Joel Rao: Pioneering Growth and Innovation in Digital Brands

Joel Rao
Joel Rao

Pioneering Change, Innovating Brands, and Elevating Possibilities in the Digital Age!

In a world driven by constant change and technological advancements, the role of leaders who can empower growth and make a meaningful global impact has never been more crucial. These visionary individuals not only steer their organizations toward success but also inspire and uplift their teams, communities, and even entire industries.

Among them is Joel Rao. A trailblazing leader with a global perspective, he has been instrumental in reshaping the landscape of digital brands through his role as the partner and CEO of Dentsu Digital Brands.

His journey began with a fascination for technology and its boundless possibilities. Armed with a background in software engineering, he embarked on a journey of education at Strathmore University, where he honed his IT skills. His early career saw him stepping into the world of Naspers, a South African conglomerate known for its prowess in internet solutions and entertainment investments. This marked the beginning of Joel’s exploration into the dynamic realm of digital.

The world was Joel’s canvas as he ventured across continents, leaving his mark on every stop. He worked in the Netherlands and Mexico, experiencing diverse cultures and gaining insights that would shape his global perspective. However, it was the mentorship of Mr. Carlos Slim of Mexico City that struck a chord in his heart. Fueled by a desire to contribute to his continent and country, Joel’s journey took an unexpected turn as he felt a compelling calling to return home to Africa.

With a keen eye for opportunities, Joel joined forces with InMobi, a global mobile ad network solution provider. As an account manager, he was entrusted with expanding InMobi’s footprint across the African continent. Joel’s flair for numbers and his ability to optimize profitability led him to a pivotal role as a business analyst. Here, he joined an elite group focused on crafting successful mobile app and website campaigns that resonated with brands like Unilever, Nokia, and HP.

In 2017, a new chapter unfolded as Joel assumed the mantle of partner and CEO at iProspect, A Dentsu company. With a passion for empowerment and growth, he later grew to oversee a trio of other Dentsu specialist companies that drive business transformation. Over and above iProspect, Dentsu Creative, and Merkle form a cohesive ecosystem under Joel’s strategic guidance today, showcasing his ability to harmoniously weave innovation and creativity.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Path of Professional Growth

In the year 2012, the horizon of Joel’s career shifted dramatically as he confronted a formidable challenge: a South African client with a substantial investment in InMobi, totaling nearly $100,000. This pivotal moment marked the inception of a series of events that would redefine his career trajectory, leading him from trials to triumphs in the digital realm.

Concurrently, the pursuit of performance based marketing, seeking a means to attribute marketing investments to tangible business outcomes, paralleled Joel’s expertise seamlessly. His career path was poised for a change, coinciding with InMobi’s closure of African operations. This juncture catalyzed Joel’s transition into the dynamic agency landscape. Donning the mantle of an account director at TBWA, his unwavering focus on digital solutions equipped him to navigate the intricate web of measuring marketing impact with finesse. Strikingly similar to destiny’s design, another challenge soon presented itself in Joel’s professional journey—Unilever’s brand Royco yearned for an answer to the same conundrum: how to effectively measure the reverberations of their marketing investment on business outcomes.

Yet, Joel’s story is not one merely of challenges met and surpassed but of a foundation built during his formative years at Strathmore University. It was here that he first glimpsed the boundless potential of leadership, nurtured by his involvement in AIESEC—an organization that would shape the course of his life. As the incoming student’s exchange program manager within AIESEC, Joel’s role was to foster internships and career opportunities for foreign students, nurturing the global bonds that would become his professional bedrock.

AIESEC’s enduring culture of continuous learning and international exposure became the crucible of his transformation. By attending conferences worldwide and rubbing shoulders with diverse minds, Joel’s horizons expanded. The resonance of AIESEC’s philosophy, centered on unleashing human potential and driving positive societal change, resonated profoundly within him. Fueling his own personal and professional growth, it instilled within Joel an unshakeable determination to inspire others to embark on journeys of self-discovery and transformation.

Amidst these experiences, a collaboration with Telefonica MovieStar, facilitated by AIESEC, introduced Joel to Carlos Slim — an encounter that further solidified the global network woven by AIESEC. Joel’s narrative encapsulates the quintessence of a journey, where challenges metamorphose into stepping stones and where each trial serves as an opportunity for growth.

Transforming Marketing ROI

Dentsu is widely known as one of the largest global communications companies, helping brands predict and plan for disruptive future opportunities and create new paths to growth in the sustainable economy, with a strong focus on delivering results. They’re particularly skilled at addressing clients’ concerns regarding the return on their marketing investment. Beyond that, Dentsu offers a broad range of services, including communications, advertising strategy, e-commerce solutions, technology, customer experience management, creative services, content creation, SEO, and search engine marketing.

Joel’s connection with Dentsu began after he gained experience in the agency world, notably with InMobi, and later joined Omnicom, which is the parent company of TBWA. As clients began to increasingly question the effectiveness of their investments, Joel felt the need to find a solution, though he was uncertain about the path forward. This was when he crossed paths with Stephen Newton (Current CEO of Aleph Group in Africa) at Incubeta. Despite the significant age difference, they shared a similar background, having worked for similar companies like InMobi and Naspers in the past.

Stephen presented Joel with a chance to serve a global client, Standard Chartered Bank, a client that Incubeta had ROI at the heart of what they did for over 13 years globally. This revelation came as a surprise to Joel, as it was the solution he had been seeking since his time at InMobi. Joel eagerly accepted Stephen’s invitation to join their company, Incubeta.

Joel stepped into this new role to offer performance-driven marketing solutions to clients, ensuring they get a meaningful return on their marketing spending. One standout client during this time was Dentsu in Kenya (trading as Carat & Isobar at the time), which was being ran by Samantha Kipury and Christoper Madison respectivily, would eventually become his largest client. Samantha and Christopher would later became his business partner under the mothership of Dentsu.

As Dentsu at the time had diverse client, including CBA and Isuzu, they sought Joel’s expertise in digital marketing services, specifically focusing on performance-oriented strategies. This unique offering within Dentsu, which hadn’t been explored in Kenya before, led to Joel’s ongoing involvement in pitching to new clients and tackling various challenges.

After two years at Incubeta, the CEO of Dentsu in Africa approached Joel with an opportunity to establish a performance-oriented Digital Marketing division. Joel proposed the idea of being bought from his current company to create a fresh digital practice ecosystem within Dentsu. Joel’s arrival at Dentsu hailed the beginning of powerful trifecta in Media (Carat), Creative (Isobar) and now performance digital marketing and customer experience (iProspect); The Holy grail of modern day marketing. This marked the start of his journey, with iProspect as the inaugural brand. Over time, Isobar was then rebranded as Dentsu Creative under Joel’s stewardship. This expansion encompassed not only digital media buying with a performance focus but also digital creative, customer experience services, and technology solutions with the addition of the Merkle brand.

Empowering Growth through Strategic Marketing

Joel’s main role revolves around developing effective solutions for businesses aiming to expand or diversify their offerings using marketing as a driving force. This entails a thorough analysis of both client and internal data to shape Dentsu’s strategies. Once the strategic direction is set, Joel collaborates with various partners to implement a range of marketing tactics, all geared toward ensuring a successful return on investment.

For instance, if a client in the e-commerce sector seeks Dentsu’s assistance to boost online sales, the initial step involves assessing the client’s existing business processes. This helps uncover any barriers impeding growth. Furthermore, data is harnessed to comprehend consumer demands within the client’s industry, determining whether there’s a viable demand for their products online and if their business aligns with consumer preferences. This analytical process offers a comprehensive grasp of both the consumers and the industry.

With this knowledge in hand, a strategic framework is crafted to position the client’s product effectively. This might encompass targeted campaigns or comprehensive communication strategies. The creative team plays a key role in generating impactful concepts. For example, if the client sees peak sales during Black Friday, the proposed strategy could involve capturing consumer attention before or leading up to that event to maximize sales. This strategy is then conceptualized and shaped based on the insights gathered.

To amplify communication and reach a broader audience, Dentsu collaborates with major platforms like Google, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. By leveraging these digital avenues, Dentsu ensures that its services are effectively magnified on a larger scale.

Dentsu can track various actions taken by individuals who interact with ads – from views to clicks. They can follow whether the person visited the e-commerce page, added items to their cart, or proceeded to checkout. If a purchase isn’t completed, Dentsu can investigate the reasons behind it. They can also gauge whether the individual looked at product reviews and the sentiments conveyed by those reviews. By collecting and analyzing this data, Dentsu can fine-tune its campaigns for optimized sales.

Reflecting on his journey from the company’s earlier days, Joel acknowledges the initial need for multitasking during the startup phase. However, he quickly recognized the value of empowering team members to take the initiative and go beyond their designated tasks. By fostering a culture of continuous learning and embracing mistakes, he believes that technical expertise can be cultivated over time. Since the beginning and as the company grew to almost 200 employees, creating an atmosphere of active learning remained a top priority. Joel underscores the significance of staying attuned to industry shifts and encourages teams to deliver their utmost.

In the beginning, Joel’s expertise led him to work closely with teams, performing analysis and reporting. This allowed teams to observe his methods and learn from the collective knowledge of their colleagues. To drive innovation, Joel concentrated on training and empowering his teams. This enabled him to engage in more strategic tasks, cultivate client relationships, and stay updated on industry trends through conferences and thought leadership.

Joel’s expertise in e-commerce and entertainment shone through numerous white papers and speaking engagements, including roles as a judge for the Digital Marketing Awards and The Loeries. He aimed to position himself as the go-to authority in digital and performance marketing, all for the benefit of his clients.

He believed in the value of learning from mistakes and encouraged teams to take calculated risks, understanding that repeating the same errors was not acceptable. By recognizing and rewarding individuals who excelled due to their hard work and training, Joel nurtured a meritocratic culture, which significantly contributed to the company’s growth.

As a genuine leader, Joel embraced the development of more leaders akin to himself. He took pride in witnessing his team members progress and directly engage with clients rather than departing for competing agencies. Creating an industry meant multiplying his influence by fostering leaders who would carry forward the vision. Joel underlined the importance of crafting an ecosystem where companies led by his former team members could become clients, fostering overall growth.

While it was challenging to bid farewell to cherished team members who had become personal friends, Joel believed that it was in the best interest of the industry. He drew inspiration from the example of Jesus Christ, who entrusted his disciples to carry on his mission.

Promise and Challenges

Currently, blockchain technology is still in its early stages of adoption for clients. Joel’s interest in blockchain stems from its concept of decentralized services, moving away from centralized control. He underscores the significance of data privacy and individuals’ need to exert authority over their data. Joel raises questions about the extent to which companies like Meta hold sway over user data and the potential to curtail one’s digital footprint. While recognizing the inevitability of a digital presence in our interconnected world, Joel finds the idea of a decentralized network empowering individuals to govern their identity intriguing.

From their perspective, they’ve observed blockchain’s potential, especially in tokenization, as a viable solution for some clients, including banks. They’ve proposed employing smart contracts to tokenize assets within their asset finance divisions. For instance, rather than approaching real estate transactions traditionally, they explore the possibility of offering shared value by tokenizing specific assets. Investors could then purchase these tokens and receive fractional rewards based on asset class performance. Tokenization extends beyond conventional asset management, with the potential to combat corruption and fraud through smart contract implementation.

However, introducing Web 3 concepts to individuals accustomed to Web 2 presents challenges. There’s a risk of creating a decentralized, centralized ecosystem where decentralization ideals clash with existing centralized structures. Successfully establishing a decentralized environment within a centralized ecosystem requires bridging the gap between these two mindsets.

Joel cites the example of a recently launched platform, World Coin, which compensates users with $54 worth of World Coin tokens for scanning their retinas. This aims to distinguish between humans and AI for future verification purposes. While World Coin has advocated for this concept for several years, critics argue against one company controlling the identity of the entire human population. This approach resembles what tech giants like Meta and Google did in the past. Despite blockchain’s potential and the presence of Web 3.0, truly decentralized services remain a distant reality. Nonetheless, Joel firmly believes in blockchain’s long-term viability and practical implementation in specific domains.

For instance, in Kenya, concerns about fraudulent land registration involving title deeds persist. By tokenizing the entire process with blockchain, proving land ownership and preventing misrepresentation become more attainable. Joel emphasizes that there are blockchain use cases that don’t mandate complete decentralization or excessive control. Although Dentsu hasn’t embarked on any blockchain projects yet, they’re actively exploring options for clients. However, implementation takes time, and Joel anticipates it will materialize shortly.

Insights from Joel’s Journey

Joel explains that blockchain technology’s decentralized distributed systems provide a more secure environment. However, there have been cases of individuals taking advantage of people’s investments in cryptocurrencies, which are derived from blockchain technology. Some projects turn out to be fraudulent, raising the question of whether the industry should be regulated. Joel’s reasoning is based on past incidents, such as the FTX case, which involved investments in cryptocurrencies derived from blockchain projects. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that the technology is a flawless solution without acknowledging these issues.

The rapid advancement of technology can be overwhelming, as people are still trying to fully grasp Web Two while transitioning to Web Three. Some individuals are even ahead, already exploring Web Ten.

Salesforce, a dominant player in customer relationship management, has been in the industry since before Joel left university. Despite their long-standing presence and deployment of solutions for clients, many still struggle with understanding and utilizing these technologies. This may be due to a lack of knowledge, understanding, or internal training. As a result, Joel often acts as a bridge, helping clients and consumers understand where they are in terms of implementation and adoption.

Joel emphasizes the importance of understanding the consumer’s level of technology adoption before presenting solutions to clients. He cautions against promoting advertising on platforms that haven’t enabled it yet. Joel believes in finding a balance between understanding the local market and exploring innovative solutions from other parts of the world. By staying informed about current trends and pioneering new approaches, he can implement technologies effectively for his clients. For instance, Joel mentions the customer relationship management (CRM) solution. He notes that traditionally, CRM is only applicable once a customer has opened an account in a banking example. However, what happens if a consumer expresses interest in a different product without being an account holder?

Joel recognizes that there is a lack of lead management services in the market. To address this gap, his team has developed lead management solutions for clients outside of popular CRM ecosystems like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics. This example showcases their ability to adapt to technological disruptions and provide effective solutions to clients.

Joel examines the needs and challenges faced by clients to develop unique solutions based on his observations and experiences. As a result, their company has gained significant recognition and has been at the forefront of market innovations over the past six years. In Joel’s community, an elderly man shared valuable insight with him. He explained that even if one were to forget or erase the name of their ancestors, their legacy would still exist. It is only when one acknowledges and recognizes their presence that their impact becomes truly effective. Joel believes that opportunities will continue to arise in the future, and he is particularly enthusiastic about the current era of automation. The rapid growth of artificial intelligence in recent years, similar to blockchain technology, signifies the early stages of a revolution. Recognizing this, Joel’s company has taken steps to adopt artificial intelligence in its media and creative operations.

In the past, performance marketing required individuals with backgrounds in statistics, mathematics, actuarial science, and engineering. However, the emergence of artificial intelligence has allowed for the creation of intelligent models that can assist humans in performing tasks efficiently. Joel’s company has already begun integrating these practices to enhance its operations. He firmly believes that rather than replacing humans, artificial intelligence should empower them to be more effective and efficient. This perspective presents a genuine opportunity for growth.

Joel emphasizes that those who embrace artificial intelligence will surpass those who resist it. He sees artificial intelligence as the next phase of the web, not quite Web 3.0, but a major development in performance marketing akin to the initial stages of the internet. Human intelligence, coupled with the capabilities of artificial intelligence, allows for comprehensive analysis and problem-solving. While conferences and collaborative thinking have traditionally been essential, artificial intelligence can now gather and interpret information from various sources worldwide.

Joel explains that his clients are primarily concerned with measuring success based on their desired outcomes, not just from a marketing perspective but also from a business standpoint. The ultimate question is what the eventual business outcome is. Did they achieve market share growth? Did their sales increase? Did they expand their customer base? Did they enhance the lifetime value of their customers over time? These are the critical factors Joel considers when evaluating the success of his clients. Although he acknowledges that he has encountered clients who were difficult to work with, he refrains from mentioning any specific names. One area where improvement can be made is in cases where clients express the need for digital transformation in their business but ultimately resist the journey and revert to outdated methods that they believe still work. This is a source of frustration for Joel, as it undermines the progress made. Over time, such clients may part ways, only to return years later, realizing they truly need assistance and now understand what they require. This cyclical process can cause pain and concerns for Joel when dealing with clients who initially seek digital transformation but then choose to revert to old ways of doing things.

They acknowledged that their previous approach was effective, but they believed that the suddenness and speed of change may have overwhelmed or frightened others. Joel wanted to encourage clients to embrace change and adapt to the evolving environment. He emphasized the importance of organizations embracing a mindset of change and evolution to ensure survival. He cited examples like Kodak, a renowned camera and film photography company, which became obsolete when digital cameras emerged. Similarly, video stores like Best Buy and movie libraries failed to adapt and became obsolete.

Joel highlighted the need for organizations to adopt and change when necessary to avoid being left behind. He shared an analogy his grandfather used to tell him, comparing it to putting a frog in hot water versus gradually heating the water. The frog immediately jumps out of hot water but stays in gradually heated water until it’s cooked. Joel stressed that the inability to adapt could lead to failure and urged people to embrace change. He acknowledged the challenges in finding like-minded individuals to discuss these matters at a deep level, especially in the digital space, where some view it as a passing trend or even a potential trap. He recognized the concerns around safety and the misconception that adopting new technologies could lead to illicit activities. These fears make it difficult for some to embrace change.

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