CORPORATE LEADERSHIP | Sonali Dhawan (PGP 1998)
Sonali Dhawan (PGP 1998), Vice President, Feminine Hygiene – Asia, Middle East, and Africa
- Associated with the development of multiple award-winning campaigns including Cannes Award winners – Ariel #SharetheLoad, Whisper #TouchthePickle, Vicks #TouchofCare
- Served On the Executive Committee of the Indian Society of Advertisers, and the Technical Council of BARC for digital measurement
- Awarded ‘Top Women Achievers of 2017’ by AsiaOne magazine
- Awarded ‘CMO of the Year’ by exchange4media in the category of Home Products in 2015
- Winner of 2 Pitch CMO awards in 2017 (Gender Equity and Social Responsibility)
- Ranked #5 on the list of IMPACT ‘Most Influential Women in Marketing and Media’ 2019
What are your fondest memories from the campus? I remember a lot of things very fondly especially because I was an avid enthusiastic participant in all the events on the campus, especially the Combos, Chaos, Talent Night -where for the first time in my life, I did a fashion show. Also, the most important times were the times that I spent with my husband, Sanjeev, as we both were in the same section and groups together. Further, I think the friendships from IIMA last a lot stronger than the rivalries. Also, you tend to remember the happy times a lot more than the poor grades that you might have got in some of the quizzes. I have considerably enjoyed my stay in the city, especially during the kite festival and loved the Diwali decoration on the campus. For me, the two years at the Institute were fun.
What does the YAAA and recognition mean to you? I think it is very special, when your Alma mater, such as IIM Ahmedabad, gives you such recognition. This is a place where many esteemed people have walked through the doors and in hallways, so this award feels special with a feeling that you are supported by your peers and teachers. It is going to stay with me for a lifetime.
Tell us about creating your success path to P&G and many important leadership roles. My path was actually quite simple. I joined P&G as my first job in life and the first one out of campus. I have been associated with P&G for 23 years now. So, I started in India with Haircare, and after a couple of years, I was fortunate enough to shift base to Singapore for 8-9 years and then again I had the opportunity to come back to India in 2009 to lead Beauty Care and Media operations. I was in India for the next two years, and during this course, my younger son was born. Following this, I took up an unusual role as Managing Director for Pet Care, Asia in Singapore. After working in Singapore for a couple of years, I came back to India for my family as the CMO and the leader of commercial and brand operations. Subsequently, I took another role within India, as the Head of the fabric care business. Finally, I found myself in Dubai heading the feminine hygiene business for the AMA Region. So, this is how my journey has been.
How would you define the changing landscape of ‘Marketing and Media’ for businesses with convergence with technology? It is so evolving that I could talk for hours on how things have changed from the time we used to make a 30-second copy, put it on air and then relax for six months. This is definitely not that era, but I think, the basics are similar- A consumer-focussed approach, having great products, bringing them to life with impactful insights and communication. The change is definitely in terms of reaching the customers or mining the insights, which is all about customizing the relevant product and insights, but doing it at scale.
This is the time when the businesses are experiencing a real shift from old-fashioned work to using technology on a one-on-one level. Now, we can create hundreds and thousands of commercials or creatives using AI, customised to be delivered to the right people, right through your desktop or smartphones, with a choice on when they want to see it. So, this brings into focus the essential nature of marketing, which is about consumer delight and consumer relevance which is the same past 20 years, but what has changed is the way it is delivered now, both in terms of creation of product and the message of final delivery.
What do you feel are the two to three biggest transformative changes that are going to come in this field? This is a difficult question because it is difficult to predict the changing dynamics. If this question was asked 3-4 years back, the obvious answer would have been ‘The future is digital or AI or blockchain.’ But there are a few trends that are going to stay for a while, like, one-to-one marketing over mass marketing, and permission marketing where a lot of focus would be on how the customers want their data to be used. I feel, the future will also hold a lot of value to one-to-one mass customization, relatively great progress in terms of programmatic ways to reach consumers and having a customized product design. The marketing trends can also evolve to ‘experience is more than the product’.
What do you think are the major changes that are coming following the pandemic? I think, a few of the emerging trends after the pandemic are antithetical because you might think it should not be so, but we’re seeing them. Firstly, there is an increased focus on hygiene and personal wellness, with the ‘natural and sustainable’ tag. I can see that sustainability is going to become one of the big frontiers. At the same time, we are experiencing a lot of personal indulgence with a focus on mental wellness, particularly. So, there has been a diversion on wellness products and services that can help people in coping with the new normal. Also, I believe the way we are perceiving technology following the pandemic would also change the consumption patterns, along with priorities in life.
How is the role of women in business and marketing changing? What transition have you seen, especially following the pandemic, your journey so far and in general? It is a very loaded question that has many parts.
Firstly, what is the impact on women in this time of the pandemic? I feel, like with any crisis in the world, whether it be wars or famines, it is majorly the women who get impacted the most, in terms of taking up the harder chunk of work at home, maintaining the families, losing their jobs more often to meet the increased responsibilities at home, salary cuts, added pressure to perform equally well at work and a lot more. So, if you look at the role of the pandemic, it has hurt women a lot more than the male counterparts.
Secondly, your question about how it has impacted my journey! Well, if I have to share about my career as a woman since my first corporate stint, I would say that it ought to have been difficult. With women, the biological clock and career clock compete with each other. I got out of campus in 1998 and got married in 1999 as Assistant Brand Manager. I got my first child as a Brand Manager and the second child as Associate Director. In between all this, we had four moves from Singapore to Mumbai and vice versa. Thankfully, this was easier for me as my husband has been extremely supportive, has been a rock to all my decisions and has been flexible to accommodate his business operations centric to my relocations. For my current move to Dubai, he started an office of his company there beforehand, so I could get more flexibility to move. The second person who has extended immense support to me has been my mother-in-law. She lives with us and even sent me to work right after my maternity, ensuring that she will take care of the baby. So, she is a real reason behind me achieving what I have achieved so far. The third pillar has been P&G as a company with women-centric policies and so much support to the women, in general. I still remember that when I came back from my first maternity leave, I discussed with my Manager about breastfeeding for a year, and I was not made to travel in a regional job. There have been many pillars and great stories behind my success as a woman with great work-life balance.
Thirdly, how it is for women, in general? Actually, things are changing and for the better. Especially in the company I am associated with, there is a lot more awareness for equality, inclusion and diversity. Otherwise also, I think in the current times, it’s not just about women being present, but it is about them having a voice and being included in every decision at the top levels of companies and corporations. P&G has this as a major agenda. We recently concluded the P&G #WeSeeEqual Summit, where many declarations have been made on 50:50 representations at all levels, paternity leave across the whole region for 8 weeks and much more. I sense that across the industry, it has been a well-founded belief that companies that are more equal and diverse tend to have better results. This is making things relatively easier for the women in the corporate world.
In my view, what is not changing so fast is the social fabric. I think, even today, we are raising our daughters to be really strong independent women, but when we are raising our sons, we are not necessarily raising them to be as ready for these strong independent women. So, we still need to progress to a space where there are more men who are ready to share the load, the caregiving efforts, and willing to be equal players.
2020 interestingly saw a most welcome milestone of women now present on the board of every S&P 500 company and even constituted 47% of the incoming class of new directors. How do you see this as a trend? It will require a push by the government as this trend is not autonomous by itself, but has happened because of the legislation passed. I see the trend continuing, as there is a greater and greater push for equal representation across levels. I think, if companies follow similar declarations and agendas, then there is no reason why we should not see this propagating itself. In my view, as more and more women get into the higher echelons, there’s more and more for the companies to pick from when they are choosing the composition of their boards, etc. So, I think it’s a very positive trend, and I see it continuing.
What would be your advice to women to get Board ready? I have found myself on the board for Procter and Gamble – Health and Hygiene, as well as Gillette. My first advice to women is that you have to convince yourself that you deserve to be there, add value and have the capability. Secondly, there are many online resources of formal training and certifications through government portals that can help you to be Board ready. The last is to never be shy and show confidence when applying for the Board positions.
On a lighter note, what are your mantras for work-life balance? Apart from the aspects of my life that I mentioned earlier, I would also give credit to my children who are fairly proud of what I have achieved and continuously support me to achieve more. For me, the support system has always been stronger.
If I have to give some advice, the first would be to not be driven by the pursuit of trying to do everything yourself and be perfect at everything as it doesn’t happen that way. Additionally, you have to take help from wherever it comes. In fact, there was a time in my career when I was supposed to give my vocational preferences, and I used to make it specific by writing that my mother-in-law should be able to get a visa, my husband should find English-speaking financial industry and there should be house help available. Lastly, you should stop seeking perfection and accept that mistakes are a part of life. There will be times when you will feel extremely guilty for not being there for your child or missing the most important occasions, but you will have to learn to live with some of it.
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