As the world moves towards a digital-centric future, media giant Bloomberg Media is consolidating its digital presence across the globe. This includes rebranding its digital properties as a new entity called Bloomberg Business, which merges together Bloomberg Business Week and Bloomberg.com. Globally, the initiative is being spearheaded by Justin Smith, a well-known figure in the media industry and who is also the founder of Quartz. Parry Ravindranathan , MD of Bloomberg Media, Asia Pacific, has the mammoth task of ensuring this transition occurs in the vibrant and varied Asia region. We caught up with him in a recent visit to Mumbai to get his thoughts on the Indian market, the future of news media in a digital age, and why India has not seen a digital version of a Raghav Bahl or Ronnie Screwvala yet. Excerpts.
What necessitated the consolidation of your digital presence ?
We have one of the largest most robust digital businesses in the world. If you consume business news, we are kind of ubiquitous. Open any newspaper and a good part of the content will be ours and this is the same for any medium; magazine, digital, TV, etc. It is a very varied and fairly cross platform business.
We always had fairly robust digital businesses but I think the difference was that they were not put together into one unit, which kind of integrates well into TV and all of our properties. What Justin and Michael Bloomberg (founder of Bloomberg Media) started was the process of integrating all of our businesses. The next step was to regionalize the business to make it grow faster, to increase the audience, to invest in regional growth, we always invested heavily in television but some of the other businesses like digital were more centralized. We believe in regionalization. We believe that the content we create should have some relevance for the regional audience that we are targeting. We kind of went back and relooked at it and came out of a plan to take this to the next five years and the next decade.
How did you approach the entire process?
The first step was to completely change Bloomberg.com and to have a much more coherent strategy on the digital business to make it much more robust and enable it to compete with even smaller businesses. I always say that our biggest competitors are not the big large players any more. The digital space has created avenues of disruption which allow the small players sitting in a garage and take on large companies like us. So we have to be in a position to disrupt and innovate faster than anyone else can to stay dominant. I think the process has begun in India and you can see that. You can already see this disruption in the more mature markets with the likes of Vice, Vox, Upworthy, etc. Business Insider and BuzzFeed are becoming real challengers to well established businesses. Bloomberg’s strategy, which in some ways goes back to our roots, is to be the start-up, entrepreneurial company that we are.
Our real mission is to go back to it and this is when we went back to our digital businesses and decided to go for a complete revamp and also broaden the base of the Bloomberg brand. Our role in the consumer side of the business is to become broader than just finance. If you are from the finance world you will know Bloomberg. What we are trying to do is to broaden that from just finance to encompass even the business world. Every story has a business angle and we are that. So that’s how we want to broaden our entire audience and client base. So we attacked it with a single point of entry by merging Bloomberg.com with Bloomberg Business Week. We redesigned it, made it hip and cool and made it into a very powerful player in the magazine business, which is a tough place to be in. Business is sometimes not cool, adding that cool element is also something we are trying to do; by making it a little bit more fun. What we have done is taken the ethos of Business Week and the design philosophy and applied it to Bloomberg.com, which has been rebranded as Bloomberg Business.
Where does India figure in these plans?
Bloomberg Business is the first, real launch for us and what we are doing in Asia is to launch a regional version and, over a period of time, localize it further. For example, India is a very important market for us and I believe that in terms of the kind of content we create, we are in the best position to do this. It might not be right at the top now but we believe in making investments right now. Unlike most companies in the world we are not held back by quarterly results. We think long-term and we have the freedom to make investments that will bear fruits in a few years time.
Is this philosophy of having a broader outlook limited to the digital medium or does it extend to all facets of the organization?
It is part of our overall philosophy. Broadly, in television, in the last few years, and certainly in Asia and now globally we are moving from just being pure financial. We have been doing that for a couple of years and this has paid rich dividends in Asia. We are market leaders in the region in our category. We compete with CNN when it comes to breaking news. We are on the field like a BBC or CNN would. The big stories like the Air Asia disaster or the Hong Kong protests, we cover from a business angle but we are doing it on the field. We are, in many ways, different from any of our competitors. We are broader in our perspective. Are we broad enough? Not yet, but we are getting there. Brand positioning is rarely a physical change, it is a perception change and it takes a long time, a lot of effort internally to change and externally to get the communication out there. The transition in a lot of places, like television, is nearly there.
We just launched Bloomberg Live, our events business. Again, it is a very important part of our strategy for the region and again it will be much broader with not just financial events but events on technology, innovation, luxury, etc.
Isn’t it a bit risky to move away from your core strength of financial reporting?
We are not moving away from financial sector, we are just broadening our scope. The financial space remains our core strength and we do not want to abandon it. I don’t think there is a risk attached to broadening ourselves. In fact, I would argue that there is more risk involved in limiting yourself to one silo because each and every industry that we are covering is evolving every day. In our own lifetime, newspapers are becoming less and less important. News is still important but the way you consume it has changed. I don’t think we can be wedded to one platform or medium of distribution. Any business that intends to grow over a period of time, which is wedded to one model, is going to struggle in the next few years because every space is getting disrupted. Business models are getting changed. In some sense, that chaos is a great business opportunity to do other things as well. In the long run, we have said that we will start verticals, we have technology, a separate Bloomberg Markets. We have content, all we have to do is to make it more consumer facing over a period of time.
India as a market has traditionally lagged behind the curve. Your thoughts.
Technology follows consumption and consumption follows technology, it is a cycle and unless the cycle changes you will continue to lag behind the rest of the world. It is also important that you can monetize your digital properties. I think this is the best time to be a news entrepreneur. I don’t think India has seen the next big digital entrepreneur. We have not seen the next Prannoy Roy, Raghav Bahl or Ronnie Screwvala in the Indian digital space. There are plenty of people who might get there but have not done so yet.
Why do you think this is so?
It is because of infrastructure and consumption. Broadband is not ubiquitous in India. We (Bloomberg) create 85 million page views worth of video globally and if you look at demographics, you expect India to be among the highest but this is not the case because of the infrastructure challenges. It is because infrastructure has to catch up. Once it does, it will change the game. Content platforms will evolve. In other countries, content is being consumed quicker because we know what people want. To be honest, I do not know what kind of content India wants. No one really knows what good content in India is because not a lot of content is being consumed compared to the mature markets and the demographic advantage.
So, how does Bloomberg plan to crack the Indian market?
I will not pretend and say that we know the solution. The big problem most companies have is creating the content. Our challenge is the other way around—what is the right content for the right market. How do we bring the content in such a way that it interests you? How do we create content like video, etc. which is more in tune with what this market needs? So, I would argue that we are a step ahead; one step closer to if at all there is a solution in the next 4 years and we think there is. We believe we should have a Bloomberg Business India. It is not very far away. It is not years away. We already get a lot of volume from India. We haven’t invested in the past in areas like digital in India. We will always be a global player in a local market. That will always be our position in any market.
On the broadcast front you had a partnership with UTV. Is there scope for similar JVs on the digital front?
I won’t say yes or no. There are pros and cons to both approaches. We usually like to own the property in the digital space because anything digital is obviously global. This makes it a little more important to own it. Having said that, we are good in the English domain; that is the language that we are in at the moment. I am not saying that we have not experimented with other languages. We have a Japanese website, which we will be relaunching very soon. But some of the languages are very difficult and these might be the areas where we would look at partnerships. Regional language content is a gigantic opportunity, especially when it comes to business content in local languages. For example, take the finance industry in India. A fairly large part of this industry speaks in languages like Gujarati. So, it could be an opportunity but we are not actively scouting for partnerships right now.
What is the kind of traffic you see from India?
India would probably rank in the top 3 traffic sources for us in Asia and in the top 15-20 globally. The potential is huge.
How are you approaching the issue of monetization?
Very soon digital revenue will surpass TV revenue for everyone. We are such a cross platform player that it will probably happen sooner for us than anyone else. There are two arguments—everyone says it is difficult to make huge revenue on digital but that is not true. Take the example of Vice and so many of these new digital companies who all generating revenues. It all depends on the market and as the market matures you will see more monetization opportunities.
We have launched things like Bloomberg Spectrum for advertisers, which are new creative options for our clients. These are basically based on maximising engagement. Some of it like scroll-in motion, you might have already seen. The better the digital infrastructure of the country, the more the ad options. Digital engagement is a more personal engagement and that is the difference.
AOL recently launched its own programmatic platform. Is it a path that Bloomberg is likely to take?
I would not say yes or no because we have not gone there yet. I think we are open to anything that makes sense to get a larger audience and a larger section of the ad revenue. We want to make sure that we are client-focused and audience-focused. I will not rule out any kind of engagement. But it is too early to say whether we will be programmatic. We are doing everything with caution. We are thinking every part of it. We will evolve as the industry evolves.
But is it a direction that you are seeing publishers moving towards?
I think the Googles, LinkedIns and Facebooks are increasingly becoming competitive for media companies. All media companies use them as a distribution tool but they are also becoming competitors. Whether that formula has crystallized, I cannot say. You might see us distributing on Facebook and Twitter and at the same time they might be competing with us too. That is the biggest change—you do not know who your competitors are. Everybody is a competitor. Those days are gone when you can say that “These four are my competitors”. You have to constantly looking over your shoulder. What programmatic also does is put pressure on us as content creators. We want to be fairly paid for our content, especially since we do not work on a subscription model.