New Talent: Maharaj Varatharajah
Maharaj Varatharajah is a biomedical undergraduate and has a master’s degree in politics – so it might seem a little surprising, then, that he now finds himself as a strategic planner at gyro in London. But to him, the skills learned during his studies aren’t as removed from his role as a planner within the creative industries as they might seem at face value; in fact, planning offered the best opportunity to combine his studies with his interests in art and curiosity about the media shapes people’s perceptions.
Maharaj arrived in London by way of Germany (apart from a short stint in Montreal). He moved to Germany, as a young boy after war broke out in his home country of Sri Lanka. Initially, he wasn't sold on the English capital but learned to love it and its challenges over time.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught with Maharaj to discuss the importance of reading and travelling, how growing up in small-town Bavaria shaped who he is today, and the importance of qualitative research in the age of big data..
LBB> You are Sri Lankan by birth, German by acculturalisation, Londoner by choice – why did you decide to settle down in the British capital?
MV> I originally moved to London to study after a six-month stint in Montreal with plans to return to Germany. Now 13 years later I’m still here, so clearly this city is doing a few things right.
To be frank, I wasn’t a fan of London at first, but over time the city grew on me. I love the tension that exists within it; it’s a unique place that challenges you and makes you question your sense of self in relation to space and people around you. What I love about London is the constant dance between hyper-commercialisation versus resourceful creativity and its ability to reinvent itself through pioneering people attracted from around the world.
LBB> Tell us a bit about your childhood – where was it spent and what kind of kid were you?
MV> I grew up in a small town in Northern Bavaria. Rolling hills, lush, green grass and old forests is what I remember most of my childhood. It is a place that moves slowly and you can imagine when my brown-skinned family turned up, we caused quite the ruckus. I confused people, they couldn’t place me, categorise me, and it was that experience that made me want to understand how people make sense of the world around them.
Naturally, history and culture became a big focus for me. When you are a nerdy kid and display some very obvious features of otherness to top it off, you become very conscious and empathetic to people around you. My curiosity to learn how people think, feel and act stems from that context.
LBB> Did creativity play a big role in your childhood?
MV> My mom is a writer and my two brothers have followed in her footsteps. She placed a huge emphasis on language and the written word, so yes, creativity was hugely important.
I was the shy, scientific-creative type with a vivid imagination, inquisitive about things around me and particular people, history and the natural world. I read, constantly. When I wasn’t reading I was out gathering samples of flora to conduct ‘research’, which I would collect in small books, writing notes of my observations and learnings. And when I wasn’t roaming the countryside studying nature, I would be sketching, playing video games or coming up with narratives for books or games, constantly creating new ideas and stories.
LBB> You’re also a biomedical undergrad, with a masters in politics. So how did you wind up as a planner in an agency?
MV> I never viewed them as detached from my role as they appear to be on the surface. I am constantly drawing on some key skills I took from science and political communication. Actually, my academic background is very reflective of my personality: I have always had an interest in data, but I’m also drawn to politics, art and history and wanted to understand how narratives and media shape people’s perceptions.
Planning combined these interests neatly for me. I started off in a client-side marketing grad scheme before joining the world of agencies as an account manager. That’s when I met my first planner, a hugely inspirational person, who later recruited me for her team.
LBB> You are trilingual and have lived amongst people of numerous religions. Firstly, can you give us a bit of background into the specifics of that? And how much does this mixture of cultures influence your work as a strategic planner?
MV> I am Sri Lankan Tamil, a minority in our homeland. When pogroms against Tamils turned into full-scale war, we left for safer shores. That’s how we ended up in Germany. It was, in many ways, still a confusing experience and my parents tried to root us in our ancestral culture through our Tamil language, holding onto a thin thread that still connects us to our original homeland.
From an early age, I understood the importance language and culture have on shaping identities and a sense of self. We were raised with an odd language mix that mashed Tamil, German and English together into a new code.
Languages aside, religion has greatly influenced my thinking and viewpoint of the world. My hometown in Germany sits on the fault line that divides the Protestant North from the Catholic South, which gave us perspectives on two major schools of Christian thought. Combined with our own Hindu heritage, this gives me a very specific way of looking at the world. Much of our visual, spoken and written language, even daily vernacular, is shaped by religious and religiously coloured undertones, symbols and ideas.
Understanding the historical context and evolution of languages, culture and religion is hugely important for me. It allows planners to look beyond the data, beyond persona and consumer, and see the complex net of intertwined influences that make people who they are and the trajectory they may take in the future.
LBB> As a strategist, how do you stay on top of new trends, mediums, technology, etc.?
MV> I don’t have one source that I rely on, but I do love HowStuffWorks as a source of insight and inspiration. Other than that, I read pretty much everything, from newspapers in different languages to books on art, design and history and the odd reports here and there. And I tap into local knowledge and insights from a large circle of friends from around the world.
For me, planning only made sense when I could understand contexts. A tech trend doesn’t just come out of nowhere; it’s rooted in a specific human desire to solve a particular set of problems with many conscious and subconscious layers behind it. And understanding these desires requires a birds’ eye view of the world.
LBB> In the age of big data, quantitative data has never been sexier. So where does that leave qualitative?
MV> In 2016 we’ve seen on a massive scale how hard data alone cannot decode the world around us. Experts have failed to predict seismic political and societal shifts because we didn’t account for emotive reasoning and how people make decisions based on feelings. There is a lesson here for planners and strategists in advertising and other industries: ignore peoples’ gut feeling in favour of data at your peril.
For me, neither ever made real sense without the other. They are two sides of the same coin. Planners need to think a lot like creatives and in doing so, understand that only in combination can quantitative data and qualitative feeling turn into humanly relevant stories.
LBB> Which projects that you’ve been involved in are you most proud of and why?
MV> I’ve been working on some very interesting B2B content projects at gyro. Personally, working on the launch of HP’s industrial 3D printer last year. Collaborating on content and creative directly with C-suites at HP Inc. and our New York office for the launch of a technology that will revolutionise how we manufacture at scale was a brilliant experience.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you like to get up to?
MV> I am always looking for new places around the world to explore. A lot of my time is spent reading about what goes on in the world and then deciding which places to visit. Skyscanner is one of my most frequently used apps. Travelling the world and constantly learning by observing people around me is hugely important, not just for my role as a planner. I’m also a big gamer and a huge fan of Japanese Role-Playing Games, meaning my PS4 gets a lot of love from me on Sundays.
LBB> What are your aims for 2017?
MV> Working in planning means every experience has a potential application. I have a list of things I would like to do this year, and one key item is igniting the content offering at gyro. And, of course, I want to tick off some travel destinations on my bucket list. It’s a slow and arduous process because much like my Amazon Wishlist, this one just keeps on growing.
Genre: PR , People , Strategy/Insight