May 15, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

The man who knew marketing

Dewang Mehta died too soon. But then, in his short life of 38 years, he accomplished as much as lesser mortals might do in a few lifetimes.

We were only acquaintances, not friends. I met him first years ago at a conference in Santa Clara, California. Later I was on a couple of panels with him -- enough to know and respect him for who he was. His life's work was important not only for what it did for India's IT industry, but also for the self-confidence that it helped instill in the nation at large.

I remember him as the man with the bouffant hairdo and the sideburns: sort of a chubby Elvis-type, with honest teeth and a ready smile. And a sharp intelligence, although he was not a wit. He was a very good speaker, though the lines that got him the biggest laughs, I suspect, were well-rehearsed. His most notable characteristic was his unflagging energy; he was a workaholic.

I knew he was unmarried; I learned later that he had also lost his parents early and had been brought up by relatives. Apparently he was divorced, and his primary companion was his dog. I didn't know these personal details about him. But there was also a child-like sense of delight, especially in film and related things.

I once observed with astonishment an interaction between Dewang and Shammi Kapoor, former film star and Internet aficionado. Dewang bent down and touched Kapoor's feet with the greatest of humility and asked for his blessings! This in a man whose self-confidence I had observed to be just this side of arrogance! I wondered then if the scene with Kapoor was a studied gesture, a marketing tactic; but I have come to the conclusion that it was genuine.

But there is little doubt that Dewang was a master marketer: he understood the power of packaging and positioning. He was the evangelist par excellence.

Somehow, there is a general image of the Marketing Man as a sleazeball; not only in India ("No Marketing Please, We're Indians") but also in the US: see Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Okay, I am being generous in including sales under the rubric of marketing. But this general image is unfair. For, some of the people who are revered most in the world were or are brilliant marketers.

For instance, consider Mahatma Gandhi. I happen to think he was a great human being, but surely he was also a marketing genius of the first order. Just look at the brilliance of his image: the huge ears, toothless smile, round glasses, the loincloth, the staff. I remember a factoid from somewhere that the most recognized characters on earth were Gandhiji and, no offence, Mickey Mouse.

And no, it wasn't the big ears. It was the deliberate cultivation of an iconic figure with his sartorial abnegation, something that would appeal instantly and instinctively to his target audience, the average Indian. Something that would resonate strongly with the ascetic tradition of the land; the intentional invocation of the poorest of the poor, the salt of the earth.

As Sarojini Naidu is said to have complained, it cost India millions to keep Gandhiji in poverty. But the packaging and positioning were successful: Gandhiji was able to convert a 'nation of slaves' into a nation of free-thinking nationalists who were willing to sacrifice everything for a cause that was greater than themselves -- an incredible metamorphosis.

Similarly, almost all well-known religious figures are brilliant marketers; this goes not only for the various revered god-men of the distant past but also today's TV snake-oil salesmen and cult leaders such as Pat Robertson, Jim Jones (of Jonestown fame), Jimmy Swaggart, et al. Demagogues aplenty have been good at marketing, as well.

What is astonishing about Indians in this context is our strange diffidence. For a bunch of people that talk up a storm, who argue constantly, Indians are extraordinarily bad at blowing their own trumpets. I speak in generalities, of course -- there are individuals who do not follow this rule. But the fact is that we undervalue the accomplishments of the Indic civilization consistently.

Now this may also be due to successful marketing, of the Macaulay sort: we, who have been told from childhood that everything Indic is vile, valueless and barbaric, obviously start internalizing it. Thank you once again, you Nehruvian Stalinists who have had a stranglehold on our educational system.

As that master-propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, once said, the key is to come up with a very simple concept, and repeat it ad infinitum. It works. Indians have been told over and over again, "Our culture sucks. We are worthless people. Let's fawn over and ape anybody who beats us up or despises us." No wonder we have come to believe it.

Contrast this with the highly successful Chinese propaganda to its own people: "We are the greatest civilization in the world, and we have been wronged by all these white countries and the Japanese." The Chinese are extremely jingoistic and nationalistic, much like Nazi Germans.

I am reminded of the success of propaganda, especially on young and impressionable minds, when I observe how horrified Americans are at the prospect of eating with their fingers. As children, they must have been punished often for not using cutlery; now it has become an article of faith, a dogma, in their minds, that eating with fingers is uncivilized.

Yet, the real reason for using cutlery is simple: it is merely geography and weather. In winters in Europe, it made no sense to heat up ice to make water for you to wash your hands -- much more efficient to just wash a lot of cutlery. The same logic applies, incidentally, to the use of toilet paper and the practice of bathing in a bathtub. The point is, the lack of running water created mediaeval European practices which are not necessarily sensible in today's world, and certainly not for India with its plentiful water. But this widespread practice is now a dogma.

What has all this got to do with Dewang Mehta? Simply that he more or less single-handedly invented the new mantra about India and IT. It has now become a widely accepted belief that Indians are the world's best at information technology; there may even be some truth to the statement. As they say, perception becomes reality: Indians are beginning to believe it; and so are others. And lo and behold, Indians will become that which they believe.

Without being unfair to people like F C Kohli of TCS and other visionaries who actually created the Indian IT industry, I still would give maximum credit to Dewang Mehta for his evangelism that created the aura and therefore enabled the selling of the concept. When Dewang joined NASSCOM, it was a relatively small and unheard-of entity. Now it is one of the most respected and listened-to organizations in the IT world.

Dewang's trump-card was the principle of self-fulfilling prophesies: that people tend to live up to others' expectations of them. Over the years, I have seen NASSCOM publish all these rosy and upbeat forecasts of the growth of the IT industry in India. I had no idea how they would ever be met. Yet, wonder of wonders, the industry folks, believing these numbers, in fact met or even exceeded them!

There was a remarkable experiment in a US school a while ago: children were given IQ tests, and the teachers were told which were the smart students and which were the dumb ones. Only, the researchers lied: they randomly selected children regardless of their scores, and declared them smart or dumb. But when tested again a year later, those children anointed as 'smart' had indeed become smart, and the 'dumb' ones were indeed dumb -- this was the power of the teachers' expectations. Dewang and NASSCOM told the industry they were smart and they became so.

Part II: Contenders, yes; good marketers, no

Rich tributes paid to Dewang Mehta

Rajeev Srinivasan

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