Angad Bhatia
Guest Article

Lessons from building an in-house creative agency

2014 was an inflection point of sorts for the lifestyle publishing brands even at Times Internet. The rise of Facebook compelled publishers to rethink their distribution strategy and take hard calls on whether they wanted to reorient content styles for the social generation that was increasingly discovering content on Facebook and Instagram. At Indiatimes Lifestyle Network (which was then a cluster of 3 sites - MensXP, iDiva, and Indiatimes), we saw this as an opportunity to tap into the huge Facebook audience and build meaningful communities around millennial passions.

Using data to drive creativity, we kept listening to cues our audience were giving in the form of views, likes, shares and comments so we could continually get better at creating relevant and engaging content. The result was a huge growth in our social traffic and Indiatimes became the top publisher in the world on Facebook, both in terms of reach and engagement. MensXP too, grew to become the biggest online men’s lifestyle brand in India with 15 million monthly active users on the site. The icing on the cake were our video IPs (e.g. iDiva’s South Delhi Girls) that have become viral phenomenons.

Our success with social storytelling soon drew in advertisers who wanted to tap into the communities we had built around content and be part of the conversation. We thought, why not apply the same storytelling techniques and editorial philosophy to make branded content fun and native to our platforms and avoid interrupting the content consumption experience? That was the genesis of ILN Brand Solutions.

Today we work with a broad spectrum of advertisers from startups to Fortune 500 companies, creating content for different needs, audience cohorts and across platforms. So what have we learnt in the past 5 years of running this in-house agency? Well, here are some key learnings, which I hope will be useful for any content marketer hoping to gain trust from his/her millennial and Gen Z audience.

It’s about storytelling, not selling. We’ve found that engagement increases when we put the community first, not the brand’s offering. We always assume that the audience consuming branded content will ask the question “What’s in it for me?” and make sure we have a good answer to that when designing our content. Advertising is still predominantly about sharing information. We just ensure it’s in the natural voice of the community.

The age of the passive consumer is over. Today’s consumers want content that allows them to express themselves. They want to be able to share stories that make them look good in their social network. We drop branded content ideas at the script stage if they don’t tick those boxes. If it isn’t conversation-friendly, it’s probably not a great idea.

Be platform-specific, not platform agnostic.Think of unique ideas for each platform you’re creating for — a video created for Youtube may not necessarily work when adapted as an Instagram story.

If content is king, context is queen.Branded messages are best received when the relevant external and internal triggers are activated. For example, stories on insurance do well when you suddenly realise your responsibilities such as when your first child is born; travel stories featuring an SUV will be better received closer to the weekend.

Keep it real.

Millennials and Gen Z reward brands that are transparent and display authenticity. You won’t hear traditional brand speak in our content or models with flawless complexions prancing in dreamlike sets. We like to keep it real. So when we did a video for Uber about what they were doing for women’s safety we actually told the story through a DJ from small town India who is able to pursue her vocation because of the late night mobility that Uber provides.

Let go a little. And finally, for creativity to flourish, brand managers should let go of some control. At ILN, we don’t have a rigid structure of how ideas should be generated or a set hierarchy on who approves ideas. Most ideas come out of jamming together. That’s how South Delhi Girls on iDiva got created. We believe the best ideas can come from anywhere and there’s a creator hidden in each one of us. Take our spot boy for instance. He was hired to take care of the props. One day he met rapper Badshah in our studio and asked him if he could jam with him. He was so good that now he makes regular cameo appearances in many of our videos.

Angad Bhatia is the chief operating officer of Indiatimes Lifestyle Network.