Episode 16 - How Business Leaders Can Stay Savvy With Shiv Singh



Episode 16 - How Business Leaders Can Stay Savvy To Leave A Better World To The Next Generation


Dave Knox:       Welcome to another edition of Predicting the Turn. Today, I'm joined with one of the greatest minds that we've had in the world of corporate digital, Shiv Singh. Shiv is a former executive at both Visa and PepsiCo. He's the co-author of the book Savvy: Navigating Fakeness, and he's the founder of Savvy Matters. Shiv, welcome to the show.

Shiv Singh:        Thank you for having me on, Dave.

Dave Knox:       Hey, it's always great to chat with you. So I always love to start with somebody's journey. You and I first met when you were on the agency side, leading social media for a company called Razorfish, and since then you've gone on to be an early leader in PepsiCo's digital team, and most recently you were at Visa where you led digital transformation and then innovation. What took you on that path from going agency to consumer packaged goods, and then ultimately to fintech?

Shiv Singh:        Yes. When I think about my career, and I think back on it, I really think about it in terms of three distinct chapters, or maybe four chapters. The first was at Razorfish, when we met, and that was all about learning across industries and really trying to be on the leading edge of digital. The leading edge of digital at the time quickly ended up being social media and social media marketing, which is why I wrote that book, Social Media Marketing for Dummies, did a lot of consulting with Fortune 500 brands around social media.

Shiv Singh:        However, after a while I realized that in some respects I was missing a lot. Because I would know that advertising and the creative and the media and the media planning and buying side of marketing, but I wouldn't know anything further upstream or further downstream. Around that time, PepsiCo came knocking, I was recruited by a recruiter to join PepsiCo to lead digital across paid, owned and social media for their beverages business.

Shiv Singh:        And it was just a wonderful growth opportunity, because all of a sudden I was able to think about marketing in multiyear cycles and think as broad and expansively as Super Bowl advertising, to grassroots brands that had very low budgets, like Lipton Ice Tea, it spanned the spectrum from Pepsi to Lipton Ice Tea and other brands. So that served as a great growing, maturing experience in my second chapter.

Shiv Singh:        In my third chapter, when I joined Visa and moved to the west coast, I was firstly moving to be in Silicon Valley, which had always been a childhood dream, because for anyone who is tied to digital, Silicon Valley has a special place in our hearts, as I'm sure it does for you as well. And I joined Visa for two reasons.

Shiv Singh:        The first is I was given an opportunity to work with the CMO in my first assignment to define and launch the new brand positioning, the Visa, “Everywhere You Want to Be” brand positioning. And as someone who had grown up in digital, that was an incredible opportunity to have.

Shiv Singh:        The second reason why I joined, and why I feel I had a wonderful learning time at Visa, and go to do a lot of fun, amazing things, is because Visa as an entire business was going digital. Payments were going digital, finance was becoming fintech. And to be a part of that transformation which, while at Pepsi I got to do a lot of interesting things, that industry was not going digital, it will always be a CPG, and when I was on the consulting side, I would just see a piece of it ...

Shiv Singh:        Here at Visa, I had an opportunity to be a part of a journey where the entire business was transforming. So that served as a very exciting impetus, and I got to lead innovation, go to market efforts, digital, marketing, launch the brand positioning, create a big startup program, all of that.

Shiv Singh:        And then my fourth chapter, which I'm in at the moment, is where I co-authored this book, Savvy, with my wife, and I launched Savvy Matters, and I'm advising companies around it.

Dave Knox:       That's a great journey. So let's spend some time on that fourth part of the journey. As you mentioned, you wrote your second book, Savvy: Navigating Fake Companies, Fake Leaders, and Fake News. What was the inspiration to pick up the pen, co-author a book with your wife, and what did you really find that surprised you this second time around writing a book?

Shiv Singh:        Dave, in many respects co-authoring a book with your wife can be a high risk, high reward strategy, it's like investing in a seed startup. And everyone actually wondered whether our marriage would survive it. But the good news is it has.

Dave Knox:       Love it.

Shiv Singh:        And the reason for that, this goes to your question of what was the inspiration, it really started one evening last spring. My wife and I were having an after-dinner glass of wine, our kids had just gone to bed and we were talking about them, and it dawned on us that the world that our generation was leaving our children, the next generation, was at significant risk of being worse off than the world we had inherited ourselves. We found that to be a frightening, worrying, and humbling thought, and out of that discovery or insight came the book.

Shiv Singh:        And what we believe through the course, and what we express through the course of the book, is that while there have been incredible technological advances across science, transportation, space discovery, technology, you name it, there have also been massive trade-offs. And in a sense, there's been a bit of moral corruption, or moral decay, in society.

Shiv Singh:        Unfortunately, social media has played a big role in that, in the way misinformation spreads across social media, the way that social media platforms get weaponized by bad actors, and every time there's a tragedy somewhere in the world, we see that happening, every time there's a major election, we see another example of it.

Shiv Singh:        And for someone who had spent literally two decades promoting and evangelizing everything around social media and social media marketing, while I was on the consultancy side, through my book, at Pepsi and Visa, it was a very humbling discovery for me to discover that there's also a dark side to it. And it's important that we inform and educate and get savvy about this era, so that we prevent the moral decay that's creeping into the world around us, so that in turn we leave the world a better place for our children.

Shiv Singh:        So that was the inspiration, that's how it built on everything I'd done early in my career. And my co-author, my wife, Dr. Rohini Luthra, she's a clinical psychologist, so the book is part business, part psychology.

Dave Knox:       Gotcha. So you talked a little bit about social media and the inspiration there, and when we hear discussions about this topic, people are usually really quick to blame the technology companies, what should Facebook and Google and Twitter be doing? But the accountability lies with us as marketers, to your point, the ones of us that have been evangelizing. So how do we need to change in that regard?

Shiv Singh:        Yes, that's a really good question. Firstly, in our book, our point of view is that, just as software has glitches, or code has glitches, so too do human beings. We have glitches, and we have to recognize them and overcome them. We fall prey to all the fakeness in companies, among leaders, and even in the media because of those human glitches. And we unpack them, show what they mean, show how to overcome them, that's what it means to be savvy.

Shiv Singh:        Now, when it comes to marketers specifically, and this is an opinion of one, but I just have to think back to all the years I've spent in marketing, the hundreds and millions of dollars that I've steered to the social media platforms, and to the ad tech platforms as well, and whenever I'd steer those hundreds and millions of dollars, it really adds up to quite a lot over the years.

Shiv Singh:        Not once did I ask them how they were protecting their platforms from misuse by bad actors, whether it's those terrorists, or people trying to disrupt elections, or people who are bullying others, or anything of that sort. Nor did I ever ask, “What are you doing to protect the data of our consumers?” We, as marketers, are supposed to be advocates of the customer, the voice of the customer, and have their best interests in mind. Tragically, not once did I ask a question about data protection.

Shiv Singh:        So when you ask, “Do marketers carry a responsibility?”, I think it's easy to pin blame on the social media platforms. I think they were naïve and maybe a bit too simplistic in how they thought about their platforms, and how well they could work, and what could happen on them. But we too absolutely carry a responsibility that I think we're just barely starting to come to terms with.

Shiv Singh:        And I think it should be a big learning and growth experience for every marketer out there, that it's good to be a technology optimist and a technology evangelist, but we also have to recognize that the more power the technology has, the more easily it can be weaponized as well.

Dave Knox:       So if you dig into that, that means us as marketers, but more importantly probably is business executives, we have to be continuously evolving to keep pace with these changes. So in our own careers, how can we stay savvy and ahead of these changes?

Shiv Singh:        Dave, I don't know if this was intentional, but I have to plug my book in this moment. The way you stay savvy is by buying the book. Okay, now I've got that out of the way.

Dave Knox:       Nothing wrong with that plug.

Shiv Singh:        Okay. So there are a few things that we should do and think about. In all seriousness, we talk a lot about what it takes to build and maintain trust in our book. We live in this post-trust era, and the language of trust is changing. What we believe is exceptionally important to do is that, in any relationship with the customer, with a business partner, within your organization, whatever it may be, it is very important to think about the longer-term downstream implications of any action you take.

Shiv Singh:        And that is a place where I think we all have fallen short, as marketers, as business leaders, as corporations. What I mean by that is, to bring it back to that media spending example, is when we're partnering with a Facebook or a Twitter or a Google, or whoever it may be, and we're spending media on the platforms, it is on us to also think about, as that platform grows, what will be the downstream society impact?

Shiv Singh:        It isn't just about what is the immediate return that we're getting for our customer in the next month or the next quarter. We have to think beyond that as well, and we have to think not just about the customer in isolation, as one person who we are trying to convince to take some kind of action or purchase, but also the customer as belonging to a broader set of people, a community, a society, as a parent, as a citizen, and what our dollars may do to them in the long run.

Shiv Singh:        And I'd say that's the big shift for all of us. We can't just be great marketers and corporate leaders, we have to be better citizens as well.

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Dave Knox:       When you think about this evolution, are there any, whether it's companies, or brands, or even business leaders, that really exemplify the change that we all need to take place in this world of Savvy?

Shiv Singh:        I'll give you a few different examples. Firstly, I know it's more in fashion to slam Facebook and Twitter every change a person gets, but I do believe that they're trying their best to change the platform and strengthen it to fight the misinformation that spreads both on Facebook and Twitter, and even with YouTube.

Shiv Singh:        One can debate that they may not be doing enough, and not fast enough, and not be as transparent as they could be, but I do appreciate and respect those efforts of change and the willingness to engage with, whether it's regulators or academics or privacy experts. So that's one example.

Shiv Singh:        A second example is I am fascinated by some of these direct-to-consumer companies who are really trying to bring purpose and meaning and more citizen sensitivity into everything that they do, because they have that direct relationship with their consumers, and they just know and understand them better.

Shiv Singh:        In that category, probably my favorite example is Brandless. From the way they talk about ingredients to how they put less emphasis on the brand and a bit more emphasis on the product quality itself, and how they communicate about their business and their values as well.

Shiv Singh:        So those are two I'd say. Brandless is a company that's doing a lot of really good things. Facebook, Twitter, and Google, especially in the context of the YouTube platform, are trying to change up and reform, which is good to hear.

Shiv Singh:        Another example where I think it's a bit of a mixed bag is with Amazon. And while Amazon does a lot of very good things, where I have a little bit of frustration is with the Amazon facial recognition software. I'm not sure if you've seen that.

Dave Knox:       No, I haven't, tell me more.

Shiv Singh:        Are you familiar with that?

Dave Knox:       Yeah, tell me more about that.

Shiv Singh:        So Amazon has this product offering, it's a facial recognition software that they've rolled out to law enforcement agencies across the country, they're selling it into businesses as well. And it works decently, but it has one fatal flaw in my opinion, and that fatal flaw is it is an AI engine of course, behind the recognition, and it is much better at recognizing white male faces than white female faces, than African American men, and it recognizes African American women faces terribly.

Shiv Singh:        Now, that's not acceptable. Because remember, especially in the context of law enforcement, and as it's sold into businesses, it has real human life implications when you have the facial recognition software not working effectively. Amazon's trying to fix it and tweak it and optimize that algorithm, and their reasons as to why it was built that way was all tied to biases within the coding team.

Shiv Singh:        The problem, though, is they should stop selling it. They should pull it off the market until that's fixed. But they're not doing that. So in this era of being savvy, and as businesses, and as marketers, needing to carry responsibilities beyond just contributing to the quarterly earnings report, a company like Amazon, which can easily afford to take that product off the market, fix it properly, and then reintroduce it, I think it's embarrassing that they're not doing that. And they really need to.

Shiv Singh:        And there's a lot of good things about Amazon too, but that's an example of where a company needs to get beyond its fakeness, bring more integrity into a certain type of business decision making, and do the right thing.

Dave Knox:       So that's really thought-provoking there, because one of the things I've been talking about in the podcast as of late is this concept of continuous beta. It's inspired by the technology world of beta, and the need for continuous change. But there's a downside of beta when you're releasing something like that facial technology, that you kind of do need it to be close to perfect because of the ramifications. So how can companies think about that, not taking the concept of beta too far, and realizing those ramifications?

Shiv Singh:        It really depends ... I'm a believer in the concept of beta, by and large, but with one big caveat: it really depends on the type of product it is. If you're releasing a coffee mug that has a sensor on it that tells me how hot my coffee is, and it's released in beta, and the sensor doesn't work very well, that's not a huge deal.

Shiv Singh:        However, if you're making promises around lab testing the way Theranos did, you cannot release ... And it has implications for people's health and for medication that they receive, and even life and death questions ... You absolutely cannot launch something in beta, and you should not, and you never must.

Shiv Singh:        So yes, the concept of beta's interesting, it applies and can apply to certain product categories where there are no risks, or where there are enough disclaimers around saying this is in beta, it may not work well, use it at your own risk. But if you don't do that, it's usually problematic.

Shiv Singh:        Something else I would say, though, is let's say something launches in beta. Very often the strength of an organization, both in how it approaches technology and digital, is as much driven by how it responds to a situation versus what it launches. And that's where I fault Amazon, less so in the launch of the product, they've learned their lesson, it can be better, but more in the response.

Shiv Singh:        A different example is Google just a couple weeks ago announced an advisory board, an artificial intelligence advisory board. Within a week of that announcement, several hundred Google employees signed a document criticizing one of the members of that advisory board and saying that person should not be on it because she, one, didn't have the qualifications; two, had some slightly shady pieces in the past, some points of view that were totally out of sync with Google's philosophy; and three, because she just wasn't, or he just wasn't, a good fit.

Shiv Singh:        Now, I bring this Google example up because, when that happens ... And Google then had the person removed, and they're reconstituting the board in a different way. That, I think, is actually a very good example. Google made a mistake, its employees made sure their voices were heard, and they had a different point of view, and Google responded to it.

Shiv Singh:        In the traditional marketing and communications world, that would be considered a public relations screw up. But I think it actually shows the strength of Google, both in terms of its willingness to listen and change quickly, and reject something; two, in its employees having the confidence, and given the avenues to have a voice; and three, this came through in how they talked about the issue, the appreciation that, in this technology-driven era that we're moving in, it's very hard to make good decision in isolation, and even with an AI ethics board ironically. But when you allow for adaptability and change, that also ties in with a continuous beta mindset, you can be fine as long as you change yourself as well.

Dave Knox:       Those are stellar examples, I love that.

Dave Knox:       So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about earlier in your career. You worked with PepsiCo 10, which was one of the first big corporate startup partnership programs. But then you also launched Visa's Everywhere Initiative, which was a global innovation program that challenged startups to solve the payment challenges of tomorrow.

Dave Knox:       So over the last decade, from when you started with PepsiCo 10 through leading the Visa work, how have the best Fortune 500 companies evolved their approach to working with startups?

Shiv Singh:        Well, I'd say it's hard for me to talk about all Fortune 500 companies in general, but I can share how I have evolved in my thinking around it. When we launched PepsiCo 10, this was with Bonnen, who was with me at Pepsi, and Seth Kaufman and a few others, it was all about infusing that startup sensibility into a Fortune 100, 50, 60 billion dollar in revenue company, and to introduce and educate the marketers and the communicators on the cool martech and startup tech that could actually help their brands.

Shiv Singh:        It was a great initiative, but what we saw at the same time was matchmaking those startups with the brands in the PepsiCo portfolio, and developing strong use cases, was hard, and it took time, and in some cases it worked out, and in some cases it did not work out.

Shiv Singh:        That program led to me starting, with Andrea Harrison and a few others, the PepsiCo Digital Labs, which was all about collocating with ... I think it was at Reworks ... And spending time in the startup community a lot more aggressively, so that we weren't a fly-in partner with a big checkbook once a month, or once a year, or once a quarter, but instead we're there with those startups, helping them and learning from them day in and day out. We had a few desks in that location.

Shiv Singh:        By the time I got to Visa, my own thinking on all of this had evolved further, and I realized that times had changed, and what was most important, this might have been tied to also I was more senior in my career, I had a more serious senior role as well, is that I wanted to use the startup community to solve very specific business problems. Because I'd become selfish. Visa was in a space where fintech was exploding, where there were all kinds of challenger brands and entrants, and yes, we felt we could solve a lot on our own, but we also knew that there were a whole bunch of things that we did not know.

Shiv Singh:        So Visa's Everywhere Initiative, which I started literally in a conference room white-boarding with one other guy, and then pleading for seed funding for the program, started with the idea that we're going to take our annual business objectives in a given market like the U.S. or Australia, expose them to the startup community, and have them come back to us with solutions or strategies on how their software or their platform or partnership with them could help us solve these business problems.

Shiv Singh:        So it had a very strict business payment innovation lens on it. I started it in the U.S., there were a lot of people who scoffed at it and thought of it as a trivial pet project, didn't think it would do anything or be of any serious nature. But in the first year, a few interesting things happened.

Shiv Singh:        We firstly discovered two startups who were really helpful, not to Visa, but to the Visa clients, which are the major banks and merchants around the world. And so we were able to take it to them, that was hugely valuable.

Shiv Singh:        The second thing we discovered, because we did this in a shark tank, competition style format, is that through this format the winners were far more diverse, in the first year it was by ethnicity, than we had expected, to the extent that TechCrunch wrote a story about it, saying, "Is this the new model to find the best startups?" Because you end up with more diverse startups, and probably a bunch of founders who are beneath the radar of all the major VCs in the Valley.

Shiv Singh:        So that's how it started. We fast forward to a couple of years later, and we introduced at South by Southwest, and I think you were there with me, a women founders version of the program to really attract women-led startups, and we first launched it in Australia, and then in the U.S., to help solve that year's business problems.

Shiv Singh:        And now the program has grown to 70 countries, four or five thousand startups have participated in it, I think six or seven of the startups, winners or finalists, have been acquired by major banks or major merchants of Visa around the world. Many have done from pilots to actual product integrations with Visa itself, and the program has just evolved into a massive both I would say business driving program as well as reputational driving as well.

Shiv Singh:        But Visa's Everywhere Initiative launched and got to this point, and now of course there's another amazing team at Visa taking it to new heights, and it's going to be even better than it ever has been.

Shiv Singh:        But it got to this point because I was leveraging all my learnings from when I was working at Razorfish, partnering and learning from Fortune 500 companies, to that PepsiCo Digital Labs, to that PepsiCo 10 program, to then coming into Visa, seeing this as an entire industry and company that's going digital, and realizing that programs like these need to be focused from the start on solving business problems.

Dave Knox:       You were practicing your own kind of version of continuous beta there. I love it.

Shiv Singh:        Totally, no question about that.

Dave Knox:       So now, for the last two years you've served on the board of directors for United Rental, which is a seven billion dollar company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Compared to your role at PepsiCo and then at Visa, how is it different guiding a company as a board member versus an executive that's working the business day-to-day?

Shiv Singh:        I feel really fortunate and lucky to be serving on the board of United Rentals. A few things there just to mention. It's the largest equipment rental company in the world. Now it's actually already nine billion in average annual revenue, and it has 20,000 employees, mostly in the U.S. and every province in Canada.

Shiv Singh:        There are a few things. Firstly, it's a massively humbling experience. I always thought that, being at the forefront of digital, I was one of the cool guys that knew what I was talking about. But the world beyond marketing, and even beyond innovation, is complex, it's complicated, it's hard, but it drives business forward, and that's always a wonderful, humbling experience for me when I'm in a board meeting.

Shiv Singh:        The second thing I would say is it forces me to become a much deeper, much more reflective, and in some cases even a much more cautious thinker than I normally am. And that's a very healthy thing, because as a board member, I'm not an operator, I'm not making the decision, I'm not driving the business forward day-to-day.

Shiv Singh:        But I of course have massive influence on the direction of the company and the CEO and the leadership team. But I'm fundamentally not operating. I have to ask the right questions, help the leadership team in conjunction with the rest of the board to make good business decisions in the best interest of the shareholders.

Shiv Singh:        The third thing I would say is it's been a fascinating experience from the standpoint that I'm 10-15 years younger than the next board member. Everyone on the management team is older than me. And that creates for great growth and great learning all around. I joke that I bring age diversity to the table, and that's the most dramatic thing.

Shiv Singh:        I share all of this because, as the world transforms to being more digitally centric and AI-driven, I strongly believe that us being better citizens is going to be massively important. And a big influence on that insight was my work on the board of United Rentals with its 20,000 employees, as it thinks about how it transitions into the AI era and how it's important to be creating cultures and corporate environments where you have really high employee engagement.

Shiv Singh:        In my view, that's the final frontier of developing a sustainable moat for your business. It's having high employee engagement and a talented workforce. So it's a great experience being on the board, I feel I'm privileged and lucky to be on it, especially at United Rentals which is such a successful, well-managed company. And there's a lot of learning every day, both for me and all around as I'm a part of it.

Dave Knox:       So we've covered a lot of ground talking about your journey on the corporate, to writing several books, doing the board director. Both of us are at a moment in our careers where, instead of moving into a new corporate role, we've chosen this entrepreneurial path as free agents, if you will, working independently with startups and big companies alike.

Dave Knox:       Do you see that, what we're doing, as examples of a broader trend that is going to be in the direction of employment and where careers are really headed in the years to come?

Shiv Singh:        Well, I think we're already starting to see signs of that more broadly in the workforce, just by virtue of the successes that companies like General Assembly which encourage people to take control of training themselves, or WeWork where people set up their own offices. The sharing economy and the do-it-yourself economy is scaling up massively.

Shiv Singh:        What I think will really drive the tectonic shifts that are coming our way is, over the next decade, all the AI tools and solutions in the world around us are going to get infinitely more powerful, and they'll become more right and left brain. They'll start to mimic emotion more, they will start to have the seeds of general artificial intelligence. And when that happens, it'll just make more sense to have the AI technology to do more of the work.

Shiv Singh:        When that happens, the role of human beings will be to do more deep, reflective thinking, and more relationship-oriented work. All of that lends itself to being more of an independent free agent. So I think even the technology trends will keep nudging us in that direction. That's one part of it.

Shiv Singh:        The other part of it, and this is where it's a bit in conflict, and we talk about this in Savvy quite a bit, is we as human beings have a strong desire to belong. We're social beings. So just as there may be a shift to more and more free agency, our desire to be part of something bigger, part of a bigger story, to come together and self-organize in certain ways to create economic and productive output, might serve as a counterbalancing force. So that's what I see in terms of the macro picture.

Shiv Singh:        For me personally, the most important thing for me to do over the last eight, nine months was to write this book, and now getting the message out about it. That doesn't mean I'll always be a free agent. Who knows, I feel lucky to be in a position in my life where I don't have to think too far ahead for the first time, so it's an exciting period.

Dave Knox:       That's brilliant. Well this has been a pleasure, I always leave with a page-full of notes after a conversation with you. So thank you for sharing your thoughts and your wisdom with the audience today.

Shiv Singh:        Thank you so much for having me on, Dave.

Dave Knox:       We'll talk real soon.

Dave Knox:       Thanks so much for listening. If you like the show, hit that rating and make sure to subscribe so you don't miss a single episode. And for more resources, head over to predictingtheturn.com.