The time has come for the TV industry to come together and collaborate: Ashish Sehgal

On today's 'Beating All Odds', Ashish Sehgal, Chief Growth Officer, Advertisement Revenue, ZEEL, speaks with Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor, e4m

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: May 28, 2020 9:06 AM
Beating All Odds with Ashish Sehgal, Chief Growth Officer, Advertisement Revenue, ZEEL

In our 'Beating All Odds' series, we recognise and honour the leaders who, despite the problems and glitches thrown at us by the COVID-19 lockdown, ensure that our business and economy remain active while trying to contain the damage this crisis can cause.

Today, we speak to Ashish Sehgal, Chief Growth Officer, Advertisement Revenue, ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL).

These are difficult times for the broadcasting industry. AdEx has dropped, but still, broadcasters are putting a strong foot forward and managing the show. How are you doing it?

There is no denying that the AdEx has almost crashed in the last two months. This has happened because there is no business happening around. The majority of broadcaster's revenue comes through advertising. Since people are not making money or not selling anything, why will they advertise? Because of that, advertising has come down and it is understandable. Everyone else who is doing some business is trying to reset their button and figure out how to do their businesses. That is also the case with us. We too are resetting our buttons and trying to see how we move forward from here.

What are the measures that you are taking to move forward?

The important part is how people are dealing with all these challenges in the organization? How motivated they are? How well equipped we are to face this problem and obviously keeping a brave face on. Now that we are moving forward, we need to strategize, and think about what's the future is going to be. I believe in forgetting what has happened. Each month is on its own. We need to think about the next month. We should give the targets a pause for a while, and think about what we are going to do for the next month. That's how you start rebuilding blocks. And once we start building these blocks, they'll assist us climbing back to the original volumes which media or television industry was used to.

Another major problem is that we are not able to produce original content. Mumbai, which is the centre of most of the businesses, is the most affected by COVID-19. Do you have any hypothetical solution to restart businesses?

From the consumer point of view, there is defiantly no fresh content. What the consumer was used to watching on a television or a linear medium in India, has discontinued. However, there is more than enough content available across everybody's library, where broadcasters are able to showcase the old nostalgic shows. And hence, you see the advent of Ramayana and Mahabharata, coming back from yesteryears and still bursting charts in terms of ratings. Therefore, another good part is that people are sitting at home, and the best way of entertainment for them is consuming content. They don't mind watching things again. Content which has repeat value like movies, or metrological shows, comedy shows, infotainment shows etc., is what people are able to view again and again. If somebody has seen it earlier, they again want to watch it at their leisure time. Ratings across categories have increased, whether it is an OTT platform or the television platform. Consumption of content and time spent on watching the content has dramatically increased. It has gone way beyond what it used to be. Therefore, from a consumer perspective, they are not feeling the pinch of content not being there.

That said, obviously, the driving of the business is the new content or the fresh content. That brings in new eyeballs that keep the consumer engaged. We have to come back especially for the general entertainment channels (GEC) or the sports channels, which have been doing live events. These genres need to come back and start delivering the kind of content, the way they used to. We have to start thinking about how we can go back, as soon as possible, to creating that content. We are creating content not just in Mumbai, but across the country. We are in various regional markets.

The good news is that Karnataka government and now the Tamil government, has given indications of opening up the production of content. Hence, soon we could start seeing the content being produced, at least in these markets. Similarly, in markets and states, which are now falling into green zones, the government is going to start giving a few liberties there too. I think we will slowly start rolling back the entire production machinery.

The majority of Hindi content is being produced out of Mumbai. And, we have to start thinking of ways to move other production bases outside of Mumbai, at a safer place. We also have to get used to creating content with lesser manpower, you will require artists, but there is a lot of manpower which is behind it. We'll also have to start creating new SOPs in terms of building content in future. But, this is work in progress. As and when we are ready, we will start sharing it with the media.

When the markets that are dealing well with COVID-19 open, would the AdEx will go back to normal?

When the business activity starts taking place, obviously the AdEx will start coming back. TV is directly related to the economic activity taking place, and hence people will start advertising their products. That's where we will start to see the volume coming back. There are essential commodities which are already advertising. But that only comprises 25% to 30% of the earlier volume. Now a lot of advertisers are actually thinking that, at this point of time when the media is cheaper than what it used to be earlier and when there is not so much of a clutter, they should advertise. They're also looking at brand building. Therefore, there are some advertisers who are taking baby steps and coming back and trying to build the brand for them, while possibly the products are not being sold.

Do you think 8 weeks' time is too long for a brand to stay away from television? Should it now gradually start advertising even if production is not on?

Yes, you are right. We know that public memory is very short. It takes years to build your brand amongst the consumer mindset. This period when brands are not present with them or not on top of their mind, especially when they are consuming so much of content on television and other mediums, and the brand is not present there, another brand will come and take its place. Consumers are also used to watching ads along with the content, and people have been habitual about that. Therefore, people who are advertising currently, they'll start taking the front stage of the consumer mind. Hence, it's very important for brands with good cash reserves to start using it as an investment in ads, rather than seeing it as an expense.

You manage such a big network, which genres are still surviving and which are the ones that have been hurt badly by this crisis?

As I said earlier, cinema is a genre which we watched repeatedly. Every day there are almost hundreds of movies being telecasted across various channels, and not all of them are freshly produced. We keep on repeating those movies, and still, people keep coming back and watching it. Because of that, you'll see that now the consumption of movie channels has gone up. Most of the top two entertainment channels are movie channels and not GEC.

News is also doing well. It is the flavour of the period of time period right now. The sheer nature of it i.e. bringing information to people at their doorstep has led the consumption of news to quadruple. It's almost three to four times what it used to be. I hope it continues to sustain for a while because news as a genre itself was suffering for some time. I think this will see the comeback of news as a genre even at a future stage. However, currently, news is the flavour, and because of that AdEx reduction on news is not to that extent, which has happened for genres.

The most hit is obviously the general entertainment because the consumer was always used to watching fresh content on a daily basis. The appointment on viewing on the GEC was because the consumer wanted to see every day what their favourite character is doing. But the good part out of this entire episode is that we have understood that there is an appetite in consumer to even watch nostalgic, old, good content. People are hungry for good content. I believe these leanings will come in handy when we are planning our future content plans. You don't have to give them something fresh every day. People would love to have content, which they would have watched some time back and loved it, they would like to see it again.

How has this period changed you on a professional or personal level?

Yes, of course. I tried to think differently almost every day because when your business is on an extreme existential crisis, you have to keep thinking something new every day. You have to keep yourself engaged; you have to keep your teams engaged. Keep on bringing reconstructive work upfront so that you are able to be in the field and try to keep on doing things so that you can come back to the original situation. We are doing many things within the organization. We have created an entire virtual world on the MS team. Virtually every day I have connected with all my team members and sometimes I'm even talking to more than a hundred people at a time, which was physically not possible. The virtual world has actually opened up our eyes, that there were things which we could have done possibly earlier. The things which we were trying to do physically, can be done virtually too. With social distancing being there, we'll have to learn to live with Coronavirus. I think that's the way forward for the entire world.

From that perspective, there will always be an opportunity to have that personal touch with people. But, as I said, we have learned new things, which earlier, even if we were forced, we would not have looked into. This possibility existed earlier also. COVID has brought us to try those things which we wouldn't have otherwise tried. But yes, I'm defiantly finding a lot of new things to be learned.

Another example of that is, today we are doing a brand speak by an industry leader almost on a daily basis on our 'Hello Z' app which we have created on the MS Team. There are most almost 500 to 700 people come every day attend them to learn from the various industry leaders who are coming and giving us that can have an opportunity. Earlier, if I had to do something like that, I had to figure out a hall. It's a cost company would not have approved. Secondly, asking time from that industry leader to come over would have been a challenge. Now they are in the comforts of their home. They have their thought processes to be shared. They spare just an hour or half an hour, whatever time they can spare, and share the similar things which we possibly would have created a lot of opportunities and infrastructure to be used. Therefore, I think this learning which I'm going to continue even in future because this helps me to keep on giving my team a lot of leanings and also for myself. Another thing that is happening is that we are now engaging almost on a daily basis with one or the other businesses. This was not possible earlier. I've met more number of clients in the last 40-45 days, what I possibly would have met in a year.

Do you have any advice for the young people industry?

I would like to say, the time has come for at least television as an industry to come together and collaborate. The overall AdEx has come to a certain level that one would think that it's now becoming a survival of the fittest scenario. Grab and snatch and whatever you can to at least fill your own stomach. I think this is the time when we have to have patience. We need to come together, think together and strategize how we build the business back here, rather than I'll build my own business and you do whatever you want to. I don't think unless and until there is more than enough of the business coming back, not everybody is going to survive. This is the time all of us have to put our heads together. Think as to how we revive this industry back. I'm sure this will get a revival, because of it the business will come back. People have to go and sell their own products and advertisement is the mainstay for them. There are new categories which are developing; we need to figure out what is that we can do for them as the television industry. Television is the mass reach medium. Today from our industry point of view, we have that onus to kick start the economy back. We are the ones bringing the message back to the consumer. And that message has to be positive. That message has to say that economy is coming back on its track. We have to start consuming products the way we used to earlier.

As far as youngsters or the newer generation is concerned, I think obviously, the anxiety will be amongst almost every age, not only just the youngsters. This is the time for patience. Forget what your KRAs were, Think positive. Be focused on the goals you have. Think about the next month. Start building block by block. Don't be in a hurry. Don't just give up.

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