This month we spoke with our highly valued freelance member Robin Dhara. Robin is a maverick strategist, working with a ‘curious kind of crazy’ for high-growth technology companies. He has worked alongside brands including Google, Vime, TED.com and Land Rover. Full of creativity and eccentricity, we thought it would be interesting to delve into his career timeline and find out more about his journey.
View the entire interview below:
Robin, you recently worked on a project with a client member of The Work Crowd, where you challenged status quo and championed a rather unconventional approach to B2B PR, where the results were an award winning campaign. Do you feel that given the uncertain time we find ourselves in currently, the ability to look outside the norm is important and why?
I think, in order to make an impact, you should always look outside the norm. People are the mode of communications and the channels that we’re using are changing and shifting. I don’t know if they’re going to go back anytime soon, but looking outside the norm has always been something that both clients and journalists look to do. PR people and PR agencies are always trying to find the unusual and be unique.
You need to make a point of difference with both business strategy and product launches. You need to be able to take a risk even if you know it might upset some shareholders. I think if you really do want to create an impact, you have to be different.
And how do you approach finding a story or coming up with new creative ideas?
I’m lucky, in the sense that I work with a couple of ‘unofficial partners’. I do this because I find that the creative friction that comes from exploring an idea, privately with a trusted individual helps me iron everything out. The support helps me break down the story, I have four stages of discovery that myself and my partner Alex go through. One, the rediscovery of the story. So, a press release or a pitch that is given to me, we ignore that entirely. We go back to the purpose of the company and see how it fits into the bigger picture.
We rediscover the brand messages, redefine all the different ways in which the story can be told. We go and test it with a couple of industry opinion formers, so that I can condition the market to thinking about a problem before we launch a company with the solution.
I ask; what is the bigger picture? How does this fit in and make an impact in that particular industry? What is going to be intriguing and enticing for the journalists? Irrespective of whether it is printed or not, the answers to these questions will get them interested in my client.
Positioning and messaging is key in this context as well – we rewrite the story in multiple different ways because investors want stories in one way, consumer technology journalists in another, and creative technologists in another.
We currently find ourselves in the world’s biggest work from home experiment. As an experienced freelancer working remotely for clients isn’t new to you. How do you make it work and what advice would you give to others?
To be honest, for the first 5 to 6 years of me working from home, I sucked because amalgamating the right mind-set, disciplining yourself and maintaining a routine, becomes a lot of pressure. If you’re reading all these books about working from home, digital nomadism, freelancing and this that and the other…we overload ourselves.
For the first few years I was freelancing I was going to agencies offices or going in house and sitting at a desk and absorbing their practices and workflows. Now, 2 years ago, when I started working with you guys, I have finally mastered it. I decided that I wanted to work from all over the world. I think the first time we worked together was a very large global research project, if I remember correctly, I was actually on a beach, just outside Barcelona.
My advice is, that it comes with a lot of trial and error. One, is build yourself a little space where you do nothing but your creative thinking, where no one can interrupt you build yourself a mental routine. Don’t try to do too many things at once. Clear your desk every evening. Finally, have all the resources that you need for inspiration set up around you. Write on sticky notes around the room and find new ways to really optimise the space.
You have had a varied career Robin, tell me what have been the key pivotal moments in your career and what are the lessons you have learned from them?
At 16 I left home and came down to London to be a magician. Then someone told me that I was wasting my talents and I should go into PR, then I read about PR and I fell in love with the idea.
A big lesson I learned was working for Mark Borkowski, an incredible man. He told me off more than anyone I can remember, but he taught me so much about the art of showmanship and storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s a corporation, a celebrity or a music brand, you always have to look for the WOW factor. That is what, as Mark would put it, put bums on seats. He started off as a theatre publicist and if you didn’t do something that was theatrical, then the show went down. The same went for the clients that we represented like Vodafone and virgin digital. Then on the other side, we had the likes of Iron Maiden and Eddie Izzard. This kind of mesh of corporate meets consumer makes you think differently about what a story is and I didn’t experience that in some of the more enterprise led agencies.
We were there to really move mountains. Horlicks was one of those campaigns that did that. We turned it into a cool clubbers drink as people were starting to take care of themselves more and weren’t as keen around going out and partying all night. We rebranded and relaunched the SOAR story saying that Groucho Club and Soho house were putting Horlicks on their menu right next to the whisky and after party dinner drinks. Next thing you know, there’s a 2000 word article in the Independent. The biggest selling year of Horlicks in all of its 180 year history at that time or something like that. That’s what taught me the value of showmanship.
What do you predict will be the impact of the current crisis on an industry, and what will be the opportunities post it?
I think an argument that our industry has always made is that we deserve a place on the top table, we deserve a place in the C suite. I think we are already there but we aren’t looking at it the right way.
When working with technologists and engineers and the kind of companies who are now taking over the world, what I have noticed is that these people look at messaging, positioning and communications on a deeper level, using data, insights and user acceptance testing. This has emerged from the disciplines of UX user experience and product design, where messaging is more than simply copy writing, it is embedded into the products from the inception and not as a marketing or PR afterthought.
The people who look at messaging and positioning and communications more broadly and on a deeper level as part of their product or service and not simply just digital marketing or PR, will be the winners in this new economy.
This is because they will be actively getting a seat at the top table, helping build new products and services, using their knowledge and experience of how language affects some of these technology powered apps. They will ultimately evolve outside of the traditional communications framework.