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b4-i-4get: The Vinci code of Mastermind

Uncovering the first ever price positioning exercise in the Indian Media history...

By Nataranjan Bohidar

Advertisers and advertising agencies are hardly likely to forget the commotion MASTERMIND created when it appeared in February 1987. The result of many months of deliberation even before I joined The Times of India Group but branded by me as MASTERMIND through Dec.1986 & Jan. 1987 it was readied formally for launch at THE TIMES OF INDIA GROUP's first ever management conference in Goa in February 1987. Designed with the help of a relatively unknown creative outfit called R.KANGA ADVERTISING (RKA) - more about that process later - MASTERMIND became the first ever  price positioning  exercise in Indian media history. A mere advertising rate card it was swathed in layers and layers of interconnected imagery that held serious functional meaning for the advertising fraternity as a planning tool and communicated market dominance to both advertiser and reader of The Times of India Group of publications.

I will go into the details of this, as I promised, in a later article, but here I wish to focus on how MASTERMIND positioning exercise completely liberated The Times of India Group to dictate its own pricing based on response, premium readership and other perceptual parameters free of the shackles of a shadowy cartel that everyone knew existed but no one acknowledged as existing. Before MASTERMIND no paper could raise ad rates more than once a year and that too incrementally and not before a coterie of ad sales managers from across the industry - an intertwining, internecine and unacknowledged club -  did some busy land line telephone buzzing ( mobiles had not been invented then ) and back room - some say backdoor- chatting (desktops had not made their appearance yet ) ! There was nothing competitive about the rate rises ... more a whimsical routine that ensured everything - the hierarchy of industry prices, that is - remained the same the more everything in the rates changed...and the reason given to the advertiser was in a little box on the front page that said, 'due to un/foreseen rise in newsprint costs, rates are being marginally increased", or something similarly insipid.

Into this peaceful Garden of Eden, a very pushy young man called Samir Jain, sometimes driven to belligerence at the lackadaisical approach of his team members towards numbers and the realities they reflected of Indian society in general and the media industry in particular,  introduced the conceptual snake of black money ! Why, he asked,in his insistent manner, should his ad rates - that is the ad rates of his powerhouse of newspapers comprising brands dominating India's commercial capital (then Bombay) and various other parts of India, fetch such low ad rates ( the entire Times Group's total income, ad+circulation, was a measly 350 million INR !),when businesses were pouring money out to set up businesses , advertising themselves on TV at pernicious rates (commercials had just gone color) and yet were able to generate such filthy profits ( not his words) that a great deal of it had the knack of turning into a dirty color black which the whole nation was finding hard to fathom, let alone trace? Advertising agencies were hardly a help ..having turned a silly soft in the stomach ... they were more agents for the advertisers and less the agents of the press from whom they however continued to pick up a neat 15% agency charge !! MASTERMIND rates, therefore, went for a hike, even as they were disguised as a discount (intricacies I will go into sometime later , i promise) ..and not just once annually but 3 times in the first year it was introduced in 1987...The rest , as they say , is history..and what they don't say is a mystery ...DID MASTERMIND MOP UP THE "DARK MATTER" AS THE TIMES OF INDIA GROUP WENT FROM INR 350 MILLION TO INR 3.5 BILLION IN 6 YEARS , DROPPING COVER PRICES FOR ITS READERS (THE INVITATION PRICING FOR ET WAS ONLY THE BEGINNING ), FLOODING ITS NOW THICKER THAN EVER BEFORE PUBLICATIONS WITH COLOR ON GNP , CNP, ANP AND SNP THAT TOO  ON THE FRONT PAGE , RAISING SALARIES ACROSS THE BOARD TO MAKE THE INDUSTRY ATTRACTIVE TO THE BEST TALENT, AND REGALING THE COUNTRY WITH THE MOST TALKED ABOUT SESQUICENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS OF THE LAST 175 YEARS?

Well, no one knows for sure...But, if a recent seminar is to be believed, that there is INR 75 Lakh Crores stashed away in banks abroad, and INR 80 Lakh Crores sitting in lockers here in India, and that 15 basic public services generate INR 50,000 Crores of black dough annually...and notes-for-votes have gone up from INR 2/- per vote in 1970 to anything from INR 200/- per vote to INR 1500/- per vote  in 2011 elections depending on criticality of constituency....and at the MCG elections recently conducted for the area that houses some of the biggest ad agencies in India , candidates are rumored to have paid anything between INR 5000/- per vote to INR 10,000/- per vote, with some families  of four votes commanding a bulk rate of INR 60,000/-, then clearly our pricing of media almost 25 years to the day was just not aggressive enough! Nor is it enough that ad agencies should not attempt to convert such huge grease palm monies - INR 1Lakh Crores of illegal slush is what is generated every year to support this  notes-for-votes money paid out every 5 years at the elections- into honest to goodness advertising , communication and party brand building and positioning spends !

Under these circumstances, does it not make sense for media groups to raise their rack rates and mop up the monies before they turn that dirty shade of black? Isn't honest advertising and sustained OTC paid for communication a significant contributor to the country's economic growth as compared to greasing palms and selling the nation down the drain?  IN THIS CONTEXT, WOULD WE RATE MASTERMIND AS A MASTER STROKE IN RATE CARDS?


Nataranjan Bohidar is a Sr. Management professional with 35 years of positioning experience. He held key integrated marketing and communications positions with reputed companies like NESTLE India, Bennett, Coleman & Company and leading American collaborations in the automotive industry.

Views Expressed here are personal. HE MEANS NO OFFENCE TO INDIVIDUAL OR COMPANY, ONLY TO SYSTEMS & PROCESSES OUT OF WHACK! Mail for BACK perspectives & more. BACK = (B)rand, (A)dvertising, (C)ommunication, (K)angaroo. Or just follow this column exclusive to

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Comments (4)
  • odiyatoka- 10 years ago

    MASTERMIND ?! What a name...its for, Times of India terrorizing media...or black money wallahs to advertise more? But didn't work ..did it?...between 2007 and 2011E industry grown at less or about same as India GDP of 6-7%...what a shame!Whereas black money outside the country is INR 75 trillion, that is 100 times approximately more than entire ad industry of INR 738 billion... this is helping Vanuatu (my adopted country ) more than my country of origin ( Indiaaaah aah ah !!!

  • nataranjan - 10 years ago

    Oh, hello there in Vanuatu!i can't believe you are reading this there :-)but i know there's a very famous and very masculine dance there called the "toka". Have you learnt to dance it? Actually, when MASTERMIND was launched in February 1987, the name was associated only with a BBC quiz program, known to select few in India (many years later Siddhartha Basu, a classmate of mine in DU, would launch/anchor a MASTERMIND quiz contest in India, but that was as i said many years later...but again many years before KBC, which is still running in some form or the other i fact, i caught a glimpse of it in "Slumdog Millionaire" ).And i didn't mind the association...the MASTERMIND TOI rate card positioned media planners in India as in, media wizards - and whoever cracked the Vinci Code of MASTERMIND won the BUMPER PRIZE for his/her client...Also, agree with you that if the entire INR 75 trillion was to be poured into the Indian Media Industry , we would have a 100 TOI's, 100 HT's, 100 HINDU's, 100 I.E.'s, 100 ET's, 100 BIZ STAND's , 100 IT's , wagera short, we would have a 100 times bigger media industry...and a 100 times the current economic activity to sustain that media boom!do write how Vanuatu is gaining from this capital flight or should one say capital fright!

  • CAN NOTPLAC- 10 years ago

    What rubbish! Why so much money be poured into media industry ? Who wants 100 toi's and 100 ht's of each is more than enough..and 10,000 tv channels will drive us completely in 100 ipl batty, 100 world cup batty,100 test cricket batty...i suggest we divide the 75 trillion EQUALLY among our population..AND GIVE EACH AND EVERY INDIAN ABOUT RS.65,000/- AND THE WHOLE COUNTRY CAN DO AISH-O-ARAM...imagine every man , woman and child in India having that much money in bank for lifetime..earning 10% interest annually...that way every man woman and child in India will have a bank account also, they can take the remaining 80 trillion out of lockers and put in their accounts...that is add another 65,000/-to each account...Now, with RS.1,30,000/- IN 1.2 BILLION BANK ACCOUNTS CAN INDIANS NOT BE MOST POWERFUL NATION IN THE WORLD...AND ALL POVERTY GONE...IN ONE STROKE... think, bhaiyon, think !

  • odiyatoka- 10 years ago

    odiyatoka Says: September 13th, 2011 at 2:39 pm i am a young copywriter in Vanuatu and i am sorry i was so aggressive in my initial response to this article by my very senior colleague, sir…i have researched with my friends and they tell me that thanks to MASTERMIND the entire print industry changed…more revenues started flowing in …media people including editors got better salaries… and for the first time journalists began to respect media marketeers and advertising agency people like me …i stand corrected…but i am not ashamed about my original comment ..that after MASTERMIND, media industry , particularly print media did very little to back the TOI and failed to stand united against the onslaught from TV…which is why print is in the doldrums it is now!Some more articles on price positioning are most welcome...please encourage!