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We are an IPL heavy agency: Navin Khemka, MediaCom

In a chat with e4m, Navin Khemka, CEO South Asia at MediaCom, gets talking about new business wins, game plan for Vivo this IPL, lack of measurement for news channels and more 

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Mar 30, 2021 9:24 AM
navin Khemka

After a sharp decline of 21.5% in ad spends in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Indian ad industry is hoping to see recovery with ad investments expected to exceed Rs 80 crore in 2021. One of the key starts to this recovery is expected to come with the IPL that begins in April. Ahead of this big event, exchange4media spoke with Navin Khemka, CEO of South Asia, Mediacom India, about his plans for his clients, including title sponsor Vivo as it makes a comeback. 

Khemka also spoke about his new business wins, recovery plans for his clients, increase in marketing budgets, the impact of BARC controversy on media planning and a lot more. 

Edited excerpts: 

Q: Vivo missed one season despite being the title sponsor. Do you think it would make sense for it to up its marketing to cover the loss?

IPL is back in its normal avatar. Last year, due to the pandemic, it was shifted to October, which was well-timed with the festival season. This year, the IPL is back in April and May. We are an IPL-heavy agency. Vivo and other clients invest heavily in IPL because it is season time and the start of the financial year for most Indian clients.

A lot of global brands also plan their launches around IPL. It is also the summer category and they are very active on IPL given that TV viewership also sees a huge spike during this period. 

Also, IPL is back in India and not happening in UAE this year, which means everybody is focused on big brands, which are looking very robust.

Q: Vivo is trying to make a comeback in the Indian market. Will its approach be different when we see it back as the title sponsor? 

I would say it would be business as usual. Given the pandemic and work from home scenario, we know how much technology brands have seen an upswing in India. Everybody needs technological instruments like mobile phones and laptops. Wifi is another sector which is in demand. 

These sectors have emerged in the pandemic and have become essential commodities. We have seen fantastic sales in the last four to six months even after the pandemic was getting over including the last IPL. We are very buoyant with the launches that are planned and we will have a fantastic season ahead. 

Q: As a media expert, what is the value proposition you foresee for brands in this IPL season? Also, which other clients besides Vivo have opted for IPL 2021?

Categories like technology, mobile handsets, summer category brands like soft drinks, fans, e-commerce, and telecommunications have a lot of campaigns planned. These are a very critical eight to thirteen weeks for them.

All these categories would see presence on IPL, which is not restricted only to TV, but a large part of viewership is coming from Hotstar now. So clients could choose where to be, given that the entry-level cost on Hotstar is low as compared to television. 

We are planning campaigns for all our clients on the categories I just mentioned across not only TV but also Hotstar. 

Q: We saw several new categories like gaming emerge massively during IPL 2020. Are you expecting entries of some other new categories in this season too? 

Many categories -- like gaming, edu-tech, healthcare, technology, laptops, wireless connectivity -- are emerging now due to the pandemic. 

People have realized the importance of these categories in their lives going forward. Therefore everybody is investing in them, wanting to be ahead of the curve. 

Q: How much impact do you think IPL will have on other genres like GEC and news with elections in five states around the corner?

While a bit of its viewership does go down during IPL, GEC also offers a very exclusive audience. Therefore, the GEC audience builds on the IPL audience. If there are brands who want to reach out to that audience, they do consider GECs even when the IPL is on. 

Depending on your audience, the reach you are chasing and the benchmarks you have set, you need a good combination of IPL and GEC. However, some brands chose to be only on GEC even during IPL and some choose to be only on IPL. It is a choice you make because you can’t have everything in a media plan. 

One genre that has minimal impact because of IPL is news. The entire news viewership is spread throughout the day from morning to night. 

The only one to two hours that could get affected on news viewership is when the IPL live match is on.

News is pretty much live 24x7 now. So, I would not be worried if I was a news channel given that there are so many closely-fought elections that are coming in the next four to six weeks. Those states are so critical and we are seeing such heated action on the ground. 

Q: Pandemic also took a toll on new business wins. Most brands deferred the pitch process. Do you think 2021 will open up opportunities on this front?

We have had a fantastic year. The COMvergence report is just out and globally, MediaCom was the number one agency on new business rankings. As far as India is concerned MediaCom India was amongst the top five markets as far as new businesses are concerned. 

If you look at our India performance at MediaCom in the 2018-2020 period, we have added anything between Rs 400 cr and Rs 600 cr of net new businesses, which was net of any loss we might have had in the last three years. In 2020, we have added Rs 600 cr in new businesses. 

Our teams have done a fantastic job despite all the challenges faced due to remote working. Teams got together and looked at every opportunity that has come our way and converted all our new business leads. 

Every pitch and conversation that we get into is becoming extremely result-oriented. The conversation is becoming integrated. Clients today are looking for holistic solutions because they know the market and the audience are changing. Because of this change, agencies need to come up with holistic, media-neutral, integrated media solutions. 

MediaCom teams are integrated, giving clients media-neutral and screen-neutral solutions. That is the differentiation I see and the clients tell us that you are getting future-ready. The businesses and pitches that we have won offer integrated solutions. 

Q: Have the marketing budgets gone back to pre-COVID times? 

Marketing budgets are back and in certain categories that we have discussed earlier the budgets are even looking up. Given the opportunities the work-from-home environment and the pandemic have thrown at us, for some categories in India, it is positive. 

Q: How much has the unavailability of data for news genre or IRS for print affected you as a planner?

Last year was very difficult for print and the industry saw a decline of almost 30-40% on their AdEx on print. There is historical data on the IRS that is robust. With that, one could predict what was happening. 

Given that we had access to good circulation numbers from print publications, we could extrapolate what the readership could be and therefore what the go-to-market strategy would look like. 

While news channels reported a viewership on an aggregate level, there were other metrics we were looking at. We looked at feedback from online retailers, distributors from the client’s end. Feedback from the local markets, because news is locally-led, and used that as an input strategy for our clients. That worked very well for us. 

When the data is not available from a granular point of view, we look at some other mechanisms in terms of digital and on-ground data and those from the client’s teams. We have used these interesting tools and mechanisms to be able to predict and curate fantastic plans for our clients. 

Q: Last year this time we were all grappling with the first-of-its-kind situation with a complete lockdown. However, now with the second wave around, how are you as an agency prepared to tackle your business and clients?

Work from home has had its challenges. For media agencies, all the problems come in the implementation phase and not in the evaluation. Because that is where the entire work and coordination is happening.

Going forward, clients also have gotten used to this idea. They are also realizing that this is the way it is going to be for the next three to six months. They have also adapted to these newer ways of working. 

This entire adaptive way has helped all of us. With a lot of support from each of my clients and support internally, we have been able to perform seamless operations across all our clients. 

Q: Going by a global report, the ad marketplace in China proved to be among the most resilient in 2020 among major markets. Where would you place India on the resilience scale during the pandemic? 

As per our TYNY report, India did decline 31.5% but we are expected to bounce back. We are expected to go almost up to almost Rs 80,000 crore this year to about 23.5%. We will see this bounce back on the back of digital and television. 

Q: With COVID cases making a sudden surge in many parts of the country, particularly in metro cities like Mumbai and Delhi, are you still optimistic about the growth numbers predicted by the TYNY report in February this year? 

All the reports in the newspapers and point of view of the PM and the CMs say that today another lockdown for India is not an option. They know the pain that it has caused to the Indian economy and to the people of the country.

Everybody has been asked to test, trace and isolate. Have smaller containment zones in areas where the pandemic is spreading rather than a national containment zone. Leave the rest of the country with its business as usual; I will say that we will hit the predicted numbers. 

Not a single client till now, even with the surge of cases, have come back and said that we want to revise our plan. Everybody is extremely positive and buoyant. The next three months are very critical for the economy. This industry must bounce back. 

Last April, we were under a national lockdown; this April, possibly we will be under a sporadic lockdown where businesses and brands will adapt to their markets and won’t have to shut down. 

Q: Did the agency-client relationship change during the pandemic? 

The relationship between agency and client was stronger than before. Earlier, getting a meeting organized would take weeks because you have to travel to have a physical meeting. Now, we are moving from Mumbai to Delhi to Bangalore to Jaipur to Lucknow to Chandigarh in minutes. 

There is a seamless connection with all our teams and clients. Therefore, I would say the work has become even more efficient and we are closer than we were before. 

Q: While most sectors have started to show recovery, the luxury sector is still struggling to revive itself. What kind of revival plans do you have for your luxury brands?

These brands will have to wait and watch. You can’t force people to travel, take a luxury holiday, go on an international vacation when there are flights not available and the protocols are so tough. These sectors are impacted. I always say when there is a storm, you don’t fight the storm you just let it pass. 

If you look at the airline industry, they now want to focus on domestic travel. Domestic flights are picking up, almost 60-70% of pre-COVID levels. We are telling them to look at sectors that are performing well, give good reasons to fly, assure them all the safety precautions and so forth. 

Obviously, it is not possible for people to go on international vacations and spend a lot of money right now. So, we have told them why don’t you look at catchment areas which are 300-400 km from your house, so people can go on holidays nearby. 

We are looking for options for clients who are working well from a catchment area point of view and recommending them solutions. There is a huge uptake that is happening in terms of luxury; it is just a matter of human sentiment. The moment it starts picking up and the economy starts bouncing back, it already has to look at the stock market. 

Luxury housing, I’m told, has already bounced back. The demand for high-end, larger homes is unprecedented in India now. 

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