Arati Rao
May 20, 2011

Profile: "For MTV, it’s Facebook that is competition"

Aditya Swamy, channel head, MTV India, explains why the youth brand bases its success on more than just ratings


Aditya Swamy’s LinkedIn profile doesn’t show too much wavering of loyalty in his career: he worked at Coca-Cola for 8 years, and shifted to MTV in 2006. Working for his first employer was a bit of destiny, he says. “I grew up in Chennai, and did my graduation from there. The idea was always to do something related to young people. I started to do a bunch of projects and one of them happened to be for Coca-Cola – this was the late 1990s and the company was just starting to take over the Parle brands from Ramesh Chauhan. I think that started the grand plan. After that I did two more summer projects with Coke, including one while I was in B-School at SP Jain; so I started to feel like I was destined to just work at Coke. I joined them in 1998, and was there for almost 8 years,” he said. In another quirky working of fate, Swamy did a lot of work with MTV during his years at Coca-Cola, as he progressed from sales to marketing, including the Sprite-sponsored ‘One Tight Slap’ segment on the channel, and a talent hunt for a Ken Ghosh movie.

No surprise then, that Swamy moved to MTV in 2006. “Most people move from broadcast to client. I thought it would be a great thing to do it the other way around,” he said. “To me, what was exciting was that while Coke was great, and the learning was wonderful, it was very uni-dimensional at the end of the day: you thought about your business, and how to sell more cola. At MTV, in the morning, we could be talking to a telecom brand like DOCOMO and asking what we can do for them; in the afternoon we could be talking to Cadbury’s and finding out what we can do for Friendship Day and chocolates; and then we could be talking to a bike brand in the evening. So I thought it was much broader, it gets you plugged into so many more industries and businesses, and of course, media itself is a more think-on-your-feet kind of space.”

Swamy’s current designation is channel head, MTV, but he joined the network five years ago as marketing head for MTV, VH1 and Nick. “The larger part of the mandate was MTV, so we went about to do what many marketing guys typically do – ‘Let’s change what the brand stands for’,” he recalled with a laugh. That ‘change’ involved a move into a new philosophy. Swamy elaborated, “When I went to college in the ’90s, people were asked what kind of music they listen to, and if you replied Pink Floyd or Daler Mehndi, that defined who you were. Today it’s much more – are you Mac or Windows, Facebook or Twitter, Diesel or Levi’s? So we thought we needed to do much more than music. ‘Enjoy’ as a philosophy was very one-way and couch potato-ish; today people are moving towards two-way, it has to be interactive. Also personalisation was becoming very cool for young people, hence we moved to ‘It’s my MTV’. MTV is a reflection of my life, it’s beyond music and beyond TV, so we dropped Music Television altogether.”

While ‘Roadies’ was already on the channel, Swamy said they did a lot more shows of ‘Bakra’ after he joined. Another big programming shift came in 2007, when the channel decided to do a lot more reality. “We launched ‘Splitsvilla’, ‘On The Job’ (a career show), and MTV-U (a popular channel in the US) which profiled the top universities, including the cooler ones, like NDA. ‘Stuntmania’ was born – today young people are looking for thrills, and normal entertainment isn’t entertaining anymore. So we tapped into underground biking which was going to become a big thing. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but that’s the beauty of MTV: we get to try a hundred things and whatever works, we’ve been able to carry on for multiple seasons,” he explained.

Reality television seems to be taking over Indian television, especially on the youth channels. Swamy reasoned, “Reality is something young people will always enjoy – it’s people like them, doing stuff in environments they can never experience. But what we’ve seen over the years is that reality has become very formatted – either they’re talent hunts, or the others are shows like ‘Roadies’.” He admits that in this format, now it’s become overkill. “Everyone has to get out of the rut, because reality is such a huge thing,” he urged, adding the channel is trying to do that with “genre-busting” reality shows like ‘Stuntmania’, ‘Crunch’, ‘True Life’, and now ‘Coke Studio’.

Asked about who MTV considers as competition, Swamy’s answer came as a surprise: “In my head, if you want to look at something that is real competition, it’s Facebook – because kids can go without MTV for a day, but if you tell them not to log onto Facebook, they have withdrawal symptoms. How do you make MTV indispensable, that’s the challenge.” He further explained, “For us, our benchmark of performance isn’t just ratings. There are two other important measures we want to look at – one is brand health, and the second is engagement beyond TV. Our brand makes just 50% of money from selling airtime; for most channels, that’s their bread and butter. So we do ground events, property sponsorships, digital activation, and have our consumer products business; if you think of MTV as a brand, we have 2.5 times the revenue the others make.”

On his future plans at MTV, Swamy replied, “We’ve launched our new brand philosophy less than 6 months ago, ‘Stay Raw’. Today young people want to be who they are – they like the rawness of YouTube, or of Indian Ocean as a band. We’ve made some headway, but from a content point of view, we have to make that our culture in everything that we do. From the brand side, we’ve got to make brand MTV so cool for young people that it goes from wearing a T-shirt to actually tattooing the MTV logo on their bodies. From a communication point of view, the brand shouldn’t be talking to the consumer; consumers should talk about it to each other. If all these come together, the revenue potential will go through the roof.”

The Lowdown

Age 37

Where do you live Napensea Road

How do you relax I’m into all kinds of music – whether it’s good folk rock coming from the 70s, like Grateful Dead and Steve Winwood, to a lot of house and electronic, and some popular hip-hop. I play a bit of golf on the weekends, and do yoga. And my wife runs a travel agency, so I get to travel a lot with her.

Favourite TV shows (apart from those on MTV) I watch a lot of Discovery and NGC, shows like ‘Jailed Abroad’, ‘Man versus Wild’, and ‘Mission Army’; I think docu-reality’s cool. I also watch a lot of VH1, and ‘MasterChef’ with my wife.

Gadgets Just the BlackBerry, an iPod isn’t a gadget anymore, it’s a given

Always in the fridge Lots of beer

Motto Don’t take life too seriously, keep things simple

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