By Axel de Vernou
Ömür Kula Çapan is a creative strategist searching for the intersection between consulting, financial work, and educational initiatives. She built the first digital bank in Turkey and is a frequent guest lecturer at many universities and academic programs. She leads the digital transformation of Turkey’s most influential companies while advocating for social reform in a variety of industries.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Why do you think that the transition to online spaces is so important nowadays for companies across the world?
Most companies that come from traditional business models are having a very difficult time reaching their potential users and consumers—even their existing ones. It is no longer a one-way forced dialogue where companies can deliver any message that they want via prime time television or advertising. So when their brand is not performing well and they need to change course, they have to be able to put that change as part of a conversation rather than imposing awareness campaigns. People only care if there is a conversation. Digital technologies are providing companies with a new medium where these conversations are easier. Brands from previous eras are especially desperate to exist in these online spaces to reach not only new but also their existing consumers.
Data is the most important asset that these companies are ever going to get from their users. And in order to get that data, they need to create a type of digital journey that you are invited to follow so that you leave a digital footprint. These companies will then be able to better understand you to test their vision. To make that transition, they need a digital platform to distribute a message, test a message, and get more feedback to identify what they are supposed to be doing.
In your consulting, do you concentrate most on improving management and the structure of the company or is it more financially focused?
Our company is based on a consulting service that’s slightly different from usual consultancy services. We are more like a creative consultancy service than financial. We dive in from the C-suite, working very closely with the high-level stakeholders in the company, and usually the reason why they come to us is because there’s something that is not working with their company anymore. Most of the time, it has to do with some of their products, services, or brands. They could be losing some market share, for example, or maybe there’s a new disruptor in the market.
It’s from there that we start reverse engineering the problem starting from the end: the consumer of the product, service, or brand in question. If there is something wrong, then it means they are not meeting the expectations of a certain audience. We can help build an organizational structure or create a corporate entrepreneurial set-up that is integral to what they’re doing. But you can’t change everything from scratch overnight. A lot of things that we need to do are based on the condition of the company and what they’re capable of. So what we do is not only consulting but also execution. We design products and services to make sure that they’re up and running, so it’s like holding hands. It’s not only ideas; it’s ideas and executional frameworks that deliver tangible brands, products, and training programs.
During this new era of accelerating digitalization, has it been easier or harder for you to guide companies and introduce them to wider audiences?
It’s actually made it easier in some senses and difficult in others. It is super easy because now you don’t need to convince these companies of what is going to happen and how our services will work. It’s also difficult because the Internet is super crowded. Companies are facing millions of agile-tech competitors and almost everyone is late to the game. These companies are like youngsters with a lot of stamina, whereas we want to go backwards and make them change the basics before looking to the future.
How about your financial background; how does it play into your career?
My background is in advertising and in banking—two totally different ends of the game. What I did in terms of finance is help set up the first digital bank in Turkey. It was a very disruptive thing for the market several years ago and it is still super successful. It is my way of entering several other industries so I can say to them: “if you are not winning your game, here is how you can find a completely new niche, or new way of doing business, to get back into the market and still win the game.” This is what we did with our little digital bank back then.
The ultimate goal should be to create a profitable business that is not necessarily always growing, but constantly making money with healthy margins. I think this is another thing that people get confused about in today’s world. Every company is playing the growth game but their profitabilities and margins are shrinking—growth is actually making things more difficult for them. Instead of getting fat in the growth game, they need to be more agile to have big margins that keep their customer base happier and become more lucrative. My banking experience allows me to explain that to clients. Scaling is important, but multiplying incremental margins is not sustainable because you are multiplying costs as well. In my opinion, you need margins more than you need growth so that you can choose and control your scaling.
What were the repercussions of creating the first digital bank in Turkey? It seems like that would fundamentally transform a part of the economy.
The bank is called Enpara. The way that the banking game was designed back then was based on a very imbalanced relationship between consumers and banks. Banks were seen as super powerful—they were seen as either capable of screwing you or making you win financially. They were perceived as entities that did not really care about their customers because they held the power to decide whether you get a credit or not. One can say that this is still pretty much true. However, consumers were not very aware of their power and banks had not yet understood the value of a happy customer.
“Customer experience” was a fancy buzzword back then but banks were not prioritizing it in a sustainable fashion, they were just talking the talk but not walking the walk. Banks were in desperate need to change their narrative and their organizational structure but there was no real disruptive trigger. It’s like when everyone is unhappy with the rules of the game and no one wants to be the first to leave the game.
When Enpara came into the scene, we changed the whole narrative as to what consumers should really expect from their banks. If your Starbucks barista can remember your name and your order if you go every other week, your bank should be able to do that, too. You had to be a real person that matters to the bank that serves you, not a number waiting in a queue. We made sure that this was very much possible. We made Enpara all about our customers. We reduced all fees and all commissions, breaking a lot of taboos in the market. New customer segments were comfortable with banking with us.
We suddenly created these new and fancy customer targets for other banks. Housewives, for example, were a great target market for everybody but until we came into the scene, no one was really aware of them. We were not charging any fees or commissions so these housewives, instead of having their money in a box at home, were investing their money with us because they were already digitally savvy and Enpara was digital-only. So they never had to leave their houses to start banking with us, it was a huge convenience for them. We created Enpara on the basis of a big loyalty scheme, which was also new for the market. This meant that if you were a happy Enpara customer and you would refer me as a new customer to Enpara, for example, you’d win, I’d win, and everybody profits.
I get the impression that finance is becoming more quantitative nowadays and that students try to pair it with other fields like computer science and data analysis. Still, your work is based on brand creation and soft skills. Where do you see the world of finance going right now and what is the philosophy behind your approach?
First of all, yes, I definitely come from the soft skill side of things and I am a total believer of data but I don’t believe that you have to be a data scientist. If you have the right people that can crunch numbers for you and you have the intuitive capabilities of drawing insights from that data as well as the right creative skills, you will be adding something new to the market. Otherwise, what’s the point of copying what’s already been done? You’ll only migrate some people to your platform.
My take on it is that people can be the best data scientists out there but there is more value to the design approach or the creative approach, such as bringing behavioral insights into the game where you tap into what people really want, or intuitive thinking that goes beyond the answers the data provides. Without creative, intuitive thinking attached to them, numbers make little sense. They are only complementary to the existing system and create incremental change.
As somebody who is exploring finance with a weak quantitative background, that’s great to hear!
I have to share this example. When I started working in the bank, I was ultimately super worried and stressed to death because I couldn’t differentiate between two financial products… and I ended up designing the bank. My colleagues had this number-focused data driven approach that kept telling them “no, no, no, that’s not how we do things here” and I kept asking: “why not?” It was not only because I was naive and uneducated in the banking world; I was truly curious and did not understand. They were trying to create this complicated call center tree of decision-making and I said, “Guys, people work with call centers because they just want to talk to real people. Forget about the automated answering tree, why don’t we have real people who immediately connect with clients.” They were creating this monster for people to hate them because they were only looking at the numbers. Numbers were telling them that the complicated decision tree trying to predict why someone had called the call center was so efficient. They had forgotten that people were not satisfied with this type of system. So I forced them to re-design the call center in its most primitive sense. With the Enpara call center, you are connected to an agent. That’s it.
How about we move on to your educational work with children, refugees, and other vulnerable groups? Can you tell us more about your work in this domain?
I am someone who truly believes that if you are not serving the society you live in, you are not necessarily fulfilling your true potential. Life is a give and take game. If all you are doing is taking, you won’t have a clear conscience to start with. Half of my time is dedicated to civil society and I work a lot with NGOs. This is no pro bono work with my company; this is separate. I try very carefully not to mingle them because people misunderstand and think that I am trying to get more money for my company. Not at all.
I obsessively believe in the power of education with children. K-12 is my main focus. I think that the educational system in the world sucks. It hasn’t changed in the past 100 years. There are millions of things to redesign, and if you can change a few things, a lot of other things will change too.
I try to be influential on the boards of educational NGOs that are in turn influential for new policies. I come up with new curriculum ideas or educational methodologies. I work on an NGO’s board for private schools—the biggest and most prestigious network in Turkey. I try to make sure that the education system offered there matches their potential quality with new ideas and technology. But not everybody gets the chance to go into private schools. The Educational Reform Initiative is an NGO set up to influence the government to make a better educational system year after year.
Unfortunately, the tension between the Turkish government and the people has made it super difficult for the initiative to criticize the government—that bond is broken. So now we need a new focus for our NGO or a new model, which requires a redesign as well. Everything is a design problem and in order to solve that you need to find an untapped need or an undeniable insight that your audience would relate to. So you can say that I’m trying to mobilize my skills to influence a redesign in educational systems in the K-12 educational system.
Can you give an example of what you mean when you say that the educational system “sucks”?
The widely applied educational system in the world today is based on the idea of a factory or assembly lines where the students are the products. They travel between stations as if a different part can be added to them at every step of the way. Interactions or intersections are disregarded. Of course, there are many progressive ideas being considered, some of them already very old, but they are not widely applied. The Montessouri system is an example. It says that you don’t need to group kids based on ages because we all learn from each other and there is an important dynamic between people of different ages. These kinds of approaches need to be more welcomed in the educational system, but they are not. They are still very niche.
Even the siloed approach of “math is a different subject than literature and science” is super problematic. We are teaching children that there is only one way. K-12 education is more about keeping the kids in a safe garden when parents are at work than about teaching them anything. When COVID hit, we all saw very clearly that schools were not capable of most things. We can go as advanced as we want with our electric cars and carbon capture technologies, but if we are not equipping our kids with what they would really need in today’s world, we are not progressing as a society.
Your online profiles on sites such as LinkedIn include issues like health care and the environment which we didn’t talk about today. Are there other things that you are passionate about on the side of your consulting, finance, and educational work?
I am someone who believes that business is personal. I am not someone who changes my narrative or the things I care about when I walk into a meeting room with a client. I do not change color based on the environment like a chameleon. If I care about poor people, human rights, and animal rights, I am not going to change that when I meet with some clients. I am someone who is not scared to make sure that my persona is the same everywhere.
I am a true activist who is interested and invested in everything that is going on in my country. Some of the things that I say there potentially conflict with my clients, but I don’t care. Going forward, business is going to get more and more personal and if you are not your true self, no one will trust you going forward. You can very easily hide yourself in the digital world and I am someone working against that tide. I am not hiding myself—my Instagram account is totally open. I will not apologize for who I am just to make a project work.
Is there anything else you would want to add about your work since it touches on so many fields? Are there any misconceptions you want to be clarified for our readers?
People understand different things about consulting. When I throw in words like ‘branding’ and ‘consulting,’ they get confused because the world is siloed. My kind of work tries to bring everything together. Let’s say your advertising agency is Droga5, your consulting agency is McKinsey, and your design company is Pentagram. At the end of the day, what the client wants is a mobile banking product that requires everybody’s input to excel at an intersectional point. If each company is blind to what the other company is doing, or waiting for their turn to take a stab at the matter, then when one decides on an idea, the other one will come to break it by going in a different direction— this is super inefficient for clients.
Readers might initially think: so what does she really do? What is her company? An advertising agency? Design agency? Consulting? Which one? We are none, but an intersection. There are not a lot of companies in the world doing that right now. Every project requires a different skill set and you need to be agile, flexible, and ever-changing to adapt. How will the big consultancies tackle that when they have 300 partners thinking about strategy on their payroll? Even if they hire the best designers, how will they keep them busy and integrated? How will they change their culture to create that intersection? Since they cannot do that, they try to buy the very creative companies out there. Their existing cultures suffocate these design cultures. Designers quit and creativity dies.
So it’s about finding the intersection between the expertise that different small companies offer?
Small companies are more flexible in creating that intersection because the solutions that they offer are not dictated by the salaries that they need to pay at the end of each month, especially companies like ours, where no one is on the payroll and everyone is freelancing. This way we can bring in any talent to any project and price accordingly. It is also about being non-territorial. Small companies are not greedily trying to get all of the big contracts, they are usually ready to collaborate with other companies and share the cake. Big companies need to take all of the cake because only then can they make ends meet.
In one consultancy company that I worked at, the minimum budget to hire a client was 1 million pounds. That is insane and not needed. Clients should be able to bring in expertise from different areas and place them around a single table to make them work and share that cake. This is only possible when the companies are small, agile and have talent flexibility. This is what we are offering.
Axel de Vernou is a first-year in Saybrook College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.