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Interviews & Talks / 19 September, 2018

Ankit Desai Interview

The Young Professional – Ankit Desai, Universal

Meet Ankit Desai – the techy music marketing mastermind running Universal Sweden’s insights department. We picked his brains on subjects like the future of music, career choices and flight sleeping, and discovered that the music industry is more data driven than ever, that ‘management by incompetence’ is a thing, and that cutting nightclub lines can change one’s life forever.  Have a read! 

Howdy Ankit! Describe yourself in three words.

Ambitious, humble, naive.

Is naive a good thing?

It sometimes works in your favour. People feel for you. There’s of course a fine line between that and being used and pushed around. But optimism, borderlining naivity is generally something that’s helped me.

You work with insights at Universal Music Group Sweden. How did you end up there?

Yeah, I run the insights department at Universal Sweden. Long story short, I was at the right place at the right time. It’s partly coincidences, but also preparations. You cannot underestimate the importance of being prepared when the chance comes. After having moved to France and later the U.S. from my home-country India, I ended up at Stockholm School of Economics. I was in school and met the CEO of Universal Sweden. We started talking investment strategies and stock-picking. The conversation turned to music and I came up with a few suggestions as to what I would do in his place, which he seemed to like, and asked me if I wanted to join the team. That was my foot in the door at the time.

In parallel to this you started your own consultancy together with your professor. Why did you choose the consultant role rather than the full-time position at Universal?

Having the freedom to choose what I work on was extremely important to me. I think it also helps your credibility if you’re able to turn some opportunities down.

What are you primary skills within what you do?

The analysis side of things, most importantly.  Essentially the analytics within music is uncharted territory. There’s no textbook, no best practice. And one thing I’m good at is making the most out of the resources at hand, and finding a way to cut though the chaos when there are no structured processes. Strategic thinking on how and what data can be important for companies has to be developed over time. I’m not a maths guy. I’m more of a mix of economics, tech and marketing. The tech side is self-learned, and purely based out of interest.

Is there such a thing as talent?

Yes, I think there’s such a thing as raw talent, but it’s overestimated. The impressive thing isn’t possessing it, it’s not wasting it. What’s raw talent if it’s not coming to use?

I’d also say that 80 percent of the full picture is being more prepared and having worked harder than everyone else when the the right situation appears. Consequently, the most important thing is to learn how to learn. With the world changing so quickly you need to learn new skills all the time. Especially with tech and marketing, you can’t rely on old knowledge, you always need to be up to speed, or preferably even ahead.

Can you pinpoint the most important crossroads in your life and career?

Well, meeting my girlfriend. Without that meeting I wouldn’t be here in Stockholm today.

How did you meet?

I cut the line to a nightclub haha. This was at the Swedish youth football tournament Gothia Cup way back in time. We then kept contact and stayed together up until this day. So I guess that the learning is to always cut line. At least figuratively; taking the chance when you see it.

Another important crossroads was of course meeting the Swedish CEO of Universal at a breakfast lecture I was hosting. I got him coffee, and coincidentally I had been learning some skills – like digital marketing – that the music business really needed at the time.

What are you and your consultancy doing at/for Universal?

When you work for a company with 60 offices all around the world, the amount of songs is almost infinite. And since you as a company cannot devote resources to all recently released music, you need to focus your spending.

What songs do you want to talk about with partners like Spotify? What songs to you want to push through social media? To which audiences? I spend large parts of my work-day figuring these questions out, but we also work with more strategic questions like the role of AI, and what the future  of music will look like.

For example, the role of the record label will be more about gatekeeping. Back in the day, only a small number of record labels could afford to turn your recordings into vinyl and distribute them across the country. Today, in the digital age, it’s turned to how we can partner with artists to help them cut through the clutter. There’s always distractions to the user, the question is how we can cut through these distractions and all the noise out there.

Another thing is understanding the dynamics of social media; how to get onto the explore section on Instagram, or how to gain subscriber traction to your youtube channel. Not just subscribers or follower, relevant subscribers or followers. If you add one dedicated fan every day within a couple of years you’re going to be at a good number of hardcore supporters. If you get them and their friends to come to your shows, and buy your music and merch, that can create you a good living.

What’s an interesting success case?

One interesting case was the ’1-800-273-8255’ song by Logic, a hip hop song about mental health and suicide. We identified in May 2017 that this was going to be on the Swedish Top 5. Few believed in it. Hip hop does not work very well in Sweden, but it took five months and then it did reach the Top 5. You just have to see the signs, it’s basic consumer behaviour. How do they react to the song when listening? What playlists is it on? When looking at customer behaviour you need to trust that if you scale it up, you will get the same effect that you did initially. 

You already manage a full team in your company, what’s your management style?

I call it ’management by incompetence’. It works like this: Be so bad and so incompetent at what you do that the people in your team feel the need to step up their game up in order to save the situation. It works, trust me. (I’m joking!)

Say hi to your 20 year-old self, what would you tell yourself that you didn’t know back then?

At 20 I was at one of those crossroads. I had just moved to the U.S. from France. The first week I considered going back to France because I hated it in the U.S. But I didn’t look back. It was of course scary to move twice but that gave me the confidence to move on to Sweden. So the advice: Keep taking leaps of faith because that’s where all the good things come from.

If you where to go for another career in the future, what would that be?

Agriculture. Might seem strange but I’ve been thinking quite a bit around global water shortage and how we could use tech to make actual difference to people’s lives.  And it doesn’t get more basic necessity than farming. With no money or best practices it is hard move upwards from the bottom of the pyramid, especially in places like India, where I come from.

How would you make that work?

In my job today I take tech concepts and distill them down to what works in music. I would do the exact same for agriculture. Us technology, but not make it seem complicated to the farmers. The goal would be for them not even noticing it’s there.

Do you have any role models?

Well, my parents. Another important role model is David Beckham. He taught met that you can be successful, handsome and rich, but still remain humble and nice.

The phenomenon of “work life balance” is bigger than ever. How’s that working out for you?

It’s all in waves. Sometimes there’s no balance at all and sometimes I find myself doing nothing but watching youtube videos of cats for a full day. No but seriously, you have to remind yourself that you’re looking at a 45 year long career, so keep a pace that gives room to breath and reflect. I apply the concept of mandatory chill time, try it out!

Are you a skilled flight sleeper?

Yes, I am now. I can fall asleep in any position, I’ve done it so much. Last time in the U.S., I had a terrible jet lag, so I took this strange natural medicine when on the plane, it worked too well. I was out for a full 12 hours.

What does Ankit do tomorrow, in six months, and in five years?

Tomorrow I have budget meetings and other boring stuff, and in six months I’m at the beach on a summer holiday. In five years I’m retired and doing philanthropy, sitting on boards throwing money at startups. I came to Sweden on an Indian state scholarship so my dream is to pay out scholarships to young people, in order for them to get the same chance I had.

5 quick ones:

Series? Silicon Valley.

Resmål? Ischia, Italy.

Podcast? I have two. First one, ’Reply all’. It’s a podcast about the internet.  Every week they focus on interesting stories from across the internet. The second one, ’Philosophize this’. It’s a philosophy podcast, but it’s more like a course. He picks up the best theories and apply them to real life. It’s like a manual on how to live happily.

Phone app? All apps that I’m trying to delete. It means they’ve managed to impact my life to such an extent that I need to get rid of them. That’s impressive. I’ve already deleted Facebook, and soon Instagram. Unfortunately there’s research implying that a high social media use is positively correlated with bad mental health. So I aim to keep it to 30 minutes a day.

Spotify playlist? ’Songs to Sing in the Shower’.

Let’s take it to the next level!

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