerse themselves in the business & the industry and are articulate communicators & spokespeople. My advice at all the Communications & Business Schools I teach at is to start your career in an agency and after 6-7 years of rich, diverse experience to join a corporate communications team at mid to senior level (depending on the size & stage of company).

While this may not be everybody’s advice, my recommendation is based on a good PR agency being a great training ground for young communicators to hone their skills by working with diverse industries and client needs and to learn the full communicator’s toolkit. Over the years, they would get more and more opportunities to strategise and play an integral role in PR campaigns for their key clients, while getting an opportunity to execute multiple shorter projects. In the company of their peers and via agency team meetings, best practice sharing; they would have a great start to their resume, skill sets and expertise before they reach mid-level experience – some of them would move to a good solid corporate communication roles and others continue to agency leadership roles.

Agency life gives you great width of industry experience and many opportunities to get to grips with the various tools of PR. Many agencies also have formal six month to one year training programmes for young professionals. If you have good clients who see the value of PR, you get deeply integrated into the company and play an advisory role to its management even while you are relatively young in the team / work experience.

Corporate communications professionals obviously develop deep industry domain expertise in their specific vertical and are by virtue of being a company insider, firmly integrated into the company offering strategic counsel to its leaders and often having a seat at the table in the leadership team.  If you were to start on the company side, unless you work in a very large corporate spanning diverse industries, it is unlikely that you would get that width of experience. You could even could get specialised into a role focus and your career growth may take longer.

7. Anything else you would like to talk about?

I welcome opportunities to guest lecture at Communications Institutes or speak at Communications forums. Interested folks can contact me on twitter.com/deepathomas or https://www.linkedin.com/in/deepamthomas

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