Shweta Mulki

Pocket Aces: Winning big from outside the system

We speak to the trio behind FilterCopy and Dice Media, as they bask in the afterglow of their deal with Netflix - a first among Indian digital content producers.

"It's amazing. Hoardings are a great vanity marketing metric and people have been sending us pictures from different cities," says Aditi Shrivastava who along with Ashwin Suresh and Anirudh Pandita founded digital media company Pocket Aces in 2014.

We are at the premier of a new season of their series, What The Folks, and the Mumbai-based trio are in the spotlight as their series, Little Things, acquired by Netflix, shines in full OOH glory across India. The deal also includes a new comedy series for the streaming giant.

Pocket Aces: Winning big from outside the system

Little Things season 2 on Netflix

Little Things, which has been trending on Netflix, is the first pre-existing series to be exclusively acquired by the streaming service. "People from Spain and Canada are inquiring about DVDs. No Indian show has organically travelled this well across the world," says Pandita.

Pocket Aces: Winning big from outside the system

Little Things hoarding in Mumbai

The trio (all engineers raised in cities in the Middle East) left their finance jobs in New York City in 2011 to pursue their passion in India. Suresh worked with Reliance for three years and then with TOI, setting up Junglee Pictures. Shrivastava, who dabbled in asset management at Goldman Sachs, worked for five years in the social development sector. Pandita, a Wharton B-school alumnus moved to India later to join the duo.

Pocket Aces: Winning big from outside the system

The new season of What The Folks

"There was so much effort put in building from scratch, and there were these big company challenges - every decision had to go through layers, 'Why not do this on my own?'," recalls Suresh when speaking about his stint at Junglee Pictures. "Around the same time, Anirudh was thinking of moving back and told him we could perhaps win from outside the system," he adds.

Towards the end 2016, Pocket Aces had raised $3 million via Sequoia Capital India and other investors including T.V. Mohandas Pai-led Aarin Capital. It now employs over a 100 employees and in addition to, Dice Media and FilterCopy, runs Gobble (food-related content), and an interactive gaming app, Loco - acquired earlier this year.

We catch up with the husband-wife duo - Shrivastava and Suresh, and Pandita, on how they came out aces in this space.

Edited Excerpts

You wanted to make movies - When did you decide to go all in into digital video?

Suresh/Pandita: We felt movies was a medium that brought good creators to the audience in a profitable manner. But everything was such a hurdle and we had no control on the setup. We then looked at digital distribution and video content and started with a series - 'Not Fit' under Dice Media, but our first release was a satirical video called 'Ban Ban'. That video crossed a million views in 3 days, becoming India's most viral video on Facebook that year (2015).

Next, we did smaller sketches under FilterCopy, and a satirical news show called NewsDarshan - anchored by Mithila Palkar. Right around then, we did a sketch called 'Confusing Things Girlfriends Say' with Palkar and our writer Dhruv Sehgal, (he was among the first employees to join the company) which received close to 25 million organic views - this eventually led to Little Things with the same leading pair.

What about the show's fans who watched season 1 on YouTube, but haven't subscribed to Netflix?

Suresh/Shrivastava: We make sure to mention that Netflix is free to view for the first month when promoting Little Things season 2 on YouTube or Instagram. So they can watch Little Things and more. People watch our show in one weekend binge!

FilterCopy is a 2 min snacking format and Dice is long form series format. Does brand differentiation matter?

Shrivastava/Suresh: If you are trying to build a new age media company, you acknowledge that people want to consume different types of content. Dice Media is a high value-high IP, large scale and large budget property - focused on producing multi-season shows. FilterCopy helps us remain top-of-mind every day, every hour and it's become like our base marketing platform for our content across the board. It's like our GEC - our mass reach medium. We've had some challenges differentiating our brands, but we've been making concerted efforts for everyone to understand each brand within Pocket Aces.

Advertisers and brands - How did they see you then, and what's changed now?

Suresh: The first six to seven months were just about creating content. We needed to know we could consistently perform and didn't really do any brand outreach at this stage. The first brand that reached out to us was Shahrukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment, for the promotion of their movie - Fan. We launched a video, as part of the promotions, 'Every SRK fan ever' after which we felt ready to talk to brands. Brands such as Swiggy, VelvetCase and FreeCharge were among the first ones. With VelvetCase we had a 5-month long contract, and they even came on board as Powered-By sponsors for Little Things.

Shrivastava: Many from backgrounds like ours see the need for progressive content. But being an outsider had been a deterrent, with agencies, especially, as they all know each other, and our competitors too, having been in the ecosystem for long. We were catching up with content, but when it came to brands, we wondered what to do? It was about breaking into relationships one at a time and aiming for long term deals. We've done a lot of repeat brand conversions, where even first movers such as, TVF have low repeat conversions.

How do think brands look at content today versus earlier?

Shrivastava/ Suresh: We understand how CMOs measure market performance beyond reach and engagement. We look at clients' app downloads, traffic, time spent, etc. We've even tied up with an independent agency to measure brand recall and upticks in consumption for big offline brands such as, Kurkure, Samsung, etc. Brands such as these and even new digi-savvy brands see that we understand their challenges and their needs when we send those internal reports. What The Folks, for instance is sponsored by a diverse bunch of brands such as, Epigamia, Pepperfry and Google. We've worked with international names who've usually found it hard to work with small players in India.

Shrivastava: The younger people in marketing teams are our audiences, but, for the CMOs who finally sign off on the big cheque, it's about perception. Syndication has helped and many of them have watched our content on Tata Sky or Ola Play or on in-flight entertainment screens. We've also had great brand-to-brand referrals.

How did you win over investors that early on in your journey?

Suresh: Aniruddh and me, having worked in private equity helped, but the first time we went into Sequioa was after 'Ban Ban'. We were quite audacious then and told them, "Guys, we made a video, it's viral, chalo invest karo" and learned that it doesn't work like that. But it did put us on their radar. When we went to them six months later, they were aware of 20-30 of our viral videos. They then commissioned us to make a video for their annual hackathon - which really boosted registrations, so that helped. The funds enabled us to invest better in our people (good creative teams need a great environment), technology, and take better bets content-wise.

How do you keep your content fresh and the audiences engaged? Do you glean a lot from data?

Pandita/Shrivastava: We obsessively look at data. Viewers in the age bracket - 15 to 35 years, is 98% of our audience. Even our writers track data, such as watch times, retention rates, drop-off points, comments and shares in the first hour, etc. For instance, creators love their logo upfront, but we've learned from data that people drop off there, so we have a 10-second hook scene before the title which in-turn goes by quickly and the drop offs are reduced. Besides Little Things, What the Folks and Adulting owe their genesis to data too. All actors in our series come from our short videos. The themes, jokes have all been tested through short videos, memes, etc.

What are the up-shifts you saw post-Jio? What bottlenecks do you still face?

Pandita: Content watching has increased 18x times and our consumption's up 9x times. When we started, people used to tell us that minutes watched will not climb and views will remain the same, but the reverse is now true. Some decision makers still have a TV mindset and don't see the vitality of short form content. Not everyone is looking at data as they should. Also, SEC ABC or 123 categorisations don't work in the same way for the web. We are still used to doing limited series, directors' rooms and show runners don't exist, and the way shows are written will have to change. Having said that, putting your work out is easier than before and so is distribution.

Last year, you became the first Indian digital content player to enter the China market by partnering with Web TV Asia to launch content on Alibaba-owned Youku Tudou....

Pandita: That was an experiment after we saw how well some Indian films were doing in China. We will do something more serious in the coming year or so.

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