Instagram's Niran Vinod | Ideas are Cheap, Execution is Key
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Interview with Niran Vinod, who since rose to head of creative strategy at Instagram, Facebook (Meta now) - before launching his own agency in 2021.
An early interview (I was just 22 at the time and had little knowledge of what we were discussing apart from the segway into Fifa), but a massive learning experience from a lovely guy.
Reading it back, you can see how his product productions, specifically around in-app video editing skills, were extremely insightful. One wonders if Facebook (sorry, meta) had more people like Niran, TikTok wouldn't have got quite the same jump on them...
12th September 2018 // Facebook HQ, London. Niran Vinod is a social media strategist for Facebook. His current title is, 'Creative Product Strategist'. Confused? I was too, before Niran explained it to me.
After speaking to Niran, it’s clear to see that one of his biggest fears is complacency. Throughout his career, his roles have never stopped evolving. Even in the forever changing world of Facebook, he fears the prospect of familiarity. His creativity is dependant on growth and change. Whether it’s leading a side-project or starting a family - him and his wife have just had a beautiful baby girl - Niran is always driving some form of creative voice forward.
Needless to say, Niran was definitely born in the right era.
Looking into your background, there’s a strong indication of proactiveness (self-taught design at 14 for instance). While you were still at Uni, you started a blog - Yin and Yang. What prompted this?
Boredom, bored as shit. Art school was great, as an experience it was so valuable.
It’s a funny one. I ended up there, not because I wasn’t academic, but because I chose to pursue design and advertising. Art school is academic in terms of what you learn, but it’s so subjective - I don’t think any of it has been useful to me. But, the whole experience of being surrounded by people who were equally creative, and from all walks of life, really inspired me to start something.
Then over the summer, at the end of my first year, my girlfriend at the time went back home and I was even more bored. I ended up designing this blog and getting a friend to do the coding, and funnily enough that friend is one of my best friends now. I just got one of my really good friends from Uni to be Yang and I was Yin.
And that was it. All the buzzwords we have now like; content strategy, influencer strategy - we had no idea what any of that was. We literally just wrote what we liked.
You created content that interested you. Y&Y was launched in late 2009, it’s crazy to think how much the industry has evolved.
That thing - what we created - it can’t exist now. If we tried to launch [Yin and Yang] now, it wouldn’t work. Now, no one goes on websites; it’s all about Instagram, Snapchat, or similar mobile platforms.
Yin and Yang is a very good example of your interest in side projects. Is that very important to your creativity?
Yes, but it’s so so hard now. I did it really well until I was 27, before then, I tried to do as many side projects as possible. I left Yin and Yang just before I got married, and I guess buying a house turned into a little side project of our own. Now having a kid, it’s just about finding the time.
I’m constantly having ideas, I was literally just telling my friend about twenty minutes ago - “Ideas are really cheap, execution is key.” It’s great to have an idea for a side project, but if you don’t actually go through with it, it doesn’t mean shit.
Is it deflating, to have an idea, but not the time?
It’s not really deflating, it’s more the time we live in. We just jump onto the next thing and then get excited by an idea for a short second, then you forget about it and get another idea the next day. But no one actually sees through that idea to the endpoint. It’s really easy to lose yourself to the daily hustle - your day-to-day job, trying to pay the bills or raising a kid.
Completely. So your job title is “Creative Product Strategist” for Facebook and Instagram. Can you break that down for me slightly?
It’s a strange role for me, I’ve never done anything involving product in past jobs. I decided to make the switch over to the product side because of Silicon Valley and the core of Silicon Valley is essentially product.
Every tech company, everything on Facebook and Instagram, is an amalgamation of different products. I wanted to get into that world because I thought it would be a challenge, I’ve never done it before. It’s a new language and skillset I wanted to learn. The area I focus in on is building creative tools for small businesses, to advertise on a platform, across Facebook and Instagram.
A lot of small business are one or two person companies. What they struggle with is creating enough creative content - say, for example, short-form video.
Video requires a high barrier of creative entry, and not a lot of people have the time to create video - and we help them with that. So building short form animated video templates, for them just to insert and modify. That enables them to create better creative and more impactful creative.
I don’t actually work with brands anymore. What we do is scaled solutions for the masses, it’s not really the level of Nike and Adidas.
Particularly in tech companies, employees can be so few now - literally two or three people - those are the people you can really help? It’s like the Mom-and-Pop shop, someone who’s got a side project ends up quitting their day job for their side project.
One thing I found out during our research that these small businesses have a similar mindset, which is - don’t consider us as people who aren’t tech savvy, consider us people without time.
With these small tech companies; they’re the designer, the founder, the accountant, the shop front, the marketer - their whole thing is we don’t have time for everything. And our goal is - how can we make solutions to make it easier for them?
That’s where I am now. So the last six months has been shifting my brain from thinking big ideas for brand campaigns to - how do we help build solutions? It's working with product design, engineers and PMs. It’s so different than what I was used to.
The language they talk is different. I've spent a lot of time un-learning a lot of things I learned in advertising - trying to re-learn new terms, new ways of learning, new ways of working. Which is fun. It's challenging, but I knew what I was getting into. I chose a harder career change.
You like to change roles quite often...
I tend to change every two years. It's not intentional, I find myself getting comfortable, and when I get comfortable I stop learning. I never thought I'd get comfortable at Instagram and Facebook, then suddenly, everything started to feel the same. To combat this, and one of the great things about this company is that I can reach out to anyone. I just started reaching out to people in different organisations across Facebook and Instagram.
I'd just be like: Hey, so-and-so, I've been here for almost two years, going into my third year in June, I'm trying to figure out my next step in the company, I have no plans to leave right now. Could I get some time to learn what you do? What struggles you've faced? What things you've overcome?
In that sense, it’s almost like little a pyramid scheme of networking. But what I found fascinating was, even people at the VP level - people reporting directly to Mark (Zuckerberg) and Sheryl (Sandberg) - would respond within a day and give me their time. And that was just a real reflection of the humility of this place. You kind of have to lose your ego, and as we’ve gone bigger, that culture still exists.
You say you don’t like being comfortable, what else frustrates you when you’re trying to work? What stifles your creativity?
Oh no, like this?
No, no - not this. Just meetings about meetings. I try and block time out in my diary to focus on work without distractions.
Would you say that’s a hangover of corporate egos?
No, I think it’s just the corporate world. Everyone’s just obsessed with meetings. The buzzwords. This industry is full of buzzwords.
At times you’ve got to ask; What does that actually mean? Sometimes it’s just people talking for the sake of talking. I just prefer to do the work.
I saw a couple years ago you really enjoyed working on the Tommy Hilfiger campaign with Gigi Hadid. I know you said you don’t work on the big brand campaigns now, but are there any others that stick out to you?
I think some of my favourites were working at AKQA for Nike. My title there was ‘Creative’, so I ended up doing a lot of the shoots myself. Which was a lot of fun, just being on the ground, coming up with the ideas, but also being able to execute the ideas myself, rather just than Art Directing. So we did projects from Nike Tennis to Nike Football to Sportswear - across all the different categories. And it’s always fun to hang out with athletes, people that you look up to.
In terms of the best campaigns out there, what do you see as really good content? Even if it comes directly from a brand, or an influencer, what makes content make you look, and stop scrolling?
It’s just an interesting question because it’s so subjective to the user. Me personally, I always look for things that stand out but are well crafted. I think the last few weeks, Nike have won. Everything they’ve done has been hitting their targets and more.
Even though the print ad they did wasn’t thumb-stopping; it wasn’t animated, there was nothing video about it, it doesn’t follow any digital best practice. But, the creative is so powerful, the writing is so great. Using Colin Karpernick, was amazing. That got so much virality, because it was both a brand standing up for its values, and also standing up for all the injustices in America right now.
My response was just: That's Amazing.
Nike were sort of the first brand to sell more than just their product, even tracing them back to their marketing in the 70s and 80s.
The Michael Jordan story. When the NBA tried to ban The Jordan (Sneaker), they stood up for him. They made him front and centre of all their campaigns. Which is incredible.
It’s those kinds of campaigns, that will transcend platforms and format. It doesn’t matter where it goes, it will still do well because the idea is so strong.
And your own personal taste?
But in terms of other content I like, I actually follow a lot of photographers and videographers on Instagram. I’m really picky with who I follow, because I’m a personal believer in - if you consume crap - you end up subconsciously thinking crap, then you produce crap.
I think I should stop following so many meme pages…
Haha yeah, I avoid meme pages like the plague. I see stuff on explore, but that’s about it. And a lot of them just copy each other.
I actually enjoy Stories a lot. I think they’re a really interesting creative space. It is very throw away. You don’t want to spend too much time on it, but at the same time you do want to stand out. It’s allowed people to express themselves differently, I find younger people are using it to its best potential. I still find it awkward talking to camera. But younger people have just been born and raised by it, so they don’t really care about that. It’s just blowing up - it’s everywhere.
In terms of this evolution, Whalar are fundamental to the influencer marketing side of the social-digital climate. As the only official partners of Facebook and Instagram in Europe, we’re able to source authenticity - but what direction do you see influencer marketing going?
I actually don’t know what the next thing is, because at the moment it’s so saturated. I think there’s going to be an interesting piece about ‘How do you measure influencer marketing’, because a lot of people fake it. I know from before, when I was running the blog, a lot of PR folks don’t even care about the statistics and will just put their friends in. They get them into campaigns and, as long as they can screenshot that ‘so-and-so’ has posted something, the actual metrics doesn’t matter.
So I think there’s going to be something more about metrics, and that’s where branded content comes into play. The whole idea you can tag a brand is becoming more and more serious with advertising standards cracking down on unpaid influencer content. It also allows a brand to see the statistics of the post, and then boosts as well. I think that’s going to be an interesting issue that’s coming up. It’s discussed more and more now, and I’m sure there’s a tipping point coming.
In fact, eight years ago, when I graduated university, my final thesis was actually on brands using influencers as a media outlook. And now, eight years later, it’s everywhere. I’m sure there’s a tipping point coming, at some point, the biggest difference I see are people are getting into is trying to be an influencer for freebies, rather than actual content creation. Before, a lot of people just got into it by accident, they didn’t do it for the freebies, they did it because they liked making stuff and they were bored. They did it because they wanted some form of expression. And that’s still usually how the best content gets out there.
Last words before we sign off... One item you couldn’t live without.
I was going to say my phone, but that sounds so bad…. Playstation
A feature you wish Instagram had.
(Laughs) Hmmm, what have I asked for? More video editing tools. I use a lot of external apps to edit more stories. I’d rather just do it all on Instagram (all on one platform…) Yep. Just saving time from using other apps.
Favourite place to Travel
I’m going to be biased and say India… Actually, I love going to New York - it’s my home away from home.
Last song you played on Spotify.
Do you watch a show called Insecure? It’s a HBO show in the US, and they have a playlist they update and I tend just to listen to that, ‘cause they update it weekly with all songs were on the last episode…. but the last song…. The O’My’s - Ideas. Feat. Chance the Wrapper.
Last one, favourite part of this job?
Learning, being pushed out my comfort zone constantly to keep learning. That’s my favourite part.
Niran, it's been a pleasure. Cheers.