Sumita Vaid Dixit

As a newspaper, we want to see a glass half full rather than half empty,

Considering that he spent almost 22 years in advertising, in just over a year, Rahul Kansal has slipped into his new role of brand director, The Times Of India, with great aplomb. What attracted him to TOI, he admits, "was the challenge of being able to shape and influence the content policy of the biggest newspaper group in the country". In the past one year at the media house, Kansal and his team have affected many changes - the chief among which is turning TOI colour. In an animated interview to Sumita Vaid Dixit of agencyfaqs!, Kansal emphasises that just like in any other product or service, it is important to understand the consumer, keep pace with her evolving needs to make a newspaper a successful brand.

Edited Excerpts

How does it feel to be on the other side of the table, now that you have shifted from the advertising side to media?

It is quite different from what I had thought it would be when I decided to shift.

A marketing job tends to have a lot more coordination across all the divisions and structures of a large organisation. The managerial aspect of taking an initiative is different from the conceptualisation or ideation process in an advertising outfit. Both have their own set of challenges. While they may throw up frustrations from time to time, they are quite rewarding when you take the marketing initiative to its logical conclusion. In essence, here (in media) you ought to have a higher sense of ownership and the ability to see through a project to the very end. It is like your baby.

In advertising the professional aspects are dependent on the clients, who tend to play safe during difficult times. They do not necessarily buy the most correct recommendation. In advertising one is convincing people all the time. People, who, because of their insecurities, are not able to see the power of an idea, the power of a recommendation. One often feels a loss of control over the whole process. But in marketing there is a sense of control over the outcome. You are the decision maker in most cases and other members of the organisation carry it along.

You may have to influence some people, but by and large the end product is your own baby.

The advertising business has been under stress for some years now. This job must be a great relief...

In the last couple of years advertising has been going through relatively bad times. Which is why there are a lot of negative pressure - coping with declining margins, holding on to clients etc. However, the bulk of my advertising experience has been great.

Against that, the company I work for now is financially very strong and continues to progress dramatically year after year. So, most of the pressures that I work under are of a positive kind. In that sense, it is a more positively challenging environment.

What is the importance of branding in a service like generation and dissemination of information?

It varies from medium to medium. In the case of television, the programme is probably the channel's best brand. Kaun Banga Crorepati was the brand that actually got people hooked on to STAR Plus. And then the channel used the KBC opportunity to sample some of their other products (serials). Over a period of the time, those serials became brands in themselves.

But a TV channel is still dependent more on its sub-brands, than its mother brand. In the case of a newspaper, people buy into the mother brand. The primary choice may be shaped by the sub-brand, such as the Delhi Times, but people buy into the brand as a whole. The importance of brand, brand consciousness, brand salience, is bigger in the case of a newspaper than other media.

How is the marketing of the content of a newspaper different from marketing any other service or, say, an FMCG product?

Unlike a lot of FMCG products, which are not as eloquent in terms of packaging, marketing and so on, a newspaper is extremely eloquent.

Beyond a point, a shampoo is a shampoo, a cola is a cola. In the case of an FMCG product, the opportunities for genuine product differentiation - that the consumer can feel and see in the absence of any advertising - are limited. Unless the advertising points out aspects such as 'ZPTO' or 'more body to the hair', it is unlikely that the consumer would be able to make out those product nuances by herself.

In the case of a newspaper, the newspaper is its own best advertising - whether it is the design, its font, the product speaks for itself. The content is at the centre of everything you do, much more than it is in the case of an FMCG product.

Could you elaborate on your role as brand director, The Times Of India?

I look after The Times Of India brand nationally. Which implies two things. First, I look after promotions to shore up the brand's equity. The second and the most important role is to look after the design and content of the newspaper. We structure brand thinking and are closely involved with editors across the country, to shape the product and the image of the brand.

In effect, you are the bridge between marketing and editorial?

That is right.

That's tricky. Is one ever tempted to cross the line? Unknowingly perhaps?

A newspaper is a daily product. It would be foolhardy for someone in my position to even attempt to shape the product on a daily basis. What I try to do with my seniors is to actually give shape to the product in terms of the strategic direction - the vision for the product. Let me elaborate.

A newspaper is a reflection of the overall aspirations, concerns and desires of the society. A newspaper is a broad spectrum of the society on the move. A marketing person has to be able to read the society, see what is important at that point in time and help shape a newspaper in that way.

To what extent can marketing 'shape' an editorial-driven product?

In the nineties, post liberalisation, India went through a heady time, imbued with the spirit of unbridled optimism. It threw up a generation tired of the complaining of their fathers (which represented the seventies generation); this generation is eager to get on with life. More importantly, here is a generation that wants to see India for its opportunities rather than its constraints.

Readers earlier wanted to know more about politics and crime - generally negative news that typified the newspapers of that time. Now their interests have broadened to areas like entertainment, leisure, travel, relationships etc. The Times Of India was the earliest to incorporate this change, widen content and smarten up packaging and address this need of the new consumer.

In the last two/three years, the dotcom bust, the slowdown of IT and many other industries have led to some grey clouds on the horizon. People are less forgiving of the constraints that abound in daily life. You would notice that The Times Of India addresses the concerns of daily urban living to a greater extent. Concerns like traffic, water, education etc. These are the ways we have fine-tuned the product to better reflect the changing moods, concerns, and aspirations of the society.

In this last one year, what has been your specific contribution to making TOI, as you say, a better product?

I have helped give shape to some of the thinking I just shared with you. I have helped in defining a tighter brief for all our relations to improve the coverage of the metro sections of the newspaper, to take up, in an activist sense, some of the concerns that urban residents face in their daily lives.

Coming specifically to Delhi, the one important market where we are locked in a competitive fight with the Hindustan Times, we have launched a whole slew of initiatives in the last one year to shore up our market standing and take it to a position of clear leadership. An example: TOI going colour.

But the whole process of going colour seemed so frivolous - the hype, the new paintings on the TOI building...

When you concentrate too much on the form as opposed to content, the natural thought in people's mind is that form comes at the expense of content. But we ensured that does not happen. As we went colour, we shored up the content as well.

TOI, no doubt, is a superb example of a fiercely promoted brand. What are the rules you have broken in newspaper marketing?

The Times of India has been a paper that has astutely understood the consumer and how his worldview has evolved. It is a brand that seeks to empower the individual to realise his dreams. We have spent more time and effort both in formal research and internally trying to grapple with this thought, perhaps more, I daresay, than others brands. We were the ones to reinvent newspaper in India. When the whole media scene changed with the influx of colour TV and cable, and the subsequent emergence of the Internet, it was imperative the consumer would evolve. The Times Of India catered to the new age consumer. We did so by changing our writing style, through the manner in which we condensed our reports, through the changes in the coverage of the content itself. The reader is the king. Our readers determine the content.

You just said, TOI reinvented newspapers in India. Please elaborate.

Traditionally, newspapers have been obsessed with matters of the state, and what happens in the corridors of power. We realised that the concerns of a civic society are more important to readers than those of the government. As the economy improves, societies become less and less dependent on the 'sarkar', the 'maibap', and The Times Of India was the first to realise that and we changed the content accordingly.

For too long, newspapers have been the harbingers of bad news, the purveyor of death, decay and destruction. As a newspaper we want to see a glass half full rather than half empty. We want to write about a problem in Delhi city from the solution approach. That is the brand philosophy we are implementing. For example, if there is story on carnage or disaster we try to give it a perspective. When SARS was being played up, we worked as a steadying force, telling our readers that it is not that bad after all.

The whole idea of making the newspaper colourful is part of this belief system. All this comes from a well thought out, cogent brand belief system that has all been codified and shared with our readers.

They say TOI has changed the way newspapers are marketed in India. Comment.

When it comes to business strategies, The Times Of India pioneered changes in almost all the aspects. One huge area where TOI affected a change was pricing. TOI had the clarity to see that circulation revenue comes in conflict with advertising revenue. And rather than blindly chase both streams of revenue, TOI was quite willing to sacrifice one for the sake of the other. If you look back, in absolute terms, the newspaper circulation prices have decreased. That is to say that a newspaper used to cost Rs 2 or more 12 years ago. Today the cost is as little as Rs 1 or Rs 1.50 in some markets.

In the process, we have been able to grow and bring our English newspapers to a larger number of people. This phenomenon also coincided with the increasing desire of the middle-class families to have their children educated in English. We have been able to ride on that trend very well and consequently, the circulation of The Times Of India has grown very well.

It required clarity and willingness to jettison a very important revenue stream for the sake of optimising the other.

But don't you think newspaper economics have gone terribly haywire because of this approach? In their bid to fight on price, many newspapers will find it difficult to sustain the business in the long run.

No. You are wrong in assuming that the economics of newspapers in India have grown haywire. There are many businesses that consciously go free to air. The television business is not considered heretical at all!

You are saying this is a sustainable business model, right?

Certainly. Increasingly, this business model is being explored in foreign countries as well. For some established brands, the dependence on circulation revenue is so high that it is a difficult call for existing brands to explore the other revenue model. Because, in a position where their profits are already under squeeze, they find it difficult to further reduce their circulation prices.

But new brands have been experimenting. Some new brands have been launched that are free. For example, there is a very successful new newspaper brand called 20 Minutes in France and Europe, which is free. The brand is so successful, that today many newspaper houses are exploring its business model.

(For the record, 20 Minutes, is jointly owned by the Norwegian media group Schibsted, the French group Spir Communication and its main shareholder Sofiouest)

A major fear among readers is that this over-dependence on advertising revenue leads to a situation where the media house becomes susceptible to advertiser pressure, thus compromising the sanctity of editorial/content at some point...

Not at all. Our model is to build the brand through affordable pricing, which seeks to build a huge relationship with the consumers that advertisers thereafter can utilise for their response. So the first part of the equation is to build a product that the reader would like. This model is critically dependent on the consumer rather than on the advertiser. The only reason advertising comes to you, is because you deliver a product that people read, like and spend time on.

The reader today is not a fool, he is far more discerning. People are in any case cynical of over communication or hard sell. We would be extremely foolish to go for short-term gains; any respectable media house would be foolish to do so. Any collusion with advertisers leads to a loss of long-term credibility.

But how do the never-ending price wars benefit the reader? When the monthly bill remains the same with each player trying to undercut the other, what is the point in waging a price war?

The logic is to enable trial. Even if the consumer does not buy the product through the week, at least he gets to sample the product in the weekends, for example. After a while, the consumer starts subscribing round the week. It is a marketing innovation. It is basically done to sample the product.

TOI and HT have locked horns on the readership issue. What do you think about the NRS versus IRS debate?

The last NRS is a bit dated. Also, the fundamental difference between the IRS and the NRS is that the last NRS used the 1991 census as its sampling universe. The IRS, by virtue of its recency, was able to use the 2000 census as its sampling universe.

Why is the sampling universe so important? The growth between 1991 and 2000 has come a lot more from the newer areas of Delhi. The Times Of India, as a growing newspaper, has a larger share of the growing areas in Delhi - Noida, Vasant Kunj, and Gurgaon. That is because people settling in the newer parts in Delhi have taken to a growing brand better than an entrenched brand.

As a result, the survey that was based on the 1991 understanding of what the Delhi residents were like, under-represented the newer areas of Delhi and therefore under-represented The Times Of India share.

The IRS is a fair representation because it is based on a more recent censes. It gives a fair representation of all of Delhi. Hopefully, the next NRS would make this out to be true because it will be based on a new sample base.

Why is TOI circulation 'under consideration' at the ABC?

We declined to participate in the ABC because we felt it was an unfair playing field. I will not get into the details.

Despite all its efforts, TOI's biggest market remains Mumbai. When do you think other markets will start contributing significantly to the TOI topline?

The Delhi market has already become large. According to our latest estimates, the total newspaper advertising consumed in Delhi, that is, the total advertising beamed at the Delhi market, has already overtaken the Mumbai market in absolute terms. Bangalore, that was a nothing for us till recently, is making handsome profits today. We are also the leaders in Lucknow. In Ahmedabad, we are as strong as we are in Mumbai. We launched the Pune edition three years ago; today it is one of the largest selling and most widely read newspapers there. We are No 2 in Kolkata.