The Outlier Marketer Show
Think Differently ft. Sakthivel Pannerselvam
THINK DIFFERENTLY: How to ideate, and then execute quirky ideas?
A discussion between two practitioners: Sakthivel Pannerselvam and Pravin Shekar.
Sakthivel: Vanakkam, sir. Anywhere it is, my guru samarpanam is for you. My book is because of you. Whatever I’m doing is because of you. The leader is always the leader.
Pravin: I would love to know more about, see your book is very unique in terms of how you have presented it. It is not just the culmination of your experiences, Sakthi, in the6. So, I would want you to tell the viewers about what the6 is all about and then we will come to the book. So start off, because the6 itself is thinking differently.
Sakthivel: Yeah, so actually, way back in 2009 me and my friend wanted to start a company. We never had an idea like what we have to start. They say you solve a problem and start something, we didn’t think like that. Instead, we said, “Let’s write down all the ideas.” We don’t know how to solve the problems. I’m a mechanical engineer and he is into sales and the only tool we know is SWOT. Right from Hardware shops to teashops, we got around 64 ideas. We asked the people we knew, “What business will you start?” and each wrote and gave their own ideas. Surprise planning was something we thought of as very creative and wanted to start something like this. So we started in 2009. And if you ask me whether I will start something like that now, I will say no because I can’t afford to lose. My mistakes were starting a surprise planning company, way back in 2009, that too in Coimbatore, a very conservative market. Surprise for them is cutting a cake in the middle of the night at 12 and giving a bouquet. So more than marketing the project, educating the market was a big challenge that I had. The journey was on a different level. There were downs and downs, generally it’s ups and downs but in my case it’s downs and downs. I can say one thing proudly that when I surprise someone, there will be love. People will cry, laugh, hug. There’s a mother who called me a mom. It’s like you get more love and you also get paid.
The surprise planners industry got recognized 7 years later around 2016 - 2017. Before that, my keyword in Justdial was “cake.” I get queries for 300 but I will pitch my products for 4000 to them because there were no keywords for surprise planners then. So it was a real struggle for 7 years. After that 7 years, the competition started to grow. Right now, there are 48 surprise planners in Chennai alone!
Pravin: Wow. All right. So you started off, you had 63 ideas, of course, downs and downs, the typical life of an entrepreneur, Sakthi. But it took you five, six years to get that recognition. And in the last three years, you have 48 competitors who have jumped in. Now, let us take a segue into your book which I had the pleasure of pre-reading. The way you have approached the book itself is quite different. One, to come out with a book itself; and two, to collaborate with a few people so that you actually transport us into that place. Tell us something about your book, Sakthi.
Sakthivel: I’m a big fan of Pravin Sir. I used to carry books for style when travelling, books like 7 habits of successful people, Zero to One etc., But Pravin’s book, I took it like a drug and finished it in a day. I congratulated him right away on the phone. And whenever I meet you, you’ll always say, “Write about surprises. Write a book about what you are doing.” And once you gave me some weekly tasks, but I derelicted it. And in this lockdown, I started writing blogs and shared them with you. The pandemic put me in a position where I was 5 years back as surprises, guerilla marketing, brand experiences majorly focuses on getting crowds. So I had time and started compiling my blogs. Initially the idea was to present the case studies alone. But since it’s about guerilla marketing and the campaigns that I’ve done, I took the style from you and modelled it for my book. And since I became an author, I’m getting more respect and credibility from my prospects and it gives them confidence that I can get things done.
Pravin: Absolutely, Sakthi. Not just thinking different. People tuning in, check out his book 'Zero Rupee Marketing' available on Amazon. It is not gyan, the book talks about all the experiences that Sakthi and the6 have put in place and executed the projects. But Sakthi, in this case, from an execution point, how did you collaborate with the artists? How did you decide whom to work with? Because the book has come out brilliantly. It is a short book because it hits straight to the point. How did you find these collaborators?
Sakthivel: I wanted my first book to be the best. I used to work with Mano for social media content with God Particles. So he knew my campaigns and we had a rapport. I was confused between Amazon publishing or Notion Press publishing and that’s when Mano launched his project as well. So I approached him for the caricatures and illustrations as I cannot print and publish the real images of the campaigns. It came out really well in the first print. And we planned on that all black photoshoot with that lighting. I feel that it’s one of the good things that I did!
Pravin: It is the same photo that we have used as a promo pic. Brilliant! A lot of things for me to learn that you have already been interacting with Mano Bharati, who is an artist and author and a publisher himself. But over a few years, you understood each other. So when you wanted to go publish, he also approached and “Hey, let's work together and get it out.” But there are so many people, Sakthi, who want to write a book, but very few who write it and get it out. And as you rightly said, Sakthi, just by thinking and acting differently, now your prospects are looking at you with a different eye. They are looking at you with respect, because you are not somebody who tells about it, you are somebody who shows. And you are going and giving a copy to them or they procure a copy, come and pick you up. But from there, of course, pandemic has hit us quite a lot and you have successfully utilized that time. Because when I'm interviewing people, a lot of them say, “Hey, (there’s) pandemic! What can I do?” But there are a few who have done some certification, who got something demonstrable and you have a couple of things demonstrable. But now, my question is more on thinking differently. What is marketing mafia about?
Sakthivel: In the beginning, I was doing small guerilla marketing campaigns as I didn’t have enough money to market my surprise planning and few of them went viral. For example, I did a mannequin challenge in Pondy Bazar, Chennai. During the smart street launch, they had some events and I was there as well. The crowd was a mixed one of school students, college students and workers of the shops. Due to the event, the shopkeepers and workers were doubtful whether to open their shops or not. And I thought of doing a mannequin challenge video as they were standing there. I requested them to appear on the video and they accepted. The video was around 30 seconds but it took 45 minutes to get the final shot. I shot and edited that on my phone and posted it as “Chennai’s biggest mannequin challenge.” It went viral and Deccan Chronicle covered that story. People who were posting mannequin challenge, started tagging us. So I was doing campaigns like these and started doing campaigns for brands. Redbus and Thalappakatti were some of the brands I worked on. Then, COVID happened, lockdown was imposed. Even the day before nationwide lockdown, I was doing a campaign in a hospital. I thought the lockdown would be lifted in a while. Surprise planning was going well but I had to refund the money for my customers. Right when I reached a point, it caught me. When I was thinking on how to survive this, I realized the digital space is the only place as every guerilla marketing campaign happens in person. I was trying many things. And I think, creativity thrives in a cash crunch state. When we don’t have enough funds, we think of alternative and creative ways. That’s like my hook, I guess. That’s when online coaching started growing. My friend Dharani, started his online coaching. Another friend, Suresh followed him. I did the first batch in my style. 90 minute coaching at 3001 rupees. I had around 25 people attending it. I ran 2 batches and in the third nobody came. Then I created a sales funnel, a landing page and started to teach guerilla marketing. The challenge I had there is the unavailability of benchmarks and samples for guerilla marketing courses. If you take digital marketing, there is Facebook Blueprint. You can find courses by others too and can model yours. But there’s none for guerilla marketing. I found one on Udemy, but it was not that helpful in modelling my course. I started developing my course and in that there was one section about zero rupee marketing where I gave them ideas on the things that you can do without spending. That attracted a larger audience. Now I’ve taken that alone and coaching people on it. This pandemic is a boon for me. It changed my perspective completely. I’ve learned about sales funnels. And on June 29, 2020, I started the #365daysofmarketing challenge. I’ve wrote about around 101 marketing campaigns on my blog, have done 20 campaigns myself and I can steal some 50 from you and I thought I can do this #365daysofmarketing challenge, where I will post about a marketing campaign daily. I successfully completed that in June 2021. By doing this, I learned a lot about different campaigns done by different brands, the inspirations behind them, the execution and so on. I learned a lot in this process and 2020-2021 was the best year for me.
Pravin: So, the key takeaways for me here is something called ‘constraints’. When we have constraints, there is creativity that we are forced to think, we are forced to execute, and which you have continuously experimented and worked with. Very few people have successfully transitioned to the online course. And just, it is more on executing the different thoughts, despite everything else. We also thought the pandemic would be for 2,3 weeks locked on and we get out of it. It's now 18 months and we're still stuck. But it is purely from those constraints that thinking creatively comes through. Now, how do you go ahead and execute and this is more for the audience here, Sakthi. Thinking, a lot of people will do. Idea, you know, it keeps coming. But very few people are able to convert the idea and I'm not even talking about the success of the idea. It is purely: you wanted to write a book, you collaborated and you brought it out. So some of these campaigns, Sakthi, what is your thought process and what is your execution process? How do you go ahead and do it?
Sakthivel: I will say it is an addiction. It is a high that the marketers can only feel when we have something on paper and we work towards it, solve problems and translate it into reality. I can give you an example of something we did for Valentine’s Day in VR Mall. 2019 was a super year for me. I did a lot of projects in surprise planning, guerilla marketing and brand experiences and earned well. I was in transition to an improved lifestyle and I had a lot of plans for 2020. I’ve even discussed them with you. This was one of the plans that I had for february. A BTL activity for Valentine’s day. Under street marketing, I was looking for ideas and inspirations as the first step to know what has already been done. I saw one exceptional street art, many different campaigns and I noted them down. I was thinking about what was not done before in our state, and decided to make a big heart.
Pravin: Brilliant. Brilliant. So, you create a database and then based on the situation you pick and choose and adapt it.
Sakthivel: So we made a big heart and VR Mall approached us to do something for Valentine’s Day. I said, “No, these are some ideas we will execute, shall we go ahead?” They said, “Ok, this is the budget.” I said, “We can’t work with this budget. My budget is high. Shall we pull sponsors?” Since it’s confirmed that it will be a heart, and will be 7-8ft tall in the mall. We added a photo booth next to it with nice lighting and real red roses. Since the budget got exhausted, we approached Fujifilm. We said that this is our plan and it can be a BTL activity for your Instax camera, their instant camera range. So we placed the branding in the front and when people click a picture, the camera prints it and they paste it on the wall with some message. The front of the wall was allotted for couples and the back side was allotted for singles so that it can cater to everyone. It was big hit and the campaign went well.
Pravin: Beautiful. My learning from this, Shakti, is: you behave like a typical guerrilla marketer. Every client says, "Sorry, sir, I don't have budget for this." But you figured out how to solve. You approached Fuji. You approached a couple of sponsors and pretty much executed what was your vision. Please carry on.
Sakthivel: We included a school-time activity that we used to do called “FLAMES.” We got the necessary equipment to project and write. We put a big LED screen where the FLAMES will be done for the couples coming in. It is just a simple thing but when the size of it was increased, it was a whole new experience. We also placed the sponsor’s brand in the top and bottom of the screen. We were able to get a decent profit.
Pravin: Now, continuing the same question, what is your execution team? Does it change from campaign to campaign or you have somebody who's constant?
Sakthivel: I have a couple of teams. One handles the video production. It is very essential as the success of most of my campaigns lies in the videos made of them. The other is for BTL activities. Naturals ran the “Apna Time Aayega” campaign last year. Which means “It’s my time.” It focussed on women empowerment. Normally, Naturals used to do award shows, fashion shows for Women’s day. I pitched to keep a cage in a mall. I used the provocation technique in lateral thinking. I said I want to keep a cage, but I had no idea how to do it. I approached a team and shared my requirements. The small campaign got changed into an event at Grand Mall. We were doing a lot of campaigns there. Women will come inside a cage, where we played an inspiring and emotional audio, which will say something on the lines of “You are not caged by anyone but you. When are you breaking free?” Many women broke into tears. They were like, “Yes, I loved something but I didn’t do it.” A lady in her 40s cried saying, “She just got carried away with her marriage kids and so on and she’s gonna do something for her today.” From a brand perspective, it’s a vera level campaign. For the execution I needed a lot of support. I outsourced a lot of this. I have one team which does all my campaigns. The videos and photos are the content as they bring the virality.
For videos, I would like to share one example. When Jayalalithaa was critical for a month in Appollo, I used to get calls from my home in Coimbatore asking me to go home soon to escape riots as rumors were circulating about her death. But when she passed away, there were no riots. In the next two days, photos of policemen sleeping in the streets, wearing kerchiefs around their face, went viral. Someone pinged me saying “Sakthi, we should do something about them.” I took that as a the6.in campaign under surprise planning. So we did a thanking police campaign under the name: Keep Calm and Respect Police. It was a very simple one. I called Cake Square and ordered cakes saying that I’m gonna give that to the police. They just asked how many and when. I said 100 and 3.00PM. I asked for snacks, they gave me. I just printed a card. My expense was 300 rupees. I had an intern from Alpha College in Iyyapanthangal. I used to take interns from the Visual Communication department in that college. I will give them a stipend and flexible work timing and a certificate. They love working with us. We started the campaign around 4-5 in the evening, it went till 9.30 in the night. On our way back I was looking at the footage and I loved the emotion. I called the other intern to drop by the office at 10 to edit it right away. I uploaded the video at 1 in the midnight. The next morning it reached 1 million videos. Now that thanking police video has got 5 million views. Next week, an NGO took this idea and put it as an initiative by the6.in and they went to the police station and thanked the police. The best part is when I saw a policeman who looked rugged and fierceful, the type we normally avoid a conversation with said, “So far people have always talked bad about us. No one has ever said thank you. This is the first time someone is thanking us.” That was so emotional for me. I think videos are the assets for us.
Pravin: Absolutely. And for the benefit of all the others, I'm going to give a quick summary of what Shakti and his team did. Normally and it has happened over the years, when a politician or a senior politician passes away, there is a lot of riots that happen. Sakthi and his team noticed and that is a hallmark of a guerrilla marketer here is to notice, check the news what is happening, and they saw that the Tamil Nadu police ensured that there was peace and calm and quiet and business as usual. So Sakthi and his team came up with a guerrilla idea to thank the police. Two days after the demise of this politician, they approached a cake shop, who was happy to and then they brought the team around. And that went viral. Now the idea was to thank police genuinely based on, you know, they were lined on the streets and taking care. But that spark got him a million to 5 million views, which happened. You cannot engineer virality but virality, you need to keep doing something and experimenting. And that is what Sakthi and his team do. And earlier he was also talking about the execution part. I would strongly encourage each one of you to go pick up a copy of ‘Zero Rupee Marketing’. Check out the stories, check out the drawings, the illustrations, but more importantly, get at this core message here. That frugality is possible. In frugal marketing, zero rupee, you can do a lot of marketing. Constraint. Everybody has constraints, you have creativity there. But thinking alone is not enough. Doing. The last example, he beautifully said that the video went viral, and a nonprofit association took the video and took it up to police stations. So the6 and Sakthi also got additional image and the police got sentimental that “Normally, you guys only come to me for complaints. You keep talking about us, bad mouthing us. This is the first time somebody stepped in and said ‘Thank you very much for the service’” And Sakthi, that is the hallmark of thinking differently. And at this point, I'd like to 30 minute mark. Thank you very much for participating. And for all the other folks. The video is also going to be subtitled. So don't worry if you have logged in from the north of India or from anywhere abroad, but Sakthivel Pannerselvam: ‘Zero Rupee Marketing’, please go pick it up. Because as marketers, we need your support. We need that so that we can continue to think differently and execute. Sakthi, thank you very much.
Sakthivel: Thank you. Thank you.
Pravin: Lovely, awesome. And we are signing out now. Keep the questions flowing. We will continue the discussion. And if there are questions specific to BTL and you want to ideate, Sakthivel Pannerselvam: reach out to him on LinkedIn, clubhouse and every channel. Thank you very much till we meet again in the next LinkedIn live at The Outlier Marketers Show. Thank you very much.
Sakthivel: Thank you.