What has changed since your elevation to senior vice president – ad sales, BBC Asia?
Nothing, it’s an ‘S’ before the VP. Jokes apart, while I’m still responsible for all advertising revenue from Asia across the region, the bit that has changed is that there is a lot more emphasis and focus on our strategy going forward and the growth plans in the region, and therefore, an involvement in being the voice for what could be the commercial opportunities and the value in terms of the ROI from advertising in new areas, particularly in digital. Whether that is new products that we are rolling out or new platforms or embellishing our existing products and reinventing or refreshing them, it’s those kinds of things I’m getting more involved in and that’s probably a bigger part of the role now rather than just straight forward representing the ad sales revenue for the region.
How is BBC’s India business doing?
We have evolved and grown. Across the board, we were known primarily for our news brand. It’s almost a symbiotic relation between BBC and news globally and particularly in markets where there’s a legacy and equity of the BBC brand, thanks to radio. So we’re known for news, and that is still a big part of what the BBC stands for because we are still the largest news gathering organisation in the world with more journalists on the ground, bigger presence in terms of bureaus, more stringers and a very high score on values of trust, integrity and impartiality.
But the bit that we have started to explore and therefore launched over the last five years in Asia and three in India, is the non-news brands. The kids brands, the factual entertainment brands, lifestyle brands and entertainment brands which we see in Asia with CBeebies, BBC HD, BBC Lifestyle, BBC Knowledge, BBC Entertainment.
We launched CBeebies about 3-4 years ago and we had launched BBC Entertainment, but we refreshed the brand eight months ago and it’s been phenomenal. In a very focused and strategic fashion, we created what is called a “BBC super channel” which is a mixed genre channel. The beauty of that is we are not short of content. We’ve got enough of content in our cupboard and enough that we produce through independent producers, whether that is in drama, comedy, documentary, reality formats, or high octane programming like Top Gear. We had all of that with us, and so, in a very strategic manner, we looked at what is the need gap in the market, what are people looking out for, what is there an over supply of and where is there a unique opportunity for the BBC in storytelling and in formats that have never seen before (though some may be known because of their versions on GECs like Dancing With The Stars, that is Jhalak Dikhla Ja on Sony). So we sold the format to Sony, but obviously Dancing With The Stars has a huge fan following and it’s a premier brand for us. We reinvented and refreshed the channel eight months ago and it’s been doing very well. From an ad sales point of view, we have over 85 brands on the channel since we refreshed, which if you look at our competitors, we are about four times the size of the brand count, and from a lot of other newbies that launched five months ago in the English entertainment or infotainment space. So it’s quite heartening to see that level of response from marketers.
But also I think it’s all about the timing. Like I said, it’s about need gap in the market because there’s an over supply of American reality formats and there’s only that many times you can watch reruns of Friends or Two And A Half Men. So things like Top Gear, Spooks, Hustle, Undercover Boss, Apprentice and some of our mini-series which are huge productions like Frozen Planet, Planet Earth, BBC Earth Productions from our natural history unit which haven’t been seen before have been well received and our audiences have followed because audiences follow great content.
How did the Royal Wedding celebration fare?
We were the host broadcasters in the UK and it was one of the big events. So we basically simulcast the live broadcast of the ceremony across three channels: BBC World News, BBC Entertainment and BBC Knowledge in Asia. We also had in the lead up lots of documentaries, and behind-the-scenes to which BBC had access. We shared the programming across channels and for the first time we had a destination.
The BBC.com site got the highest recorded traffic on that one day. We had 2 million hits in a couple of hours on our Royal Wedding special section. So it was massive, there’s nothing like a good fairytale wedding and it’s been a while since we’ve had one. I think there’s a preoccupation with all things British as well. The Live ceremony didn’t carry any advertising because of restrictions on it. For the repeat telecast on Sunday, we carried ads and online on bbc.com which worked well. We didn’t fill every ad break, but the lead up had clients who bought into sponsorship, so it worked well.
Are there any other events the BBC will be focusing on?
I would like to fashion another fairytale wedding. But the next big thing for us is the Olympics. While we are the host broadcasters in the UK, we are still working out what is it that we will be showing. There will be a lot of lead up programming because we have some of the best history of the Olympics in the BBC archives. So July 2012 is going to be an important milestone, but leading up to that there will be a lot of work. In terms of big global tentpole events that would attract audiences around the world, the scale of something like the Royal Wedding and Olympics are the kind of things we look for because we are not an event-based media company. We are all about content. That content is original content in storytelling. Not faces to camera or forums or conferences. We don’t do that, we leave it to the business channels to do that.
What is BBC’s strategy for advertisers in India?
The biggest and most exciting opportunity for us is the fact that we have evolved and grown from a linear television channel sales team to a truly multiple platform content solutions sales force. It’s a huge shift. We now have a triple play - TV, Online, Video. We have got platforms that go across the PC, Android, iPhone, iPad, connected TV, we are launching iPlayer in Australia soon that has ad opportunities as well. We have individual products like BBC.com, where we launched a travel section last year. It’s doing phenomenally well, we have over a million uniques for the travel section alone.
If I was to say how we have morphed into being fit for purpose in the market, there would be two fronts: one is that we’d like to be thought leaders and be ahead of the curve in terms of bringing to brands, marketers, and advertisers new ways of partnering to media companies, and two would be to deliver the promise of creativity because that’s what we are known for. So creative sales solutions, creative packaging and creative commercial opportunities, creative ways of structuring our business and creative product with content. So if there were two things that I would name as being the most important for us, they would be creativity and quality. These are the two things that are shaping our strategy.
What are the creative sales solutions?
There’s ad funded programming, sponsorships, producing commercial material for clients for digital and TV. There’s creating landing pages and WAP sites, producing interesting rich media banners, special ads for iPads. It’s being the creative partner for a marketer and wrapping around the sales opportunity with that. It’s challenging, yet interesting because it moves you away from a very standard commoditised trading model which India is known for, into being more of media partners and solution sales people.
Your session at Spikes was on branded content. Has it taken on in India?
The centre piece of the presentation was brand marketers should not interfere with content. They should be looking to augment content with engagement metrics and challenging the creative and media agencies as to how they can amplify the engagement. That’s using new platforms, new technology and ways of thinking about how do audiences engage and how can I keep my audience rather than tell a media owner what to produce in a programme, which is what brand managers love doing.
In the entertainment space in India, particularly in the Hindi GEC space, it’s gone too far off the spectrum with an over exposure of reality formats and within reality formats, obviously product placement. But that once again is playing with the content and I’m not sure if brands get longevity and staying power with that. There’s a lot of novelty factor but is that sustainable and is that going to improve your brand preference because of that? It’s not proven. So the traditional model of sponsorship still works and is very much the main stay and there’s still lots of money around that and we carry a lot of sponsorship on our entertainment channel. The appetite for risk and budget is probably there but it hasn’t taken off. The money, the market and the interest and the ambition are certainly there. But also the creativity with the content has to follow. You can’t regurgitate the same old formats, and you have to think of new and different ways.
(An edited version of this interview appeared in the print edition of Campaign India's Spikes Asia 2011 Report)