‘By FY 2024, we want a significant part of our business to be digital in terms of revenue'
MK Anand, MD & CEO, Times Network, won the ‘CEO of the Year’ award at enba 2020
Leadership, according to him is clear, transparent and consistent communication, and these are the three pillars that kept the boat afloat at Times Network as the entire industry struggled through the initial days of the Covid-19 outbreak. MK Anand, MD & CEO, Times Network, won the CEO of the Year award at the recently held enba 2020.
In a candid chat with exchange4media, Anand opens up about the importance of objective news reporting, the BARC controversy, ratings, viewership and more.
Being the ‘CEO of the Year’ comes with a lot of responsibility. Help us understand your take on leadership and how do you handle it?
All human activity is about getting people together and working with them. My best explanation about this to my daughter has been the example of Robinson Crusoe or the character of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Even the brightest mind cannot create an economy or a corporation or become a billionaire on an island all by himself. Any human activity, beyond functional individual survival, is about coordinating, getting consensus to a direction and executing it to finally get results in everyone’s interest. The most important thing about leadership, according to me, is clear, transparent and consistent communication. This includes both internal and external messaging as you're not just leading people inside your organization but, with your products and innovations, you are affecting your consumers and the larger world. Simple, transparent communication happens only when you know what you are doing, and do it with honesty. The world around is exploding with devices and social media and there are so many crisis-crossing lines of communication between so many people. When there is so much happening already, as a leader, you need to keep your messaging simple and consistent to take people forward.
Coming to the broadcasting ecosystem in 2020, it has been an unprecedented year. Tell us a little about the initial days and how you and your team coped with the difficult times?
Two years back, I set a target for the HR team to look at 30 per cent of our teams working from home by 2021. We had worked on this as a pilot with some of our teams, but it was more experimental at that stage. In February 2020, I had to travel to West Africa for a work trip and transited through Addis Ababa Airport, which is the main gateway for China into Africa. That’s when I realized how different the protocol becomes when you are closer to the pandemic, in comparison with what India was facing at that time. The sanitization requirements to masks and everything else at the Addis Ababa Airport gave me first-hand experience and the advantage of seeing the future before India woke up to the pandemic.
Since I always nurtured the idea of pushing work processes to maximum WFH, I saw this as an opportunity. To be honest, I did not look at the pandemic becoming such a big factor in India at that time. Once I was back, I immediately set about pushing the teams to prepare for WFH more for its own sake and not really for the pandemic. In the second week of March, we instituted a WFH drill before anybody in India had done it. At that time, it had not yet become something that people thought would need such a drastic response.
So, when the country went into a mandatory lockdown on March 25, we were already over two weeks into our work from home arrangement. Our IT team got a crucial head-start to take care of everything that employees needed to work from home and plug whatever weak spots. With the help of the HR team, I got personally involved in managing operations. We designed closed work groups who would not interact with outsiders and put them on 14-day shifts so that people had minimum risk. We also housed them in captive locations so that they didn’t jeopardize their health or the health of their families back home. We had an arrangement with a leading hotel in Delhi and Mumbai where we put our employees and alongside planned for our support staff, including drivers, to stay in captive locations where everything they needed was taken care off. In the initial period, we did pre-emptive screening tests for those who came to office so that they did not bring infection from home or carried back to their families. Additionally, we also arranged for Covid care insurance for all our staff, including vendors. The highest priority for us during the period was to reduce risk to our people and their families. Thanks to all our pre-emptive measures, we had only 50 cases in the whole company between March and September which included not just people who came to work but also those sitting at home.
During this phase, we also decided to not be distracted by the weekly ritual of viewership numbers. The commercial space grinding to a halt meant there was no incentive for competitors to scream comparative numbers. We decided to put up an honest effort to use our platforms and service to contribute in the best way we could to help our viewers and assuage their fears and battle Covid. To shed more light on facts than others, we did some path-breaking work during this phase, which I am proud of and has been very well accepted by our consumers. They have made our brands stand out and shine brighter.
As early as late March, we put the research teams across the company on a task to use their downtime to work on the pandemic data. They worked on Covid trends and information available from five countries that already had a two-month headstart such as Malaysia, China, UK, Italy and US. The team collated data and tried to build models to understand trends of infections, potential hospitalisation and compared that with data on infrastructure in terms of beds capacities, ICU facilities and ventilators to make predictions. Our objective was to be able to give guidance to local governments that was not available to them from any source other than ICMR. Once we got to a critical threshold, we got our digital transformation partner Protiviti on board and they professionally put together more data crunching ability to generate extremely intelligent and coherent reports that were invaluable to understand the pandemic trends in India. This is how India Outbreak Report was born with the collaborative efforts of our editorial and research teams.
Simultaneously, from April 2020, we worked with the Institute of Competitiveness to understand what businesses felt about the lockdown and its subsequent impact on the economy. We collated inputs from the industry on what they felt was required to hasten the recovery process. Basically, this was an attempt to crowdsource ideas for India’s post-pandemic revival. This led to our India Revival Mission which was widely appreciated by policy makers including the Finance Minister.
From a marketing point of view, I realized that there was serious attention that news channels were getting because everybody was home tuning into their television but without GEC programming and sports. Basically, news was in the news. That is when we decided to launch our genre leading campaign - Fighting Fear with Facts. It has been well established during the pandemic phase and we believe it can be carried through even post due to its strong generic and functional appeal.
As soon as we were entering a better phase with businesses showing recovery, the whole BARC controversy started, what do you have to say about that?
The BARC controversy has opened a can of worms. We are one of the affected parties and are seeking justice in that matter. Having said that, I must add my observation. I have been running broadcast businesses since 2004 in various capacities and the last 12 years as CEO. Ratings manipulations are not something new. We are all aware of an underworld of the industry offering these quick fix solutions. Unfortunately, some players give in to the temptation to either make a quick buck through unscrupulous means or desperately defend themselves against aggressive competition. It takes character and legacy and integrity to ensure you don't get swayed and don’t give in to these temptations. Credible brands are built when you take the seemingly difficult but honest road than give in and do something inappropriate and then do a hundred other things to manage that one act. That’s what builds legacy. That’s something that we have always followed and I'm very satisfied about that. This is not work done in a year. We have worked on this over years.
While content is the king, it is the advertisers who keep the pot boiling. In the present times, how difficult is it to convince advertisers in the absence of rating?
Ratings in our context is about viewership, it’s quantitative. I believe, for news channels, viewership should not be an end in itself as it is not directly proportional to cash coming into the bank. If you were a consumer product and say your sales volumes have gone up, that would directly convert to money. That, however, doesn’t apply to ad-led media businesses. If my viewership increases from 10 people to 13 over the weekend, it doesn’t mean I get 30 per cent more revenue. So, from that point of view, I don't think we would like to pursue viewership as an end in itself. Viewership is useful to measure popularity and popularity indirectly can be used to build the brand. If mere viewership was the metric, how would English channels charge similar ERs for a lesser audience compared to Hindi channels? The answer is positioning and environment that is achieved over years in a culture. Viewership is nowhere near as important as brand. A brand is a memory, it's an impression and of course a reputation that is not earned overnight, unlike ratings, which is possible to mathematically construct - by fair and unfair means.
Advertisers are aware of this and they really do not need ratings to decide on spending on credible news platforms. I have never encouraged selling on the basis of ratings. At Times Network, we have a carefully cultivated audience. Our products are curated to hold the attention of key decision makers in the country. We also insist that our channels are subscribed to, so our viewers choose our platforms actively. Our viewership, therefore, is of a completely different quality. The ratings blackout period has not impacted our ad revenue due to these reasons. I can confidently say the same would be true for all well-established, credible news brands in the country.
Numbers, however, are important to research and improve products. It helps us fine-tune our offering, understand consumer preferences and nuances better. I strongly feel that news broadcasters should use research only for product development and not for competitive comparison to impress advertisers. That will solve a lot of problems. It will certainly reduce the shrill noise that some platforms pass off for content and bring back decorum to the category. It will help build viewer loyalty better and eventually lead to a paid subscription-based revenue model which will go a long way in development of not just the news ecosystem, but improve our public discourse and the democratic process.
Tell us a little about recovery
News was probably the only category with original content and therefore our ad sales came back much quicker than other categories. Fortunately, because of that, at the end of the year, we have just a single digit drop over last year in terms of our top-line, and we are more or less at the same level in terms of our bottom-line because of whatever savings we've been able to make due to process re-engineering and cost rationalization. In this phase, we've also been careful in being sensitive to our workforce and ensured that there was no large-scale retrenchment. Even the usual annual performance-based filtering of sub-optimal resources was postponed by two quarters as we did not want to take any disruptive steps during H1, when people were going through an unprecedented and rough experience.
What are your big plans for 2021?
We have aggressive digital plans for the next three years. By FY 2024, we want a significant part of our business to be digital in terms of revenue. 2021 will see accelerated efforts in our overall digital transformation effort. On the content, production and cost front, we have already made significant transition to digital. We also hope to build on our vibrant branded content business which has benefited greatly from remote and digital enabled processes in 2020. We will try to capitalize on this growth trigger and consolidate in 2021.
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