Anupama Sajeet
Jan 16, 2024

The agencies of the future will be those that understand creators and new forms of content: Roshan Abbas

Campaign India caught up with Kommune India founder, Roshan Abbas to find out what drives his initiatives, Voices of Tomorrow and SpokenFest, and how sometimes one needs to ignore business plans for a pet project

The agencies of the future will be those that understand creators and new forms of content: Roshan Abbas
Kommune India is scheduled to host SpokenFest 2024, its two-day event that brings together personalities from miscellaneous performing arts to showcase talents in an array of fields ranging from poetry and music to theatre and comedy, next month in Mumbai.
Scheduled for the 3rd and 4th of February, this year’s line-up of artists includes names such as Zakir Khan, Vishal Bhardwaj, Rekha Bhardwaj, Abish Mathew, Kanan Gill, Nikita Gill, Varun Grover, Niharika NM, Dot, and Dolly Singh, to name a few. 
“I remember in the first year, we had just three brands that supported us - HSBC, Asian Paints, and Vodafone (Vi), apart from a bunch of food and alco-bev boutique brands," recalled Roshan Abbas, the maverick founder of Kommune India in a candid conversation with Campaign India.
“When we started Kommune in 2015, we were looking for a simple format by which we could prove our hypothesis that people care for art”, said Abbas.
“It was to be more than just a platform for artists. We were very keen to tie up the amateur artists across India because they don't have collaborators or any commercial idea of how to fund their passion. And the most important part is that they may not have a consumer at the end that they have a connect with. It stemmed from seeing a lack of all that across all performing arts, whether it was music, theatre, poetry, or the spoken word," he continued.
Kommune was co-founded by Abbas along with actor and presenter Gaurav Kapur and singer-songwriter, and musician Ankur Tewari, in 2015 as a collective of creators looking for a platform.
Abbas also founded and led experiential marketing agency, Encompass in 1996 (now Geometry Encompass) as managing director. He was also an initial investor in and continues to be a mentor-partner at The Glitch. Both ventures have been acquired since by WPP.
Talking about the platform’s initial years, Abbas said, “It was early days for video on all social media platforms. We would get people together in a small room, shoot their stories, and put them up. We realised that in first-person storytelling, where there are no filters between people, the communication is so much more authentic. That’s something which perhaps people today realise a lot more.”
The collective soon developed a reputation for ‘authentic storytelling’ that young audiences resonated with and people found interesting, said Abbas. “And from that point, we were lucky that in about a year or two, we had an audience of nearly a lakh on our YouTube channel,” he added.
This was pre-Instagram days, but there was also Facebook which they were on and, Abbas, going by the corollary that about 10% of that is a ‘real interested audience’, estimated that meant they had an audience of at least 10,000 people that are real and decided to take the plunge and build an on-ground festival.
“So, we took the leap of faith in 2017 and organised our first festival. We were majorly supported by the artist community. And Gaurav and Ankur also came on board. I often joke that I invested a child's education into it, but eventually, it all came together because it was an education by itself,” recalled Abbas about the first SpokenFest event.
Cut to today, the fest has 20 city chapters, through which assorted activities are conducted and new ideas and thoughts are sourced. “Somewhere, I believe that we are becoming the ‘culture whisperers’ of this generation,” said Abbas.
Kommune also recently announced the launch of the second edition of its initiative ‘Voices of Tomorrow,’ in collaboration with Netflix India. The project aims to diversify the dubbing talent in the country by literally giving a voice to the often underrepresented cohorts from the LGBTQIA+ and the senior citizens' community. The ongoing initiative which will carry on till March 2024 in Mumbai has seen a collaboration with queer collectives, NGOs, artist organisations, and talent agencies to test the voices of around 500 individuals, shortlisting about 200 for in-person auditions towards this end.
Talking about how Netflix came into the picture, Abbas said, “The money needed to fund an organisation and to fund the festival, etc., has to come from brands that believe in us. That's how our Spoken Fest meetups started happening regularly in 20 cities, and over the past few years, Netflix became an early supporter.”
“They would either do panels with us or would get some of their key influencers to come and speak to the audience. There was already an understanding between Netflix and us, as we had an audience that was overlapping. And that's when we got to hear about this wonderful project last year, which today has become ‘Voices of Tomorrow’,” he disclosed.
Highlighting the problems with the voiceover space in India, Abbas said that most of it is localised (in Mumbai) and the opportunities for professional voiceover artists are very limited.
“There are two issues that arise because of this,” he shared. “One is, you don't get fresh voices and the second problem is you don't get trained voices. Most of the talent that dubs films, or OTT shows, are professional talents between the ages of 25 and 40 years. We didn't have representation of senior people above the age of 55, nor do we have LGBTQIA representation. What typically happens during voiceovers is that a 30-year-old does the part of a 55-year-old, or there will be someone who puts on the accent of somebody in the LGBTQIA community. Which is why we focused on these two right now.``
“And because we had a network of over 30,000 artists across India that we interact with, and over a million people that Kommune interacts with online, that tipped the scales a little in our favour,” said Abbas.
Underlining the role played by ‘trust’ in the platform’s vision, the media veteran shed light on its modus operandi. “There are two key components of what we do - one is the creators, the other is brands, and playing the mediator between both with trust on both sides happens very rarely. So where the vision has articulated well over these years is that we have been able to play this trustworthy platform for both parties - be it working in comedy, voices, or podcasting.”
About the agencies of the future, Abbas stated they will be boutique agencies that understand creators and new forms of content. 
“When podcasting came, everybody was sceptical. But we foresaw its potential and were able to get into it. Similarly, when it came to audiobooks, and now when we're working on Voices with Netflix- all of these are ways of playing a ‘new-age intermediary’ for brands,” he asserted.
The serial entrepreneur dismissed concerns of a creator collective platform such as Kommune losing relevance in today’s creator-led economy world which has witnessed a burgeoning number of content creators, and social media influencers with user-generated content collaborating with brands.
Alluding to how nobody trains a person on what's the best way to create and upload content or connect them with other people to create collaborations, Abbas stated that these are activities that need ‘trustworthy’ organisations around.
“And that's what we do. For a person sitting in a remote corner of Jharkhand or Odisha, or for somebody from the LGBTQIA community who wants to connect with like-minded people, where will they go? Are you training them to become a part of the creator economy? For there are very few people who can dive into the deep end of the pool and survive,” he explained.
He also emphasised the significance of ‘physical connect’ in the digital era. 
“Social media will always be one distance removed from life. So while I am a big believer in technology, I'm an equally big believer in the physical connection. We are social beings. Theatre cannot survive unless it is seen in person. You may enjoy a replay from there, but what is created live with people, has potent energy - something about it that is unique.”
And, with films increasingly being dubbed in at least 8-10 languages nowadays, Abbas sees the need for ‘quality dubbing voices’ only growing, adding that a similar model can be replicated anywhere across the country.
A multi-faceted personality who has worn several hats, including those of an actor, a TV and radio host, a producer, an event manager, a creative, film and theatre director, CEO, an angel investor, a serial entrepreneur, an author, and a public speaking coach during his career of over two decades, what’s the role that he identifies with the most, we asked Abbas.
"I enjoy being a creative person. I'm lucky that my creativity got me a vocation. From being a storyteller in the early days to today being the person who can be the medium for others to tell their stories,” he answered.
“In life, one reaches a stage wherein you are no longer the ‘railway engine’ - you become the ‘railway track’. Right now I'm that 'railway track', or 'crossroad' because I love connecting people and finding them opportunities. And Kommune is an articulation of the same,” he revealed, speaking metaphorically.
Abbas featured in Campaign India’s A-List in 2018, where he revealed his obsession with Steve Jobs’ work and life. So much so that he had even penned a half-finished play on the tech entrepreneur’s life, which he looks forward to directing one day, as he mentioned then.
We asked him when the project would come to fruition, to which he disclosed that his desire was to complete this dream project by August 2024, in time for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - one of the largest performance art festivals in the world- which happens every year in August.
“I want to manifest it by writing it because I want the play to open internationally if I can. I am working towards it,” he further shared.
This was a part of his ‘mad, crazy’ ideas which he meant to start working on when he turned 50 in 2020, and which ‘may not have a business plan behind them’, divulged the storyteller, adding that the plan got put off by a couple of years due to the pandemic.
“Like any creator, I have a film, a book and a play in my head. But at the moment, this play is an idea that really needs to be done, so I've taken it up. Because even though we may all have seen his (Steve Jobs) life on film, it will be so exciting to see it in theatre. That will be something else,” he signed off.
Campaign India

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