Monday, November 23, 2015

Vartalaap - an interview with Mr. Suresh Balakrishna || September October 2015 edition


Mr. Suresh Balakrishna is a media veteran with over 27 years of experience in the industry. At Lintas, as the CEO, he handles outdoor initiatives and the out of home business for the agency across the country. In his previous stint, he was Executive Vice President and General Manager of Initiative Media. He has also worked for the Hindustan Times and Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEEL) as Executive Vice-President, Marketing.

Markathon: After going through the websites of Initiative and Lowe Lintas, I could say that media companies make marketing campaigns and advertisements for their clients. Is that it? 

Firstly, media companies don’t make the ads. The advertising business is largely disaggregated over the last 15 years. There are creative agencies, media agencies, PR agencies and so on so forth. It’s been disaggregated, earlier on 15 years ago, we used to have one advertising agencies that has to do
everything end to end. Make the ad, plan for it, air it, bill it do the PR etc. Now you have specialists in each area. What I head is the company which earlier used to be called The Lintas Media Group then it was taken over by Interpublic group. It is now broken up into several companies Initiative which is a full service media agency, BPL which is a full service media agency and Rapport which is an out of home agency. So what a media agency classically does is, suppose you are Coke, you have a budget of 300 crores which you want to spend for the year but you need to understand how to spend your money in a way which meets your brand objectives and delivers what you need to deliver in the market place. What I as a media agency do is plan that 300 crores. I tell you that you should look at print, at Television, at out of home, at digital or radio. How much money you should put in each of these sectors, within TV should we look at Star, at Zee or Colours or Sony in different genres. In digital how much money you should put on search on social on display etc. I do all the planning and present the plans. Once they approve the plans, the buying happens negotiating on behalf of them. The implementation is also done by us make sure the release orders are sent out, spots appear on time, billing them and I pay the media companies. So, if there is a default I am responsible. It is a huge responsibility that we carry. Therefore, it is a very specialized function. It is very scientific and data driven because in the end client asks us for the ROI. There are various ways of doing it and is the key element of advertising mix today and media planning.

Markathon: Do you also make content? 

Yes, we do. We have a branded content team. We don’t make the classical ads the 3o seconds one. That is still done by the creative agency. Organizations like Ogilvy and Mather still make those and even the print ads. Based on whatever the clients objectives are we create the content. For example:
Coke Studio was a joint idea created by us and the client which has now panned out over many many countries. It is there in Pakistan now and is obviously very popular. So after Coke Studio creates some amazing music then I go and make deals with MTV so that they air it for me.

Markathon: So when an organization like Coca-Cola spends huge amount of money, I am sure they are looking for results

There are different objectives for every campaign. If it’s a tactical campaign it could be sales. They will give us an objective that sales have to go up by 10% in these key markets because this is where we are doing the activity or it could be brand scores like top of mind, aided recall or brand love. We get an objective saying post this campaign my scores should go up by 10 %. Large research companies do the measurement of the success of the campaigns. 

Markathon: How often does it happen that a campaign is done and the customer is really unhappy? 

It doesn’t happen very often because there is a lot of science that goes behind all of these campaigns. A lot of analysis and research is done before any decision is taken.

Markathon: How do you justify the success of your campaign because it is quite possible that the increase in sales could have been because of any other factor too?

We pre-agree before the campaign. They say they are doing 10 other things but even our campaign has definitely contributed to the increase in their sales.

Markathon: Has content theft been a major issue? Does it happen very often? What do you do when it does? 

Yes, it happens very often. You don’t have great patent laws in India. You take an idea tomorrow somebody can whack that idea but there is hope because the legal system is improving, the patent laws are improving. Having said that, an idea is an idea. You can pick it up from anywhere and run with it. When such things happen we confront them to make a point so that they don’t repeat it because there is very little we can do legally. 

Markathon: Where are the media agencies currently focusing on? 

Digital space. 

Markathon: But even now you see a lot of money still being spent on TV and print media. 

Print media and TV will continue to exist for a very long time. We give more weightage to print and media because even today if there are Rs. 100 spent on advertising, 48 is spent on TV, about 40 on print, about 7 on digital, 3 on out of home and 2 on others. So even now more than 75 to 80 percent
of advertising spending goes on TV and Print media. It is because they are much larger media. You may spend a lot of time online but look at your parents. They still watch TV and read newspapers. And if I am advertising a car, I don’t want to reach you, you don’t have the money to buy a car. I want to reach your dad. 

Markathon: By 2020, India will be the youngest country, so are you expecting major changes say in 3 years in the viewing patterns of people? 

No, not within three years, TV will continue because you will still need entertainment, content and TV is all pervading. It is a family viewing medium, it is difficult for 6 people to view on a laptop. Print will slowly come under pressure because worldwide print has diminished slowly. In India it will take a good 8 to 10 years. The literacy in our country is still low and when people become literate they will still start reading, not necessarily English, in fact vernacular press is still growing in our country and they will continue to grow. There is space in our country for all these media to grow but yes the fastest is the digital media. It will become the principal medium in 5 years. 

Markathon: Is there a stark difference between the media industry in India and its western counterparts in terms of ethics and functioning? 

Yes, there is but it is only because of the economic difference. If you see in countries like UK and USA the consumer pays a big price, therefore dependency on advertising is not so high. To give you an example a TV channel in a US or a newspaper 30 to 35 percent of their revenue comes from advertising and 65 to 70 percent comes from distribution. For us 80% comes from advertising. In which country will you get 500 channels for Rs 800 a month? in US one channel is around $40 to $50 a month. An average American just chooses two to three channels and watches them, he doesn’t watch all like we in India do. They change their channel preferences every month based on what is going to come on that channel I that particular month. Coming to newspapers, you give around 3 rupees for a newspaper while the cost of producing one paper is around rupees 20. In US it is $1 for every day, Saturday it is $3 and on Sunday $5. What that does is it reduced dependency on advertising. It will be common to hear people say that “the newspapers in abroad are so clean without any irrelevant advertisements”. That is because the economics of the business are like that in both the countries. 

Markathon: Do you consider shows on YouTube like AIB, TVF which have even very long videos sometimes while making a marketing campaign for a client? Are you in contact with those people who make these shows? 

Yes, we do but it is still in nascent stage as the reach is still limited. Even If there are 200 million people on the internet there are other 900 million who aren’t. So it is still a small but growing
medium I agree. Therefore, we do a little via digital but not the majority of the budget. We are also coming up with content especially for the digital medium which won’t be released in any other medium. Also the censorship laws are lenient for online content so we can be more creative and target a particular issue but it is only a matter of time before this happens on other media too 

Markathon: How do you handle international clients from countries where the culture is different from ours? Say a Middle Eastern company. Do you have people from that country helping you or you still work with your current employees? 

Culture is very ingrained and it is very difficult for us to understand it as an outsider. We need people from that country without whose help it is almost impossible to make culturally suitable content for them. That is why most advertising agencies today are MNCs. Lowe is part of IPG, JWT and ONM are part of the WPP. All of us are parts of huge networks present across the world. 

Markathon: How exciting is this industry for an entrant after MBA? 

It is extremely exciting for a new entrant. After your MBA say you work in the marketing department of some company, you will only get to learn about that organization and that industry. Here you will get width. For example my company handled the media for Maruti, Reckitt, Amazon, Bajaj Auto, and Samsonite. Straight away I have learnt about 5 different product categories. Therefore, the knowledge levels really go up and it is very challenging too. That said it is a very hard life, hours are very long, no fixed timing and if you want to be in this business you have to be either in Mumbai or Delhi. Salaries unfortunately are not very high in the beginning but as you go up the ladder salaries go disproportionately high. If you are spotted as one of the brilliant guys then the growth is very fast. It’s not like a large organization where you have to spend three years in this designation and then you get a promotion. There have been people who have got 2 promotions in a year. 

Markathon: If you could suggest some particular skill set that a person has to develop if he/she wants do well in this industry what would that be? 

You need to be a very good communicator. This business is all about communication so if you don’t have good communication skills then you should start developing them. You need a slightly analytical bent of mind because data is very important as numbers are very important to prove the success and a little bit of creativity

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