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IAA Knowledge Series: Raghav Bahl and Ronnie Screwvala discuss ‘Can they do it again?’

The event moderated by Mini Menon saw Bahl and Screwvala share insights for the industry on entrepreneurship

BestMediaInfo Bureau | Mumbai | September 19, 2016

Raghav Bahl and Ronnie Screwvala Raghav Bahl and Ronnie Screwvala

IAA’s Knowledge Series ‘Reshaping markets through disruption’ was held on September 16 here before the IndIAA Awards night. Raghav Bahl, Founder, Quintillion Media, and Ronnie Screwvala, Founder of UTV Group, Unilazer Ventures and Swades Foundation, discussed ‘Can they do it again?’

The event was moderated by Mini Menon, Co-Founder and Editor, Indy Network. Veterans from the industry were present to witness the event. It was Indy Network’s first coming out event as the topic of discussion related well to its philosophy.

Excerpts from the discussion:

Menon to Bahl: How has it been to ride the wave and come up to a certain level? We are at an interesting stage right now. We really need to disrupt and change what you have created. Your piece is out there and taking shape. What is so different this time around? What gives you sleepless nights and what keeps you excited?

Bahl: It’s like the second innings in cricket. When you play the second innings in the test match, what comes to the mind of the captain is that he knows how he has performed. So, you are not starting from ground zero. You also know which guy in your team has done spot fixing and which guy is a genuine person. You also know the pitch conditions as you have been there and batted once. So, you know a lot about your team and conditions. The second innings is on the third or the fourth day of the test match. You are a bit tired and do not like the bouncy young guy in the 20s. You just don’t know how much time you have in the second innings. The second innings is wonderful and rejuvenating. It comes up with a set of entirely new constraints. The constraints in the first innings are not the constraints in the second innings. Capital and attracting talent is not a constraint. The constraint is do I have the energy to go and do it? Do I have the talent?

Menon to Bahl: What is the motivation? You have already made a lot of money. Entrepreneur is also about the idea and money. If that is not the kind of driving force then what is it?

Bahl: The standard answer would have been that money is not everything. To me, money is everything. You do want to earn much more. Money is always a motivating factor.

Menon to Screwvala: My question is the same to you and how has the journey been?

Screwvala: I played kabaddi. You hold on to someone and you don’t know what to do. Looking at kabaddi vs. cricket, I feel I am in my first innings. It makes you much more energetic and a gladiator. You come with a lot more force. From a motivation point of view, I don’t look at this as doing-it-again kind of context, it is more about an ongoing journey. As we mature, different priorities come in our lives. I stepped out of media and entertainment. A lot of people ask me don’t I miss it? I say no! I miss the people, but not the industry.

Menon to Screwvala: If you had a non-compete clause that would have ended somewhere this year, would you get back into movie-making business? In many ways, that brought out the best in you. That was the real core that you played. How is it looking to you now?

Screwvala: I think I have been doing more sort of a B2B to B2C model. For us, movie was a big thing out there. For now, the exciting things are the non-media related. Instantly, one feels if you want to reinvent yourself. To me the priority was much more how I compete with a different set of people. I learnt much more in the way of progress. I think that has been the trigger.

Menon to Bahl: You are back in business news. The world has changed dramatically since you started CNBC TV18. The number of investors has not changed much and they are in a very miniscule number. Operating in a digital space where it has become so crowded, what is the disruption that you are going to do there?

Bahl: I don’t think you can re-invent the model. You just have to do better content. When we started CNBC TV18, our revenue line was about million dollars. Today, the business news market, 15 years down the line, is Rs 550 crore. So, it has gone from one million dollars to 100 million dollars in 15 years. So, there is growth. The fact is that the industry has to grow. As the equity literacy will grow, more investors will come in. India is a late adapter in anything. At the end of the day, it is about good content. It is about being independent. It is about the fact that the editorial issues that you’ll take up will be edgier. Today, the editorial is not independent and viewers and readers see through that.

Menon to Bahl: Ronnie has a reputation of a cowboy, but you have done far more gutsier things and he has actually played really safe.

Bahl: I have done the foolish thing and not the gutsier things. There are two bets we took nicely. We took CNN IBN nicely, where we became the No. 2 player. Colors was a sort of a dream case study. If I have to do everything again, I would do it in a much better way.

Menon to Screwvala: How did you manage to pull off the cowboy image and yet be conservative because all your bets have been much calibrated?

Screwvala: Bindaas wasn’t calibrated. Bindaas was built against Channel V and MTV.

Menon to Bahl: The triangle in Indian media was you two and Dr Roy. It was the beginning of the new era where the editor and promoter went with a vision and the passion of the subject. But you took off that hat and became a businessman and wanted to create a media empire. Do you think that was the fall? If you would have kept CNBC TV18 the way it was with CNN IBN and be in news because that’s the space you understood intrinsically, would this had been a very interesting conversation?

Bahl: At some stage you have to make a choice. Viacom was willing to sell 50 per cent of the company, we didn’t plan that. They came and talked to us. Yes, we took a foolish bet and decided to put all the money in there. I think the choice is that can you become large. If we would have stayed in CNBC TV18, we would have been much sorted. The leap from there to now has been the fun part.

Menon to Screwvala: Who do you think is the most successful in the India media business?

Screwvala: I think there are a lot of them. I think Subhash Chandra has done an excellent job. I think he has done something visionary. To be the first generation in media, I think it takes a lot. Obviously, the Bennett & Coleman group has its own thought process and it has grown with a strong legacy. Then you have major pockets of regional ones. I think media is just larger than the news space.

Menon to Bahl: Who do you think is the most successful?

Bahl: In my mind I have nobody. What Subhash Chandra has done is extraordinary as he did not come from a media background. The others are all media people.

Menon to Bahl: Making money in the business is tough. A lot of money is gone in creating cobranded content. Because of the way the complexion of the media industry has changed, there are a lot of sceptics out there. The amount of TRP madness we are seeing, I can’t watch news most of the time. The point is that can you have good, solid and straight reportage-based journalism today, when the business model has changed completely.

Bahl: This is coming down to branded content on the digital platform. I am very clear about it that I am not apologetic about it at all. What gets missed out is, as the architect of business has changed, formats change with architecture. When the newspaper was the dominated news dissemination medium, the dominant form of revenue earning was the 30-40 column centimetre. When the newspaper business got disrupted by the television medium, clearly you can’t put 30 cm column on TV. The format of revenue acquisition became the 30 seconds commercial. Nobody said anything at that point in time that this is not ethical or anything of that sort. On the digital front, you could not do both. So, as the architecture of dissemination of news changed, the format of revenue acquisition changed. It’s a law and it has happened before. Therefore, the way revenues will come on the digital news front is branded content. I don’t see any ethical dilemma at all. I think we have to be very clear in telling your consumers that this is branded content.

Menon to Bahl: This is one aspect. The other aspect I am talking about is titillating content and that is happening on the digital front.

Bahl: I don’t think journalism has hit rock bottom or anything like that. At Quint, we do very serious pieces. You are providing a broad spectrum choice to your consumers and if you wish to be in a particular vertical line space, that’s your choice. There is a lot of serious journalism happening.

 

Menon: Content is democratised and everyone can crate content. Technology has been the game changer. India is not catching up with anybody. The world is trying to find what the next big digital idea is because the geographical boundaries have come down. In this the kind of environment, what can you do to stand out?

Bahl: I think content can be only disrupted by creating better content. We are in the content business. Disruption happens in the technology business. Content business is a pretty steady business.

Screwvala: I won’t overemphasise on the democratisation of the content part. I don’t think there would be a situation where 7 billion people want to create what just they want to watch.

Menon to Both: Both of you have been inspiring for a whole generation of entrepreneurs. My first question is what is your advice to young entrepreneurs, especially now. Secondly, in your second innings, what will be your USP?

Bahl: I would say that don’t go beyond your balance sheet. Profit and loss will take care of itself if the balance sheet is strong. I have an advice for the young entrepreneurs: Don’t get seduced by the media.  You guys haven’t become superstars until you have created a very profitable balance sheet. If you don’t have resilience to take the bad times, don’t become an entrepreneur.

Screwvala: If I have to talk through an entrepreneurial perspective; I think you got to build what you want to build and stay constant about your own vision. Today’s ecosystem is forcing people to go a little more horizontal. Don’t think what investors want. Think of what the company is that you want to build. That question is very weak and it needs to get much stronger. Secondly, I think people are not curious enough.

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