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BW Businessworld

Book Extract: Culture Calls

Multinational is the statement of the owner, the statement of the speaker, to say that the company has a presence in so many countries. Multicultural is the statement of a receiver to say somebody understands his or her culture.

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We often use the adjective ‘multinational’ to describe companies, and I’m amazed by the continued use. Ogilvy being ‘multinational’ means very little to brands that we work for, or to the consumer — all it means is that Ogilvy has offices in many countries. ‘Multinational’, for me, fails to capture the essential advantage that being present in many countries allows: that we become ‘multicultural’. If we add the descriptor ‘multicultural’ to ‘multinational’, making it ‘multicultural multinational’, the benefits to our clients and to consumers is immediately visible. The phrase ‘immediately visible’ suggests that, in addition to our being physically present in many countries, we also understand the cultures of these countries, and that we have local insights; we can tell stories in all these countries which will immediately connect with the local consumers.

It’s easy to be multinational. Being truly multicultural is harder. What is entertaining in one’s country can be offensive in another. What is edgy in one’s country might be quite normal in another.

The drivers for the purchase of biscuits in one country differ from the drivers in another. All these differences are because of different cultures, not because of different geographies.

Ogilvy is multicultural — because we work hard at it.

All multinational companies, I feel, should change their nomenclature to multicultural companies. Multinational is the statement of the owner, the statement of the speaker, to say that the company has a presence in so many countries. Multicultural is the statement of a receiver to say somebody understands his or her culture. There is a huge difference; multinational is an up-to-down way of looking at life, while multicultural is a down-to-up way of looking at life.
Multicultural is a statement of humility. It says that the company is not the king, the consumer is the king. Over the years, Ogilvy has been a multicultural company that follows this belief; it’s a multicultural company that unites rather than dictates.
This redefinition questions designations such as ‘regional head’. I’d prefer ‘cultural head’, a position that works closely with cultural partners, with insights and knowledge of other cultures; imagine if we redesignated someone as Cultural Partner, Dove, or as Cultural Partner, Coca-Cola, and so on; it would change the way we think of the brand, the business, the environment and, of course, the consumer.

Multicultural is a statement of humility. It says that the company is not the king, the consumer is the king.

To be responsible to different cultures, one needs to ensure that nothing is taken for granted. In India, for example, if your daughter came to meet me, it is normal and expected of me to pat her on the head and say, ‘Beta, God bless you.’ It is part of our culture.

In some other country, in another culture, my patting a little girl might cause great offence. That’s when I would need a cultural partner there who tells me, ‘Piyush, in this culture, your patting a child’s head is unacceptable.’ The understanding that we live and operate in a multicultural world is essential for every single multinational company — so that no unintentional offence is caused.

India and Pakistan were one nation sixty-eight years ago, and we could presume that we know each other well. We might, but never well enough to take it for granted. As recently as a couple of years ago, a youngster from the Delhi office designed the Ogilvy signature logo in Urdu, and his senior, Ajay Gahlaut, shared the idea with me.

It was a fantastic graphic. It closely resembled the English logo that we use, and I asked Ajay to go to a Muslim university, meet a professor who is an expert in Urdu, and ask him to confirm that the Urdu was absolutely perfect and that there was nothing culturally offensive in the graphic treatment. I also insisted that the professor certify that the treatment was okay. Ajay identified an authority, shared the logo with him and returned with the certificate.

Since it was both a multicultural and a multinational issue, the matter didn’t end there. I sent the logo and the certificate to my Pakistan office, asking them to conduct a similar exercise with experts in Pakistan. Only after the local experts certified the logo were we satisfied and confident that the work was culturally aligned, and we changed our identity in Urdu-speaking counties with this logo.

It’s in thinking of ourselves as multicultural that caused us to be sensitive to local thoughts, views, opinions, trends, tastes and fashion. This sensitivity does not come from being multinational.

Try it out. Change the way you think of your company. Once you see yourself as multicultural, you’ll be more accepted and loved. To top it, you will sell more toothpastes, soaps, shampoos, cars, mobile phones, chocolates and, of course, advertising.

The concept of multiculturalism is easily extended within the country as well. If one says that Ogilvy is a ‘national agency’, it immediately suggests that we have offices across the country.

That is a quantitative rather than a qualitative statement. The suggestion that we have offices in Bombay, Gurgaon, Calcutta, and so on, is information of little value to anyone.

Nowhere when we say ‘national’ does it lead to the thought that, in addition to having offices across the country, we understand the many cultures that we see in India.

We hear and read, many times, of the premise that India is a continent and not a country; a continent where food habits change every 100 kilometres; where dialects change every 100 kilometres.

It’s not an easy country to do communication in. Imagine an agency being told to create just one piece of communication to address all of Europe. Maybe the work becomes popular in the UK, but doesn’t work in, say, Poland, and perhaps is offensive in Hungary. If you force the communication down the throats of these people, you will be the loser. The same is true of India.

It’s all but impossible to create that one piece of communication that works across the country. India is such a diverse country with so many languages, so many cultures, so many dialects, so many food habits, so many expressions of music, so many expressions of dancing, that the work we do should recognize these realities. The diversity is both challenging and amazing.

With permission from Penguin Books India

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-11-2015)


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