Smarter digital future offers growth, 'but watch the costs with tech'

Views on from industry leaders continued through the opening day of WAN-Ifra's Indian Media Leaders eSummit, with views on advertising, an increasingly-digital future, and giving readers what they want.

First up in the afternoon sessions, Vikram Sakhuja - who has India's first soap opera as well as the country's biggest ad agency on his credits - in a "fireside chat" to forecast the realities of a post COVID-19 world.

The questions came from HT Media executive director Rajeev Beotra, and the answers - though not all pretty - were surprisingly positive.

And like the curate's egg, good in parts. "Everyone is moving short-term," said Sakhuja. "Booking month to month, or if they're lucky quarter to quarter."

Nor will a recovery come uniformly, with sectors such as gaming "moving well", auto just starting, and "slow" entertainment hoping for a seasonal upswing.

Putting numbers to it, he forecasts the second half to be six-to-13 per cent higher than last year, and 60 per cent better than the first half, with big growth for TV, "but not print".

Among platforms, "digital is back but print is struggling", he says, although the need for credibility will work in its favour. "Newspapers have it, despite a perception newspapers weren't reaching their audience.

"Don't think newspapers are going anywhere in a hurry, despite their gradual decline."

What Sakhuja calls "tribal moments" - where multiple readers share and discuss a print ad are part of India's increasingly-unique print experience, delivering a multiplier as a front-page ad "seen by everyone" delivers synergy, "just as used to happen with Game of Thrones on Monday mornings".

He says that power of the tribal moment "is still there in newspapers, less so in digital", and argues that it is time for audience measurement to move up from circulation to readership, with knowledgeable print ad salespeople taking a bigger part in selling digital.

"When demand comes back, prices will harden," he says, "and with more segmentation being done, there's a role for print, maybe using cost per 1000."

Chairing a session on business models in post-COVID world, former editor-in-chief of Outlook, Krishna Prasad quoted the familiar Dickens' "best of times, worst of times" and argued that with things looking bad before the pandemic, the light may not be visible at the end of the tunnel. "Typically we could do something about it, but not now," he said.

Nitin Chandalia, Boston Consulting Group's Indian managing director and partner, brought the perspective of a different generation to the issue, pointing to the declining share of the global ad market held not only by print, but also digital display. With digital "growing significantly", he warned to expect newsmedia, radio and TV to take a hit.

With consumers more willing to buy subscriptions, he urged publishers to focus on audience first with content and products, transform their ad sales organisations, and invest in tech. "Build a marketing stack," he urged (a message expanded by a Mediahaus speaker later in the afternoon).

He also urged "radical cost optimisation" and building scale through alliances to strengthen the ability to accelerate consumer pay models. "I think the consumption of digital is only going to go up," he said.

If there was one thing publishers could learn from tech companies such as Google and Facebook, it would be that "the consumer is at the centre of everything".

Perhaps with some wishful thinking, Krishna Prasad questioned whether the digital model suited everyone, and how sustainable it was, and argued that publishers had done almost everything he advocated: "I don't think Indian media has done everything," said Nitin Chandalia. "It has to be digital first.

He said subscribers would have to pay more, with content the key, "while managing costs".

That marketing stack was the subject of Trui Lanckriet's presentation from Belgium, where she is group data and insights director at Mediahaus.

Her argument: to use algorithms to deliver the insights which the human brain was not able to capture fully or at all.

An example was the dangerous practice of cutting sales visits when reduced revenue resulted in less time, "but if we prepare visits automatically, sort who to visit and prepare for meetings, we can do more with less," she said.

Survey-based insights could identify why to visit a client, and help prioritise projects. "Measure ease of use - for example with subscriptions and customer service - with feedback based on touchpoints," she urged. "This year, we asked how valuable our services were for each consumer.

"By 2021, we want to build that in with how important for customer, how important for their company, and how much effort is required to deal with us.

"It will be the basis for our technology roadmap."

Having already taken the consumer into account, the publisher is trying to integrate that information, workshopping the customer journey, listening to the consumer, and "actually asking what they want to achieve".

The UX approach "using an agile way of working" will deliver insights for editorial teams - building recommendation engines - although "humans stay in charge". With customer and article DNAs, a common way of looking at the consumer and content overcomes differences in language, taxonomy and definition, "resulting in higher retention and conversions, and enabling contextual advertising".

A couple of warnings, however, given the high investment costs. "Sometimes you keep (a project) going too long or stop too early; on one occasion we tried to build Rolls Royce, when the need was to build 'quick and dirty'," she said.

Peter Coleman

Pictured (from top): Trui Lanckriet, Vikram Sakhuja and Nitin Chandalia

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