Anirban Roy ChoudhuryPublished: 30 Jun 2016, 12:00 AM
Interviews

"I am ready to pump in whatever it takes to be successful": Raghav Bahl

The word 'start-up' brings 20-somethings to mind. And Raghav Bahl, 55, violates the assumption. Following the Rs. 4,000 crore-worth takeover of Network18 - a television empire he established in 1993 - by Reliance a couple of years back, Raghav's path may well have taken him to mentor-cum-venture capitalist-ville. But he, and Ritu Kapur, his wife and present day business partner, were unable to simply walk into the sunset.

"It's not in our DNA to sit back relax and stare into the blue; we like the 18 hour rigour," says Ritu, founder and CEO, The Quint. It was this very restlessness that led to the launch Quintillion Media, a digital-first media venture.

"I am ready to pump in whatever it takes to be successful": Raghav Bahl
Quintillion Media started with two offerings - a consumer facing online news publication The Quint.com and a tech-assistance company Quintype, which provides data-driven publishing solutions to media publishers and content marketers. No stranger to the woes of a media entrepreneur, Raghav, founder, Quintillion, admits that his second innings is a desperation-free, "well capitalised" one.

Recently, the duo took the path that completes the proverbial full circle and forayed into television yet again. Quintillion Media has tied up with Germany-headquartered kids content broadcaster Da Vinci Media. The clincher, of course, is the firm's tie up with global business news broadcaster Bloomberg - Quintillion has 76 per cent share in the JV.

On the cards is a business news website BloombergQuint.com and a business news TV channel Bloomberg Quint, which will be distributed in SD and HD, and will compete with the likes of ET Now, CNBC TV18 and NDTV Profit-NDTV Prime. The Bloomberg-Quint JV is a ten year-deal; the firm will also foray into the realm of events.

Senior Network18 hands Anil Uniyal, Menaka Doshi and most recently Sanjay Pugalia have joined Raghav in his new venture.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

How did you arrive at the idea of The Quint?

Raghav: After exiting from Network 18, we evaluated our options. We still had some fire left in us and we still love being in the media business... also, there was a point to prove to the world - that if we did not have the constraints we did when starting Network 18, we would have done a far better job. All this, combined with the excitement of creating something all over again, was my reason for jumping right back in.

Did you consider doing something other than media?

Raghav: No! Both of us were very clear that media is what we love and understand. Not once did we think of doing something outside of media.

After openly trashing the TV business, you're now going back to the medium. What made you go back to TV?

Raghav: We will be in the TV and digital space, both. And I honestly believe that the debate between TV and digital is completely misplaced. Both are the mediums of the future. It's the consumption mode which will differ.

Our TV channel and website are two facets of the same program. In fact, content will be created for the digital screen first and will then go on television. This evolution is happening all over the world and we see absolutely zero conflict in it. Any significant digital player will have to have significant television/video presence.

In launching Quint, has your appreciation of the media business changed in some fundamental way? How is your expectation from your journalists different from what it was on TV?

Raghav: No, not at all. The principles of journalism, content creation and communication stay the same. We are seeing a transition in the way content is getting distributed and consumed. The form, substance and method of communication have all changed, but the principles and ethics are the same.

How different is the experience of launching a TV business news channel today as compared to your CNBC launch days?

Raghav: Entirely different. When we launched our business news channel then, nobody understood business news; we created that category in India. The ability to make graphics, write shorter paragraphs and then voice them, to cut and use visuals... all this was not there in the mid-90s. All of us were grappling with the idiom of business television. We scraped our way through to create CNBC.

Today, the technique has evolved. Today, ours is a well calibrated launch with sufficient capital, equity participation with a global partner and a large target consumer base.

At an afaqs! event (TV.NXT) in September 2014, you said the next generation news company will be 50 per cent technology, and 50 per cent content, driven. Today, do you see yourself as being in the media business or the technology business?

Raghav: When we started our second innings last year, we did so with two start-ups. There has been too much focus on the consumer facing one, TheQuint.com.

The other one, Quintype, a technology company, joined at the hip to the media organisation, is a media-tech company. Unlike TV or print, this is not pure content play. The involvement of technology in TV is limited. TV is a linear medium - you through up your signal to the satellite, it's picked up by a decoder and is shown on a dumb medium with no two-way interaction involved. Digital is two way, hand held... people like to converse with it, personalise it... there is a huge element of technology in it. So we were very clear that if we really want to be successful we need to have both, media-tech operations and content operations.

"I am ready to pump in whatever it takes to be successful": Raghav Bahl
Much of the traffic to your portal comes from social media. Sure, the website is young, but isn't it dangerous to have such a heavy dependence on social traffic?

Raghav: The numbers vary from one data collector to the other. I'm not saying it's un-scientific, but different people make different assumptions. Some count it (as a page view) if you are concurrently on the page for five seconds (that is, if you're on the page for five consecutive seconds), for some it's a minute and for others it's a second...

Ritu: ... The irony is we are crafting our content in a manner that lets people consume it in a minute on their mobile phones...

Raghav: The data sets need to be seen judiciously; we need to see the assumptions before we start taking decisions based on them. The data that we rely on most tells us that on the desktop, our social (traffic) is close to 50-60 per cent, but if we look at our total distributed audience then close to 60-70 per cent of our traffic comes from social.

Right, and isn't that risky? Many sites have lived to regret it when some algorithm is changed on Facebook...

Raghav: The Quint will reach out to its audience wherever it is. If audiences are on social media, The Quint will be a very aggressive player on social media. This debate about relying too much on social media - I find it suspicious.

Facebook is now allowing revenue sharing. We are getting revenue from Facebook, which, at times, is more than what we get from Google Adsense. There's competition within distribution platforms - there's Facebook, Twitter, Google... Amazon and Apple will be there too. All these distribution platforms need content and content needs distribution platforms.

Ritu: ... This theory of how finally Facebook will pull the rugs off from under publishers' feet and of how we will be dependent on them... I don't believe in it, it's silly to follow that thought. I think social media understands the value of content.

How are advertisers reacting to this evolution of distribution platforms? There's so much talk of digital killing TV...

Raghav: The battle is not between TV and digital. It is between linear and non-linear communication. Currently, we are in the middle of a transition from linear to non-linear distribution. I think people are reading too much into this. Every time there's a transition, people start talking about the death of certain platforms.

Digital is the fastest growing component of the advertising mix - it is at about seven or eight per cent (of the total ad spend pie) today.... in a decade's time I see digital becoming the single largest part of the ad mix. As audiences migrate to new mediums, advertising money follows it.

One thing is clear, though. The 30-second commercial is dead; in a non-linear, hand-held, interactive, mobile world no one has the patience to watch a 30-second-long commercial. That was an innovation in the static world of linear distribution, which is television. Now advertising formats needs to evolve to meet the requirement of non-liner mediums. In the digital, non-linear world, native advertising is clearly emerging as the answer. Banner advertising is currently dying but it will re-invent itself for the small screen; it'll become much more push than pull, because mobile is a device where you need to push content.

On mobile, monetisation models have been elusive. While the platform works well for services and e-commerce, it has proved unviable so far for content, including news. What gives you hope of financial success?

Raghav: Several mobile-first content sites are now beginning to see accelerating revenue growth, including Buzzfeed and Vox in America. The mobile-first versions of New York Times, Washington Post, etc. are also seeing revenue growth for their digital offerings. So we are confident that as the ecosystem matures/stabilises, as more than half the audience begins to use high quality smartphones, as competing social media platforms pick up diverse audiences and open up monetisation opportunities/models for content partners, and as bandwidths improve, we will see a surge in advertising revenues for digital content sites.

Is subscription revenue something you are looking at, for both the site and the TV channel?

Raghav: Digital subscription is far away. We are completely advertising-driven and intend to be so till India's internet penetration reaches 80-90 per cent. On TV, we are certainly looking at subscription revenue. Indian consumers are happy to pay, provided we have the correct technology and regulations in place.

The Quint has been in the 'commercial market' for around five months. We are seeing a healthy mix of banner and sponsorship advertising and obviously native advertising.

What are the big lessons you learnt from your Network 18 days - ones that will guide you in your second innings?

Raghav: As a first-generation entrepreneur who never had much capital in his first innings, we have realised the value of a well capitalised balance sheet. That's a big learning from Network 18 - there our ambitions were ahead of our balance sheet and that's never a very sensible thing to do. This time, we have both, experience and capital. I'm ready to pump in whatever it takes to be successful. We are confident and ambitious and want to grow fast and big in our second innings.

A Note From the Editor

There’s something special about entrepreneurs. There’s something even more special about media entrepreneurs. And there’s something downright fantastic about a 55-year-old television journalist-turned-media entrepreneur who set up a television empire in the early 1990s, sold it after around two decades, then kept his boots on, gave the sunset a skip and came right back to the grind, something he admittedly thrives on. This time, he’s back with a dot com or two and a television channel. “We,” he tells us, referring to himself and his wife and business partner Ritu Kapur, “still had some fire left in us.”

Raghav Bahl, co-founder of Quintillion Media, a company with parallel interests in the digital as well as the TV news media space, is very confident his second innings in the big bad media industry will be successful because, as he pointed out repeatedly during the course of our interview, this time he is equipped with both tangible and intangible arsenal – ample capital and lessons from the past. He rued about not having either when he went about setting up Network18.

Raghav has openly criticised the television screen, be it at industry-organised public debates with Arnab Goswami, or otherwise. He has called the television screen a “dumb, legacy screen” that’s akin to the “voice of God” because it simply tells the viewer what to watch and affords no interaction with the audience. Moreover, Raghav calls Quintillion a “digital news product”. How then, does he justify partnering with a television channel, Bloomberg, for this venture?

The debate, he insists, is not about television versus the smartphone, but is, rather, about consumer behaviour. Consumers, he argues, desire the option of reacting to, personalising and interacting with the news content they receive; the screen that can give them that option will win. However, he has no qualms admitting that for any digital-led venture to succeed, it must have significant television or video presence.

Cheers to ambition.

ASHWINI GANGAL