Meet the Masters of Digital Video

By Shweta Mulki , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Digital | January 16, 2017
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Arunabh Kumar, founder of TVF won 'Person of the Year - New Media' and comedy collective All India Bakchod (AIB) won 'Person of The Year - Content Creator' at the vdonxt awards 2017.

The inaugural vdonxt asia 2017 convention, organised by afaqs! on January 12th and 13th, got off to a flying start with a full house. The two-day convention, India's largest event on the rapidly growing digital video space, was a power-packed gathering that brought together everyone who is a stakeholder in digital video.

The convention had conferences, master-classes, exhibitions - and the vdonxt asia awards. The latter aims to recognise the best work, and also identify and celebrate those who played a significant role in pushing the growth of digital video. The two 'people' awards were won by individuals who, most stakeholders in the digital video industry would agree, can be called trailblazers in this space.

Arunabh Kumar, Gursimran Khamba and Tanmay Bhat at the Vdonxt Asia Awards 2017

Arunabh Kumar, founder and chief 'experiment' officer of The Viral Fever bagged the award for the 'Person of the Year - New Media'. The category was open to people in the VOD/OTT space, web publishers and managers of creative talent.

All India Bakchod (or AIB - the four member comedy collective, founded by Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba) took home the 'Person of The Year - Content Creator.

Accord to the jury guidelines, the content creator of the year would be someone who had created really original, standout work and had succeeded in gaining a substantial fan following.

The jury consisted of Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer, Aditya Birla Group - Financial Services; Chandrasekar Radhakrishnan, head of communications and eCommerce, Nestlé India; Rahul Kansal, head strategy and marketing, Future Consumer; Satya Raghavan, head of entertainment, YouTube India; Siddharth Banerjee - Sr. VP marketing, Vodafone.

In this chat, they give afaqs! a peek into the year gone by and their immediate goals.

"We stopped being 'humour' two-and-a-half years back." Arunabh Kumar

vdonxt asia 2017 Person of the Year - New Media: Arunabh Kumar, founder, The Viral Fever

Arunabh Kumar

Content house The Viral Fever was in the news last year, among other things, due to the launch of its app TVF Play and a funding of $10 million (Rs 66 crore) from Tiger Global - reportedly, for a 25 per cent stake. Its Youtube channel today boasts of over two million subscribers.

Of TVF's milestones in 2016, Kumar says that while they had always been a content destination, 2016 is when they started the product and platform journey in full throttle. He says, "Permanent Roommates Season 2 formally launched on TVF Play in June 2016. Our platform had its naysayers, but we have millions coming in only to watch our content. That's been the big brand achievement for us as we wanted to be the go-to content platform from our first video itself. Initially, of course, there was merit going the Youtube way, so this was all sequential. The successful execution of the platform, working with different creators and studios, and more and more users coming to TVF has been great."

Arunabh Kumar at Vdonxt Asia Awards 2017

Any niggles? Kumar sounds a tad miffed when he says, "Just recently, someone called us the 'humour Youtube channel'. We stopped being 'humour' two-and-a-half years back. Our fans know this, our brands business knows this, but some people writing about us, don't." He points out that among individual Indian content creators, TVF's channel on Youtube is the biggest. "In 2016, we could have done better in the first half perhaps, but one can only do so much in such less time. In the same year we've gone from being a 30-people organisation to a 250-people organisation, so things have been moving fast."

As an entrepreneur, how does he work the whole process now with a bigger team? "I've always believed in the 'fundamental articulation of problem statements'. People don't define things properly. As long as you're able to do that for your team leads, it's good." he explains.

"In a single year, we've gone from being a 30-people organisation to a 250-people organisation." Arunabh Kumar

He pays due credit to his team members - be it his friends turned co-workers from IIT Kharagpur (Dhawal Gusain, COO) and Stanford (Karan Chaudhry, head of product) or Jikku his ops head. "They believe in our vision that every youngster with a connected screen should be watching content on TVF, and are having fun building the platform. No matter how big the army, if you have the right generals, one can manage. I never thought I'd build this big a team, but it has been an organic process," he adds.

His work formula

"We believe that writing and creativity are jobs involving a lot of process. We get into engineer and scientist mode easily, and that helps us to be measurable and quantifiable in this business of content. I don't believe in just two people being successful, I want to make a thousand people successful. In the last five years, our focus was to provide great content, now it is to give the country (and the world) a great product," declares Kumar.

He also wants to see a change in the ethics in the content business. "100-billion-dollar industries are not made by five people; they are made by a hundred thousand people. If you discourage the latter, it'll remain a one billion dollar industry," he adds, citing the Hindi film industry as an example.

While the webseries Pitchers and Permanent Roommates, were among the network's early success stories, its latest series Tripling hit the brand integration high note in its collaboration with Tata Motors. Kumar's early days as a 'one man production' house, gave him a front-row view to what brands wanted. "I worked with brands, who put content on their own channels, and I realised that they needed to put that on platforms which put out content regularly... only that gets you the views'. He adds, "We are innovating in brand content and ad units, which if proven will go beyond TVF. We have a good product team in California."

"Tripling can be viewed as a case study that brought out the clear impact of doing digital." Arunabh Kumar

Going forward

"We have been focused on work and haven't been able to share our story, or marketed ourselves. We need to push our people and the eco-system as a whole. Folks in Mumbai still come and ask us who we are. Everyone knows our work, but not the fact that we've worked with a 100 brands. Our templates can be used by creators, platforms and brands. Tripling can be viewed as a case study that brought out the clear impact of doing digital," asserts Kumar.

The past year has been eventful for Kumar. Has he ever sat back and enjoyed his success? "That's vision 2020 for me. I still have a lot of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) - that leads to stress but work channelises it. In the last 10 years in Mumbai I've gone out only 15 times," he laughs.

Kumar, whose first job in media was at Red Chillies Entertainment in January 2007, completes 10 years in media this month. Winning the award, he says, is an amazing feeling, and parts with this delicious bit of information, "I got my first internship through afaqs! after using afaqs! Resource to send a mail to Josy Paul." Ten years down, it's come full circle.

vdonxt asia 2017 Person of the Year - Content Creator: All India Bakchod (AIB)

Comedy collective AIB has seen a steady rise in popularity over a years quickly becoming a force to reckon with, in the online content creation space. When it comes to AIB's Youtube subscribers it is right there in the upper echelons with 1.94 million subscribers, not too far behind TVF.

Team All India Bakchod (AIB)

AIB co-founder Tanmay Bhat now asserts the need for more talent to expand the company beyond its four faces - Khamba, Ashish Shakya, Rohan Joshi and himself. In 2015, the team felt that the key issue at hand was how to scale quality content, wondering whether there was any point in raising funding, "when all we were going to do is throw money at this problem, which was mainly about finding smart people with great ideas - something you can't buy," says Bhat.

Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba at Vdonxt Asia Awards 2017

In view of that, he adds, "The AIB First Draft school is the one big leap we've taken this year. It's a model that can greatly benefit the company. We train kids for six months in writing, and they own the scripts they write. We also offer them the best-in-class contracts if we like their scripts and offer points in profit too. The focus is on screenwriting right now. Later, we shall add a 'writing and performing comedy' course too." AIB has plans of producing films too, he reveals.

AIB has 20 people, of which eight are screenwriters and comedy writers. "A lot of comedy writing is pure hard work and discipline. It's more about showing up at 11 am, and going at it," says Bhat.

"You can't buy smart people with great ideas." Tanmay Bhat

Content creation and the audience

Bhat is wary of the fact that everybody now thinks of creating content 'that works for the audience.' He cautions, "The whole digital boom happened because creators made stuff they enjoyed and found an audience. Now it's so data- and relatabilty-led that the same thing gets pushed over and over again. Why are we just following each other instead of creating new formats? It took an Arunabh Kumar to start a webseries before everyone else started making webseries," he points out.

"Everyone," says Bhat, "is busy raising money and looking at Facebook numbers. I feel that the day we start reverse engineering content is the day we are finished as a brand. Ninety per cent of the content produced in this space is not watched by anyone. A video that costs Rs 2 lakh to be made is seen by only 20,000 people. So is there a point to this? Which is why we write what we 'feel' like writing."

Bhat is also amused that most of the internet in India wants to cater to engineers. "There's a market outside of that," he jokes. Talking about the AIB process, Bhat has this to share: "A chart in the office talks about brand AIB with 15 types of audience responses on the lines of 'keep going'. What we write should generate those kinds of responses. We work on the lines of 'This is the reason why they like it, let's look for more such reasons'. Incidentally, the company has a position called 'insight miner' that has someone looking for insights and gauging audience pulse, as well as keeping an eye on current topics.

On online content being pigeon-holed as 'edgy' and 'angry', Bhat says, "We joke that we are angry annoyed kids in a room putting out content. But our best performing products hardly have any cuss words. Our last two videos barely had any - and this has been our most successful six months."

"The AIB First Draft school is the one big leap we've taken this year." Tanmay Bhat

Content vs controversy

"Our team knows that censoring and legal issues are Tanmay and Khamba's headache. We tell them to write freely (and fearlessly) and that we will take a call later. However, AIB is such a brand that we have 50,000 eyeballs waiting to pounce on our material. In India, the fact is that FIR or a legal case itself is punishment since we have to keep reporting etc. Media tends to paint us as controversy kings, which is bad for business. But we stick to writing what we feel because if we start thinking like that, who's left? Television is going to get only more regressive," reasons Bhat.

Business brings in the question of brands. What are the Dos and Don'ts they follow? "My request to brands is not to behave in a way where you become a story to narrate to people. Once, when we pitched a sketch about bromance, there were comments like 'we don't want to be associated with homosexuality'."

He points out that there are the good ones too. "Whenever a brand manager has let us be, the video's been very successful. Every time we pitch an idea we give five subsidiary ideas that help us gauge who is willing to risk," he adds. Bhat also warns that the audience can smell an integration from far, adding that going under is okay but going over is bad for brand, creator and audience.

What does each AIB creator bring to the table? "I'm lucky to work with such sharp minds. Khamba is extremely well-read and keeps pushing us to do better, Ashish is disciplined and always brings us back to focus, and Rohan is a trained journalist who comes into the room with 15 ideas every time and is great with visuals."

Shakya speaks of Bhat as a 'driving force, full of enthusiasm and great at the idea-to-execution jump'. Many of AIB's videos have been directed by Bhat, who is also a classically trained singer. Joshi and Bhat are in fact very hands-on, on the many song parodies that are an AIB staple.

"The digital boom happened because creators made stuff they enjoyed and found an audience." Tanmay Bhat

Advice to budding creators

Bhat speaks to a lot of creators, many of whom, he feels get swayed by 'I want to be on that list', 'Raise this much money', or 'Work with this brand'. "I just tell them to bother about the next video," he adds.

On winning the vdonxt asia 2017 Content Creator award, he says, "It means a lot to me as we finally have a fancy paperweight in office that keeps reminding my writers that they have to win it every year! But yes, it reaffirms our faith in what we do."

A Note From the Editor

This publication recently decided to revive an old section called 'Who's That', a section in which we used to profile the rising stars, on and off screen, in the advertising and media industry. A few days back, we made a list of people we could kick-start 'Who's That - 2.0' with, and I was amazed to see that eight out of the top ten names were from the online video business. Actors, script writers, content creators, platform heads... what have you. Evidently, the online video space is where all the action lies.

Over the past 14 months, we've published some memorable cover stories around professionals from this promising industry, including a detailed piece on All India Bakchod, and an in-depth interview with The Viral Fever's Arunabh Kumar. Also on the list is an interview with YouTube India's Satya Raghavan. In hindsight, the dots are easy to join, aren't they?

Few days back, AIB (comprising Gursimran Khamba, Tanmay Bhat, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya) and Arunabh Kumar - who started the webseries culture in India and has worked with over 100 brands since - swept the digital video awards at the first edition of vdonxt asia, a two-day convention on the business of online video. If one had any doubt whether an entire event dedicated to the online video business is worth it, their victory is all the validation one needs, isn't it?

In the days ahead, these masters of digital video are keen to change the ethics in the content business and make a conscious effort to market themselves differently. For Arunabh, it's important that people stop associating TVF with just comedy content, something they moved beyond well over two years back. For AIB, it's important to change the perception that their content cannot survive without the crutch of cuss words.

Here's a shared goal - both parties want their respective brands, AIB and TVF, to stand for more than the 'founding faces'. While that's very well, we're delighted to put these very faces on the cover this issue.


Event partners include: Adobe (Presented By), Viu (Powered By), Akamai (Technology Partner), Voot (Digital Partner), EY (Knowledge Partner), Unruly (Video Partner), Dropbox Business (Collaboration Partner), Web Talkies (Entertainment Partner), (New Age Digital Partner), Culture Machine (Content Partner), 24 Frames Digital (Streaming Partner), (Blogging Partner), NDTV Prime (TV Partner), Content Asia (International Media Partner), and Advertising Agencies Association of India and The Advertising Club (Community Partners).

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