News & Views

Interview: Lau Geckler / Chief Operating Officer, Yota Devices

by Emily Hare

Contagious speaks to the COO of Russian smartphone manufacturer and broadband services provider Yota about the launch of its Cannes Innovation Lion-winning smartphone and 'marketing without noise'

What – career and marketing-wise – keeps you up at night and why?

My big challenge in this job, and also in my former job in the agency business, is to simplify things. What’s keeping me busy is how to get that through the organisation. In terms of the Yota Phone, I think our biggest challenge right now is to not over communicate because we have so much we want to say, but that might confuse the audience. We need a simple message. We have so many good features, but in reality what we need is for the consumer to understand what we have done and why we have done it, why we are here, and how we can change their life. I think the idea of simplicity has basically followed me throughout my career – what I call ‘marketing without noise’: a to the point marketing, which I like. 

What do you regard as your company’s key business challenge, both over the next six months and in the long term?

Right now, the key challenge is to launch Yota Phone, but we also have three other new devices and one challenge is not to forget about our other fantastic products while we are putting a lot of emphasis on the Yota Phone. Long term, the main challenge I see is to keep innovating. We have surprised the market with the Yota Phone, and we want to continue doing that. I want to keep solving consumers’ problems rather than just innovating and coming up with funny ideas. I think that’s our long term challenge, to stay in this start-up mode, where we are thinking about doing things that are impossible to do. 

How do you ensure that Yota is genuinely innovative?

I think it’s about simplification, but it’s also involving the consumers, the journalists, the audience. In my first years at HP, it was an engineering company, but also focused on solving consumer problems. Then we turned into being a consumer-facing company that focused a lot on marketing, but we were actually better before, talking to the consumers, than when we became a big marketing machine. One of the challenges is to continue trying to understand what the problems are and how we can solve them. I think that’s where innovation comes from.

Also, innovation can come from anywhere in the company. A new invention might not originate with the engineers, it might come from a secretary who has a problem. What I’m trying to do right now is to try to see how we can structure the company better. We have gone from being 15 people when I joined to more than 50 suddenly. When I started everybody sat around a table; we have to make sure we don’t kill that. You have, unfortunately, to add some structure to ensure that even a secretary’s ideas are considered. I think that’s very important. And also to take people out of their everyday and start to think about people outside our office and how we can help them.

Who do you regard as your competitors from outside your industry, why?

In many ways I view companies that have lifestyle changing propositions as competitors. Maybe this is a bit philosophical – but I would say any companies who have a premium product and are trying to change people’s lifestyles. It’s not like I’m afraid of losing market share to a Prada bag, but in terms of marketing, this is the challenge, and in terms of who we’re competing with, it’s those who do the clever, effective marketing. The production competition is obviously within our space of handheld devices and other products, so that’s more straightforward. We think there is a gap and that’s great news, but there is still a challenge to get to people’s attention.

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

I look into people’s eyes and see whether they’re excited. I make a lot of compromises if I see that excitement. Even if they lack education or there’s a functional area that I feel is weak, I might still hire the person. Who are the most important people in the modern marketing department right now? I think the whole team is important. We have very strong, people, who are all very excited, but to get them to realise each other’s strengths and functional areas is actually the key thing. I would never point out anybody as the most important in the marketing team. If there’s a problem with one of them I can probably fix it, but if they don’t talk together I have a problem.

What consumer insight has surprised you most recently and why?

The biggest one for me was notifications. We are actually getting stressed about notifications from our smartphone. We open our smartphone 150 times per day to check SMS and to see what’s going on. If it vibrates I wonder ‘what can it be’ but I don’t want to take it out because we’re sitting talking here. I think we all know that feeling. One consumer might say: ‘I’m frustrated because my meeting notification, for instance, is popping up, but I don’t see it and then it’s gone.’ But another might say ‘I like to look at Facebook maybe 200 times per day.’ And we can group these issues into the fact of not always being on. That fact that with the modern smartphone is that we are not always on, because we always have to wake it up. That was an interesting insight.

More recently, we’ve been focussed on segmentation and trying to understand who our target audience is. I’ve had a couple of surprises there as well. What I’ve found interesting, first of all, is that consumers get it. The last few months have been about how we communicate this relatively complicated product, with a bunch of benefits. How do you simplify it, but still get the message through? This has been my worry for a long time, but when I saw the results and the focus group, they all get it. They might have different angles: so the mature audience and all the professionals were very focussed on the eReading part, whereas the people who are using phones a lot and understand the functionality and knew broadly what they could do with this, thought ‘this is a new tool that’s solving all my problems. It’s fantastic, like a new personal assistant.’

What surprised me is that I feel that we have over communicated, and not been good enough at simplifying this, but they still got it.The other surprise for me was that I kind of felt that this should be a phone for a young audience – it’s something new and cool. But I realised that when you look at who’s interested in buying it, it’s not necessarily young and cool people. They’re interested, but the big big bunch of people who are interested are just normal smartphone users. They realise what their issues are and they think that this could solve their issues. 

Gartner predicts that by 2017 CMOs will spend more money than CIOs. How is technology impacting your company’s marketing strategy?

Of course we are a technology company, and I always view technology as a big help, I say that I’m not necessarily over-researching what I do, but I like to be able to measure what I do. And I think that this is where technology plays a role for me. Online, it’s beautiful, because you can measure much more than you can offline, and the technology you have there is exciting. Of course there are also technologies in project management and in efficiencies and we use all that, but I think that the main thing is where I’m using it is to measure what have you done right, what have you done wrong? I’m ready to take big risks now because if it goes well or wrong, I think we’re able to understand why.

How do you split your marketing budget between TV and online?

It really depends on your target audience. You have some brands and some products which are so online focussed that you almost don’t look at the offline. Russian television is totally spammed with all kinds of advertising. I’m Danish and in Denmark I’d say that 50% of the advertising you see on television is of a good quality and funny, but in Russia it hardly happens, it’s just noise. I think you really have to think about spending several million adding to the noise. Also in Moscow and St Pete and the major cities you have to be aware that a huge amount of people are using the metro that you can communicate with through mobile phones and SMS, and mobile signal generally works.

I’ve done a lot of training of store personnel and we built a platform where we gave people their training material to access on the metro. So, using their smartphone, they would read through it, then get a few questions via SMS. Actually the amount of people that followed the training increased dramatically. An average sales clerk spends around one and a half hours per day each way travelling to their office on the metro. This is the time that they read books, they relax, this is when you can talk to them. I’m actually surprised that  advertisers are not using this opportunity better. The chance to get someone for at least part of that time, is amazing.

I took a train to the regions – it was a terrible experience with wooden seats, but what I loved was that people were coming in saying ‘hello, my name is Pavel, I have this tea cooker for you, it’s on sale today for 600 Roubles’. And then the next person comes along saying ‘hello, I am selling subscriptions.’ And then the next person. I just love that. If you think more about it, it would be amazing if you could make this digital. I mean location-based marketing is pretty much missing, and I don’t understand why nobody is really focussed on that. 

What is the single biggest challenge for the marketing industry as a whole? And what’s the biggest opportunity?

I think the biggest challenge is the amount of data. On one hand, it’s extremely exciting what you can find out now, and what kind of insights you can get. But to be able to manage that data, to be confident about the data you’re getting is – I think – a big challenge that’s not solved yet. The other thing is you have so many tools, and functions in the marketing team that we didn’t have 20 years ago, and I think it’s a challenge to structure it.

I think another big challenge, when you talk online, is that the generations are changing faster, so if you could match the generations you work with, with your target audience, you have to have 20 or 30 people in the office from each two years of each generation. Our big question to our online agency is how do we ensure that we understand the consumer? The guy who is 30 years old is already too old, the guy who’s 22 doesn’t know something that the guy who’s 20 knows. It’s almost there’s like two years between each generation, and this is quite difficult I think. 

I don’t think we’ve found a solution, but I think you solve it by trying to make things a bit more simple. Try to use the tools and the data you have, but not overdo it. Follow your intuition, call the whole company together and say ‘what do you think’?. I was quite upset yesterday because we were asking some huge questions about some decisions that we need to take, and I realised that people hadn’t asked their colleagues they sit next to. Asking your own people is typically helpful. Of course they might know too much about it, and not give an objective opinion, but still, your intuition, and the intuition of the people around you will take you very far and help you take fast decisions. 

What one piece of advice would you give to fellow marketers?

Simplify things. Focus on the problem you have to solve. Getting the right team is a challenge, but focus on this excitement, focus on people who really want to do this job and really like your product and understand it. I even said this when I was on the agency side and at HP and Microsoft: Forget about sometimes about management and score cards, get out into the stores, touch the product, speak to the retailer. I was always surprised when I was in the trade marketing business, I was always surprised when I asked people if they had checked their products in the five biggest supermarkets in the city they live in, and they don’t do it. You have to think like the consumer to help them.