Disruption: Creating Opportunities in the New Era

By Sudhanshu Vats , afaqs! | In Media Publishing | March 26, 2015
Sudhanshu Vats, group CEO, Viacom18 delivers a keynote at CASBAA.

Around three years ago, I was offered the opportunity to lead Viacom18. In fact, I can still recall that phone call. I was travelling on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road in Delhi. At that point, my gut told me the key 'basis' on which I had to make a choice. I could continue with my existing role, or leave the industry that I was so familiar with - disrupt my professional life and take on a leadership role in a sector that I had only worked with but never worked within. I must confess: it was a dilemma that wasn't easy to settle.

Sudhanshu Vats

After spending over 20 years at Unilever, one thing was clear in my mind: before me was an opportunity to lead a mid-sized company with a strong portfolio of brands and an extremely talented team. More importantly, the sector - our sector - a 'sunrise sector' seemed like it could satiate my need for a fast-paced, dynamic environment. There was so much happening: digitisation had kicked off, digitalisation was inevitable and the ecosystem was evolving rapidly.

Just to be doubly sure, I caught up with an old friend, a media veteran, if you will, to ask him about the sector. He referred to his leadership stint in the mid-1990s as an impactful and challenging one. The complexity of the P&L, the lack of a set 'winning formula' and the breakneck speed at which opportunities present themselves gave him an adrenaline rush. He spoke fondly of an era when TV had challenged print: "The Indian Newspaper Society was planning to launch a campaign that educated advertisers about the benefits print had over TV. It was exhilarating to be part of a sunrise sector". Clearly, he was in favour of me accepting the role. The Viacom18 opportunity had ticked all the right boxes in my mind.

As is obvious, I took the offer.

I'd like to juxtapose this with a recent experience of mine. As part of a regular practice at Viacom18, I interacted with a young trainee who had recently joined the organisation. After the initial introduction, I asked him, "Why did you think of a career in the M&E sector?" He looked at me as if I had just questioned him about something so obvious that it didn't even warrant a reply. He blurted out, "Have you seen how cool the Supersonic posts are on Instagram? I'd love to be part of such a team. There's so much happening, so much to do and I can be myself- express myself." Then, he looked at me as if I wasn't satisfied with his non-MBAish answer and blurted out, "Oh and it's a sunrise sector."

I, sometimes, ponder over all three of these perspectives. My senior colleague loved the battle against print, I was awed by the opportunity to build lasting brands and my younger colleague grabbed the chance to just 'be himself'. While these may sound like different motivations, in my mind, the underlying theme is the same. The dynamism and freedom is clearly a factor that has drawn all of us to this world. Interestingly though, it's the second similarity - the obvious one - that makes me think the most:

'We were a sunrise sector then, we are a sunrise sector now and the sun will continue to rise on our sector in the future.'

While some view this as a handicap for our sector (when will it gain scale and stability?), I think of this as its most unique strength. Each time we are about to attain the status of a mature industry, some disruption - led by the consumer, originating from outside our ecosystem or driven by the government - sends us back to the starting line. The goal post keeps shifting. Think about it: at a very fundamental level this is exactly why we love doing what we do.

Now that we've set the premise for our conversation, I'd like to draw your attention to the key trends that are likely to impact our sector over the next 10 years. You will appreciate the complexity of this task, given what we've just spoken about. Also, to make this a little more worthwhile for you, I took the liberty of consciously avoiding trends that you have probably heard at other, similar gatherings. This means that you will not be listening to:

1. How audience measurement in this country is being redefined across platforms, because I'd rather view it as a natural progression for the industry, evolution if you will.

2. How Big Data is going to swamp you, because, frankly, it's not a threat, it's an opportunity that we need to leverage.

3. How the growing trend of individualism in India is opening up new consumer segments, because pretty much every consumer company in this country is betting on the same theme.

4. How programmatic buying is about to revolutionise the Indian TV industry, because it's still sometime away.

5. How our industry is going to reach XYZ billion dollars by ABC year, because, frankly, I don't know; and, given how quickly we are morphing - I don't think anyone does!

This brings us to the five key macro-trends that I believe will truly redefine our operating landscape and future growth potential in the coming decade.

1. Cross-industry collaboration is the future.

a. When taxi aggregators can tie-up with music streaming apps and OTT players are tying up with the Indian Railways to offer consumers a customised, seamless experience, I see no reason why we should remain ensconced in our silos. We need to transition towards a more mature, collaborative mindset and partner with those operating outside our sector.

2. Respect for data privacy in the digital age.

a. We often tend to ask how we, as businesses, can harness the power of data to improve our operations. Instead, we must ask ourselves how we can make this process more responsible. We cannot afford to lose the trust of our consumers. We must also assess the quantum of risk involved - individual risk, corporate risk and geo-political risk even. If need be, we can even think along the lines of how data security or privacy can be a value-added service. When handset manufacturers like Blackphone can build a business model around encryption, I see no reason why we can't think of secure, private entertainment experiences as a viable revenue stream.

3. New talent management practices for a new era.

a. The barriers to 'starting-up' are fast disappearing. It's extremely easy for talented employees to start out on their own. It's also easy for them to quickly get bored with their work. The security of a long-term career is not as enticing as it used to be when many of us started out. The construct of the 21st century media organisation must be flexible enough to allow its employees to take up freelance stints, pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, take up board positions in startup ventures and still operate freely within that very construct. This is challenging, but critical, particularly if we want to the best minds to work with us.

4. The Internet of Things will let you Advertise on Things.

a. With advancements in RFID and NFC (Near Field Communication) technology, the day isn't far when, before being inserted in the keyhole, the key will tell you if it's the right one or not. You must have heard the oft-quoted example of a refrigerator telling you that you're low on your milk and ice-cream. Now, imagine if that notification was sponsored by Amul and powered by Kwality Walls. For those of you who talk of second screens, imagine a few gazillion of them.

5. Rethinking IP regulation.

a. As ecosystems evolve in our industry, we need to rethink how IP will be created, protected and monetised. Ecosystems can only thrive when rights are defined clearly and fairly. Each stakeholder of the ecosystem must have his incentives aligned with those for the ecosystem. Look at how operating systems and large social media organisations are placing themselves at the centre of thriving ecosystems. A large part of our products will be co-created with others. Often, the consumers of these very products will have some role in creating them. The IP regime should not restrict this creativity or constrain this collaboration. It must be cognizant of the advances in technology (P2P streaming services and the like), open collaboration and convergence.

I've spoken enough about the changes that we are likely to witness in the coming years. Nevertheless, there are some rules of the game that won't change. We've come a long way already and, clearly, we've been doing something right. Don't worry, you needn't fear a lengthy prescription of do's and don'ts from my side.

The only thing that has kept us growing, kept us thriving is the process of continuous disruption. We must be eager to disrupt and be disrupted. Disruption should find its way into our stories, into our products, into our organisations and into our business models. Disruption is our best friend. The day we think we have become 'disruption-proof' is the day that the sun will finally set on our sector.

The world's first solar powered plane flies somewhere between Nanjing and Hawaii as you read this piece; this country's largest lender was able to sell 100 crores of distressed properties in a direct-to-consumer online auction and our Central Government has just launched version 2.0 of its crowdsourcing platform ''. That's the aviation, banking and government sectors for you.

Now, I ask you, what will you disrupt and when?