Ashwini Gangal

"Bite-sized content is the way to go": Umang Bedi, Facebook

"We're leaning in with advertisers," said Umang Bedi, during the course of an hour-long interview with afaqs!. So Sheryl Sandberg-esque, that.

Before joining Facebook as managing director, India and South Asia, last July, Bedi spent over five years at Adobe. 'The Photoshop Guy' is what he was nicknamed in India's tech circles, where he hails from.

For the last eight months Bedi has pretty much been living on an airplane, zipping in and out of Facebook's Mumbai, Singapore and California offices. We caught up with this busy 40-year-old between trips.

Edited Excerpts

You've spent around eight months at Facebook. What have your areas of focus been? How have you prioritised?

I want to help develop a digital ecosystem within the country. Facebook in its past avatar was a platform where you built a community, engagement, a bunch of social followers and had conversations. We have transcended that; today, it's about working with the broader community of developers, media agencies, creative people, media planners, SMBs, people who're associated with news... today, it's about sitting in a boardroom with a CEO and saying, 'What are the goals of your business? Raising the next round of funding? Showing profitable transactions? Based on what they're going after we run experiments to prove the efficacy of our platform.

For example, a Mondelez may tell us the goal is to increase brand recall for a new chocolate, a telco may want to market 4G data and lower the cost of acquisition. Marketers say, 'If you prove to me that your performance campaigns can be optimised such that my business objective is met, I'll index all my dollars towards your channel as a primary medium.'

So whether it's Garnier face wash or Durex condoms or Tanishq jewellery, we're working with a diverse set of advertisers and proving that on an average we're moving about 20-30 per cent sales uplift at the time of their campaigns.

Facebook India has around 166 million monthly active users, of which 95 per cent are on mobile. What does Umang Bedi do with a statistic like that?

If we're telling people to market with us on our platform we've got to get the right mobile marketing creative strategy in place. We're investing in our existing team of creative strategists (Facebook Creative Shop). We're beefing up this team with Cannes Lions Award-winning creative people.

That's interesting. How involved are you with the agency side of things?

Every day - and I mean every day! - we're either at or with an agency. Typically, we sit with around 20 people from a given agency, in their office or ours, with one of their clients.

See... we can't just go and do a global pitch to a GroupM - that doesn't work. We've got to go to a specific agency within a group - say, a Mindshare - and then sit down with a specific team running a specific account, say the team running a Pepsi or a Coke, at that agency, and do deep workshops around how they can build Facebook into their television and print plans. Every day we have about two or three of these conversations.

So you spend a lot of time with creative and media agencies. What's Umang's weather report on Indian ad-land like?

We need to have deeper empathy for our agency partners. They work under ridiculous amounts of pressure. Their attention is focused on winning and retaining business - that's severely stressful work.

Creative agencies spend about 80 per cent of their effort on television and print campaigns. They need to focus on 're-skilling'. They need to be skilled in the area of making mobile-first creatives.

Media agencies need to think about how they can bring higher efficiency with TV and digital; we call it 'TV plus Facebook' or 'Print plus Facebook'.

In fact, creative agencies seem to be struggling with 'feed friendly', 'thumb-stopping' creatives. How would you deconstruct this intimidating concept?

This whole 'angrezi' of 'feed-friendly' is all about solving for an objective.

Great marketing starts with great creatives. Nothing's going to change that. Creative agencies understand creative concepts better than Facebook does. But we're teaching them how to adapt their creatives to a mobile platform. We're doing so by sharing algorithmic science of user behaviour on the platform with them.

For example, in a Facebook campaign, Tanishq shows a really intense, high quality image of jewellery on the platform. But you're not going to buy a bangle worth a lakh online; you want to touch and feel it. So if you click on 'Shop Now', you get an exclusive code that you can walk into an offline store with. It's stuff like this that creative agencies need to know about.

When it comes to Facebook, measurement of ROI has been a big pain point with advertisers. How have you been dealing with this?

Measurement, of course, is the classic grouse. All brands care about is - 'What's my return on ad sales (ROAS)?'

So let's not think about click-through rates; let's think about conversions. Let's not think about CPMs, etc.; let's think about ROI and ROAS. Let's not think about cookies; let's think about real people. Facebook has an 80-90 per cent higher targetting accuracy than any other platform.

We're getting better at measurement; we partner with neutral third party firms like Nielsen and Millward Brown. We work with BARC to see how we can do real-time integration of TV GRPs. See, everyone trusts a currency like GRP because it's a standard.

We're being very assertive about our 'TV plus Facebook' strategy. There's data to prove that a 'TV plus Facebook' plan can give you an incremental reach of minimum five points, at one-seventh the cost, as compared to a TV-only plan. On brand consideration and purchase intent, we are one-third the cost of TV and half the cost of any competing video platform.

In the television world, when you spend X dollars, you and I both know how much is wasted. So instead of wasting it, move that other piece to Facebook. Facebook wants to be the de facto, most cost efficient marketing platform in times of trouble.

Facebook recently tweaked its algorithm to boost the visibility of longer videos in news feed, based on how much of the video is watched. Is the long format-obsessed Indian marketer relieved?

It's still early days to say they are over the moon with this.

The funny part about this market is, there are different points of view. There are philosophical debates on this! Some say 30 seconds is the way to go, someone from YouTube may say, 'Spend time on a 15-second video...'

We believe the 'Holy Grail' is the first three seconds. This is difficult to prove without measurement. Garnier said, 'I don't know what your video nonsense is... just prove to me that you can move sales...' So we did a media blackout - no TV, no print, no radio, no billboards - in two cities. One was a high saturation market for the brand and the other, a low saturation market for them. We wanted to show them what happens when we show only our three second Facebook video to people.

The sales lift in the high penetration cluster city was 26 per cent higher (year-on-year) than that in other high penetration cluster cities. In the low penetration cluster city we saw a 19 per cent increase in sales lift.

We believe bite-sized, easily consumable, short format content is the way to go.

That's paradoxical, given the fact that the algorithm pushes long format...

Yes, it is a little paradoxical. But the first three seconds determine whether you kill it or not. So our narrative hasn't changed. Irrespective of the length of what you're communicating, you've got to get the punch-line, message, call-to-action up front, especially on the mobile phone, where the entry point for online video is through apps.

The real game changer will be developing a universally accepted video metric for digital, to drive a business outcome. Not a Google outcome, not a Facebook outcome, not a Unilever outcome, not a GroupM outcome. I mean a sales outcome.

Is Facebook trying to be more YouTube-like, with its long video push?

Technically, nothing stops Facebook from becoming a publisher of premium content; we've got the eyeballs, the engagement, the people, the time spent... So it's very easy for us to pivot towards becoming a YouTube. But, philosophically, our strategies vary. For us, video needs to be something you can share. On YouTube you consume video, you don't share it.

Even when it comes to ads, our philosophies are very different. We're experimenting with inserting mid-roll ads; we're working on revenue models for ads within live video. Mid-roll advertising is far more elegant than pre-roll advertising... I don't want to force you to see an ad before I get to the content.

Online video platforms are in a crazed race for content. Do you see yourself as part of it?

We look at ourselves as a video destination - make no mistake.

We're a technology company. We're not a publisher. We're not a broadcaster.

We're a platform that gives people the power to share. We want people to keep sharing. If video is the consumption medium of the future, we have to have the ability to curate and help people share more engaging video. That's on the product side.

On the advertising side of the business, we don't want to become a premium video content broadcasting destination and charge for ads the way TV does. That's not who we are.

In the world of online video, vernacular content is deemed to be the next big thing in India. How do you plan to source it? And what type of vernacular content tops your list?

Today Facebook is available in 12 languages. We believe language and local content will drive growth on the internet in India. In our media team, we have people across the length and breadth of India sourcing content and working with publishers of content in regional languages, including Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil... We're also sourcing news content from all regional publishers and work with around 11 language publishers today. We work with them not just for video but also for static content. For example, we encourage them to write more instant articles on Facebook.

So there'll be a lot of language-based targetting, going forward. Today, I don't think anyone has cracked the local language paradigm on content in India. We're working with studios, publications and news agencies for this content.

Astrology, Bollywood, cricket and divinity (ABCD) - efforts are towards getting content across these four types.

(This interview first appeared in afaqs! Reporter earlier this month)

A Note From the Editor

What's the first thing an Indian from a small town does when he gets his hands on an internet-enabled mobile phone? He gets WhatsApp and Facebook. What's the next thing he does? He discovers video. What kind of video does he watch? Entertainment content. Then, he starts looking for information about a specific subject, a subject that's important to his life at that point in time. Finally, he moves on to using the device to look for a job.

This behaviour, according to Umang Bedi, managing director, Facebook, India and South Asia, is typical of the average Indian with the power of the internet in his palm. As the head of a giant tech ship in this market, Umang has to know all kinds of consumer behaviour patterns that influence his business.

In this interview, conducted at his colourful office in Mumbai, Umang spoke to me about Facebook's relationship with its clients - brand marketers who spend precious media money on the platform - and agency partners. The latter, in his view, are a bunch of highly stressed out professionals who ought to be empathised with more, by the way.

Another interesting discussion we had was around Facebook video. Umang is not afraid to answer questions that have the word YouTube in them.

While on the subject, I also asked Umang to answer a pertinent question that came up a lot during vdonxt asia, our recently held conference around the business of online video, where his colleague Saurabh Doshi (head, media partnerships, Facebook) spoke about how online video and social media are impacting one another. 'In India, where will the next 100 million consumers of digital video come from?' was the question.

According to Umang, they'll come from tier 2 and 3 towns. Rural India, he clarified, will remain a 4G-enabled feature phone market. They will have high speed data but will not use it for high bandwidth content, goes his prediction.