The future looks bright for this breed of influencers, who're both enjoying and grappling with the presence of brands in their lives.
The business of laughter has never been more relevant to the advertising, media and marketing industry than it is today. The panel discussion this report is based on was conducted at vdonxt asia last month and was moderated by Anirban Roy Choudhury, special correspondent, afaqs!.
What does the ongoing phenomenon of the 'digital star', and the rise of comedians therein, look like to Vijay Subramaniam, co-founder of talent management agency Kwan? "...There's a shift in the way entertainment is being consumed and in the way brands are looking at content. Given the boom of telecommunication and OTT, the (concept of) a 'digital star' is not something that's about to happen; it's already a reality. So we decided to look inwards. While Bollywood is there as the mothership of the agency universe, it's an economy that's not growing in percentages; it's growing in multiples. We also realised that all of a sudden our main business - the endorsement business - was flat-lining... decreasing in terms of its percentage growth simply because it was added on or padded up by the business of the digital influencer world. And this is here to stay. We'd be foolish to be in the entertainment business and not be here."
Karan Talwar, comedian best known for, and as, 'Bollywood Gandu', his digital avatar and online platform on which he bashes Bollywood content, attributes the popularity of his videos to the fact that they are real and relatable. He says, "The reason people like us exist today is because we come from a place of honesty. By and large, the mainstream content created in this country is not honest. Just look at the way Bollywood portrays romance - those kind of relationships just don't exist."
Kwan's Subramaniam agrees, "The narrative of realism is becoming more and more important with brands." In certain pockets of society comedians are more influential than a Bollywood star or a cricketer, he insists, divulging that comedian and Instagrammer Mallika Dua earns more money, in the context of brand associations, than movie actors like Athiya Shetty and Ileana D'cruz.
Recalling the moment she realised comedy could be a business and a career, Dua says, "When I did the Sarogini Nagar video (in which she essays different kinds of shoppers; published January 2016) I was still working in advertising. And I was still working in Delhi when I did my video with TVF. They asked me to join them as an employee at that point. I loved the offer but something told me to wait... I didn't know comedy was a business. I then met Tanmay (Bhat, AIB) who connected me to his management... then I realised, 'Oh, there's money here'. People are willing to put money into this. I then moved to Mumbai in a month, skeptically, but things worked out. Influencers are eating into a very significant chunk of traditional advertising. I came from the television commercial world. It's no about longer 'digital versus mainline', notion that exists in agencies."
Where is the money coming from - live shows, brands looking to ride on online comedy videos, merchandising or something else perhaps? Answers Subramaniam, "Brands - yes, that's a huge source of revenue for us. Live - of course; live is an evolving market. India has understood the concept of touring just half a decade ago. Traditionally, it's been a 'shaadi' market and a 'corporate show' market... now there's a 'touring' market. Comedians are the easiest way of monetising live gigs. Today, the most profitable live shows are comedy shows as opposed to music shows - with the exception of Arijit (Singh, singer)."
Celebrity merchandising (Hrithik Roshan's HRX, Deepika Padukone's All About You, for example) itself is a new market, he points out. It might be a while before influencer merchandising takes off. "It needs to reach a certain critical mass, after which you need to have the right distribution and marketing partners," he says, leaving us with images of underwear with Bollywood Gandu memes on them, something he believes could well be a reality within the next couple of years.
The conversation around brand integration was an interesting leg of the discussion. "Maybe it's an Indian thing but the experience of working with brands has been disappointing because sometimes I feel they're just using us as tools to reach a wider audience. I have an audience to cater to but the person on the brand side has a boss to cater to. That conflict is a constant source of grief," laments Talwar, insisting that a comedian's voice ought to be amplified with the money a brand puts in. Say, a comedian gets a million views on all her videos. A brand's presence - and money - should take that up to five million. "But what happens is the exact opposite - they say, 'Every 30 seconds the brand name has to show'. You can't put constraints like that and expect results," he rues.
Comedians see value in creating alter egos online because viewers, it turns out, are more receptive to material that comes from these characters (in Dua's case Make Up Didi or Tinder Aunty, for instance) as opposed to that which comes from the comedians themselves. Talwar's alter ego, an inanimate sketchy version of him, is thrice as popular as he is.
"Bhuvan Bam's characters are bigger than the celebrity called Bhuvan Bam," says Subramaniam, referencing a popular YouTuber whose channel is called BB Ki Vines. "People find things more palatable if you say them in character," seconds Dua, who, by the way, is a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen of 'Borat' and 'Ali G' fame. It's clearly characters over content for them.
Another avenue for revenue, according to Subramaniam, is the "new distribution democratisation movement called over-the-top operators... we're going to have a lot of subscription services that are going to buy content like this." He foresees that short-form comedy content will become more episodic and more seasonal. "All of a sudden," he says, "without doing an ad, without going and dancing in a shaadi, there's a new economy of monetisation that has come up for influencers..."
About moving his content from YouTube onto platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, Talwar has mixed views. He dubs it a double-edged sword. While it's an opportunity, as OTT platforms can help improve the production value and reach of his content, he underscores a flipside: "On YouTube and Instagram I talk to my audience directly. I know what my numbers are, I know where my content is going wrong/right. But on these platforms - and I've done some work with them - they never give you the info. I have no idea how I'm doing. I'd love to know."
Does being on these premium platforms mean changing the way they approach or shoot their content? Dua says, "The performance style changes depending on whether it's shot on a phone, a camera or (delivered) on stage. You also have to keep attention spans in mind; if it's going to be watched for 30 minutes versus one-minute... where to put what, where to stop, where the story begins... it all changes."
Answering a question about her next move in the world of comedy, Dua says, "There's an expectation from comedians to be funny all the time - on-stage, on-screen, off-screen. But just because we're creators, every single creative urge needn't be that of creating comedy. The I'm in phase where I don't want to do comedy for a bit, maybe I want to do something else... So I'm now focusing on things that are not limited to comedy and caricature."