Sunish Oturkar describes himself as an “engineer turned business leader via Harvard Business School with a passion for technology, sustainable growth, and impacting communities.” From launching technology-based marketing innovations that helped brands like Budweiser and Bud Light keep their foothold in the beverage industry, to developing firmware for the iPod Nano, Sunish has had a wide depth and breadth of experience in the innovation world. After 2.5 years at AB InBev, Sunish decided to take a year-long backpacking sabbatical to refocus and gain some deeper external perspective. We had a chance to chat with him about the learnings from his time abroad, pick his brain on product innovation and find out what’s in store for him next.
You recently took a sabbatical to travel around the world. What did that period of rest and reflection do for you?
I wanted to do two things while on sabbatical: clear my head and see something new. In our Eat, Pray, Love generation, it feels like there’s this widespread societal pressure to make travel a life-changing experience, almost as if this trip wouldn’t have been worth it unless I came back a completely different person. I don’t really buy that, so I set some reasonable expectations and came back exactly the way I wanted–refreshed, and with a broader perspective.
What were the top three takeaways you learned from your sabbatical?
1. This is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can do this at any age and life stage I’m in.
2. I don’t need 90% of the things I have. I traveled with a small backpack that weighed no more than 16 pounds. I lived off of that for over four months. When I came back to the States, the first thing I did was get rid of over half of my possessions. I hope to continue sizing down over the coming months.
3. The way the world views the United States of America absolutely matters. Our country is going through a tense period of nationalization, and with an increasing level of inward thinking, we forget how much we impact the lives of all the countries around us just by the nature of who we are. We have a responsibility to all of those international communities.
Apart from taking a longer sabbatical, have you discovered any small, everyday ways to rejuvenate creativity and to prevent burnout?
You know, it’s funny; the exact opposite happened right when I came back. I feel like we are predisposed to fall into old habits without realizing it. At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to “create one new thing a day,” and followed through with that commitment right up until the point when I started traveling in April. I haven’t really followed through with that resolution since. When I came back from travel, it didn’t take long for my calendar to fill up and my shoulders to assume a heavy weight once again. I will say, as a saving grace, that I am at least more cognizant of these habits, which will help me break them in the future. Thank you for asking; it was a nice wake-up call.
After two years of leading marketing and sales innovation at AB, what were some of the biggest barriers to innovation that you saw over and over again? How did you work to overcome them?
AB was a special case, given the highly regulatory nature of their industry. Oftentimes, it wasn’t leadership preventing us from executing a great idea; it was the state alcohol laws. The company’s commitment to innovation is actually much higher than one would normally expect out of an enormous CPG. The buy-in began at the very top with Carlos Brito and has trickled its way throughout the organization. Whenever AB had to cut costs, they kept our innovation office running and our budgets intact. It was inspiring to be a part of that. But larger corporations also tend to be extremely data-driven. While metrics are crucial, they also introduce a bias of short-term expectations. If you can’t show results within a few months at big companies, it can be hard to maintain senior-level support for an idea. Much of what you are doing has longer-term implications, which are harder to prove. With innovation, as much as the metrics matter, an organization still needs to leave room for intuition, gut feeling and common sense.
In what ways do you see corporate companies applying innovation well? In what ways do you see room for improvement?
Red Bull has always been a benchmark competitor in the beverage sector. I think what makes them one of the most innovative marketing companies in the world is their all-in commitment. For example they engineered a spaceship from the ground up for Felix Baumgartner’s free-fall from the stratosphere. You can’t justify the ROI in dollars and cents on a project like that, but you can feel the reward when it happens.
In terms of room for improvement, I think that this pendulous nature of how organizations prioritize innovation needs to change. Leadership goes back and forth on wanting to innovate, realizes that they still have their top-line issues, and then scrambles back to focus on their core business. This is a reactionary approach. Innovation isn’t a one-time fix; it’s an organizational necessity that needs to persist through all economic cycles. The real benefits of innovation aren’t felt until the foundation is built. If the roots are already in the ground, then the fruits will ripen at the moment you need them.
What’s your favorite innovation that came out over the past year?
Well, given I was unplugged for most of this year, I’ll think about 2015. I absolutely loved Axe’s Silent Window activation in Turkey to promote the Axe Black variant. They brought together one of their consumers’ greatest passions (music) and a powerful message (silence can be powerful) into a really inventive, creative idea, using newer yet still mainstream technology.
This is the sort of all-in commitment you need to be successful with innovation. And the results spoke for themselves; Axe Black was the biggest selling variant in the Axe line during the campaign.
Watch the video to see what happened; I won’t be able to do it justice.
Where do you see the future of innovation going–in general and in the beverage world?
I really do hope that these large brands buck the swing of the pendulum and continue their increased commitment to innovation, although that optimism is very cautious. What’s encouraging is that this next line of business leaders will have grown up in an age where innovation is part of widespread dialogue. I think this trend we are seeing will continue for a while, despite a few hiccups along the way.
Are there any old practices still being used in marketing and innovation that you wish would be phased out?
I really love the trend of crowdsourced content, whether from the general masses or professionals in specific fields. It breaks the traditional agency-of-record model and opens up the bounds of creativity to completely new heights. I hope to see that trend continue to grow and to take over some of the more traditional methods.
What’s the next step for you in your career?
Right now, I’m hyper-focused on finding an organization that I can really get behind. One that is truly passionate about their craft; it’s not just about the bottom line, but also about providing an exceptional consumer experience. I’m looking for an organization that makes a product that I truly love and that also values my potential and allows me to thrive. What I do there can be anything from growth and business development, to product management, to strategy–but honestly, the conversation of what I do comes after I’ve answered the question of who I will do it for.