Arunabh Das Sharma joined Bennett, Coleman and Co. (BCCL) in 2011 as executive president and advisor – strategic initiatives. A year later, he was appointed as the president, and inducted in the BCCL board. Responsible for the front end of the business (revenue and related functions), Sharma handles a team of over 2,000 people. The professional, who was in the US when he was approached by a global headhunter to join BCCL, has worked with Coca-Cola, GSK, Goodyear and Whirlpool, besides being part of a start–up Intercept Technologies, which dealt with data analytics and media analytics space. To what brought him into a media publishing company?
“I was always interested in media, and I was a big buyer of media as the global head for Whirlpool. I was not a stranger to media but obviously being an insider is completely different than looking at the same thing from outside. I have always believed that media is a business like any other business,” explains Sharma.
The big shift
When Sharma joined BCCL, he noticed a few trends that were emerging in the market and tried to ‘better suit the organisation to those trends’. He highlights that in 2011, a lot of business was coming from outside the traditional commercial centres, with a lot of growth in non-metros, tier II and III towns. The second trend was that media buying was getting more consolidated while selling remained quite fragmented. The third trend was that in most cases, technology was becoming more ‘need to have’, and no longer ‘nice to have’.
“Technology has always been thought of as productivity tool but what if you were to move from (it) being just a productivity tool to being part of your core business? These are some of the insights that I brought to the business based on my learnings from the outside and we tried to integrate those on our ongoing processes,” Sharma notes, as he sits in his first floor office at Times House, Delhi.
On his current mandate, he elaborates, “In any media company, there are two fundamental parts of the business. I call it the smiling curve of media. If you think of a smiling face – on one end is content creation, and other axis is content monetisation. Everything else comes part of the smile. However, it’s really those two that we have to manage. If we do not create great content, we will never be able to monetise it. And on the other side if we don’t keep monetising it, we will never be able to invest back and create great content.”
The mandate, thus, is to make sure that the entire value chain from creation to monetisation works effectively and efficiently. His task was to create an organisation that moved faster, was easily adaptable, and very metric-driven.
“BCCL has always been a leader. You do not become a leader if you don’t have strong systems, processes, people. However, given that we are a part of the media industry, the industry changes very rapidly. Therefore, you might have a strong, successful model but the industry outside has changed, and therefore, you need to adapt. I have always believed that what gets measured, gets done. We tried to make it a lot more of a metric-driven organisation, more transparent, more client-focused. We tried to use technology not just as a productivity tool, but tried to integrate it in everything that we do. This was a big shift we made,” explains the BCCL president.
And he is positive about the changes that have been initiated. Being a privately-held company with numbers not available for public consumption, we can only believe him when he says, “We are by far the leaders, but we have consolidated our lead.”
The professional code
Call it his professional mantra or code, Sharma says that the path to success lies in creating gaps between the leader and the competition. “If you are the leader, you have to increase the gap, and decrease it if you are not,” he notes. Moreover, while everybody talks about strategy, execution etc., he believes in what he calls ‘stratact’ – strategy and action. They need to go hand-in-hand, he underlines. Admittedly a great believer in measurement, Sharma says that much more of the current IRS data conundrum is being talked about ‘than reality or necessity’.
Highlighting how print and TV deliver different value to advertisers, he elaborates, “In one newspaper, you will not find multiple ads by the same brand with the same creative while a single ad break on TV will have multiple. TV has intrusive advertising while print is inclusive. Thus, the engagement that a print ad will bring is always better. Most screen consumption is multi-tasking consumption, while newspaper is not. A newspaper brings immersive cognitive time. Thus, they are sold differently and the business models are different. All your (TV) measurements predict the future based on the past, which is a terrible idea. To me, there are flaws on both sides. Agencies know this, and they continue to transact nicely. In the end, they and we work for the same client.”
Revenues and growth
MRUC pegged the readership of The Times of India at 75.9 lakh in 2014 – a number, and data – that many newspaper publishers including BCCL refutes. Titles from the over 175 year-old group include The Times of India, The Economic Times, Mumbai Mirror, Maharashtra Times, Navbharat Times and Ei Samay. In 2006, BCCL acquired Vijayanand Printers, thus acquiring Kannada newspapers Vijay Karnataka and Usha Kirana and the English daily Vijay Times. The move was equated with it developing a stronger regional presence.
About more acquisitions, Sharma says that it depends on what is available and the right cost. “If something comes up, the time is right and the price is right, we will look at it. If something doesn’t come up, and we feel the time is right to go into the market, we will go ourselves. We went to Lucknow when there were four players already. Same with Kolkata because we felt the time was right. There is no set piece that that we follow,” he reasons.
On being asked about the revenues and expansion of local editions, Sharma says, “Revenues are growing very well for all of our editions. We do very strong business cases before we launch editions. We track those business cases very clearly, which lists out what the size of the market is, what you expect from the market, how much share will you get in each year, and then we work backwards to ascertain if we should launch. We are planning a couple of editions this year. We have had significant expansion over the last three years, and we will continue with some expansion this year as well.”
Sharma, however, is concerned about the challenges that the print industry faces currently.
“About 10 years ago, newspaper industry was 60 to 65 per cent of the total media industry. Today, it is about 40 to 42 per cent. As newer media gathers steam, there will always be a play around share. The second big challenge is that the overall advertising pie in India, at least over the last three or four years, has not really grown. Ultimately, it boils down to battle of share across media and within the media across brands, and that actually helps nobody. The bigger challenge is to be able to grow the advertising pie itself. At the long-term secular level we need to make sure that the market is growing,” he says.
“We have continued to do what we can. If the industry as a whole says this, the overall industry will do better,” he surmises, as he rushes to another meeting.
(This appeared in the 1 May issue of Campaign India)