Leading the Marketing Revolution in Sri Lanka
Updated: Mar 26
BusinessLoungeLK resumes interviews with leading business & industry personalities and to kick start our new segment Liyo Leaders, we were honored to welcome the Country Head for CIM, Sri Lanka & Maldives, Ms. Onalie Dissanayake.
1. How did you embark on your corporate journey, and can you share some of your key experiences with us?
I started as a medical representative, and I was the first female medical rep at Hemas pharmaceuticals where I had to work with 250 men, which was a good and tough experience. That’s where I started my marketing career, and from marketing I evolved into education. I have been in the education and marketing industries for the last 25 years. It is a passion I would say, marketing is a passion and education is a passion, so I enjoy what I do.
Key experiences, first one I would say is working with 250 men. What I have realised is that when you are in sales and marketing you understand the problems of the customer because you are hands on, but working with a lot of men also gave me that exposure to understand how they think. I was also able to learn quite a lot from everyone around me, and the challenge has also made me a little tougher because I come from a background of four girls.
From pharmaceuticals I got into advertising, which gave me that creativity on how brands work. But when I got married, I started teaching. As a woman you have to change your careers because of certain personal traits.
However, I wanted to make sure that whatever I did, I did it with passion and I wanted to reach the highest point in whatever I did. So, in education I eventually went up to the post of Principal, but I felt that there was nothing more that I could do in schools, and I felt that I had a lot more I could offer.
I wanted to be in education, but marketing was my passion, and I got a break with CIM. That’s how I embarked. It wasn’t a planned thing, but I was able to make the most of the opportunities that I got.
2. You are the country head for both Sri Lanka and the Maldives for CIM. You represent one of the largest professional bodies of marketing in the world, how does that feel and what does it mean to you?
CIM has been in operation for more than 100 years around the world and we represent marketing professionals worldwide in over 100 countries. When I was selected for this position, it felt good. One reason is because I am proud to be part of an organisation that does so much good in Sri Lanka, whether it is through helping our business leaders or helping people understand the positive contribution that professional marketing can bring to the economy and our society.
Another reason is because I’m proud to be the first appointment to this post outside of the UK. So, to be able to hold that first post in a British company I feel is an achievement and I’m quite proud of that achievement, not as a person, but as a Sri Lankan.
Women in Leadership
3. What are the challenges one should expect in today’s competitive corporate environment and what were some of the difficulties you had to overcome yourself?
I wouldn’t call them difficulties, I would call them challenges and experiences, because whether you are a man or a woman everyone will have their difficulties. So, what I feel is that as a female you need to understand you are working with other people, not males, but other people. So, when you are working with other people you shouldn’t expect special treatment. You are just another team member, and you shouldn’t expect special treatment just because you are a female, because if you are asking for equal rights, then you should also be willing to accept equal challenges.
However, females have a lot more challenges in Asian countries because we are patriarchal, but luckily now these things are changing. So, as a woman you need to understand that you are getting into a different life, and you should be able to cut your personal and professional life out. So, in my experience the moment I walk out of the office I’m a mother and a wife, but as soon as I walk back in, I’m a professional. If you can’t cut that boundary and differentiate it, it becomes pretty difficult. The corporate world is demanding so you need to accept those demands as a challenge in order for you to grow.
4. How important is it to strike a balance between a busy work schedule and spending time with your family?
As I said, the moment I walk out of office it’s home. When I am at home I try to give as much productive time to my children and my family as possible. Even if I do get a call after office hours, unless it’s an emergency I generally ask them to call me back during office time.
However, Sri Lankans are not used to that, they think that if you are working in a marketing organisation then you should be answering calls at one in the morning. That has been bit of a challenge, but I believe that I was able to cut that off.
Marketing in a Digital Era
5. How do you see marketing changing with technology?
What we have realised during the last two years is that digital and social media technologies will keep on evolving, you cannot stop it. Change is good and marketing is all about moving with the times, so if there are digital channels coming up, there is no way that we can shy out. So, you need to blend, and you need to upskill, because you cannot say that you are qualified ten years ago and expect the same knowledge to apply today.
Marketers cannot take the risk of being left behind. It doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or an executive, you need to understand what is happening. Organisations who have invested in individuals and allowed their skillset to flourish will stand out from the crowd and attract better talent in the long run.
6. How do you see marketing in Sri Lanka evolving, and compared with the rest of the region, what would you like to see further developing?
Sri Lanka is a place where we are not afraid to try new things and to learn. During the last two years we have seen marketing evolving with technology at a rapid pace, and you can see that in practice as more companies are on social media.
However, in Sri Lanka even though we are technologically savvy, marketers are not evolving in innovation. No matter how much you try, you end up going back to the same contemporary ways. Even though there are a few companies which have evolved with innovation, I think we need to give the young minds more of a chance to explore, because they understand the new market and they understand the new trends. They have ideas and they have innovation, and we need to give them an opportunity to show that, because that is the only way we can progress and make a change.
Nevertheless, even though marketing is very much a practical subject, we need to understand that knowledge in the subject will help you to get ahead of the game faster. Therefore, marketers should continue to learn and upskill themselves as well.
7. How is the role of marketing changing especially in the face of modern sustainability agendas?
Marketing plays a vital role when it comes to sustainability because marketing gives a voice to the organisation or the product. Marketers can’t shy away thinking we don’t want to be green, so they need to blend with the requirements because our world is changing, and our environment is changing, and we need to pay attention to it. To really make progress in tackling the sustainability challenge, businesses must be more open and transparent about their impact on the environment as it's clear consumers, employees and financial investors are all requesting it.
Even here at CIM, we understood that there was a requirement, and we are launching a new diploma in sustainability marketing. So that is a new qualification which is coming in as we felt it is a need of the hour.
8. Did you see a change in marketing as a direct result of the pandemic?
We were very comfortable with contemporary marketing such as through reports, emails and advertisements in the papers. However suddenly when it all became unavailable, it was like a blackout and marketers didn’t know what to do. Companies had difficulties when advertising their products and they didn’t know how to make it available.
However, that opened the eyes of a lot of marketers, and they understood that people were online. Before the pandemic they thought that going digital was having a page on Instagram and Facebook, and that having a lot of followers meant receiving a lot of business. What they realised later is that having followers was good, but it wasn’t converting into business, and so it forced them to change and do something on that line.
9. What is a message that you would like to leave for all young women embarking on their corporate careers?
What I would like to say, whether it is a woman or a man, is to learn, develop and take challenges. People try to say that in marketing you don’t have to learn because it is a practical thing, and people say we sell, do we have to learn to sell? To that I say no, it may be okay for you up to a certain extent, but if you don’t have knowledge to move beyond that, you will be stuck in the same place.
So, for females and young girls who come into the corporate world, what I would like to say is keep on taking challenges but don’t forget your roots and where you started. It is also important that you don’t imitate and copy others, it’s nice to have a role model but you need to have your own identity and an identity that people and society respect.
Life is never a bed of roses because it comes with challenges, but it’s about how you take those challenges and overcome them to be successful.
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