Eshan Ponnadurai
Global Head of Brand & Consumer Marketing

Whatsapp’s Head of Brand on Shamelessly Chasing Your Passions

Eshan Ponnadurai embodies what it means to be a true global marketer. From Australia with roots as Sri Lankan Tamil, he’s repositioned products for P&G in new markets, created work that transcends borders to establish Google’s brand in the APAC region and united Uber’s stakeholders against a common enemy in Asia. Today, he's merged his personal and professional passions to lead global marketing for Whatsapp. What has helped steer his rewarding career path, working for some of the world’s most recognized tech brands? Here, Eshan shares his biggest learnings—from what drives him to take big risks to how to grow opportunities into dream roles—and a critical question for all brands to ask themselves during the marketing reckoning happening right now.

What learnings changed the way you view and navigate your career?

"There’s rarely true reward without some level of risk."

Growth always comes with a level of risk. I've learned that if a new opportunity ‘ticks all the boxes’ then it actually may not be an opportunity to grow—having elements or areas that are imperfect or unnerving are grounds for growth. There’s rarely true reward without some level of risk.

Making career choices based on your gut and chasing your passion continues to be the most fulfilling way to make career decisions. Every role and opportunity will come with its respective various ups and downs, but your passion (if it’s genuine) is what will sustain you through them and ultimately make you successful.

How did you get to where you are today? Any noteworthy aha-moments along the way?

I’m an Australian made in Sri Lanka, with a lot of pit stops on the way to where I am now. As a child of immigrants, I suppose you could say I always felt the pressure to always do more.

I went to school to be an IT programmer during the Dot-com bubble. When it burst, I eventually made my way into marketing for a few reasons, but mainly, it was my love of theater. I ended up starting my marketing career with P&G. From there I was offered to head marketing for YouTube In Southeast Asia. I then became the Head of Brand Marketing for Google in the APAC region where I got to help make my favorite piece of work Google Search: Reunion.

In 2014, I took the role of Global Head of Music Marketing at YouTube in NYC—it was like my childhood dream actually came true. I had to build a global team, launch a music streaming platform and promote artists in ways that hadn’t ever been done on YouTube before. I really didn’t have the qualifications, but I took a chance. The campaign I led there is essentially my story as a kid, made into an ad for YouTube.

From there I worked with Uber to help them take on traffic-clogged Asia, and then worked at Airbnb directly with a founder to develop a new product, before landing at Whatsapp earlier this year. Overall, my career has been built off of taking jobs out of pure passion and going from there, trying to make the most out of each opportunity.

From your prior roles, what’s one thing you learned that you carry with you to this day?

"...there’s ALWAYS an opportunity to build up and make an opportunity bigger."

If you want something, be shameless about it. The worst-case scenario is someone will say ‘no’. Also, don’t be afraid to take what is offered despite it not being perfect. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there’s ALWAYS an opportunity to build up and make an opportunity bigger as long as you have true passion for it. The first step is actually taking the opportunity.

What attracted you to join WhatsApp?

It was an incredibly rare opportunity to address both my personal and professional passions—as an immigrant from an emerging nation, WhatsApp is an incredible enabler for connection and economic opportunity. The ability to lead such a brand and have a hand in developing products that bring true value to billions of users each day...that were once my family and I, was truly a very rare opportunity that I could not pass up.

What are you working on now that's innovative?

“It’s Between You” is WhatsApp’s first-ever brand campaign that focuses on stories of real human connection and the belief that when privacy is deeply felt, people express their real selves. It debuted in Brazil in February, prior to the Covid-19 crisis. But the latest chapter of It’s Between You was shot, directed and produced remotely during quarantine. The stories are about the enhanced intimacy and connection WhatsApp can bring in these times with us being physically apart.

We worked remotely with directors who captured the stories of people close to them in their own lives using WhatsApp in meaningful ways—as you really see it in the films.

What’s currently happening in marketing and/or tech that most excites you and how is it changing the future of the industry? 

“Pure messaging and statements are not enough—it’s action, providing solutions and commitment that matter.”

In one word: transparency. Are you living your message? From your internal operations to the people you hire, the work you put out, to your general business practices? If you’re not, it’s not enough. ... Particularly now in this cultural era, brands are “taking a stand” but they typically don’t deliver on them. And marketing is going through its own great reckoning. Pure messaging and statements are not enough—it’s action, providing solutions via your products and commitment that matter.

What’s one piece of work from your career that you’re the proudest of?

Definitely the work we made at Uber to help them take on traffic-clogged Asia. This work made me grow from an ‘adolescent’ marketer to an ‘adult’ marketer for two reasons:

  1. We had to be bold in the face of a crisis. We created this campaign at a time where the company was going through a controversial and difficult time externally. As a team, we decided to take a bold stand by finding a common enemy (traffic) that would unite Uber, its various stakeholders and audiences.
  2. We had to take an entire organization along with us to deliver it—the company was in a fragmented place at the time, given all the controversy. We had to galvanize the entire organization to deliver against the message of ‘unlocking cities’. It had to be more than just a message, but something with tangible proof points and action.

How have you adjusted your strategies in recent months and what do you see as the adjustments that will stick post-pandemic?

The strategy behind the WhatsApp brand hasn’t changed. What has shifted is the usage behavior of our consumers (e.g. video is now becoming equally as important as messaging), and the value of the product (and it’s respective features) at a moment in time when we are physically apart more than ever. We have tried to reflect that in the latest chapters of our campaign. ... Now, and post-pandemic, we’ll continue to focus on stories that display these raw, real, and intimate moments (that occur on our platform) in a way that resonates, on and offline.

What do you see as the most valuable marketing skill needed today and moving forward?

I believe that no matter how much our work (or consumer) environments continue to change, the same core skills apply for marketing and brand leaders: intimate understanding of your product, empathy for your consumer, and nuanced knowledge of the context you’re in. How do they connect? And how does that connection bring them value? Today, the pressure to answer these questions accurately is heavier than we’ve ever seen it.

"We have to deliver on needs first and foremost."

Something that has changed is consumer expectations. They no longer accept the lofty, big-picture, purpose-led work that we’ve seen from many brands in recent years (my own places of employment included). Does your product serve a real need? If it doesn’t, that’s got to change. We have to deliver on needs first and foremost.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

If you’re passionate about something, be shameless about it.