No behemoth brand gets built in India through any of the other mediums outside print, and specifically, the Times of India and Economic Times, feels Partha Sinha, President – Response, The Times Group.
Sinha said that for any brand to build brand value in India, it has to be on the Times Group platform. “Let digital build the Byju’s and the Flipkarts. We will then accept it. We know what we bring to the table and we charge for that,” he said.
Asked if digital would continue to eat into print’s advertising pie, he said what print offers is a safe environment for brands, effectiveness and impact, and the proof of it was that the maximum growth in print was coming from the digital commerce sector.
Taking a jibe at digital programmatic advertising he said, “People miss the woods for the trees. Efficiency is good but it cannot be a substitute for effectiveness.”
Talking about revenue growth, he said that the group was almost touching the 2019 numbers and the print segment in India had the potential to be back on the growth trajectory.
How was the festive season last year compared to 2019?
Of course, the revenues were down. April was a total washout because everything was shut, and every single business went through trauma.
For us, the turnaround started in August. In the festive months— September, October and November—we did fairly well. We were close to 70% of our 2019 numbers if not a little more. That's the time that marked a turnaround for our group. From there onwards, we have recovered pretty well.
How did you deal with discounted rates or freebies?
We don’t discount much, because we are sure of what value we bring to the table. Once a classmate who wanted to take the front page of the Economic Times said we are too expensive. I told him to look at it the other way. There was once a company that lost billions in market cap because of a news that was published on the front page of Economic Times. That is the value we bring to the table. I am not boasting but without our group, no one can build brand value.
It is one thing to say that digital will give returns. Let digital build the Byju’s and the Flipkarts. We will then accept it. Let any behemoth get built through any of the other mediums outside print, and specifically the Times of India and Economic Times. We know what we bring to the table and we charge for that.
Honestly, the entire business of intermediation rather than adding value has been about subtracting value. If there are two-three people in a value chain, aren’t they supposed to build the value? This is what has happened with some not very bright business practices. People have started subtracting values.
If I keep on giving discounts, my quality will fall. Therefore, I can’t keep a better journalist and, therefore, I can’t keep a better product. Eventually, the reader's experience will come down.
Have you come back to the 2019 rates?
Our rates are driven by an AI engine, which is called pricewise. All rates are central, no office can decide on a rate. Depending on certain parameters, we decide the rates. Like for example, factors such as at which stage is the client’s business and how much of that market has opened are taken into account. It is a very robust AI engine. We look at an overall average yield that has not come back to the 2019 levels.
However, there are many clients and categories where it has come back. We look at an overall upward trend and we see how we can get back to our numbers because that is important.
Luckily our team is fairly sophisticated; it is not my creation. The team has a reputation in the market. We are not space-sellers but we give solutions. Right from PG’s time (Pradeep Guha), it has been a different organisation altogether. People do see value in dealing with us and we can get the right yield.
We hear from media agencies that print is still offering discounts up to 30%. Is it correct?
I can’t hold the candle for all the publications but I can speak for us. We are not dropping the yield; we may be creating a better value perception for the client. If you have to sell everything at a discount, why are you in the business?
Last time there was a misconception among readers that newspapers carry coronavirus. This time the misinformation is not there. How much is it going to benefit you?
It has already benefited us because we didn’t drop any circulation during the second wave. However, this also shows that we as a society are not only fighting the virus but also fighting misinformation. Therefore, we believe that fake news is the biggest menace to society. Other mediums, unfortunately, are spreading fake news in many cases. We have taken it upon ourselves to make sure that we keep speaking about the veracity of the news. Times of India is seen as the most trusted news brand ahead of BBC. In the Reuters global report, we are number one.
Can we talk about growth and degrowth, that is 2020 vs 2019 and 2021 vs 2020?
We have come back to our normal self, I don’t need to tell you the numbers. I was speaking to a large company’s CEO, who is also a big celebrity. He opened the meeting saying, Mr Partha, you are happy and I asked why. He said I am seeing your paper, I understand what is going on.
As an industry leader, do you think that print will ever regain its total pie in adex?
Absolutely yes, because there are three things print can do, which nobody else can. Many brands don’t want to be in an environment that is unsafe. Not only unsafe in terms of content but also unsafe in terms of rumour-mongering, etc. No other media can guarantee that. There is no control over what will happen to your brand. For example, a hate message can come next to your brand.
The second is the reach build-up. You can build your reach in five minutes. The whole country will read it in one go in print. Reach build-up takes ages on television and digital. If you want reach build-up, there is no substitute to print.
The third is impact. Today people don’t understand the power of impact beyond product launches. Print is a must-have vehicle in launches. But the moment we can start to make people understand the power of impact in their other communications as well, it will be a win-win situation for all. We, unfortunately, can also be a victim of our thinking. If we think print will go down, it will. If we think TV will go down, it will.
It is a question of self-fulfilling professions and cognitive biases.
Can we say that in the next couple of years it will surpass the pre-Covid levels by 4-5%?
Of course it can. It also depends on what other players are doing. We must understand that people consume what interests them and sometimes, it happens to be ads. The print industry concentrates on two things: one is the environment and the second is creativity.
The creativity level in print advertising has substantially gone down. That is something we are pushing from our end, with things such as the “power of print” initiative. If it is a choice between creativity and effectiveness I think people should choose effectiveness. In the effectiveness mix, there is no substitute to print.
A lot of brands that thought they would get out of print have all come back. People miss the woods for the trees. Efficiency is good but it cannot be a substitute for effectiveness.
Which categories are showing greater interest in print compared to previous years?
One of the categories showing huge interest in print is digital commerce; that’s where I rest my case.
Do you see categories that had left print now returning?
I don’t know if any category has left print. FMCG went low on print but they are now back with vengeance. There are some brands that didn’t take print but they are now back. If you look at the economy, we know that the demand cycle is the only thing that can get us out of the rut. If we can start a positive demand cycle, which is also called a virtuous cycle, then we are expecting almost everybody to be back big time on print during festivals. Because festivals push demand in a great way. People buy when they are happy, and during festivals people are happy.
There are many new categories such as e-gaming, ed-tech, intermediaries in building; all these are emerging categories. Digital currency is also an emerging category.
Cryptocurrency is the new category in the block, how much boost will this give to print advertising?
The issue with cryptocurrency is that it needs societal legitimacy. No one can give that other than print. Digital currency, not just cryptocurrency, but also crypto exchanges are in conversations with us.
We are not pushing everything and anything that we are getting. We have a system through which we also vet things because our primary loyalty lies with our readers. We have to protect our readers also.
We have a very robust system; many times ASCI clears ads but we don’t. Suppose, there are some claims, especially with healthcare; we have a system to check if the claim is not substantiated.
We should be compensated for what we are; we must never try and be something we are not. What we are is the most trusted source of information, so we want to keep it that way, be it editorial content or advertising.