Attending to Attention

Interviewed by Melvin Tan • Edited by Samantha Yap • Photography by Sam Chin

 

Advertising is everywhere today. With this overflow of information, the need for differentiation has never been more important. Twitter's Brand Strategist, Rohan Routroy, considers the nature of these strategies and what influenced him to do the work he does today.


School
NTU School of Art,
Design & Media

Field of study
Product Design
Minor in Communication Studies

Graduating year
2010

Place of work
Twitter (Singapore)

Practice
Brand Strategy, 
Marketing

What do you do at Twitter?
As a Brand Strategist, I come up with creative solutions for companies in partnership with our brand advertisers and their agencies. Currently, I work with our advertisers based in Southeast Asia and more recently, China. Twitter is a live, conversational and public platform. These conversations give us comprehensive consumer insights, which then helps us craft our strategies for our client’s brand marketing objectives.

As a platform, what do you think is so unique about Twitter, particularly in Singapore?
Twitter’s appeal in Singapore is the same as anywhere else in the world. Before it’s trending, before it’s news, before it’s history, it happens on Twitter. People come here to find out what’s happening. It instantly connects people with what’s most meaningful to them. Twitter is the shortest distance between you and what most interests you.

What I do now is very similar to Product Design. Twitter is a product, it’s not a tangible one but still very much a product. Instead of shaping material things with our hands for people to notice, we shape ideas and campaigns for people to notice.

There is definitely some affinity in what you were trying to explore back then and the work you do now. Your Final Year Project (FYP) expressed a kind of desire to break the noise of marketing and images through experience design.
What I worked on my FYP in ADM has grown even more relevant because this “noise” that I was trying to address, is now more apparent than ever before. Creative director Dave Trott in one his latest blog pieces commented that about 90% of the advertising today is not noticed or remembered at all.

I feel that it is my responsibility as a brand marketer to help produce as much meaningful work as possible. I am not working on experience design anymore, but my focus is making sure that the experience people have when interacting with what we create here at Twitter is pleasant and not obtrusive. Going back to my FYP, I had always been inspired by industrial designer Dieter Rams’ philosophy that good design is unobtrusive. I try very hard to make sure that the work I do is unobtrusive and adds some value to the people who interact with it.

Were there anything you would have approached differently for your FYP?
Perhaps where I was wrong in my thesis was the point about “Hyper Personalisation”. This isn't the way to go as it doesn't surprise and delight people. Instead it disarms them. This is quite evident when considering the situation in the US with the National Security Agency and the rising concerns about our personal data security.

Are there similarities between what you learnt in Product Design and your work as a brand strategist?
What I do now is very similar to Product Design. Twitter is a product, it’s not a tangible one but still very much a product. Instead of shaping material things with our hands for people to notice, we shape ideas and campaigns for people to notice. Similar to Product Design, the presentation of concept is what makes or breaks the pitch. This last 10% is the 90%. It helps that as designers, we are wired to to relate to someone else's feelings and so continue to design things for people. I learnt to think with my hands in product design and even today, I still use a lot of whiteboarding and prototyping. In the digital world, we also do a lot of testing but the difference is that these results happen in real time and you need to respond accordingly.

…everything has changed. We talk so much about digital but we forget that the propagating and receiving end is analog – us humans. Fundamentally, humans still want to be understood and feel connected to their loved ones.

When did you first discover your interest in branding and advertising and how did you pursue it to reach where you are now?
I remembered that back in India, we had a financial newspaper called The Economic Times. It was bright orange and largely not very appealing. But every Wednesday, it came with an additional supplement called Brand Equity. It was the only coloured supplement they had. I was 11 then. What started as an innocent fascination for a colouful world slowly evolved into my interest in branding and advertising. It gave me my first exposure to many things — articles about the war between the cola brands, or how agencies navigated around the alcohol advertising ban in India. I knew that I wanted to do what these people were doing and this led me to apply to the design school in NTU. It wasn't easy at all as I had no fundamental design education background, and at 18 years old, I was also the youngest in school.

Following graduation, I was fired from my first job in finance. It's not that I wasn’t good at it. I was ambitious at achieving the goals but I was arrogant and not cut out for the job. Looking back at this now, I believe that failure is the best teacher in the world and I’m am not ashamed of what happened. I agree with Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai who once said, “Wear your failure as a badge of honour”.

That journey later led me into a brand planner role with Wunderman, a creative agency, and eventually Twitter. It was at Wunderman that I managed to create a proposal with another senior colleague in response to a brief from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop an innovative communication concept to engage millennials on issues about global health and development problems. It proved to be a real turning point as our strategy, "The Finish Line", was the few selected out of 900 applicants. We flew to Seattle and got a grant to actualise it. It later went on to win a Cannes Lions.

How does data and technology affect the digital landscape today?
Philosophically, nothing has changed but physically, everything has changed. We talk so much about digital but we forget that the propagating and receiving end is analog — us humans. Fundamentally, humans still want to be understood and feel connected to their loved ones.

We are after all digital natives and interaction is mediated through digital platforms. Yesterday, it was a shared look on the face, today it’s equivalent may be a “like” on a platform. A hundred years ago you sit around a camp and tell stories. Today, it's the hashtag. Another question would be, have we evolved to not be desired? Not really, reciprocity has just evolved. More data allows more insights and informed decisions. Exercising your intuition as a sentient being should be coupled with insights from these data. What the data does is that it nudges you more intentionally to a direction.

Izyanti Asaari