[Woman in Tech] As VP and Chief Digital Officer of Coca-Cola, Asha Shekhar drives digital transformation to create impact

Asha Shekhar, Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Coca-Cola India and South-West Asia, talks about her role in the company, the latest trends in the sector, and why mentorship and training are imperative for women to move ahead.

As Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Coca-Cola India and South-West Asia, Asha Shekhar is focused on the company’s digital transformation and helps build the foundations necessary for business growth, driving opportunities, and strengthening the company’s digital ecosystem.

In addition, she leads the media and allied marketing functions. The Coca-Cola veteran has spent over 13 years with the company.

Some of her many significant achievements include the inception and later scale-up of Samvaad, an in-house digital experience centre for Coca-Cola in India, which delivers consumer centricity for Coca-Cola's brands and customers.

She has also delivered some “industry-first” pioneering projects and driven strategic media partnerships. Prior to this, she worked for over a decade with WPP, Universal McCann, Madison, and Mudra, managing media businesses for leading brands.

In a conversation with HerStory, Asha Shekhar talks about her role in the company, the latest trends in the sector, and why mentorship and training are imperative for women to move forward.

HerStory: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Asha Shekhar: To share an interesting insight into my background, I am a Malayali, born and brought up in Delhi. I consider myself a Dilliwali.

I studied at Springdales School, Pusa Road, and later on, went to Hansraj College, Delhi University, for higher studies. College days were a lot of fun and formed some of the best experiences of my life. Now when I look back, I see it as a part of a life lesson that made me resilient and independent.

It is during college days that I took to the field of communications and went ahead to pursue a PGDM from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.

It was my curiosity about consumers and creativity that aided in my journey about decoding the art and science of communications, which stay relevant to this day. I am happy and content with most of the choices that I have made while growing up.

HS: Can you trace your career journey with roles up till now along with timelines?

AS: At the start of my career, I aspired to be an account planner in a full-service advertising agency. I wanted to contribute to the business by building strong brands via advertising.

I began my journey with an internship at Ogilvy and Mather. After that, I joined Mudra Communications, a powerhouse of creative work. Here, my original plan took a detour. While I applied for a role in client servicing, I was assigned the role of a media planner.

I was very surprised when the stalwarts told me I was better suited for that profile, with an assurance that I could gradually shift to client servicing if it failed to trigger interest.

Interestingly, there was no looking back ever since I joined media planning. I am really thankful to that organisation for guiding me in my formative years. I believe life took a good turn when it forced me to do something that I never thought I would do.

The subsequent stints with leading organisations and prestigious brands enabled me to hone my skills. To name a few companies, I worked with Madison Communications, Universal McCann, and Group M.

My relationship with Coca-Cola dates back to the time. I was part of the core team that managed the business from Madison Communications.

HS: When did you join Coca-Cola and what is your role in the organisation?

AS: I joined Coca-Cola in 2005. I initiated the discipline of media within the Coca-Cola marketing team and since then, my role kept evolving because of the evolution of the media and communications space in the country.

With the growing importance of digital, it was in October last year that additional responsibilities were entrusted on me, and I was made the Chief Digital Officer.

HS: As the Chief Digital Officer, what are your roles and responsibilities?

AS: It is for the first time that this role has been instituted in India and in various parts of the globe.

My core function is to ensure the digital transformation of the company. This role is an enabler to ensure our business and brand remain relevant in the new age.

HS: As a change agent for driving media strategy, what changes have been brought in this area?

AS: One of the big changes that have come in is the ability to tell our brand stories in the digital world.

Another big change, I would say, is the institutionalisation of Samvaad, our in-house digital centre, back in 2014. The aim was to drive the integration of digital across all platforms and functions, and foster effective collaboration across all departments.

HS: Can you talk about your significant achievements in this role, and about industry-first pioneering projects?

AS: We were one of the first corporates who signed up the IPL in the first year of its debut, at the time when people didn’t even believe the format would work.

Coke Studio is one of the most awarded initiatives that I have worked on.

For an FMCG giant that is 130 years old, we believe that we may be one of the few currently working on data and how to consistently use data to maintain consumer focus.

We hear a lot of conversations on data being important, but we are one of the few who have actually taken the lead and started putting a data strategy and working on Coke2Home, to strengthen our consumer engagement effort.

HS: What are the recent trends in this sector?

AS: From business as well as a personal perspective, I believe we have not been able to grapple with how long a trend lasts, with the pace at which the digital landscape is changing.

If we look at examples of a trend lasting in the US or in China, or in any other evolved market, the time period is of at least about five years. In India, the duration of the trend is not even five. In fact, it's not more than two to three years because we are leapfrogging some of the technologies that debuted in the West. By the time they debut in India, we debut with version 3.0, then version 1.0 of that technology or that trend.

In terms of digital trends, the big piece that I see in India is the ease with which mobile has become a part and parcel of our lives.

Going forward, I feel that it will further percolate down to say about 400 million people in a much shorter span of time than the time it took to get to the first 400. Also, looking at the way digital is influencing the Indian economy, the period in which we hit a trillion will be much ahead of any Western nation.

Another important trend is that there is no gender skew for digital consumption. In fact, younger women are embracing this change a lot more than it has been done in the last 5-10 years.

HS: Do you think women in tech are a rare breed?

AS: No, I don't think that women in tech are a rare breed. I feel that we are an acquired breed. People don't realise that there are many of us out there who are doing a lot of work.

This is because we do it very quietly and don't come out very often to claim our prize as much as men do.

HS: What kind of digital initiatives have made a social impact? Can you list a couple of them?

AS: About three to four years ago, there was something called social clicktivism, which was all about people clicking and joining communities and causes.

This got initiated by consumers on their own and educators allowed the communities to come in naturally. Now, this has become one of the many effective ways to make your voice reach all and sundry.

Earlier, one needed a loudspeaker, a newspaper, a TV to trigger a call for action or change.

Digital media today enables social impact to begin with one individual and then it spreads like a forest fire, depending on how many people join that particular initiative or cause. The #Metoo movement was started by just one individual and became a widespread campaign.

One can say that the social impact on digital is far more democratic than any kind of social impact that has to happen.

HS: Do you mentor women?

AS: I try and mentor to the best of my capacity, regardless of gender. Good talent is not gender-biased at all and I value good talent. I don’t rate gender higher than competence.

HS: Why do you think there are very few women in senior leadership positions, especially in India?

AS: This question is thrown at me quite often. In fact, I've read too much about it and this conversation on why there are very few senior leadership positions in India is interesting. However, I see it from a different lens.

Before making it a gender-led discussion, the quintessential thing is how do we define leadership?

Senior leadership cannot be defined as a bunch of people running corporates and businesses. Leadership is executed in every walk of life. And, women are really taking a lead. We all are familiar with the clichéd example of a homemaker, who is believed to not do as much work as a person who's not at home.

The homemaker never gets recognised for the work that is happening at home because we assume that's not work.

So, the way we interpret this is quite narrow.

Having said that, I feel that the question should not be restricted to just women but people in general. We should ask why we see fewer people in leadership roles.

I think that it could be because of various reasons, either individual or infrastructural. When I point out individual reasons, it's a choice that they make personally. Infrastructure is when the environment around us is not conducive enough for us to juggle between multiple things that we would like to do.

Similarly, I would leave it at personal to infrastructural reasons on why women do not go beyond a certain point.

HS: What are your future plans?

AS: In the future, I will have the opportunity to shape the digital strategy for Coca-Cola in India. I look forward to doing things that have never been done before.

So doing ground-breaking work is something that excites me. Also, I look forward to a lot of travel from a leisure point of view.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)


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