There is a saying that goes ‘say it straight’ and then ‘say it great’. So first you have to figure out what is the straight thing that they want you to tell and then use your skill and use your creativity and then see how you are going to say it great because even the biggest challenge for us also was okay these messages used to go out but it can’t be like we are merely announcing it,” says LALINDRA NANAYAKKARA in an interview with Creative Brands while talking about the art of communication during crises.
Welcome to The Future’s Here special series hosted by Creative Brands. The Future’s Here showcases leaders, thinkers, and trend setters from the creative industry, namely advertising, media, communication, and branding. My name is K.G. Sreenivas and I am Editor-in-Chief of Creative Brands, a portal that covers the global creative industry and economy. Today, we have with us Lalindra Nanayakkara, popularly called ‘Nana’ in the industry. Nana, who is based in Colombo, is General Manager, Corporate Communications at MAS Holdings, South Asia’s largest manufacturer of intimate apparel.
Nana needs little introduction. A well-known communications professional, with over 20 years behind him, Nana has worked with some of Sri Lanka’s leading advertising agencies and corporates, including Ogilvy and Leo Burnett, with a stint in Australia. Along the way, Nana picked up some of the top metals at some of the world’s most recognized award shows. Nana has conceptualized several award-winning campaigns for leading local and global brands such as UNICEF, KFC and Jetwing even as he brought to bear on his work his widely admired copywriting skills, creativity, and leadership to brands, such as Toyota, Coca-Cola, Minute Maid, Dialog, Sri Lanka Telecom, Mobitel, CJS, Sri Lanka Insurance, Elephant House, People’s Bank, Cargills Magic and so on.
Nana, welcome to the show.
We begin with the inevitable: Two ‘C’ words with a sea of difference between them — C for Corona and C for Creativity. Nana, what do you make of Creativity in the time of Corona? How have you as a creative professional responded to the times we have come to inhabit?
I mean true everybody has been affected by Corona and all planning seems to kind of disappear with this world pandemic coming in… it has been tough. We brought in cricketing star Kumar Sangakara as brand ambassador for MAS and we used him to motivate people and also to tell people how to innovate. One of the things that he said when we took him to our factories for our senior leadership to interact with him was: “You can’t decide how the ball comes to you but you can decide how you gonna hit that ball.”
I think we can apply the same thing when it comes to corona. Corona is not going to be the only thing that is going to come at us. There are so many things I think that in future will come at us just as things that have come in the past. So it all depends on how we are going to hit that ball that comes at us. And I think it’s the same thing with corona — it’s how we react to it and how we play it that will be key and how we are going to use creativity and how we play this game.
What I see with creativity is — you know you are born with creativity. But not everybody is creative when it comes to creative communication. So you have to ask yourself if you have that creativity in you and secondly if not you have to develop that creativity. And that you can actually teach yourself. Even though it has been a very restrictive time with corona and you know may be resources have become restricted, I would actually say that corona also has opened certain doors, you know it really opened up the digital format even during the lockdown.
Sri Lanka went into lockdown from March, the Cannes opened up and you could watch everything of Cannes online — I just so much enjoyed watching those sessions — and actually if you go to Cannes from Sri Lanka comparison it will cost almost like about two million bucks with your accommodation and with your festival passes all of that but here we could have it free. So I think it is important to use our creativity to improve ourselves firstly and to improve our businesses. There are certain things in the macro environment that we can’t change but there are things we can change and let’s use the God given talents that we have to change those things. So creativity can be used even in times of Corona what I would say.
Nana, in fact, I think when we spoke about opportunities that Corona has thrown up rather than looking at the adversities because adversity itself is the mother of inventions. To your mind has the pandemic probably helped foster alternative forms of creativity, alternative methods of looking at creativity? At MAS how have you helped build the corporation’s creative strategies?
Actually because of corona, communication became a key thing because even in MAS we went into working from home — ironically, we were looking at the work from home model even before corona has struck. But because everybody was kind of scattered and not connected, communication became key in that scenario but at the same time you know you should not be communicating like the marketer because your job is not to do the marketer’s job — you are coming to the table to bring something additional or bring something different to the table. As the creative person I would say the first thing is you know to say it fresh so even in the MAS case, there was almost three messages that went out from day one. You need to see this against the scale of the company — we are present in 16 countries with a staff of 100,000. In Sri Lanka alone we have 70,000 staff including the executive and budget staff. Then there is on-ground staff who would be over 70,000 — so question was how are we going to communicate to that crowd. At the same time, it’s not just by giving notices because their lives are also like busy and there is so much of communication that’s out there anyway, so you have to see how are we going to out threw that clutter.
So the first thing I would say is ‘say it fresh’. There is a saying that goes ‘say it straight’ and then ‘say it great’. So first you have to figure out what is the straight thing that they want you to tell and then use your skill and use your creativity and then see how you are going to say it great because even the biggest challenge for us also was ok these messages used to go out but it can’t be like we are merely announcing it. So you have to say it differently not just what are we doing as a company — it also kept changing, things were evolving every week, the messaging kept changing.
When I say, say it differently it is because there will be things like new things coming in — like for example, the conversation on mental health became important because people were so overwhelmed or they were separated. The lockdown was like a completely new thing for people and they had to get used to being so restricted and so in such a scenario how were you going to like communicate and secondly you had say it fresh and say it fast.
So you had to develop methods, modules, and processes that would say it all fast in order because again your team was not sitting with you — so you had to what was the message, how you communicate with the writer, how you communicate with your art person, how do you bring that in, how you quality control, how do you then give your feedback and get the best thing out… Also how do you look at options, do we give options, which options do we improve… so all of those things came into being and I think in that way we figured our way… It was a new situation but I think because of that it also helped us to work in a different way, improve ourselves, improve the way that we did things, and improve the processes while looking at how we could maximize our work resources and even maximize your budgets.
I think the next question I had in mind you have answered partly, nonetheless may I press it again. You have greatly emphasized the idea of co-crafting techniques, the essential crafting techniques in creative communication. What would you would you like to expand the topic to meet the co-crafting techniques?
When you come to crafting there is a saying that if something is well-designed nobody sees that it was designed but when design is missing everybody realizes that there was something wrong — they may not be able to figure out what it is but they know that ok something is amiss… so you have to craft things, that is, you have to look at the details and whatever creative person you are or whichever discipline that you come from it is important to look at the detail. You can then improve in your core area, say for example, for a writer it’s not enough to write it once or twice. Even when I write an email for example I would write it, I would rewrite it, and I would edit it — actually it goes through four sets of changes by myself and then I send it out.
Simple things such as not using the same word in the next sentence and crafting it in such a way that when you leave your desk it has added value to what has come to your table. So first thing is that you look at what is your core area that you can bring the skills to… Also crafting is not something that you will do alone. If you are a photographer, for example, what you can learn from the top guys you can also learn from superiors. What you can learn from those who have gone before you — it’s the same that applies when it comes to creativity. If you are doing a piece of copy writing or art or production or visual graphics or animation, who can you learn from? It can be from your immediate superior, it should be also people who are skilled in that area so look at how you can improve yourselves by looking at others learning from others. That’s the second way you can improve your crafting skills — by co-crafting.
Thirdly, look at supplementary crafting — it is okay if you are comfortable in your comfort zone with your core area of discipline, if you are a writer you are comfortable as writer but see what else can you bring to the table because more and more what we are now seeing is that you need to be multi-tasking. If you are a writer you need to be a good presenter for example — you need to develop your persuasion skills. I know an art director who actually developed the skill of local writing and he became one of the best guys because now he suddenly had the both skills to bring to the table. See the value of what he does grows and the value of that person also grows — so look at supplementary skills and sometimes the supplementary skills can be like in different areas because you can still learn the disciplines and from that.
You have also been a widely recognised expert on typography. You have said how instead of “just using text for a headline or as accompanying copy, typography can be used to drive an entire campaign or concept”. Given the digital explosion in communication currently, how do we employ typography as an effective tool? A whole generation, a significant demography in fact, seems to be going off tangible forms of media.
I think we need to understand about typography is that — this generation, I mean the millennials and the zillennials, also needs to know where are things coming from. It’s good to be future-focussed but it’s also good to be educated about the past, so I think when it comes to typography you need to know your basics, you need to know where are things coming from even as simple as serif to sans serif to typography to does a type involve. At MAS, when we looked at our corporate font, we looked at the letter type of that particular font and found that two of the letters had a millimetre gap in two variations of the font — so for example when they are going to write a headline you will get a small gap. As an art person you have to fix that gap manually, so the two things are, you need to know the basics of typography because typography is like a beautiful dress with the wrong colour! If the colour is wrong there is something missing in the piece of communication — so typography can really set the tone for how we are going to talk to someone.
Now the sad thing is that you don’t need to be developing these skills as you said because of digital — you don’t need develop those skills because it’s kind of freely available… you can download as many fonts you want without even paying for it! When we did UNICEF, the theme was ‘back to school’. Last year, you had a messy situation in Sri Lanka, there was the Easter attack and you know curfew was imposed and parents were not willing to send their children to school. After a few weeks, we had to do a huge campaign telling them you know things are safe and that you can send your child back to school. Now what is the type you are going to use for that such a piece of communication. It couldn’t have been like a chalk type of font because it’s not teaching them, but at the same time it couldn’t have been like some serif font which had sharp edges. So we chose the typography carefully and appropriate to the communication.
My advice is do not forget that the type is also one of the tools you can use definitely when it comes to communication even in things digital… and develop different voices for different clients because each brand, each product, each service needs to be talking in a different way to the audience. The type is also important and stick to that, do your research, do your homework, develop that type, and develop that skill as a design person because there is so much more we can do with type. When it comes to Asia, the continent is very type-heavy. Most Asian cultures are type-rich because that’s in our blood, it’s part of our genes, so we can do greater things with type.
Recently, MAS released a rather popular campaign for safe voting, laying emphasis on safety first while urging the voters to exercise their franchise. MAS was also among the earliest of Sri Lankan companies to sign up for the United Nations Global Compact, way back in 2003. Nana, how have you crafted MAS’s persona, or shall we say how do you meld creativity and the company’s core values?
Actually, the UN Global Compact was a very good tool for us to get our content from, especially when it comes to a large organization like MAS. Each sector has so many people working on it, so sometimes it’s not easy to get everything in one go. So when you are creating content, it needs proper facts and proper direction. It can’t be like I am going to create this that it looks nice and sounds nice… it has to be communicating certain facts or certain benefits to someone else.
For corporate like MAS we look at what are the values that we are going to communicate and what are the things we do around those values. So each year, we put out this proposition — these are the areas that we have looked at, these are the projects that we need to talk about, these are the projects that we can talk, these are the things that people will like to hear about, this is what we have done… So it helps us communicate in the manner we want to. Internally we have a plan regarding what we are going to do and how we are going to communicate these things. So that it comes in proper time and comes out in a planned manner through the proper channels…
Nana, do you work with an external agency or do you have you have a team within MAS?
We actually work internally most of the times because we have a corporate communication team. But we also have a divisional communicational team and a project communication team, so we work together on projects. But yes, if we need to produce something we definitely then would be using external resources for production process but I would say costing is higher when using external resources.
Nana, tell us about that work/s that has been defining points in your creative career. How do you define that work? By the metals it wins or the ROI that the brand garners?
Ok let me start with something that Ogilvy said in his book ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’. I mean the minute he says, “Don’t make an ad that you are ashamed to show your wife”, let me give it a spin on that and say, “make communication that your family would like to see”. I think the creator’s biggest happiness is when his or her work goes out in public and how the public takes it. I think awards are good, but there are different criteria that you need to take a look at. One is that we need to make an impact in the market, so I think when I look at the early part of my career, one of the ads of Toyota I recall was about this truck called Dyna. We played on the idea of working with ‘dynamite’ as in ‘dyna’ and ‘might’. I remember how some 20 trucks were sold out immediately… So creativity was not the message — creativity was something we used to solve a business problem. Furthermore, it needs to be used to solve a societal problem.
Awards are important simply because they raise our standards. We might be creating things but we don’t know whether it’s good or not… so we need to have something to judge and being recognised on the fact that no it’s good work, it’s great creativity, work it’s well crafted, it’s well thought of, it’s a great idea, it’s making the necessary impact… that the thought process is good… the execution is good… So in that way even when we are out to win the creative award, we know yes, it does help and it does help our journey, but I won’t say that that is the only thing that should define what you do… You know, one thing is you should be able to define what is the impact it makes on people who really care about who you are and are proud of what you are doing. Secondly, you know it is really like achieving the results you wanted to happen… Thirdly, it is about achieving certain levels or certain standards of performance as agreed or as set out locally or internationally. But that should not be the only reason you do your work, but still it’s a good way of knowing that you are doing good work or great work.