Banking on Words

Shoma Interview Design

TAQ in conversation with Shoma Narayanan – marketer, author, mom and Executive Director At DBS Bank.

Ever curious about leaders who occupy the different worlds of business and the arts, we met with Shoma Narayanan to ask her what it is like to weave back and forth between the two worlds.  Shoma wears different hats as a banker, an author/columnist and a mom to two kids! She serves as Executive Director, Group Strategic Marketing and Communications at DBS Bank. An engineer and later business management graduate from XLRI, Jamshedpur, she has been working in the domain of banking for over twenty years. Writing is a strong avocation for Shoma. She is the first Indian author to be published internationally by Harlequin (Mills and Boon) and went on to pen many best-selling works of fiction including two books published by Rupa Publications. More recently she co-authored “My First book of Money” a non-fiction work with Ravi Subramanian, which introduces children to basic financial concepts in a fun way.

In this conversation, she talks about her journey, the complementarity of creativity and structure and the special lens that writing fiction makes available to her. Her responses are peppered with interesting asides and give us a glimpse of what is possible at the vantage meeting point of two worlds.

On identity

I know I’m not supposed to answer this literally – but if I could, I’d just introduce myself by my first name.  Just that. No surname, no designation, no reference to where I’m from, what my mother tongue is, what I do, what my qualifications are or who my family is.  Partly because I don’t want to put myself in a box with a label on it, and partly because conversations are so much more interesting when you know absolutely nothing about the other person (“Me Tarzan, you Jane” being a notable example from popular culture).

More seriously, my identity is defined by the multiple roles I play every day – marketer, author, mom, wife, friend….  Family and career are top priority for most professionals and I’m not any different. And writing is core to who I am. Not the nitty-gritties of getting published, but the process of thinking up characters and plots even when I’m not working on a book.  It’s slightly counter-intuitive, but this makes me more productive in other parts of my life.  

Perhaps because I write light, escapist fiction, the inside of my head is a happy space on most days.  

On being an author (of fiction)

At different points, writing has been a hobby, a second career and a creative outlet for me. Writing brings with it the kind of creative freedom I can’t dream of having in a corporate job. Also, being able to succeed in a field where I had no formal training or contacts gave me a fresh belief in myself.  Till my first book was published, all the successes I had seen were either in academics, or as part of a bigger team at work.  This was the first time I’d achieved something completely on my own without teachers, parents or bosses backing me. 

Writing was something I’d always been passionate about, but had put on a back burner for several not-very-good reasons. I entered a contest run by Harlequin (Mills and Boon) on a whim some years ago, and soon became the first Indian author to be published by them globally.  I’ve written eight novels so far and co-authored one non-fiction book for kids titled “My First Book of Money” 

I think what’s helped me the most in practical terms is that through writing I’ve developed a better understanding and appreciation of other people.

When you’re writing a book, your characters are necessarily very different from each other.  And when you develop a plot, you are constantly asking questions.  Why is a character so diffident?  What’s happened to them in the past to make them this way?  How would they react in this situation?  And you also put yourself in your readers’ shoes.  Is this character someone they can relate to? I find this funny, but will other people find it funny too? As a result, I’m curious about other human beings, and I like figuring out what makes them tick (hopefully without coming across as an incurable nosey-parker!).

This helps me at two levels at work.  One, as a large part of my career has been in marketing, it keeps me customer-focused – every marketing campaign I run is backed by strong customer insight.  And customer insight at its heart is industrial-strength curiosity about one’s fellow humans. Two, in banking, as in most other careers that require an MBA, a large part of your success depends on your ability to manage a team and stakeholders.  And the better you understand people around you, the easier it is to work with them.  

customer insight at its heart is industrial-strength curiosity about one’s fellow humans.

On being a banker

A large part of my career has been in Marketing, though I’ve done several stints in product management and sales.  I love the creative parts of my job as well as data crunching and analytics, and my favourite roles have been those in which I’ve had the opportunity to do a bit of both.  

I see the marketing and communications aspects of my job as story-telling of a different kind – I’ve been lucky enough to work for two big global banking brands, and I’ve been able to help increase brand awareness and preference in a rather cluttered market.  Marketing is the key to supporting business growth, and the best outcomes are when you work closely with people in sales, product development and customer service.

It’s difficult to say what other people think about me or my work, especially my team (bosses, of course, are usually quite frank with their feedback)!  I try to create a working environment where my team members can freely express their views and opinions and are motivated to come up with fresh ideas and better ways of doing things.  Diversity of thought and experience are things I value immensely, and over time, I’ve also learnt to tailor my own working style to get the best out of individuals.  The last was the toughest to do, and it’s an ongoing journey. I started work in an era when you had to adapt to your boss, and it took time for me to understand that the opposite is quite as important, if not more, for a team to be able to deliver results.

On moving between the creative and the structured

I don’t see an inherent conflict between creativity and structure. Creative work needs structure to prevent it from descending into chaos.  And innovation in any field needs creativity, though not always the kind of creativity you need to write music or author a book.

A lot of the exciting stuff that is happening today is at the cusp of two disparate fields like tech and language, or mathematics and music. The two parts of my brain co-exist quite happily together, and I’ve found that my best work happens when I use them equally.  

Sometimes I do weird things like using an Excel sheet to plan a book (which worked surprisingly well), or sketching a complete presentation out on paper before even opening a PowerPoint file. Marketing, and digital marketing in particular is perfectly poised between being a science and an art.  Big data can give you consumer insights that no amount of traditional customer research will elicit. When I began running large-scale digital campaigns with A/B testing, I figured that the best possible audience targeting tools will still get you very different responses for a good and an average ad.  And different audiences respond very differently to the same ad, and the same audience can respond differently depending on where they see the ad and when they see it.  

While some of this is common sense, a lot of thought needs to go into designing an effective marketing campaign.  Some decisions are data-driven and others are intuitive.  So both matter – creative excellence on the part of the ad agency and marketing team, and data analytics to ensure that the money you spend is effectively used to bring the campaign to the right audience at the right time and in the correct context.  

On career choices and challenges

Career choices were relatively simple to make, especially as I grew up in a small town with not too many options.  I was good at Physics and Maths and hated the sight of blood – engineering was an obvious choice over medicine.  I figured along the way that while I quite liked engineering, I didn’t much like engineers (please don’t judge me, this was in the late 90s, and being one of the very few women on campus wasn’t always pleasant – I made up for this early prejudice by marrying an engineer a few years later).  An MBA seemed like a logical next step, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do after I completed my two years at XLRI.  For a while I dithered between a career in finance and one in Marketing, and finally opted to do a bit of both.

It has been challenging, not so much because the two worlds are hugely disparate but because after a point I wasn’t physically able to cope.  I was writing an average of three books a year while holding down a reasonably demanding job and bringing up two kids.  I managed to keep this up for around 3 years, and then I couldn’t do it anymore.  So I stopped for a bit, and took a step back to re-evaluate what I really wanted from life.  

And I figured that I really wanted to make a success of my career, and I really wanted time with my kids.  Writing was important, but it was something I did because I enjoyed it, not for royalties or sales (though I quite liked spending the money that came inJ). I was in my mid-thirties then, had written 7 books and was gunning for a CMO role – as soon as I got the role, I decided to go slow on writing for a while.  Since then, I’ve written two more books, but at my own pace and it’s been a much more enjoyable experience.  

On working through the Covid crisis

I’m actually finding it difficult to write at present – my reaction to the crisis has been to throw myself into work as much as possible.  That’s possibly because my natural style is light-hearted and I’m not in the right frame of mind to focus on writing escapist fiction. But I’m reading a lot more, and I’m also thinking of trying my hand at non-fiction. Thankfully my current role also encompasses sustainability, so apart from what I’m doing at a personal level I’ve been able to connect the bank to organisations who are really making a difference in the current situation.

On renewal, learning and growth

I read two to four books a week – fiction, business, autobiographies, popular science, and psychology….and I try to learn as much as I can from people around me.  My reading tends to be eclectic, and when I’m tired or stressed I usually binge-read light fiction for a while, followed by something more meaningful.   

Spending time with family is rejuvenating too, and I learn a lot from them. My daughter and I have fairly similar interests and personalities, but my son and husband are very different people.  I talked about diversity of thought earlier, and it applies just as much to families as teams.  Our dinner conversations are lively and full of arguments, but never boring – like when I decided to interpret Avengers: Endgame through a feminist lens and had to face the wrath of three diehard Marvel fans.

I changed jobs recently, and my office is now at Nariman Point.  A few months before the lockdown, I started walking down the length of Marine Drive every evening after work.  The fifteen to twenty minutes that the walk took helped me order my thoughts about things I’d been too busy to focus on during the day.  I’ve done this all through my career – gone for a walk when I needed to think – but this was the first time I made it a conscious part of my routine.   I’m looking forward to getting back to this when the lockdown ends.