"Heavily branded advertorials, straight-to-product content is not interesting for users": Malini Agarwal

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Digital | March 09, 2018
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From online publishing to online video, MissMalini Entertainment, credited with scaling influencer marketing and native advertising, has come a long way. The firm was in the news recently when founder Malini Agarwal launched her book '#ToTheMoon - How I Blogged My Way To Bollywood'. This week, she was on Forbes' list of '2018 W-Power Trailblazers'.

MissMalini Entertainment (formerly MissMalini Publishing), that began with online publishing, is a popular stop for brands looking to leverage digital video content; the platform publishes about 900 pieces of content, in the cinema, fashion and pop culture space, a month.

L-R: Mike, Malini, Nowshad L-R: Mike, Malini, Nowshad

Malini Agarwal Malini Agarwal

We spoke to Malini Agarwal, founder and creative director, Mike Melli, chief revenue officer, and Nowshad Rizwanullah, chief executive officer, of MissMalini Entertainment, about how their tryst with brands began, evolved, and where it's headed. The firm has over 50 employees.

MissMalini.com was born in 2008 as a lifestyle, fashion and Bollywood blog. By 2009-10, barter deals began coming Malini's way; the very first one, was a video camera brand. Brands like Maybelline, Red Bull, Blackberry and Levi's followed.

Soon, the team began to monetise the content not just in kind, but in cash. It was around the time barters were giving way to paid insertions and advertorials, especially for native content of the 'How to use it?' rather than the 'Buy this product!' kind. "We didn't put up banners and say 'Buy this'. Instead of saying 'Here are three lipsticks' we went with 'How to decide what lipstick suits your skin?'. That becomes useful and the brand is embedded. We tried to make the content relatable. That's why brands started working with us," says Malini, recalling that the first segment the team started getting business from was beauty.

Native advertising is a format she's credited with helping scale. The team's 'Home Invasion' video series, in which celebs (Swara Bhaskar, Aditi Rao Hydari, Shibani Dandekar) take the anchor through their home decor, is a recent example; incidentally, it's Pepperfry's first investment in a 'digital-only content campaign' with influencers. Here, MissMalini Entertainment played the role of a digital agency. "Heavily-branded advertorials and straight-to-product content is just not interesting for users," says Malini.

Cover shot of Malini's recently launched book about her career Cover shot of Malini's recently launched book about her career

"The way they (brands) found us is through barters," she explains, talking about the start of her journey with 'ad sales' as it were, "At the time, brands were slowly starting to understand the value of influencer marketing." Of course, it was yet to be jargonised.

"Brands were starting to see value in the phenomenon of this smaller, more niche kind of person, with an audience that seemed demographically right for them - an audience that was being engaged with regularly," she explains, "So, many brands that had a good experience with us for 'barter content' came back for more." And this was around the time Mike came on board, in 2009; it was when the business was formally incorporated and a monetisation strategy was put in place. "Mike helped shape my strategy for incoming interest from brands. He identified that Maybelline (or was it L'Oréal?) would be a good fit for a larger scale project, in terms of more than just one blog, and gave me a recommendation for what we should charge them... and that's how it started, really..." Malini narrates. At present, the ratio of the platform's editorial to paid content is 95:5.

Website Traffic and Social Media Reach

How has the client's demand changed since? In what way has the conversation - read: haggling - evolved? "The biggest difference is just at the macro level. In 2011, digital spends were probably one or two per cent of the total marketing budget; now it's 15 per cent and growing. So just from a slice-of-the-pie perspective, there's been a change," offers Mike.

While the back-and-forth with clients was and remains a part of the job, advertisers, he says, are becoming more "sophisticated", in that they're willing to give up more creative control than they did previously. There's a general move towards trusting the content creators a little bit more. The power started shifting from brands to creators around 2013-14, according to him.

"That's been a slow and painful evolution. More and more brands are realising that you need the creator to really feel passionately about the content. Internet users and millenials are savvy enough to know when something is forced, when a brand name is plugged too often or when an influencer talks about something that they don't seem to really use or care about..." Mike says.

Did the team learn that the hard way? No, they claim. Malini recalls writing about a Pakistani kajal brand back then. Soon after, someone sent her a report about lead in the product. Malini then wrote a piece about it, to update her readers about the development. Consumers process the same message differently, depending on where they get it - in an ad or through in influencer.

"Because it's coming from an individual, people take it much more personally, as opposed to seeing an ad in a magazine, trying the product out and thinking it's not great. If a person stands up and says 'I like this, try it', then one feels a lot more betrayed if isn't a good quality product. So we were very careful from day one," she explains. In the early years, in fact, the team turned down about 90 per cent of the campaigns from advertisers, only because they didn't seem authentic.

Nowshad says, "We've never been a site or content creator where someone can just give us an article or video and pay us to put up... Also, buying back-links and intrusive pop-up ads were all things that fuelled digital in the early days but we saw them as dying trends and stayed away..." Consequently, in the world of ad networks, team MissMalini is known as a difficult one to work.

The team also stays away from fairness-related products. Says Nowshad, "FMCG is the biggest spender online and within their budgets, whitening products form the biggest sub-category. So to take that stand early on and stick to it is not easy..." In fact, the decision has impacted potential revenue from other brands owned by these parent companies.

Speaking of categories that associate with their content, while FMCG has been a consistent advertiser, entertainment/OTT has been a segment that has increased spends over the last year; a 'surprise segment' has been real estate, and among categories yet to take the leap are banking, insurance and airlines. "Within marketing teams, we see a lot of younger, fresher blood coming in," says Mike, attributing the shift within segments like luxury, from print to online advertising, over the last 12-24 months, to this.

In the early years, the team worked mostly with middlemen - "the media buyer layer" - then with the PR leg of marketing companies, which, over time, gave way to more direct sales relationships with brand marketers. "Now, we rarely do anything strategic with a big brand if it's just through the agency. We make sure we're directly in touch with the brand. That is sometimes a friction point with the agencies," admits Mike, especially when it comes to television programming content, the sponsorship slots for which media buying agencies almost always have full control over.

"But we try and play nice; we're not territorial," he smiles, explaining how it began: Few years back, their clients started asking them why they're doing nothing on TV. So team MissMalini began creating TV shows and started taking AFP-like slots from the channel and selling them to advertisers directly. When the brands told their agency buyers about it... enter friction. TV channels MissMalini has worked with so far include TLC ('MissMalini's World', 2014) and Vh1 ('Inside Access with MissMalini', Season 2 is underway).

"Brands have started realising that content creators know much more about digital than the agencies tasked with finding them digital opportunities," says Nowshad. The team regularly participates in brands' 'Content Days' (Vodafone, Hindustan Unilever) to keep a direct line with marketing teams open and running.

About the brand marketer's biggest grouse, Malini says, "Brands still don't understand the metrics and analytics of content - of how to decide whether content is successful or not... we struggle with this ROI term that's been sitting on everyone's heads..." Also, one of the push-backs the team still faces with brands is "... they don't want us to reveal that it's a commercial, that is, paid thing, but we've always erred on the side of caution..."

Over the past 12 months a new area the team has forayed into is TV commercials. A creative and execution team is being put in place, as a sister concern of MissMalini. "We produce scripts written by other agencies, like an executing partner. We also pitch our own scripts," says Mike, clarifying nevertheless, "But we're content creators above all else. And most of our business is in digital videos." Clients include names like Imagica, Saavn, India Gate Foods and UrbanClap.

Presently, the team is beta testing an affiliate-led e-commerce business.

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