Search This Blog


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Media regulation: between the devil and the deep sea

Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, held a seminar last week on Perspectives in Media Regulation: Lessons from the UK, with featured speakers from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, London. The question, as always, is, can we effectively regulate media in India? Indeed, should the media be regulated? By whom?

The on-going debate on media regulation is in many ways the stuff of the coffee house debates of the sixties, in which jhola-carrying intellectuals diagnosed the ills of the world and prescribed remedies, while the rest carried on running the world in their own ham-handed way.

Perhaps the best indication of this, at last week’s seminar, was in the presence – or otherwise – of a member of the broadcast regulatory body, TRAI. The hosts indicated their seriousness by having Dr Vijaylakshmi Gupta give the keynote address, obviously to set the Indian context before we heard about the UK. Dr Gupta indicated hers by reading out prepared platitudinous speech and then leaving immediately.

And so the coffee house debate carries on….

In a discussion on regulation on another occasion I wondered why the media have a say in whether they wish to be regulated: were the banking, or insurance, or telecoms or airline companies asked if they do? The Chairman of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority answered that was because the media is special, not like any ordinary business, and has a role of national importance. Unlike banks and insurance and…?

If you break the broad regulation issue into its component parts, it comes down to two distinct aspects: ownership and content. Issues of ownership include both, the who? question- who should own the media; and the what? question – what they should be allowed to own, i.e., cross-media ownership.

The ownership question has no real answers. The discussion at another seminar a few weeks ago was perhaps typical. A senior journalist who had recently had a fairly public falling-out with his corporate employers, was critical of non-media corporates owning media companies. He was also not in favour of media conglomerates; owner-editors; journalist-owners; and of government or political parties owning media. I said I couldn’t disagree with what he had said, and asked who then, in his opinion, should own the media. No answer.

The point is not to find fault with this speaker. It is, rather, that this is an unresolvable issue, in which every answer raises fresh questions.  What is necessary is not to limit who may and who may not own, but transparency about who does. It calls, as with most things in India, not necessarily for new regulations but first for implementing existing regulations.

The other aspect of the ownership question is cross-media holding: born of the concern that media conglomerates, through cross-media domination, can drive public opinion. That’s a theoretically sound concern, but in practice doubtful at two levels. First, it is questionable whether in the pluralistic environment that is India even the largest media conglomerate can actually drive public opinion.

Second, what is the efficacy of such regulation? Even in the highly regulated and media-rich United States the media business is oligopolistic. And yet, going back to the first question, it is doubtful if any of the six dominant houses is in a position to actually drive public opinion.

The real issue in cross-holding is not, to my mind, when a single company owns properties across print, TV, radio and the internet, but when a broadcasting network owns distribution channels. For a content owner to be in a position to control what gets to the viewer, and so be able to choke the pipeline for its competition, is a serious travesty of consumer rights. In India every major broadcasting network owns distribution platforms, the two biggest networks have collaborated in a joint ventureto distribute content, and there is no law to protect the consumer. That is a serious issue for the regulatory authorities to address.*

The real, vexed question is of content regulation. Can we? Indeed, should we? Self-regulation or statutory? And, all the while,a government that has been trying for five years to regulate audience measurement wants you to believe that it is committed to self-regulation in content! It is the same government that in its previous term tried to create a broadcast regulator who would be not a constitutional authority but be hired and fired by the government. The proposed structure also required each broadcaster to have on its rolls a Content Auditor who would screen content and tell the Editor what to drop or modify and – incredibly – inform the broadcast regulator if the Editor didn’t comply.

The UK currently has no regulation of print media. The response of the press to the Leveson enquiry and the consequent government proposal is to resist any regulatory mechanism, which is to be expected. But it must be said, in fairness, that the News of the World scandal, though huge, was a ‘rarest of the rare’ case that was effectively exposed and dealt with swiftly, which is a great deal more than we can expect. Whether one NOTW should lead to from no regulation to statutory regulation is debatable.

In the US, too, there is no regulatory mechanism – self- or government. It depends entirely on good practice. The Editor is responsible, and owners typically take a back seat on editorial decisions. Would an editor carry content prejudicial to the owner’s interests? Probably not, but in a robust media environment you can’t stop the rest of the world from seeing you.

In India broadcasters, in particular, have made moves to self-regulation by setting up the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) and, for entertainment content, the Broadcast Content Complaints Council, both under the aegis of the broadcast industry bodies. A necessary limitation of such self-regulation is that it is limited to the members of these bodies. In the case of news that means 53 channels of 23 NBA member broadcasters. The other 150 known news broadcasters in the country are beyond the pale.

The effectiveness of self-regulation is often questioned because, even if you don’t doubt their intent, self-regulatory bodies do not have the statutory authority to penalise offenders. Members themselves often don’t accept the rulings of the regulators they have created. Indeed, the first time the NBSA indicted a broadcaster the peeved member quit the NBA in protest.

Dr David Levy of the Reuters Institute had an interesting take on the matter. Effectiveness of self-regulation, he said, is a function first of culture: far more than of legal guarantees.In other words, some of us are made that way, and some just aren’t. The implication that we are incapable of self-regulation may raise some hackles but let’s face it, that’s fundamentally true.

The very idea of statutory regulation, on the other hand, is anathema. Those of us of a certain age have actually lived through it in its extreme form, nearly 40 years ago, and can’t begin to contemplate what it might be like in this multimedia age.

So where does that leave us, between the devil and the deep sea?

Giving statutory penal authority to self-regulatory bodies has its own set of issues.The only viable answer seems to be co-regulation. I see a system in which a self-regulatory body such as the NBSA conveys a verdict and recommends a penalty to a statutorily authorised one, such as perhaps the TRAI. If the statutory body does not agree with the recommendation, it must respond to the recommending body through a laid-down process, and the two come to an agreement.

That media owners protest against any and all forms of regulation is not surprising: who wants to be regulated? Every time content is mentioned in the same breath as regulation, even a limit on advertising time, they get all excited about Article 19, freedom of speech, democracy, et al. While no one doubts the sanctity of our constitutional freedoms, there can be no such thing as unfettered freedom. The trouble is, the press think everyone should be accountable and subject to criticism and control – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary; indeed, both Church and State – except themselves.

There is no perfect solution. The best solution is one that protects consumer interest, and that necessarily means some measure of control while enabling and protecting media freedom.
* This piece was first published in on 10th February 2014., the day TRAI issued regulations for content aggregators. A welcome coincidence.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Crowdsourcing: no safety in numbers

‘Unilever to boost reliance on crowdsourcing with eYeka’ 
           – News item   

“[Lowe] have created a very strong creative vehicle that’s extremely well defined and portable. But their work has created a problem for them, because it makes Peperami the obvious candidate for crowdsourcing.” That’s how a Unilever London spokesperson explained it when, two years ago, the company fired the advertising agency on Peperami, in favour of crowdsourcing.   

Some compliment! Can you see the agency head calling in the Peperami team? “Folks, I’ve just returned from lunch with John Client. Peperami is tracking superbly on every parameter. You’ve created one of those rare great brand properties that will stay with the brand for many, many years. Unilever have paid you the ultimate compliment: we’re fired. From now the public will make the ads.   

“Jean, pop the bubbly. I’m proud of you guys. You are our A Team, and here’s an A Team challenge for you. I am assigning you to our biggest Unilever brand: get fired on it within the year. A special Christmas bonus if you make it. Cheers, and more power to your elbow.”   

If the idea itself is strange, the outcome was bizarre. Unilever received 1,185 entries and selected not one but two submissions (Both of which came from laid-off advertising professionals: a copywriter from London and a former creative director from Germany. So much for the crowd.), and announced that they would combine the two ideas to make the new campaign. “We’re certain the two ideas will be a successful campaign,” said the Peperami marketing manager. That, from the company which taught us that every advertisement must be based on a “Single Selling Idea” – the first of the ten Unilever Principles of Great Advertising.   Whether Unilever’s winning Advertiser of the Year at Cannes that year was because of Peperami or despite it we don’t know.   

Meanwhile, Kraft Foods in Australia crowdsourced the name for the new cheese variant of its iconic bread spread Vegemite, and chose – hold your breath – iSnack 2.0.   “The name Vegemite iSnack 2.0 was chosen based on its personal call to action, relevance to snacking (I snack, get it?), and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite (2.0, wow!) to the original,” said a Kraft spokesperson. “We believe these three components completely encapsulate the new brand.” Consumers didn’t, apparently. Following a furore, Kraft rather tamely put out a list for people to choose from, and equally tamely changed the name to a blase Vegemite Cheesybite.   

Around the same time Frito-Lay in India sought ideas for new flavours of chips. To the credit of Frito-Lay it must be said that they weren’t chintzy – on the contrary, they generously spent more than they might have had they done conventional market research instead. For four shortlisted flavours they awarded a prize of Rs 5 lakh each – a total of Rs 20 lakh or over US$ 40,000, way more than Unilever London paid to get a new idea for Peperami. The prize for the ultimate winner was Rs 50 lakh (over US$ 100,000) and 1 percent of sales revenue.   

Frito-Lay were truly generous, but in any event, what they did was essentially to solicit consumer opinion on a new product, which might otherwise have been done by conventional market research. But meanwhile other marketers like GE, General Mills, Pepsi, Dell and Starbucks have been seeking everything from product and service ideas to, reportedly, inputs on agency selection and media placement.   Crowdsourcing shops have come up which will brief the crowd and filter the solutions, as Idea Bounty did for Peperami. 

That’s awfully interesting. Suppose one day Lowe had told Unilever London, “You’ll be delighted to know we’ve increased the creative strength on your business. We’ve fired your entire creative team. Now, instead of being limited to a handful of people under our roof, we’ll put our briefs on your brands out on the Internet and get ideas from hundreds, if not thousands.” Might they have saved the Peperami account? I don’t know about you, but I can’t see a delighted client congratulating the agency on its farsighted initiative.   

Now Unilever has taken a big step in the direction of crowdsourcing, saying, “A key role for us as marketers is to create magic and to excite people with innovative ideas.” I always thought a key role for marketers and related professionals was to actually develop the ideas that create the magic, but perhaps I’m wrong.   

Proponents of crowdsourcing cite the ‘wisdom of crowds’, propounded by Surowiecki in his book of the same name. “I don’t think people realize how powerful the crowd can be when engaged on working on a good idea,” says one. Perhaps, but this is not the crowd working on a good idea; it is a multitude of individuals independently developing ideas. They’re not building on each other’s thoughts; there’s no cross-fertilization of thinking.   

Diversity, independence and decentralization are three of the four “elements required to form a wise crowd” that Surowiecki lists: “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” But 1,185 responses to a brief from perhaps as many people working independently of each other do not constitute collective thinking, and are not the product of disagreement and contest.   

Surowiecki’s fourth element is aggregation: in this context, the marketing management of the company deciding – singly, collectively or sequentially – among the shortlisted submissions. So it is finally down to the quality of decision-making. If you decide on iSnack 2.0, it doesn’t matter whether the submissions come from the crowd through a crowdsourcing agency, or from known people through an advertising agency.   

That the advertising agency has designated, informed people and institutional memory is only one of its advantages over a crowd. The other is that if you make bad decisions you can always blame the agency and fire it. You can’t fire a crowd.   

First published in, 12th June 2013

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The TAM has come...

If the industry is a victim of the prevailing audience measurement system, it is a complicit victim.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things: 
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings."    
      -- Lewis Caroll, Through the Looking-Glass

First, a disclaimer: I hold no brief for TAM, or for any company or industry body. Also, I have no knowledge of the alleged corruption in the TAM system, and neither am competent to comment on it, nor wish to.
In all that is being said about the ills of the audience measurement system, a lot remains unsaid, as broadcasters and other stakeholders look over their shoulders when they speak. Having led broadcast networks as well as media agencies and been in the leadership of industry bodies, I too have debated the issues and heard the arguments. But I have no skin in the game anymore, so I don't need to be circumspect.
The rumblings began, or at least became audible, in 2005, when MRUC called meetings of advertisers, broadcasters and agencies in Mumbai and Delhi, and initiated discussion on the shortcomings of TAM. But these were only crib sessions: they proposed no action plan. Much heat was generated; rhetoric indulged in; tea and samosas consumed; and everyone went back to business as usual, crunching TAM data to do media plans and deals.
I said it then and I say it now: if the industry is a victim, it is a complicit victim.
That TAM is inadequate for the current context and marketplace is perhaps inarguable. But broadcasters and agencies have been using data that they say is inadequate and inaccurate at best, and manipulated at worst, to further their business: to direct the spending of clients' money. That is over Rs 60,000 crore of TV ad expenditure in the seven years since 2005, when MRUC initiated the discussion (basis: PwC estimates). That this is the only data available is no argument: that's like saying, "I know I'm lying: but I don't know the truth, so let's go with the lie." So who is the victim? The advertiser, I should think.
The biggest point of contention has always been the sample size, and everyone has their own prescription. I am no market researcher or statistician, so I cannot comment on what the sample size should be, but it is clear that currently it is inadequate for the large and complex market that India is.
TAM as we know it was the result of the merger of two systems: TAM and INTAM. They were created at a time when the media world was simpler. The big advertisers were FMCG marketers; most brands addressed females in the age group of 15-44 years; and most programming was entertainment. In that simple world, TAM as a broad measure was perhaps adequate. As channels and genres of content proliferated, audiences got fragmented and newer categories began to be advertised, addressed to other, more sharply defined audiences. The need for finer measurement grew but the system remained the same, buffered now and then by some increase in sample.
And what did the users do? Sliced and diced the data at will, ignoring the fact that they were dealing in dangerously small samples.
Broadcasters use TAM data not only to negotiate and sell specific deals to advertisers and agencies, but to advertise themselves, too. Every news channel runs ads claiming to be No.1, on some day and time of its choosing. And they do worse than split hairs. Consider the fact that English news has, on an average, 0.1 per cent share of total TV viewership. If a channel with 23 per cent share claims to be the leader because it has a two percentage point lead over the next one, that's a difference of 2 per cent of 0.1 per cent of TV viewership - based on a notoriously inadequate sample.
Is English news viewership really so tiny? Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps this is a reflection of the inadequacy of TAM. But you can't use the data to show off your prowess, on the one hand, and question its veracity, on the other.
There have often been discussions, formal and informal, with TAM and among user bodies, on the need to increase the sample. The problem is no one wants to pay more than they already are, though they want more than they are getting.
About a year ago, the NBA demanded that TAM release news viewership data monthly instead of weekly. They somehow positioned this as being in the public interest, and mustered government support for it. Thankfully, the idea sank - under the weight of its own sheer ludicrousness, perhaps.
In March 2012 at FICCI Frames was announced, amid much applause, the formation of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). An industry initiative to develop a robust, user-driven audience measurement system, BARC brings together the industry bodies of the three key stakeholders: broadcasters (IBF), advertisers (ISA) and advertising agencies (AAAI). Part of the announcement at Frames was the much-lauded bringing aboard of the AAAI, by the other two.
At last, a welcome step in the right direction? Yes, except that the three bodies first met about six years ago, and in time formed BARC as an equal three-way partnership. Nothing seems to have happened after that except that two years ago, AAAI was thrown out, for reasons that remain unclear. And nothing seems to have happened since, except the announcement at Frames and subsequently, IBF accusing its 'partners' of delaying the process.
So it appears, sadly, that the industry bodies of the three stakeholders cannot together find a solution to their single biggest collective problem. Finding fault is not enough. Either manage the current system or change it. Now.
First published in

Monday, May 7, 2012

Can't Imagine what they were thinking

The closure of Imagine brought two questions to mind. Why now? And why would they have expected a different outcome?

In the space of about eight months in 2007-08 the Hindi GEC space saw the high-profile launches of four channels. The best thing that can be said about Real is that its owners didn't dawdle in applying the guillotine. 9X had a chequered life, but at least it served the useful purpose of enabling its promoter to keep himself in golf balls and single malt in the English countryside for the rest of his life.

Imagine was launched by NDTV in early 2008, opening with 56 GRPs (CS 4+, HSM), and taken over by Turner at the end of 2009. Twelve weeks into Turner’s tenure (Week 10 of 2010) viewership peaked at 176 GRPs, and then went quite steadily downhill for the next two years, getting back where it started – 54 GRPs – in the week before its closure was announced. 

It was not just Turner, the short history of Real notwithstanding: Imagine never had a chance. It started with the fairly fail-proof offering of Ramayana but ran soaps in weekly episodes, harking back to the old Doordarshan format for an audience that had become used to daily soaps. Why they thought that was a good idea shall remain a mystery, the more so because Sameer Nair, then CEO, was famously the one responsible for moving Star Plus from weekly to daily soaps, with great success. The only apparent reason seems to be economy: making each episode last seven days instead of one.

They did move to daily soaps in 2009 and saw a blip in viewership, but soon went on to reality programming of a type, like Rakhi ka Swayamvar, the Rahul Mahajan show and a couple of other such faintly disreputable shows. Originality is a good thing but not, for a mass market offering, if it doesn't appeal to the core consumer. Imagine did get some traction, but its viewers were not the mainstream audience that makes GEC prime time what it is. It also ran rather quickly out of steam and went into repetitions ad nauseum.

Colors launched in Week 30, opening at the same level as Imagine was in the same week, its twenty-sixth. Then rapidly building and maintaining three to four times the size of viewership, it has stayed consistently among the top four in the genre, alongside the three legacy channels, week after week.

The question, of course, is what has made Colors different from its late, unlamented contemporaries.

What you have to do depends on the scale of your ambition, which in the case of Colors was clearly to be in the big league. In a crowded category with well-entrenched leaders, you don't do that by ingratiating yourself over time; you break down the door and barge in, in one fell swoop. No one is looking for another TV channel. You have to break into their consciousness; intrigue them enough to make them want to check it out; be available right alongside the channels you want to pull them away from, not expect them to search for you; and then, when they do sample your fare, be liked enough for them to want to keep coming back.

Colors pulled out the stops in product, distribution and promotion. It started with big shows, upped the ante on distribution – the broadcasting industry was agog with whispers about how much they spent – and invested heavily in advertising and promotion. It’s not only a matter of having the resources; it is a matter of having the risk appetite to put money, careers and reputations on the line, and then the energy to fight every single day to keep your place at the top table.

It’s true that in marketing nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. Success and failure are fluently explained after the event, but the question is, what were you thinking when you launched or acquired the brand? In the cold light of day, what did you think you were doing that would induce consumers to exercise their choices in your favour? That is all marketing is: inducing people to exercise their choices in your favour. And that’s the one question to which top management must have the answer. That’s the difference between success and failure. The rest is detail.

First published in Impact, 6th May 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

Media ownership: more questions than answers

It used to be spoken of in whispers and written about obliquely; now it is reported openly. But the questions around big business investing in media remain.

About four months ago it was reported that Reliance would, in a typically complex transaction, invest Rs 1,500 crore in the companies that control Network 18 Media and TV18 Broadcast, two listed entities of TV18. To put that sum in perspective, at the time of reporting the two listed companies had a combined market cap of about Rs 1,800 crore. The deal will enable TV 18 to acquire the TV business of Eenadu, and make Reliance effectively the largest shareholder in TV 18.

Now it is reported that at least three big business houses are interested in acquiring 26% of TV Today. The Aditya Birla Group is reportedly the front runner but denies any interest, which is of course standard practice. Market sources say Birla is expected to invest Rs 300-350 crore. Again, to put that in perspective, the market cap of TV Today at the time of writing is Rs 390 crore.

So what is the issue? These are diversified conglomerates, one may say, with interests in everything from shirts to cement and oil exploration to supermarkets, so why not in TV channels?

First of all, because you expect such conglomerates to go where the money is, but there is no money in the media business, and certainly not in broadcasting.

Of the touted Rs 72,800 crore Media & Entertainment sector in 2011 (FICCI-KPMG), Television accounts for Rs 32,900 crore, or 45%. The KPMG report does not give the composition of that, but the PwC report (India Entertainment and Media Outlook) of 2011 estimates the share of distribution to be 63%; of content providers, 4%; and of TV advertising – the sole source of net revenue for broadcasters – at 33%, which makes it just under Rs 11,000 crore in 2011. That’s the entire television business, comprising, at last count, 623 channels: an average of Rs 18 crore per channel per year. That’s less than half the cost of distribution for a medium-sized channel.

With the impending digitisation of cable the equations and the economics of the business are expected to change, in favour of broadcasters. That, perhaps, is the golden future big business is betting on. Well, if FICCI-KPMG estimates are to be believed, after full digitization in 2016 broadcasters will begin to get about a third of what consumers pay, against 10-15% now. Distribution will still get two-thirds.
Small wonder that of the top ten media and entertainment companies by market cap on the BSE only five are in the television space, and three of those are pure play distribution companies – two of which belong to broadcasting networks.

In the present instance Network 18 is bleeding money from every pore while TV Today is barely profitable, with its revenue hovering around the same level for several years. Why would global scale, highly diversified, globally invested conglomerates with wide open opportunities invest in a losing business in a bleeding sector?

If it is simply a desire to be in the media business – a perfectly legitimate desire – it is interesting that they go only into the news space, not into entertainment. A notable exception is Reliance ADAG’s Big TV, which is apparently part of a larger, serious play in the cinema and entertainment space.

The mainstream media have reported these developments, but briefly – and almost entirely without comment. No noisy TV debates, no editorial comment of note. The media don't write or talk about each other, and certainly not critically.

Rajya Sabha TV, lamentably little watched, did have a discussion featuring senior journalists and commentators – and not a good word to say on the matter. Madhu Trehan summed up the picture when she said, “When a politician or a government spokesman speaks, we don't believe them, but when somebody like Rajdeep Sardesai or Sagarika Ghosh speaks, or anyone at IBN7 or TV18 comes on, we presume we should believe them. Now there is a big question mark [when Reliance has indirect control over CNN-IBN].... We are looking at very subtle plants of stories, subtle angles, subtly putting things in a certain way so that people think in a certain way....”

While Trehan cited Reliance and TV 18 in the context, the principle obviously applies to any such situation. If there are some 15 news channels in Telugu, for instance, that cannot be because it is a large and lucrative market. So there is really no difference, in principle, between Reliance buying control of TV 18 and a small businessman or a local politician owning a local news channel in Ranchi or Amritsar or Tiruchi. The difference is of scale and therefore of its potential to influence.

Many countries do regulate cross-holding in media, with a view to preventing media monopolies. For all that, even in a highly regulated, media-rich country like the United States the media business is oligopolistic. In India the government tried about five years ago to bring in cross-holding legislation but had a huge fight on its hands, with both the political establishment and the media establishment waging all-out war against it, and ultimately shelved the draft bill. 

The real issue in cross holding, to my mind, is not when a single company owns properties across print, TV and radio, but when a broadcasting network owns distribution channels. For a content owner to be in a position to control what gets to the viewer, and so be able to choke the pipeline for its competition, is a serious travesty of consumer rights. In India every major broadcasting network owns distribution platforms, and there is no law to protect the consumer.

While there is a modicum of action on other aspects of regulation, even if of questionable effectiveness, when it comes to regulating who may invest in media at all there is little or no legislation in the free world, nor does it appear practical. It does seem, on the face of it, well nigh impossible, in a free-market democracy, to stop anyone from owning anything unless it is established that such ownership distorts the free market.

If you can’t regulate the ownership of media, can you regulate its use, or misuse?

Even regulation of content is a fraught issue. The Press Council of India is famously toothless, made no better by its present Chairman, “who is baiting the media, who doesn't believe in conversing with the media,” as S Nihal Singh says. The News Broadcasters Association took a laudable initiative in self-regulation, but the effectiveness of the mechanism is debatable and indeed frequently debated. The Indian Broadcasting Foundation, after squirming and obfuscating for years, finally set up a mechanism, but it is too early to say how – even if – it works.

Any discussion on regulation – of ownership; of cross holding; or of content – runs into questions of freedom of speech and raises constitutional issues; and the haloed Article 19 is invoked, and with good reason.  Now the Supreme Court has asked what can be done if business entities use the media to harass rivals, what mechanism is available to deal with such a situation. In response counsel for the media said – predictably, but not wrongly – that the court can do whatever is in its power, but not at the cost of the right to free speech.

Dilip Cherian holds out no hope for media legislation in India, citing the nexus between business and politics. “As a country we are not able to legislate for two reasons,” he said on Rajya Sabha TV. “One, because of the influence big business houses have on policy making. And two, when you bring legislation (on regulation) up, the other group that is affected are the politicians who own media houses of their own. You are talking about a new coalition of forces which the public is incapable of handling.”

Where we are today is far from perfect, but every solution raises its own problems. Big business must not be allowed to control the media, but who wants a fragmented, anarchic melee of small, unaccountable media? Media monopolies are unhealthy, but do you trust the government to decide who can own what?  Self-regulation of content is not working; but do you want the government to decide what we should see and read?

It’s a complex web of issues. Where we are today is the outcome of conflicting forces and vested interests playing out over many years. It’s like global warming: it affects my life in fundamental ways; its effect is not dramatic today but its potential to damage is huge; and I don't have a cogent solution, but I know it is something I have to be concerned about.

First published in Impact, 29th April 2012

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wanted: more magic, less logic

The brand manager – frequently a young marketing person on the way up the commercial ladder – sometimes uses temporary occupation of the brand to demonstrate flair and originality at the expense of brand consistency.”

-- Wally Olins, in Corporate Identity

One day last week a small news item in The Economic Times caught my eye. “Dettol vs. Lux?” it asked, and reported that Reckitt Benckiser was extending Dettol into body wash. “After sparring with HUL's Lifebuoy in the anti-germ category for years,” it said, “Reckitt is set to take on HUL's Lux in body washes.” The line extension into body wash seemed natural. The bit about Lux didn’t.

Over 75 years old in India, Dettol is a defining brand. ‘Clean and safe’ has a smell: the smell of Dettol. The smell of a hospital is the smell of Dettol. A bottle sits on many a bathroom shelf, often unused for months or even years but giving the quiet reassurance that it is there and you don't have to worry about nasty germs. “Dettol protects” was its simple, confident tagline for many years.

Of course there is a limit to which domestic use of liquid antiseptic can and will grow. But if you owned a brand as powerful as Dettol you wouldn’t shrug your shoulders and say, “I guess that’s about it”: you would want to leverage its equity to look for new ways of meeting consumer needs – in other words, line extension. So far, so good; but the question is, line extension into what?

It was in the late 1980’s, if I’m not mistaken, that Reckitt first forayed in that direction, with Dettol Soap. The antiseptic property of Dettol was interpreted, with what often passes off for deeply insightful thinking, to lead to a so-called higher-order benefit – antiseptic, therefore protection, therefore care – and the soap was dubbed ‘The Love and Care Soap’.

Of course that didn't work. Neither was Dettol about love and care, nor was the mother so wanting for expressions of love and care that she had to reach out to Dettol for one. Repositioned later to offer a “100% bath” – as a result of its antiseptic property – Dettol soap grew to be a very strong player in premium toilet soaps. The soap became the primary form in which consumers interacted with Dettol, but it was the liquid antiseptic that gave meaning to Dettol soap.

The story is not in itself remarkable. What makes it so is that this was only the beginning of Reckitt’s many failed attempts over the years to make Dettol what it is not. And it would seem from the reported intention to take on Lux that they haven’t done with the idea.

Apart from the perfectly sensible hand-wash liquid Reckitt have, over the years, launched Dettol shaving cream, mouthwash, prickly heat powder, anti-dandruff shampoo and floor cleaner, among other products: most dead, some perhaps on life-support systems. And in toilet soaps, moisturising soap (Dettol Extra) and glycerine soap (Dettol Junior). The argument was that all of these products protect – against dryness, against dandruff, against prickly heat. “Dettol protects”, remember?

The argument for Dettol moisturising soap was that research showed (The graveyard of marketing is full of products whose conception began with someone saying, “Research shows...”) that many people didn't like Dettol soap because it smells of Dettol; and they didn't like the colour; and they didn't particularly feel the need for a germicidal soap. So Dettol moisturising soap was meant to enable you to use Dettol soap that didn't look or smell like Dettol or do what Dettol does. Why would you want to? Now Dettol body wash comes in four variants: Original, Skincare, Cool and Fresh, for possibly the same reason.

That’s all very well, you may say, but what should Reckitt have done? Well, they didn't have far to look. Dettol in the UK has a wide range of product offerings, all of them anti-bacterial, in two broad sub-brands: Healthy Touch and Complete Clean. All have the predominantly green Dettol graphics: not a pink or a blue among them. I have no idea of their history or how much each of them contributes to the Dettol kitty, but as an observer I see an inarguable consistency in the brand proposition as well as the presentation.

Dettol is not alone, though. Consider Dove. Once upon a time I knew what Dove was: one-quarter moisturising cream, so it keeps your skin soft while it cleans. I could understand Dove body wash, and face wash. Now there is a range of Dove shampoos, to keep hair soft by keeping it damage-free; prevent hair fall; and protect your hair and strengthen it, among other wonderful things they do, because (I’m not making this up; you can see the ads) they are one-quarter moisturising milk. As if that was not enough, there is Dove deodorant, which nourishes your underarms and makes them fair in seven days because – you guessed it – it is one-quarter moisturising cream. Is there somewhere a Dove beauty bar or body wash that keeps your skin soft? I forget.

Then there is Garnier. Dove, to be fair, is based on a single product attribute, stretched though it may be, and there is an identifiable Dove look. Garnier has products for practically every part of the body, for both sexes, with little in common in terms of product attribute, tone and style, or brand vocabulary. If you look at a reel of Garnier commercials, it seems anything goes as long as at the end of the ad someone says, “Take care.”

The products are perhaps selling, in larger or smaller quantities. But just as strong brands take long to build, they take long to get damaged. Dettol, despite everything, continues to feature in the top ten in the Brand Equity list of India’s most trusted brands.

It is not that you can’t stretch a brand into seemingly unrelated products: there is perhaps no better example in the world than Apple, going from computers to music players to mobile phones, changing the game in each category and stamping it with the unmistakable Apple brand. To do that you need to have a very strong sense of what the brand is and can be to its consumers, and that is largely a creative leap, not the reasoned, numbers-driven, left-brain argument that Marketing has become.

It is good to see, in this milieu, one global leader declaring that it will bring back the magic, and reward marketers who are prepared to take risks and back creative ideas. Outlining a ten-year marketing perspective to their global brand teams recently, Unilever’s top marketing executives emphasised the need to move away from “unthinking adherence to quantitative market research at the risk of losing some of the creative spark that leads to great creative ideas”. Amen.

First published on

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My life, in seven lessons

For its 7th anniversary edition Impact magazine invited, as they usually do, several people from marketing, advertising and the media and to write a piece. This time it was to be in keeping with their theme of 7. I've learnt a lot more than that, I hope, in 37 years of work. But in keeping with the ‘7’ theme of Impact, here – in no particular order – are my seven big ones.

1.      Advertising is about people

No one actually needs a print ad or a TV commercial or a Facebook page or 300 GRPs (except those whose business it is to make or provide them). Advertisers spend money to induce people to do something. The half-page ad or the TV commercial or whatever is only an instrument to get them to do it.

No doubt “God is in the detail” – or the devil is, as some would have it – but don't get so caught up in the minutiae of what you do that you lose sight of why you your client is spending money. David Ogilvy in his Confessions had a delightful mythical conversation overheard on a London bus, in which one woman says to another, “I would have tried that new perfume if only they hadn’t set the body copy in 9-point Garamond.”

“...stop defining yourself by the tactics of marketing as a function, and embrace the strategy of marketing as a cross-enterprise idea,” says Jonathan Salem Baskin to CMOs in Advertising Age (“Why it's so Hard for CMOs to Keep Their Jobs”, 12th Sept 2011). “Own the insights and not the tools. ...understand... the drivers of engagement and subsequent action from more diverse sources. Science. Sociology. Even art.”

“Read marketing books written before 1970,” he goes on to say, “and history written before today's media convinced everyone that our eternal Now is utterly different from every other Then.”

2.      To give our best advice is our duty. To not take it is the client’s prerogative.

For all the sound and fury that accompanies its work, an advertising agency only gives advice. It’s the marketer who has to decide where to put the money. Your passionate recommendation to your client is only your opinion based on what you know, combined with judgement born of your experience – and your biases. But the great thing about marketing is that there isn’t one right answer.

Your client is at least as entitled to his opinion as you are to yours: it’s his money. And he may turn out to be right, which in marketing doesn't necessarily mean you were wrong.

3.      Respect is not a right. It is earned.

“They don't respect us,” is the most common lament in the Advertising business, ‘they’ being anyone who doesn't take you at your word. Clients don't respect agencies; Creative don't respect Account Management; Creative agencies don't respect Media agencies; Media Planners don't respect Buyers and vice versa; and so on round and round the mulberry bush. (The only people who don't seem to have that problem are the Creatives, but they have their own pecking order.)

If you ever feel that way about some part of your ecosystem, ask yourself what they should respect you for.  What value do you add: does what you do either help them do better work or facilitate its progress?

A long-ago cartoon of unknown provenance shows a huge, imposing dam and, in the foreground, a beaver telling a rabbit, “I didn't actually build it, but it was based on my idea.” Some people I show it to laugh at the beaver for claiming credit for something so clearly beyond its scope; others identify him with the role they think they play on their teams.

My advice to young people: first, know more. And not only about your specific job. Advertising is about life. The best advertising people have well-furnished minds. They have an after-hours life that is not confined to the bar or the bedroom. (It wasn't, even in the ‘Mad Men’ era.) Politics, economics, books, movies, music, art, theatre, wild life, photography, travel, sport... everything is grist to the Advertising mill. Have you noticed how people at the top seem to know more about more things than most people do? That’s not because knowledge is a senior management perk: those who know more always knew more, and that’s partly what got them where they are. Don’t have the time? You’ll make it, if you think it’s important to.

Second, at the end of every week ask yourself what value you added. Do so by asking what difference your absence would have made. If you hadn’t been at work all week would everything have happened exactly as it did? Was there anything that would not have happened quite as well or as smoothly as it did? If three weeks in a row the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’, you have something to think about.

4.      The job’s not over until the paperwork is done.

A media agency is a high-risk business. We incur liabilities to media owners on behalf our clients, but we are liable to pay the media whether clients pay us or not.

Consider an agency that earns 2.5% commission and operates at a 20% margin. That means every time it releases Rs 85 of media it earns Rs 2.50, and after paying for rent, salaries and other operating expenses retains Rs 0.50. If an insertion is wrongly released – wrong date or time; wrong publication or channel; wrong material; not authorised; etc – the agency is liable to pay for it but the client is not. Work out the arithmetic: that insertion will cost the agency its entire profit on Rs 14,450 of media, or 170 times the cost of that error. So every lakh of rupees of agency error costs the agency its entire profit on Rs 1.70 crore of net billing, with the corresponding impact on its ability to pay higher salaries and invest in research, knowledge and training.

Think of every release order as a post-dated cheque. There’s no reason why the process and the paperwork for issuing one should be any less stringent and thorough than for issuing the other. Yet, as we know, it is not.

5.      Win-win wins

We expect clients to be mindful of our interests, and to “treat us like partners”. (That they don't is the other great lament of the advertising business. For that, go back to “Respect is not a right....” above. But that is not the point here.)  We don't seem to think the same thing applies to media and other vendors we do business with, though, do we?

The biggest buyers can arm-twist vendors and derive value for their clients and for themselves at the cost of vendors. That is certainly one way of doing business. But whatever your size, fair dealing brings value to all. Being a good customer means being demanding but being fair; and meeting your commitments, your side of the deal.

6.      You can’t cost-cut your way to profitability

Five years into my career I was hired for my first profit-centre assignment, to turn around an agency office that had been bleeding money all eight years of its existence. The office had been pared down to just Account Management, with all other functions out of Bombay, yet it continued to lose – both business and money. It was only after I joined that I was told if the office didn't break even in the following financial year – starting in three months – it would be shut down.

Faced with the prospect of that ignominy, I developed a plan to get to profitability by investing in the office to make its offering marketable. My bosses bought it, as did their bosses in the network. The office broke even in the first year and grew more than ten times in the next four, and became hugely profitable.

20-odd years later I took over an(other) operation in the red. As its nose came above the water it was put under pressure to meet impractical profitability targets. The network management was not interested in a sustainable business, only in meeting the year’s numbers, impossible as that was, and proceeded to slash costs. I left. The agency – a fine professional outfit – was merged into another to make it viable.

The lesson is obvious.

7.      There are easier ways to make a living, but not many that are so much fun

“Advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” said Jerry Della Femina.

There are lots of ways to make a living, and in many of them you could make more money for the same effort, or make the same money for less effort than in Advertising. But I don't know too many in which you get to spend your working hours with so many intelligent, talented, fun people. Of course Advertising has its downsides, but which profession has no occupational hazards?

If you don't enjoy what you do, if Monday morning is a drag, then what Jeremy Bullmore described as “our agreeable, necessary, not vastly important, almost wholly innocuous business” is not for you. Find something else to do.

First published in Impact, Oct 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

Politics, theatrics, and the economics of News

If you have been professionally engaged with the news media from both within and without, it’s hard not to comment, at this time, on their performance during the two-week Lokpal agitation.

In the newspapers the agitation was, understandably, the focus of the news, even if sometimes to the exclusion of what may otherwise have been front-page material.

Data for the specific period is not available but it is highly unlikely that readership and circulation were affected, since newspapers are sold almost entirely on subscription. In any case, given the relative stability of readership and six-monthly measurement, we will never know how readers responded. And as for advertising, it was business as usual.

TV is a different animal altogether. Competitors keep an eye on each other and try to frantically outdo each other minute-to-minute, and the scorecard is out every week.

As the agitation progressed so did its share of airtime, even if there was often not much to report. It was not a situation that was unfolding rapidly, but 24X7 news is a voracious beast and has to be kept fed, even if like this:

Anchor: “The meeting is over, and Team Anna has headed back to Ramlila Ground, to report back to Anna Hazare and consult him on next steps. Let’s go across to our reporter Mukul Bhatia, who is at Ground Zero. Mukul, what is the latest from Ramlila Ground?”

Reporter: “Thank you, Neha. Yes, the atmosphere here is very charged. Team Anna represented by Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan has returned from its meeting with the Government. They have reached Ramlila Ground, and are now reporting back to Anna Hazare and consulting him on the next course of action. Our Political Editor Rahul Devdas has the inside story. Let’s ask him for an update. Rahul, what can you tell us?”

Political Editor: Thank you, Mukul. Yes, that’s right. Team Anna has had a meeting with the Government. Team Anna was represented by Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan. We don’t know yet exactly what transpired at the meeting, but what we do know is that they are now back at Ramlila Ground, where even as we speak they are reporting back to Anna Hazare and consulting him on the way forward. Mukul…”

And so the day and the night wore on: agitated anchors wagging fingers at anyone in authority they could get in front of a camera; the same tired faces going over the same tired arguments, now on this channel, now on that; reporters filling time; and occasionally some real development worth reporting and discussing. TAM’s News Content Track reports that on English and Hindi news channels the agitation took 83% of broadcast time in the second week.

At the end of the first week I remarked to the top Editor of a news channel that all of them were allowing no debate or discussion, just whipping up frenzy. He said, “In the beginning we were all fairly even handed. Then we realized this was where the audiences lay.”

He was right. As the agitation helpfully started on a Monday and ended on a Saturday, we have a neat two weeks (34 and 35) of TAM data. Viewership of both English and Hindi news doubled from Week 33 (pre-agitation) to Week 34, and sustained in Week 35. The only other language in which news viewership grew was Marathi, by nearly 90% in Week 34.

Viewership in Telugu grew by 6% and 7% in those two weeks, but that was after 10% growth in the pre-agitation week, so doesn’t seem related to the events of those weeks; and it actually declined in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali and Gujarati. If people in these areas were keeping up with the agitation, they were certainly not doing so on TV.

Meanwhile, advertising secondage in English and Hindi sustained in Week 34. Data for Week 35 is not available at the time of writing, but one news CEO confirmed what we saw, that they carried no ads in the second week. So while viewership doubled, revenue crashed.

That’s the paradox of news TV: when news viewership is at its highest is the time when broadcasters earn no money. It is true that bad news sells. But while newspapers can happily carry ads in the midst of natural disasters, civil strife and war, it seems distasteful on TV to suddenly, in the midst of a distressing story, start talking about beautiful hair.

The frenetic, high-pitched tone typical of news channels in India is a business necessity. It’s a bazaar out there. You have to shout and put on an act to get passing customers to stop at your stall instead of at your neighbour’s.

The problem lies in the advertising-dependent business model. In the corrupt distribution system of TV, the household pays the cable operator, but the broadcaster doesn’t get the money – or at best what the broadcaster does get is only a small fraction of what it pays to the cable operator. This is the only business in which you pay for shelf space and provide the goods for free, and the shop owner earns from both you and your customer.

At a fundamental level that is the problem of all media in India: that people don’t pay for content. Leading newspapers are accused of the same thing that news TV is, of sensationalizing and trivializing the news. But they are leading because we buy them, and we buy them because of what they carry, much as we sanctimoniously criticize it. And because they sell more, they get more ads, and that is how they make money: the three rupees we pay don’t cover even the cost of the forty pages of newsprint we get.

So if they have to be in business, they have to get ads; if they have to get ads, they have to chase eyeballs; and if they have to chase eyeballs, they have to do what gets the eyeballs. And until consumers pay for content or advertisers pay for quality rather than only quantity, that’s how it is going to be.
First published in