Ashwini Gangal

“There’s an entrepreneurial spirit to digital advertising today”: Anant Goenka

Interview with the executive director of The Indian Express Group.

“The covid-induced 'infodemic' gave a huge boost to credible news organisations - they got an opportunity to stand out in today’s commoditised digital news space,” said Anant Goenka, executive director, The Indian Express Group, in an interview with me at the at the IAMAI’s 17th Marketing Conclave, on October 26, 2021.

Goenka, a fourth generation leader at The Indian Express Group, will complete a decade at the news organisation in January 2022.

One of the outcomes of Google’s decision to do away with third party cookies and the industry’s consequent focus on first party data, according to Goenka, is lending “an entrepreneurial spirit to digital advertising,” a phenomenon led by not just by tech giants like Google, Facebook and Apple, but also the smaller software, ad tech, e-commerce ecosystems, that are working on creating innovative programmatic advertising formats, across audio streaming, AVOD, news publishing, etc.

Speaking of first party data, Goenka believes advertisers will give publishers a premium for the “logged in” user and, paradoxically, the paying user as well. The paying user, Goenka says, is "premium ka premium."

On the subject of industry defining trends that will shape the Indian media and marketing space over the next two years, Goenka foretells the need for authentic domain authority, demand for credible news, the advent of fake news fatigue, and the obsoletion of the ABCD – astrology, Bollywood, cricket, devotion – content mantra, that dominated the internet for years.

And we’ll all do well to keep an eye on what happens in Silicon Valley, per him.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. In September 2019, you said, on the afaqs! Digipub stage, in the context of web publishing: “We will have to diversify revenue streams; it can’t just be advertising led”. Cut to today, given everything that has transpired over the last two years, hand on heart, how are you really de-risking the model? How are you productising your content?

Goenka: I stand by what I said. I wish we’d moved faster on productising news. Not to give any excuses for why we haven’t moved, but we were pre-occupied with the transition happening in the company due to covid, we were pre-occupied with the core business – traffic, getting advertising for that traffic, making the most of the audience we have and growing it. Today our digital news footprint is about 200 million users a month in six languages across the world.

We have to able to look at a situation where more than 40 per cent of our digital revenues come from the reader – through gifting subscriptions, micro payments, enterprise sales, package sales, etc. We have to establish a direct relationship with the consumer and upsell habitual products, invest in a creating a market where we can sell news.

We as an industry have been slow, but I’ve been impressed with and inspired by the progress The Hindu has been making in this space.

"Publishers have to establish a direct relationship with the consumer"

Q. In the universe of online news, subscribers want depth of content but advertisers need width. Do you agree this is a conflict? How does one resolve it?

Goenka: I don’t know whether we can say advertisers want width versus depth. For centre-of-market news, you have to have both depth and width.

Width is for top-of-the-funnel audiences – like, our 200 million users – and you’re right, that’s what advertisers want. But it is our productisation of news that makes these users stay on for three, or five, page views per session – basically, 50 per cent more page views per session than before – and gets them to go deeper into the content, based on what their interests are. Yes, deeper down the funnel, it’s the user who is paying, not the advertiser.

Q. Given Google’s decision to do away with third party data, and everything that will ensue, is the gap between big tech and open web increasing?

Goenka: I think this ‘open web’ is a bit of a misnomer. It’s really just four companies controlling the entire web. Because it’s so big it looks open. There’ll be smaller walled gardens in this web, and that’s the demand of the consumer; the concept of creating slices in the open web is a trend that’s going to stay. I’m not sure it’s a trend news organisations can sustainably participate in because it will plateau beyond a point, and we need scale.

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