Raja Rajamannar has been on both sides of the business aisle in his long and distinguished career. He has managed operations, led merger and acquisition teams, managed large businesses, P&L’s, and held leadership roles with such iconic brands as Mastercard, Humana, Wellpoint, Citigroup, and was the Chairman and CEO of Diner’s Club North America. Raja was born in India, the youngest of four children, studied chemical engineering, earned an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, and sits on such boards as PLL Corporation, Bon Secours Mercy Health, the Ad Council, and is the World Federation on Advertising President. He has been recognized as the Global Marketer of the Year by WFA, one of the most influential CMOs by Forbes, and was inducted into The CMO Club Hall of Fame, among many other recognitions. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife, two sons, and two dogs.
CMO Club — Welcome. Can you tell us a little about how you grew up?
Raja — “I was born in Hyderabad, a large city in the south of India, the youngest of four siblings. My parents were firm in their belief that education was paramount, that you had to work hard, have the highest levels of integrity, and never lie. Their values we’re taught from early childbirth. That served me very well for all of my life.”
CMO Club — Who had the most influence on you growing up?
Raja — “My mom. She was a genius, a human mathematical computer. She was extremely smart and brilliant. She could do mental math literally like a computer can, doing micro-fractions in seconds. She taught me and my brothers mathematics up through high school level, from home. I went on to chemical engineering because of it, was awarded two gold medals for being valedictorian in my university.”
CMO Club — Is there a specific memory of your mom, some lesson or advice that you still carry with you that made a difference in who you became?
Raja — “One of the things my mom would always say was “You were given legs to walk and run, given hands to do things with, your eyes to look and see beauty, so don’t just focus on one thing and say that’s what I’m all about. Diversify your life. Look at all the gifts that you have been given, and live. I have always taken this to heart. Not only did I study hard in college, but I also I played sports, I was the captain of my chess team, I played competitive table tennis, badminton, I acted in drama and theater, I DJ’d for a radio station, and was the editor of my college magazine. It was full of action, finding different aspects of myself.
That has stuck with me, even now. I’m not a marketer; I spent half my career on the business side, managing operations, mergers and acquisitions, P&L’s, many different functions. I Just completed the first draft of my book on the future of marketing, which will be published in February of 2021. I also am constantly learning new things. Right now I’m learning Spanish, just finished level one.”
CMO Club — You mentioned you were on track to becoming a chemical engineer when you were attending college. What was the bridge that led you to marketing?
Raja — “My intention was to go into environmental engineering and sustainability, pollution control, and recycling. I was and still am very committed to the environment. Between the first and second year, I was required to do an internship. One day I overheard a conversation my boss was having with some agency advertising folks. They were struggling to create a new advertisement for a type of makeup, and on a whim, I walked over and inquired as to why they were finding it so difficult.
In India, a relatively conservative country in those days, women who wore colorful makeup were not seen very favorably. I’ve always thought that to be completely foolish, so I simply asked the question. I quickly jotted an idea on a spare piece of paper I thought would make a nice ad. Then I spoke up. “Why don’t you do this?” I showed them my idea. It was a simple one; Why is it bad to look good?
That went on to win an award! I felt pretty good about it. When you get such a boost so early in your career, it changes things. I soon realized the importance of what had happened, that I was good at this, and transitioned to marketing soon after. Thirty-five years later, here I am.” (laughter)
CMO Club — What a great beginning to your career. I’d like to switch over to a couple of subjects that are getting a lot of attention right now. First, we were hit with this COVID-19 pandemic that has basically shut down our economy, then to the more recent situation involving the Black Lives Matter protests and the corporate response to both. You were quoted as saying, “Now is not the time to sell, it’s the time to serve.” Let’s start with COVID-19. What’s your core belief on where we stand right now, as we start to come out of the initial phases of the pandemic?
Raja — “I think we need to approach the current situation very carefully. There are three things that companies need to focus on right now in order to come out of this in a relatively strong position.
The first one is internal. Marketers need to instill a sense of confidence in their CEO and CFO. Investing in marketing at times like this is extremely important. The need to not go dark is critical. Otherwise, the brand could lose its momentum and position.
Number two would be staying in close contact with team members and outside partners. Let them know you are there with them, motivate them, help them, and inspire them if you can. Be flexible.
The third is to approach everything in terms of service, not selling. Don’t fall into the trap of looking exactly like everyone else. We are all talking about front-line people, healthcare workers, Black Lives Matter. These are very topical and it’s hard not to talk about them, or run and hide from them- or run and hide from them- but at the same time, you need to find your own voice, your brand voice, what is it? How can you be authentic? How can you be appropriate? How can you be sensitive? It’s not the time to be cute and clever. It’s time to be honest.
This is the time that marketing leaders truly need to behave like a general manager who balances the internal and external partners and clients, not a marketing specialist who only cares about marketing.
Above all, you need to be a good human being. At Mastercard, we call it your “Decency Quotient.” This is the time you earn trust for tomorrow. By sticking with your clients and people during times of crisis, they will, in turn, stick with you when good times come back.”
CMO Club — In regards, specifically, to the Black Lives Matter issue, this moral struggle going on all around us, what are your personal feelings about all that’s happening and how can CMOs make a difference?
Raja — “Absolutely they can. In my voluntary role as the President of the World Foundation of Advertisers, in looking at the numbers that the marketing community collectively controls, more than 1.2 trillion dollars of marketing funds, you can see how that money can be deployed in meaningful ways that can make a difference to society. In fact, it’s the responsibility of marketers to do just that, the collective power that marketers can exercise is huge. With that power comes the responsibility to help shape culture and support society. If you can make a difference, go ahead and make a difference.”
“Give respect to every individual as a human being. How can people in this day and age give credence to such notions of discrimination and treat people badly because of their skin color? That should never be tolerated. I’ve fortunately had communication with many different communities and ethnic backgrounds all around the world, and there are some things we share that we all want; good people all over want to work hard for their families and their children, to accomplish things in their life, and to be heard. It’s universal.”
CMO Club — Is there anything you can share with us that most people don’t know about you?
Raja — “I want one of my next adventures to be taking care of elders. When I was in my MBA program I was required to do what was known as a “Social Involvement” project. For eight weeks I visited with a group whose mission was to look after destitute elderly people who had nowhere else to go. What hit me at that time, was that if you gave people in these homes love and affection, a little bit of attention, they thrived. I came away with this overwhelming feeling that the time I spent had made a real difference in the folks I visited and my own happiness. In addition to that, one of my missions is to save and help animals. I am passionate about animals, and dogs in particular.”
CMO Club — Such a great idea to give back. Last question; What’s the one thing you would like people to remember about you?
Raja — “That he was a good person who tried to make a difference.”