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The good karma of being dark

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 17 July 2019 00:00


Sandya Salgado

“The memoir of an unrepentant dark-skinned girl, a misfit who fitted in, a juggler of home and work, who thanks to her good karma escaped relatively unbruised. Still unsure why she stubbornly refuses to conform. But as you flip through these pages she hopes that you enjoy experiencing the journey of a rebel with a truck load of passion”! 

Thus Sandya invites us to explore the journey of a unique person. So well written, this book is unstoppable once you start reading. 

For me this book can be appreciated from four key aspects.

First about her life and how it was conditioned by the upbringing and the background in which she grew up. Secondly, a very important discussion of womanhood and motherhood in contemporary society.  Thirdly, some deep insights about advertising and marketing communication programs that have really made an impact. Fourth and finally, the value system that she lived by as a true professional.

Sandya vividly recalls and captures the life in Panadura and how it has evolved over the last five decades or so. This is an interesting piece of social history of a town that soon will be a part of the Megapolis – Colombo. 

As a person who comes from a village not so far from Panadura, reading the stories of yesteryear in Panadura brought to mind many childhood memories of mine as well. In relating those situations and persons, Sandya used the Sinhala terms naturally so the essence of the meaning is easily communicated. 

Ours is perhaps the last generation which grew up in communities that knew each other. Though there was no social media, the grapevine was as effective as it is today, so there were no secrets. She relates how her teenage love affair became such a hot topic and I can imagine what she means.

She gives very interesting insights into the caste systems and the implications and how it is so interwoven to our society. The most startling is how the so-called caste system has been a possible cause to destroy the Sinhala rich through various political decisions such as the limiting of land ownership and the nationalisation of bus companies in fifties. I think one really needs to examine how much even current-day politics are linked to this primitive thinking system.

Sandya has written in many places about the issue of her being dark skinned. It brings out an important negative social stereotyping prevalent in our society even to-date. 

Once a friend of mine related the story how one of her daughters was very worried that she was dark and these educated parents had been using her inhibition to get her to eat certain foods saying, “If you eat these, you will be fairer when you grow up.” I suggested to them never to do that but to help her accept her own beauty. I got them to take some beautiful black and white pictures of the daughter and display them in the home and show some well-known dark skinned achievers, etc. This strategy worked and the little girl is now very proud, does well in sports and as a result she has become even darker. But she is happy, confident and strong. I recommend any child who has this inferiority complex of being dark-skinned to read Sandya’s book and get inspired.

Sandya discusses the challenges of being a mother and a committed professional. The chapters on this issue must be recommended reading to all professional mothers. There is no cookie cutter answer on how to get this balance right but Sandya provides a lot of insights on how to be a successful career woman, a good mother and an excellent wife. She has been very open and bold sharing her life in these aspects and I really respect her for that since it gives many a reader very good life lessons. Following is one such piece of bold advice she gives:

“I completely support the idea of marrying young and having kids at a young age. Today I find young people wanting to ‘arrive’ before marriage and kids. They want everything in place before ‘settling down’. Here is the thing, life is a journey and you will never be ready and settled. So might as well take it on the stride. Having kids when you are young is awesome because you end up growing with them. And then your kids become your friends…”

The following few lines capture the deepest emotions she experienced while being a working mother, and I am sure many working mothers can empathise with her:

“I remember the many times I had to run out of meetings to extract the excess milk which poured out wetting my clothes when the body clock recognised the nursing time and how many days I cried in the toilet, whilst throwing away the milk which could have nursed my baby. It was never easy.”

In the section where she refers to her role as a mother she very clearly articulates the importance of living according to a set of core values and instilling same in the children.

In the segment that refers to her period in advertising, there are a lot of lessons for any young professional, starting from how to apply for jobs. Even now a lot of young people try to apply for jobs through known contacts. To such persons the creative way Sandya applied for her first job is a reassuring lesson. 

I also agree with Sandya when she says that advertising teaches you to perform under tremendous pressure, to handle a number of different yet equally demanding assignments almost simultaneously, how to get work from others whom over you have no executive authority, and the opportunity to meet and learn from different persons as an ad agency account executive.

Sandya shares how she was involved passionately with the accounts or brands she handled and how she spent time meeting consumers to gain insights. I particularly like her discussion on strategic thinking: “I believe that an insightful idea supersedes all the strategies in the world because an idea, if properly hatched, would be a winner without having the label ‘strategy’ and the usual roadmap. Maybe the whole journey gets processed in the mind instead of filling pages on a report.

“Throughout my Ogilvy life, I used my notions, understanding, gut feel and in-depth discussions with the core target audience to come up with an idea that worked brilliantly for the brand rather than formal research. For me ‘strategy’ means just that!”

This is the clarity of thought Sandya has as an exceptional communications expert. This is a very powerful lesson to modern marketing and advertising executives who depend more on PowerPoint rather than powerful points. They do not want to get out of the comfort of the office hence depend more on research agency presentations rather than going out in to the field and meeting actual consumers. Sandya belongs to the old school that knew the difference and that delivered results on much smaller budgets.

She shares some of the landmark public service advertising campaigns where she was the key strategist. I am sure she derives so much self-satisfaction knowing how those campaigns have made a definite difference to people such as eradicating polio and tackling leprosy. Whether it was the brand advertising or the pioneering work in brand activation or community marketing, the importance of finding deep insights is what Sandya emphasises repeatedly.

Relating to a unique solution that she brought for Singer tractors is a case in point. The challenge was how to promote the Singer tractors in the North Central Province, especially in Dehiattakandiya and Polonnaruwa.

“Wasting no time, I rushed to Dehiattakandiya to meet the farmers, spending chatty nights with them, getting them to open up about their lifestyle, challenges and fears. Droughts appeared to be their biggest challenge, spiralling them into poverty during each farming session. When I asked them, ‘So what do you do when distressed?’ they all said, ‘Api thin deyyonta kiyanawa arenna, wena monawa karannada nona?’ (‘What choice we do have except to tell the gods?’)

“Then and there I got the insight I was looking for, and praying to god was the creative hook I was going to suggest to Singer. The activation idea we came up with was a mass prayer to the rain gods or a ‘shanthikarmya’ as referred in our cultural parlance.” (Page 170)

To capture such deep insights one has to be totally attentive and live the moment. You cannot surely do that by intermittent checking of e-mails while in a discussion. So no wonder we see very little of applying such deep insights in marketing strategy. 

Secondly, Sandya’s sensitivity to the culture of the land. She was truly authentic. In this instance she says how they found the best of ‘kapumahattayas’ to perform the ‘shanthikarmaya’. “The outcome was phenomenal and completely unexpected; the day after the final event it rained buckets” she says. There are many such fantastic case studies worthy of study and discussion by marketing professionals, students and academics. Finally, Sandya touches upon the strong value system that she uses as her inner compass throughout her life, whether it is family or work. She is a role model any career woman can get inspiration from. Her commitment to professional ethics is brought out in many situations where she had taken hard decisions in line with her values. She has been very open on how she faced the #metoo moments with tact and confidence, obviously because she is true to her principles.

Sandya is a true role model for any young professional, whether you are a woman or a man. For women, she undoubtedly a proud inspiration.

Her book is a must-read for all working mothers, life guide for young professionals, and a rich collection of case studies for aspiring marketing professionals. 

I suggest that SLIM and 4As organises an evening program to deliberate on the book and her work.

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