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Neuro-Insight US chief: ‘Marketing has the responsibility of setting culture’

In the second of our interview series with the Advertising Club of New York’s 2019 Honorees, The Drum speaks to Startup Marketer of the Year, Pranav Yadav, chief executive officer of Neuro-Insight US, about marketing’s role in changing the future, behavior change in the industry and being an outsider.

Pranav Yadav, chief executive officer, Neuro-Insight US, may only be 34, but his nine years of experience at a neuromarketing company has proven that he, and the company, know human behavior well enough to see that marketing truly can mold the future.

Neuro-Insight measures brain activity to look into the subconscious and find what people are thinking to help companies better interact with customers. It’s a company that also took a bold step in hiring a 25-year-old to be its US chief executive officer.

Yadav was that hiring, and over the last nine years, he has helped build Neuro-Insight into a leader in consumer understanding (the company was involved in nine of the 55 Super Bowl ads last year) due, he says, to having a worldly insight of his own. He was raised in India, then went to Singapore to study on a scholarship, then received another scholarship to attend Carleton College in Minnesota, where he graduated magna cum laude with three majors. He found his way to Goldman Sachs but still wasn’t satisfied with his work.

“I grew up wanting to be an actor,” Yadav tells The Drum. “As preparation came a lot of observation of people, and a degree of human understanding.” That understanding widened with his world travels, where, as an outsider in new cultures, he observed and interacted with people in a way that allowed him to “dig deeper than our differences, in terms of coming from a different culture, speaking a different language, looking different".

“When you are an outsider, you are actually not bound by the molds that people on the inside have constructed for themselves,” he says.

When he left Goldman Sachs in 2009, he says he knew he wanted to work in a field that brought an understanding of human motivation to the forefront, so he went to work for an innovation strategy consulting firm. After a year, he says he wanted to dig even further, and was recommended for the chief executive job at Neuro-Insight. In his two-hour meeting, Yadav went from a curiosity interview for the company to an immediate hire.

Nearly a decade later, the company and Yadav have garnered a level of respect in the industry as a neuromarketing company, providing tools for understanding where buying happens for companies like Nestle, Unilever, Google, Diageo and other major players.

Changing ingrained marketing behaviors

Yadav sees the industry, and people as a whole, as one resistant to change.

“Behavior change is hard. Imagine, these are people who went to colleges and got degrees in marketing…they were taught the basics of marketing and what people now describe as a funnel and all the things that make people tick, and awareness. And nobody stops to actually think, why are we doing things this way?”

He says that the ad industry has basically been "obnoxious" to consumers for the last 60 years, trying to push products on consumers by stating they will be "game changers" for their lives. “The product is the hero. It doesn’t really fit into my life story. It doesn’t give me any chance to actually understand what this is about to do. [It’s] blatant, in-my-face advertising, and then you hope I will buy that product. When we don’t live our lives that way, I don’t know why we advertise that way,” he says.

Yadav says the industry has been slow to adopt changes because "in every idea we have within the business world, we're still hanging on to some very old principles".

“People don’t like change. People like to know that they know everything. People don’t like to be challenged. People don’t like to learn new things. People like to play it safe. People like to know that 'this is what’s expected in my job and if I hire Nielsen to do this, I will never be fired',” he states.

Practically, he says, the lack of a line item in budgets for what Neuro-Insight does keeps some companies from using its services. “The closest thing to replace it is traditional market research. But we’re not market research. This is pure consumer understanding at its core that should be built within the marketing function,” he says, adding that many top 200 advertising chief marketers vouching for the company has helped them grow.

With Neuro-Insight, says Yadav, the premise is that most of the decision making takes place in the subconscious. “People, by definition of the subconscious, don’t have access to it. The $500bn that is spent on advertising every year, relies on conscious awareness of things. As we realize, 90% is subconscious. So, there’s a huge leakage in the amount of money that’s spent and how effective it is. We come and look at the mind of the consumer at a subconscious level on a second-by-second basis in context as people are receiving that information."

How human insight can help change the future for the better

Yadav states that the idea of being consumer-centric is in itself flawed, “because when you call yourself consumer-centric, you have basically just told me that you are outside of the consumer. What I want people to learn about Neuro-Insight that we are the mind of the consumer. This is as close as you can get to understanding who you’re selling to or talking to.”

Yadav says that Neuro-Insight has just helped scratch the surface of human behavior, and that the company’s future is not limited to advertising. He says it can be used to expand product ideas from a user perspective. Internally, for larger organizations, the company can help get a pulse on the entire workforce to keep them motivated and engaged. For earnings reports, companies can find out which words work best to get the markets to react positively.

“I don’t think my job will be done until I make this into an everyday, routine thing for those who can afford it,” he says, adding that the company should work pro-bono with organizations that align with the company’s push to make humanity better.

“The point is to bring an understanding of human motivation to the forefront that can actually allow us to redefine what kind of society we want to be. What most people forget is, marketing has the responsibility of setting culture for this generation and the next…truly understanding that we are in a world where we live in a multi-cultural, multi-racial society where there should be gender equality, and equality for races, and equality for any kind of sexual orientation. That should be basically the fabric of all of our marketing, and then we build stories on top of that, rather than that being the hero of the story.

“That is the understanding of what my aim is for what I want to do with Neuro-Insight and understanding culture, is finding a voice for the future that can lead to the world that we’d want our children to live in,” Yadav concludes.

The Ad Club will will honor its Advertising People of the Year on 5 September at the Tribeca Rooftop.

Featured by The Drum

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