Machine learning adds to pricing efficiency at Times Group

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A new algorithm-based pricing system is expected to add US$10 million to annual sales for Indian media giant Bennett Coleman & Co.

The company - which has a daily circulation of more than 7.5 million including flagship The Times of India - sells advertising on a decentralised basis through 25 cities and more than 1500 'feet on street' to 50,000 advertisers annually.

In an INMA post, head of pricing for ad sales Raman Agarwal says the more than a million transactions which result lead to a large permutation of "advertiser X product X market X salesperson", which is serviced by a central pricing team.

Bennett Coleman & Company launched Project Intersect to solve a series of key problems with their outdated pricing model. He says that while advertisers require speed, accuracy, consistency and transparency for each transaction, "achieving this for a million transactions is an enormous task".

To add to complications, archaic, inflexible legacy revenue management process lacked a decision support system and relied heavily on ad-hoc decisions often made by a human exposing each transaction to a bias.

"It became increasingly evident that we needed to overhaul the system, paving the way not only for our own sales operations, but for the industry."

Central to a new Project Intersect was was a mandate to digitise the print ad sales pricing and approval process, and in six months, an Intersect team has conceptualised, developed and architected an entire ecosystem, the nucleus of which was a dynamic pricing application called IntelliQuote.

The application predicts client-specific prices in real time. Once a sale is made, the machine learns the propensity of the advertiser to pay for the subsequent transaction. Agarwal says the design is 75 per cent accurate, meaning a majority of its predicted prices have potential to turn into orders.

"Extensive internal consultation and trainings were carried out for more than 1000 sales team members across the country to educate them about the new system."

Apart from predicting the right price, IntelliQuote also drives productivity and builds operational efficiencies because it:

Enables anytime pricing with a mobile app (first in the industry) that provides pricing and subsequent approvals on the go;

Increases speed of business by automating 66 per cent of incoming enquiries. For certain client segments and editions, there is virtually zero human intervention;

Lends transparency by monitoring negotiation efficiency of the sales team (it establishes a 'zone of possible agreement' or ZOPA);

Fosters people engagements because it frees up the pricing team to study the business context, engage with the sales team, and evolve into a solution finding + selling approach;

Is future-ready and provides Tableau exportable reports for further research and development and trend analysis. It also is directly integrates with the company's CRM.

Project Intersect demonstrates that accurate price predictions, faster turnaround times, and transparency in pricing approvals all lead to higher margins and revenue for the group with an estimated top-line impact of US$10 million.

"However, crafting an algorithm and designing a process is only the start of the journey. As our group president summarised it, 'our success will always be driven by the ability to read the signals, quickly adapt ourselves in the shifting sands, and ride with the tide'."

Agarwal says the next stage will be to see how swiftly the sales team - "accustomed to a century-old style of working" - can shift gears and adopt a futuristic sales approach. "Ultimately that will define the success of the Project Intersect."

Pictured: Times Group's learning and development team holds an open house for the sales team in Mumbai.

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