DEEP DIVE – Chandni Shah, Social Kinnect: We push the limits with an underdog attitude

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBrief

What does it take to create a digital marketing agency that, in a short span of 7 years, grows from 3 to 250 people, wins multiple awards and accolades, and cocks a snook at MNC agencies in the process?
Pavan R Chawla caught up with Chandni Shah, co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect, for the MEDIABRIEF-DeepDive, and came away impressed by the young professional who is nurturing and, in turn,  learning from all her colleagues and associates and lays enormous stress on continuous learning and development and positive interpersonal engagement of her rapidly growing team. 

Social Kinnect Logo Chandni Shah C-Founder and COO interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBriefSocial Kinnect, the digital marketing agency co-founded by its CEO Rohan Mehta and COO Chandni Shah in 2011, offers end-to-end digital marketing services that include building websites and applications, social media marketing, SEO, online media buying, analytics, and video production.

The company has an impressive clientele across domains like FMCG, Real Estate, Fashion, and Retail. It has designed a special program, KinnectEDGE, to create an ecosystem that provides a balance of exposure, learning and all-round growth and development of the employees. The agency won ‘Campaign Asia Independent Agency of the Year’ in 2017.

How did Social Kinnect come to be, what kind – and tenure — of clients has this young agency had in just seven years of remarkable growth, what sets is apart on the talent and deliveries fronts, and much more was what I caught up with Chandni Shah about.

Read on.

How did Rohan and you get together to set up SocialKinnect? You were only 22 when he was setting out as an entrepreneur after having raced through the ranks at Allied to become its youngest director, and you became partners. The back story, please.

Rohan was around 25 or 26, and was working in the U.S. in the IT industry. It was 2011, and social media was still nascent in India. But he had a sense that it would become a rapidly growing field, and it has!

Rohan always wanted to come back to India and explore his entrepreneur side. Around the same time, I was right in the centre of the advertising world – at JWT India.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBrief
ChandniShah (in blue) with Rohan Mehta, her partner and Co-Founder and CEO of Social Kinnect

We combined our capabilities – Rohan brought in his business expertise, and I brought in the agency expertise. We took a bet on the future and started Social Kinnect!

Rohan specifically has come a really long way as he was never a part of the agency circuit, and has now built a full-service agency.

As for me, I came from this background having had experience at both Percept and JWT. Advertising has also been part of me while growing up – I’ve been a child model! It was almost as if I was meant to be in this space from very early on, so Social Kinnect was a natural next step for me.

Fate intertwined with my passion when I met Rohan and he shared my dream of working with brands to build their businesses.

The name ‘Social Kinnect’. How did it come about

We decided on the name Social Kinnect because this business is all about connecting with your kin. We help brands connect with their audiences, and we connect with other like-minded people in the digital sphere. That’s what ‘Kinnect’ means to us.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBriefI see that Social Kinnect today is like a full-service digital marketing agency, replete with Social Media Marketing, Websites and Applications, SEO, Listening and Analytics, and Video Production…

We gradually added on each of our verticals to become a 360-degree digital marketing agency. We kept evolving basis our clients’ needs and ensured that each of the divisions that we added was of the highest quality. We built in-house capabilities to ensure that quality standards were maintained across verticals and hence built them ourselves – ground up.

Each of the divisions shaped up as strong verticals which are independent of each other. This ensured we could cater to all needs, making Social Kinnect a one-stop to address all the specific needs of our clients.

At Kinnect we believe in creating an impact with each piece of work we do. To be able to create a true impact, we understand the need to combine the capabilities of creative with that of media to derive best results for campaigns across brands.

When did you get your first client? Who was it? What services did you provide them? And what has been the growth like, over the years?

This is quite an interesting story! We met our very first client, Havmor, while we were distributing pamphlets about our venture at the HFTI (Hospitality Food and Tourism India) Expo, and got talking to their representative there.  It was the first ever marketing event we were attending, and Havmor at the same time was looking out for a digital agency. Our young and cult ideas aligned with the brand identity, and that was our first breakthrough!

Havmor has been a really special client for us as we worked with them for over three years. Since we started as a Social Media agency, we were responsible for managing the brand’s identity on social platforms. But today, we have scaled and now offer 360-degree solutions across digital, and a stepping stone to this has surely been our learnings from while we were handling Havmor.

What is the average tenure of your clients’ association with you? Which ones have remained with you for a long time?

Appreciation from our clients has been one of my biggest motivators. Every time a client sends us an appreciation email to even being on their speed dials during their most crucial times, I take that to be a sign of a great relationship.

Today, having great relationships with our clients is a big win for me. I can proudly say that we have clients who have been trusting us and partnering with us continuously for over 4 years in our 7-and-a-half-year journey.

One of our first clients, Borosil, has been with us for 5 years. We are like an extension of their marketing team. I remember that we cracked our first campaign with them, it really stood out and won awards and recognition. So it is about getting your first client and getting your first campaign with them right.

With Borosil we said, “We’ll invest the money because we’re confident that this is going to work really well for your brand.” I think that belief system got established then. Five years after, before any campaign, they say, “We know you’re going to do the right thing”.  The campaign was Beautiful Food, and we even won some really reputed awards for the campaign.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBrief

Can you share any case study about a client who really benefited from smart online media buying thanks to Social Kinnect?

We have done some great work across all our brands, but one case study that I would like to highlight here is the ‘Come home to the best, come home to Lodha’ campaign for the Lodha Group. The Lodha Group already has a strong foothold on Mumbai, but we wanted to extend its reach and establish it as the biggest real estate developer in the country. Along with that, the objective of this campaign was also to establish Lodha Group in the NRI market.

Hence, the brand signed on Akshay Kumar as their brand ambassador. His widespread stature and appeal along with his popularity among the NRI sector made him the perfect ambassador for this campaign.

How did you approach the specific mandate?

Our approach involved multiple elements… 

Audience profiling: Audiences lying in sec A&B were mapped through browsing and purchasing patterns. Third-party audiences were targeted through programmatic platforms.

We had a Video-First Approach. With Akshay Kumar as brand ambassador, a high-decibel campaign was strategized across India, UK, USA, GCC and SEA on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

There was a first on LinkedIN. We made Lodha the first real estate brand to test a promoted video on LinkedIn. This video received extremely high viewership, but more on that later.

We also used strategic placements. Mumbai and Delhi were the key markets that were targeted during a Mumbai Indians vs. Delhi Daredevils IPL game on HotStar.

We used Moment Marketing by leveraging publications like Money Control and The Times of India for festivals and key events like Akshaya Tritiya and the Karnataka Elections.

We ensured Ad Recall through heavy remarketing, carried out through snackable content to target audiences which engaged with the longer cuts of the video.

We broke the clutter with interactive advertising, by designing rich, interactive banners through mCanvas in order to increase engagement online and to appeal to the right TG amidst all the noise.

And what were the key wins from all this?

Let me list them out for you:

  • We pegged 9.7 million completed views across all markets
  • 45% VTRs in NRI markets through Programmatic Ads
  • 13% increase in brand concentration on YouTube
  • We achieved a Re 1 cost per view on LinkedIn with a 16% video completion rate.

Even though you had a superstar like Akshay Kumar, those are excellent results. Moving on… the independent Social Kinnect has come and cocked a snook at the established Multinational agencies with its growth and positive brand equity in the marketplace – you’ve already won multiple awards. How does it feel to hold the fort against the MNCs, as an independent, Indian agency that’s grown phenomenally?

It’s challenging because we have been scaling very fast. We are blessed that business has been pouring in. When you grow from a team of 3 to 250, everything else needs to scale up too – your systems and your processes. We’re constantly learning how to evolve our systems and processes to keep up with our requirements. One of the most amazing experiences of my life has been working with so many people whom you’re looking out for but at the same time learning from.

Looking back, it feels fulfilling when we see what we have achieved in seven short years. We’ve gone through our fair share of challenges. We’ve had a pre-profitable period and a post-profitable period – and the two things that mattered most during both these periods was finance and HR. What the world sees is the external part of your agency, and so it is extremely important for an independent agency to tighten its financial processes, treat its people well, and hone the ability to attract great talent.

The pre-profit period is the real challenge; once you cross that chasm, things become much simpler. Then, it’s a problem of plenty! This is how we’ve held fort against the MNCs for the past seven  years, and plan to continue to do so.

What gives us the edge is the constant desire to push the limits. Having an underdog attitude is integral to the Social Kinnect spirit, no matter how much we grow. If we find ourselves in a room where we are the larger agency, we’ll leave that room and choose another room where we feel small. It is that drive and level of competitive spirit that gives us the edge.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBrief

Your biggest asset is your talent – the people who work with you — and one can see how you encourage them to enter industry ‘Top-professionals’ awards, and how you publicize their wins even on your website.  What is your talent nurturing approach or philosophy? I read about Kinnect Edge. Tell us about it too.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBriefAs a small agency, attrition is something we manage really well. Senior people have joined Social Kinnect and never left. We also have a very good relationship with top colleges in India. Our senior management even teaches at top institutions and personally interacts with the students there. These personal relationships help us attract great young talent.

Another thing that we do is a lot of trainings. #KinnectEDGE integrates trainings and learning into the fabric of our company. If people are learning something new every day, they will feel personally as well as professionally fulfilled. Last year, we had 103 trainings in the company.

When younger people come on board, we have a very strong induction program. When I personally meet with all the new joinees, I ensure I set goals and values with them – something most people miss out on. Usually, the induction attitude is very transactional – this is your KRA and this is what is expected of you.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBriefWe don’t start off there. We start off with the company values and what motivates each employee to wake up every day. We have a conversation about the fact that each piece of work they put out could have an impact on the sales of a client or build the client’s perception of us. When even a first-time employee understands this, the way they look at their responsibilities completely changes.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBriefOur biggest HR investment is in learning and development. Externally, we function as a digital marketing agency, but internally we are a learning and development company. Three years ago, we realised that digital is changing so fast that learning has to happen constantly, especially for our younger employees.

In this industry, people treat young employees in a very transactional manner. We try to view them differently because we want them to satisfy Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We also want to have an organisational impact at a social level, and build the ability to give back to society.

To that end, we play a lot of sports here! Every Monday and Wednesday we have the football, basketball, and cricket pitches booked out. These games help people bond, and also give them the chance to play and exercise. They say if you have good friends at work, you won’t leave. We hope to play a part in forging those friendships. When you do that, employee stickiness is much more.

We also have #KinnectFridays, which has been a tradition from our inception. On one Friday of every month, we have a big party at which our Kinnect Band even sings and plays the guitar!

We call the event ‘Kinnect Got Talent’ and people actually do rehearsals before #KinnectFridays. We even add a DJ to the mix! We also conduct several workshops to help people represent themselves better. For example, our HR team often conducts workshops about finance management. People are always struggling with their taxes at the end of the financial year, so we conduct a workshop on how to invest and save taxes.

Chandni Shah Co-Founder and COO of Social Kinnect - Interview with Pavan R Chawla of MediaBrief

Where do you see future growth coming from, for Social Kinnect?

In the next five years, we want to build a culture that is timeless. Building a great company culture is a major goal. One that integrates our core values and centers around creating business impact with an emphasis on ROI.

From a skill-set standpoint, we want to be at the confluence of a really creative company and a digitally-driven one. We want to understand what the business insights are, manage data as well as suggest path-breaking solutions. Our vertical building has therefore been in this particular direction.

An integral part our 5-year plan is also innovating and redefining possibilities, and disseminating this knowledge not only to our clients but also to young talent and the industry as a whole. #KinnectEDGE is at the core of this mission, which focuses on grooming a new generation of Indian marketers that are always ahead of the curve. The next five years will thus see us sustain this robust ecosystem of continuous learning and all round development of our #Kinnectors to complement our constantly-evolving services and capabilities.

Today, we have made our mark on a national scale; the next step is to win appreciation on a global level.

What are some books on digital, marketing, etcetera you believe anyone in the space must read?

Hooked, by Nir Eyal – For a fascinating take on habit-forming marketing to ensure brand stickiness and understanding consumer behaviour

Predictably irrational, by Dan Ariely – For an understanding of how we all operate irrationally, and why this irrationality is good for marketers.

Thinking fast and slow, by Daniel Kahneman – For a change in your thinking process, for the better!

Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Vaynerchuk – For an interesting perspective on connecting with your consumers and breaking through the clutter

All marketers tell (lies) stories by Seth Godin – For an appreciation of how all marketers tell stories, and how storytelling is at the heart of brand-building.

Your thoughts, please