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Highly creative yet organized, strategic with a sharp eye for detail, and a consummate networker, Abhinav Kumar lives by the rule that ‘the most important decision you make any day is how you allocate your time’. He seems to have managed his very effectively – he was elevated to his current role as chief marketing and communications officer for global markets at the start of 2018, after previously serving for six and a half years as Tata Consultancy Services’ CMCO for Europe. Under his leadership, TCS' brand value has risen from US$2.3bn in 2010 to US$16.8bn in 2022.
Kumar has now spent 19 years with TCS, joining the company in India before leading marketing and communications for its Latin American operations, based in Uruguay and then Chile. In 2008, he relocated to Europe and has been based in Brussels since. He now heads up marketing and communications for all international markets, including North America, Europe, UK, Latin America, APAC and MEA, managing a team of regional CMOs and global function heads for communications, branding and sponsorships (with a US$170m deal portfolio) and operations. As part of the global senior management team, he serves as official spokesperson for the company and represents TCS and the wider Tata Group with European governments and institutions in Brussels, including its strategic partnership with the World Economic Forum.
His work at TCS has resulted in several awards – including a SABRE award for individual achievement in 2019 – as he has successfully shifted the company’s approach towards more creative, integrated and effective campaigns, which have also helped underpin its rise into one of the world's largest IT services firms, the fastest-growing company in the sector.
Can you share a moment in your career when you saw PR's direct impact on business performance?
There is a famous quote in one of Ernest Hemingway’s novels. When a character is asked how he went bankrupt the response is “Two ways. First gradually, then suddenly.” Applied in a more positive context, that’s exactly how PR/communications works. To build the story, positioning and central narrative of your brand, you need to consistently work on it for a long time. While this consistency is essential, there will also be moments of time when you can greatly uplift your brand through taking advantage of opportunities and by applying creativity. It important for PR teams to understand and work on this duality – keep great consistency, as well as surge and rise to the occasion when needed. If I look across my 20-year career with TCS, for most of it we have maintained a steady stream of PR performance, being ranked top three consistently in our industry for share of voice. As well, there have been innumerable occasions where our teams have managed to move the needle for our business: each occasion, when communicated right, helped us shift perceptions progressively. Hence if you ask me how did we build our brand from 33% to 84% awareness levels and add over $14 billion of brand value over the last decade, my answer would be: “Two ways. First gradually, then suddenly.”
What are the communications industry's biggest challenges and opportunities in the year ahead?
The opportunity clearly lies on the digital front. Communications need to go where the audiences are and on it the statistics are clear. A staggering 4.62 billion people (60% of the world's population) are now active users of social media, with the average person spending seven hours a day on the internet and 2.5 hours a day on social media. If you want to reach your audiences in the world that is increasing digital, yet inundated and overwhelmed by content, you have to get an A+ digital game on. The ability to cut through the noise and deliver a memorable and compelling story, straight to the preferred channel of our audiences, will define success. In terms of challenges, there are many fronts for a CCO to lose sleep on - activist investors, severe shortage of talent, regulatory pressures, synthetic facts (a fancy new term for fake news!), geopolitical fissures/conflicts, extreme climate events, polarized audiences, employee activism, and much more - take your pick! Organizations will need stronger, more resilient, more high empathy, more agile and more courageous CCOs to navigate the choppy waters ahead.
What have you most admired about this industry over the past year?
There is much to admire about this industry, which has played such a seminal role in helping the world navigate the pandemic over the past 2.5 years. One area that I feel the communications profession has finally started to get a key seat on the table create and impact on is climate/sustainability. Many of my peers in the industry have taken up significant responsibility, not just for comms but for creating change and impact on this front. In fact the title of chief communications and sustainability officer is becoming extremely common. Since energy transition to renewables and moving to net-zero will be the most important mission of our generation, the role that our function has started to play here reflects a historic opportunity for our profession to leave a mark on the planet itself.
What has most disappointed you about this industry over the past year?
As the pandemic abated, one of the first face-to-face meetings which I attended was a meeting of several CCOs of leading global companies, held at our London office. We had representatives from all sectors including tech, telecoms, manufacturing, financial services and pharma. It was a great moment to exchange notes and reconnect with people. One key thread that came across in the meeting was that many of us felt that the pandemic had left our teams, as well as the CCOs themselves, burnt-out and fragile. While the comms teams in every company surged efforts during the pandemic to play a very important role, perhaps as leaders we haven't done enough to look after the wellbeing of our people, especially mental health. Add to that the fact that over 100 million people worldwide are suffering from long Covid. As we look at the future, at growth and recovery, I do feel that its vitally important to focus on self-care and ensuring both the physical and mental health of our teams and even the leaders in our charge.
How have you switched off from work and maintained wellness over the past year?All of us who have experienced the privilege of flying have heard the standard airline safety video which repeatedly says “Please put on your own oxygen masks, before you do it for your children or others.” The reason for this is quite simple. If you pass out from lack of oxygen yourself, you will not be in any position to help anyone else. The same is true for work. I always request anyone on my team to keep a balance (as hard as it is at times), to switch off and prioritize their self-care first. You are no use to anyone, even your company, if you burn yourself out. For me, what works is long walks in nature with my family. Nothing is more healing than a spot of sunshine spent in the greenery of a forest, while your Fitbit clocks away your target 10,000 steps of walking in a day. The other thing which is great, after our hiatus in our caves during the pandemic, is re-establishing human contact. I recently spent a week meeting over 40 people at the World Economic forum at Davos. Nothing is more energizing than the power of human contact. The ability to meet, socialize and reconnect after the pandemic can have a huge progressive impact on wellness for so many of us.
Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through the past year or provided inspiration?
One big change for me over the past two years has been a major growth in the consumption of podcasts. I do a lot of ‘walkcasts’ – listening to podcasts while walking. Some current favorites include: The Tim Ferris Show, The Gary Vee audio experience, The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday, WorkLife by Adam Grant, The Marketing Book podcast by Douglas Burdett, Exponential View by Azeem Azhar and the CMO podcast by Jim Stengel. There is something so pure and engaging about consuming communications through voice-only. You learn to pay more attention to the words and insights, when less distracted by visual cues.
If I wasn't working in marketing/communications, I would be...
An aerospace or a climate scientist. I greatly admire people in both these professions. For the continuity of life, we need to either protect our planet better, or find new ones to live on. I hope we do both.
Sum up 2022 in one word.
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