A content (drama and music) and entertainment professional across multiple languages and platforms like TV and Radio, Vikas Varma, aka Dicky of Dickyspeak, has several stellar accomplishments across Advertising, Media & Entertainment. All of which are powered by a gift for and interest in unique, clutter-breaking content and using its power and design to drive any marketing requirement or entertainment business.
From his rich body of accomplished experience across over two decades in the Indian Media business, one spectacular stint and accomplishment has earned him all-round acclaim and respect as perhaps the best creative, programming and strategy professional in the space of music. With the strength of a single innovative channel definition which he creatively executed and converted into the immediately successful 9XM, Varma went ahead, and, in three short weeks after its launch in India in 2007, dethroned the then leading Music TV channel that had been unbeaten for six years.
In the process, he did away with the tedium of VJ yakkity-yak From Music channels, giving India and the world a new format of music TV channel that gripped viewers’ attention with a great blend of innovative and engaging content and the seamlessness of its presentation. (But, alas, also presented its then head of Sales with the challenge of placing commercials without breaking that great USP of seamlessness!)
In what he does today, too, Varma is unmatched – he is, to our knowledge, the only professional in India who is heading Creative & Content for an English Radio Network (Indigo 91.9 FM) and a Bollywood TV Channel (Bflix Movies) at the same time.
Varma cut his teeth in the advertising space, in creative and strategic communications, having worked with agencies like Frank Simoes Advertising and Madison before zeroing in to FM Radio when he took up the responsibility of heading programming for Radio City.
He headed Television production at Ronnie Screwvalla’s UTV and the Hindi GEC 9X, where he launched several big ticket and popular music and drama shows.
After moving on From 9XM in 2009, he launched 2/3 more music channels, each equally successful in its space, and is now working on his next important initiative in the Indian M&E space.
Yohan P C caught up with Vikas Varma for a chat to bring M&E professionals some insights From his enormous experience and multiple accomplishments across a rich professional career. We spoke not only about work, the industry and its sub sectors, but also about his work habits that he extends into his personal life, his personal beliefs and the influences for a rewarding glimpse into the person behind the accomplished professional. And that one magical thread in his professional life that, inspite of him being a man, helps him experience the joy of motherhood. What is it? Read on, and don’t miss his other original quotes that appear as ‘DickySpeak’.
If one examines your career graph, your strengths have been the ability to bringing creative and content to create, produce and monetize innovative content. What do you bring into the equation and process? I mean, you have created and launched TV Channels, Radio Stations and Advertising Agencies that continue to do well and remain profitable.
I think the most important thing is that we must also treat our target audiences as human beings and not look at them under the confined lens of demographics and the buckets we try to fit them in. The act of consumption is done by an individual human being and not a collective entity called ‘target audience’.
Before creating any product, I spend a lot of time living and understanding the human being behind the prism of TG analysis. Their basic emotional needs, desires and motivations in life and not just during the act of consumption. Once I achieve that understanding, it becomes easier to convert it to relevant creative products.
However, that is just the beginning of the journey. Placing that content on relevant platforms and communicating the same to our ‘humans’ is essential.
Finally, the supply chain of fresh creative products in a seamless and easy manner is essential to success. If the supply is not sustainable in the long term, even though the product is a success at launch, it is doomed to failure. Frankly, the answer lies in the innovative simplicity and sustainability of product creation.
OK, now to get a little linear: Tell us about your formative years in advertising, creative and content, first. Please take us through your work milestones.
It all began in an advertising agency called Frank Simoes Advertising, many years ago, where I was in Client Servicing. I was handling a meticulous and demanding client, Glaxo India, and their product Bonny Mix. Client servicing in an advertising agency is the best place to begin your career. It exposes you to all the aspects of advertising, media planning, creative process, production and film. It also gives you a unique perspective of client- and product needs.
Madison Advertising was where I sharpened my skills under the eagle eye of Sam Balsara. I was privileged to join Madison when Sam had just about launched his advertising agency out of a small and homely office at Horniman Circle. There were just seven or eight of us, including Sam and Prabha, working in Madison that time.
Sam put me in charge of the Godrej Soaps account with our flagship product, Cinthol Soap.
After working with giants like Frank Simoes and Sam Balsara and learning From colleagues like Jeffery Crasto, Adil Khan, Shreedar Narayan and so many more, I, along with my friend and partner Manoj Ramchandran, set up Touché Advertising.
I will never forget the excitement of bagging our first client, Blue Star (air conditioners, water coolers etc.). Blue Star was led by the late Mr. Gautam Bose, a magnanimous gentleman with an astute marketing mind and a pleasant smile. Touché was the agency that created the advertising for Mr. Bachchan’s ABCL, including Miss World in 1996. What I enjoyed most was working on path-breaking campaigns for Sony Entertainment Television, including ‘Raj Kapoor – Showman Of The Millennium’. Those were heady days.
Television content started after that?
Yes, many years later, when I joined Ronnie Screwvala’s UTV as COO, Television Content Division. My experience in advertising served me well. Creating television serials and shows for channels like Star TV, Sony, Zee, Discovery, BBC etc. taught me the importance of ‘shelf life’ of a creative product.
This was no more about a high-impact advertising campaign whose purpose of existence is to get customers to try out a product. Television serials are like friends who visit your home through the television box — and now through various other devices. Your content needs to bond with the humans through their devices and hopefully become a part of their lives.
With Ronnie, the learning curve for me was very sharp. He is an amazing blend of creative, production and business acumen, and a visionary who does not sleep.
I particularly remember a children’s TV show called HERO, which we produced for Hungama. This was the birth child of Arif Ali who shared this show idea with me. We pitched it to Hungama. It went on to become India’s number one kids show at that time. Later on, when I created 9XM, the music TV channel, I took a lot of learnings From Arif, my hero, into the channel content.
Tell us about Radio, and your learnings From it.
ApurvaPurohit gave me the opportunity to learn radio as a medium and create small and big creative products for Radio City. These included shows like ‘MeriKahani’, ‘Comedy Ka King Kong’ etc.
They say a blind man has enhanced hearing abilities. Radio content creation made me push my limits in the audio medium and understand the emotional power of sound in our lives. The power of sound transcends language barriers. Once you get a grip on it, it will help you create content that has deeper personal bonding with the listeners. Maybe that is why the term eternal is so often associated with songs and musical compositions. At present, my dear friend and CEO of Indigo Radio, Satya Murthy, has given me the opportunity to work with his super-talented team at Indigo 91.9 FM, to use my learning and revisit radio.
Radio is an addiction that never really goes away. To get a better grip and to communicate my ideas to my team at Radio City, in the year 2005, I coined the term MOOD-MAP and created the mood-map of our listeners. The purpose of this scientifically created mood-map was to match the mood or emotional frequency of our content with that of the prevalent mood of our listeners across day parts.
I used the teachings From our Sama Veda and a study by the Berkley School of Music to arrive at this map. I later used this mood-map for the first time on television when I launched 9XM and still later, for our music scheduling in MTV, Hummra M, Fata-Fati and other music channels I created.
Let’s pause here. Tell us about how you went about creating 9XM, particularly because it represents a whole new way of formatting music television content.
The creation of 9XM started on the premise that that most homes had single televisions; it was 2007, remember. I wanted to create a meeting ground between the children at home and their mothers. Children love cartoons and moms love Sharukh Khan.
So, I blended them together using my experience in making children’s content in UTV, music programming in Radio City and ability to communicate a complete message in a 30-second TV commercial at Madison.
What have been your most formative influences? Whom did you learn From most.
When I was a child, schooling and entertainment were quite literal. A lot was left to the imagination. As a child, I travelled all over the world. Visiting distant countries and getting to know a lot of famous and infamous people. This was all done in my imagination with the help of hundreds of story books that my grandfather kept buying for me From the age of seven.
Characters From books were my close friends, and together, the universe was our playground.
When, as a child, I ran out of books to read, I started writing stories for myself. I found that it was cheaper. Also, I could control my entertainment better. We must keep building and strengthening our imagination. Nothing of value has ever been achieved without imagination.
This includes past successes and failure. Needless to say, I was privileged to stand on shoulders of giants From advertising, television, radio and production. Learnings From them are what I use to help me make creative products.
You’ve worn many hats in a long and remarkable career, with strong stints across sub-sectors and roles in the Advertising, Media & Entertainment space. Let’s see: Advertising, TV content. Radio Content. TV Business. Radio Business. M&E Business Head. Creative. Content. What is closest to your heart? Pick one and tell us why.
Every role is as important as the rest; however, if I had to put my hand on my heart and pick one, the process of creation excites me most.
The act of pulling fragmented ideas out of thin air and giving them life is the closest that I, as a man, can achieve motherhood with.
Each idea is an unborn baby when you meet it for the first time. You nurture it, protect it, watch it grow and then share it with the world to enjoy. Some ideas go on and become famous and rich, while some, which are more delicate and fragile, get lost in the sunshine of the successful ideas. The act of creating is what that makes me feel closest to God, even above praying or meditating.
But if you ask me to pick between Radio, Television or Advertising, that will be an impossible choice to make. I don’t know too many people who are actively leading creative teams for radio and television simultaneously.
I am the lucky guy who is currently in charge of creative for Indigo 91.9 FM (radio) and Bflix Movies (television), apart From the work I do for my other clients. Different languages, different genres and different platforms. Yet, the act of creation remains the same. In fact, my knowledge and experiences wearing various hats over the years work better for me.
One must keep encouraging one’s mind to explore new ideas all the time. Do not limit yourself to your designated role in a company. Share your ideas with your creative team. The creative team has the craft to materialize your ideas and give them shape. Generating the creative seed is essential to human nature.
Remember, ideas are designation-agnostic.
Your biggest achievement has actually been with something that helped you rewrite the book on producing and monetizing music related entertainment content, not only on Radio but also on TV. Let’s talk about the TV biggie first. 9XM actually came out of nowhere, as it were, and dethroned the then leader, completely decisively. Where did the ideas come to you From?
9XM was built on an observation that everyone loved Hindi songs and consumed them all their lives. However, it was considered ‘un-cool’ to listen to them in parties and clubs.
English music was the emperor and no one had the guts to call out that the emperor was wearing no clothes. TV channels used to play Bollywood music, but almost as though they would rather play a Michael Jackson song than a Govinda song. The VJs looked like they would rather be in New York or LA. When they interviewed SRK or Salman Khan they would pretend to be friends with them.
I changed everything! I created 9XM as a hard-core Bollywood music channel where we were proud of and loved our Hindi songs – Haq Se!
However, I had to bring in characters that represented this thinking into the channel. As a long-term business investment and most certainly as a differentiator, I decided to throw animated characters into the mix.
My Chote& Bade, BheegiBilli etc. were created as these super cool, sons-of-the-soil, street language-speaking Bollywood fans. 9XM and all its animated characters were always positioned as fans of Bollywood who would give their left animated arm to get an autograph of SRK.
SRK’s song, ‘PhirBhiDilHai Hindustani’ lyrics were also source of inspiration for making my characters. I still love that song.The colors I used to package 9XM were straight out of a wild Holi party after drinking bhaang-ki-lassi.
Of course, a lot was going on under the hood, in the backend. I was lucky to have a super fantastic operations team, led by my dear friend RiyazAmlani, that implemented all my ideas and were confident enough to tell me if they did not like an idea. I had the magnificent Pervez Quadir to voice and create my channel audio idents.
Half way into making the channel I realized that I did not have a writer in my team to write the lyrics for the 9XM idents. I had met Gulzar Saab earlier, seeking his help in the lyrics department. However, he did not agree with my tag line Haq Se and declined to write for me.
So, when Pervez composed the 9XM anthem and idents, he came to me in the studio for the lyrics he could voice. I asked him to keep the melody and sing using only the word 9XM and Haq Se as lyrics. That is why the 9XM idents did not have any lyrics, but it created strong branding.
Some people ask me why I did not give Chote& Bade legs. Interestingly, they both had legs when I first imagined them. However, the launch date of the channel got brought forward, and I realized that to animate the walking would take longer. I asked my animators to remove their legs. I was confident that the character personality that I had created of Chote and Bade would pull through, and it did.
When one is having so much fun making and sustaining a product, success becomes almost incidental. It was in the third week of launch, when Ranjit, our TAM and research expert called me and told me that we had beaten MTV.
I can proudly say that 9XM became the #1 music TV channel some weeks ago again, according to BARC data. That’s 10 out of 10 points for sustainability.
After 9XM, you seem to have gone ahead with a vengeance and created and released several regional language channels, but mostly modelled on the new format of music channel presentation that you wrote for the industry. What did you do and how have they fared so far?
I believe that people love hearing and conversing in the language they have grown up speaking. India is blessed with a diverse culture and languages which reflect in our regional movies, music and jokes. What worked for 9XM in Hindi works for our other languages too.
I was lucky to lead the programming team when I launched Radio City in Telugu (Hyderabad) and Tamil (Chennai) and was exposed to the awesome power of our Tamil and Telugu music under the able guidance of Sai Prasad and Ahmed.
After the success of 9XM in Hindi, I was certain that regional is the way forward.
I proved it first by creating and launching Hummra M (Bhojpuri Music TV Channel), Fatafati (Bangla Music TV Channel) and Zingaat (Marathi Music TV Channel).
The concept was to make watching and listening to the respective regional music super-cool.
To give you an example, Hummra M became Bihar and Jharkhand’s #1 music TV channel in three weeks of its launch, according to TAM data. In fact, in week ten, Hummra M even knocked the socks off Mahuaa TV and Big Magic which were giant TV channels.
Today, with the production values of regional music and movies at par with international standards, it is rather lazy to be pushing the ‘one channel made for all regions’ formula to our beautifully diverse country.
My dear friend and colleague and one of the partners of Indirect Media, AshishChoudhary, gave me the opportunity of creating my first Hindi movie TV channel, Bflix Movies.
In Bflix Movies I discovered firsthand the power of dubbed movies. Pure reg
ional movies dubbed well in Hindi sometimes works even better than a hit Hindi movie. Bflix Movies really completed the circle of songs and movies for me.
Another language that I am very bullish on for India is the English language.
Interesting that you mention English language entertainment content. What are the need gaps amongst the networks running currently?
English is an aspirational language for most of India. I will not get into the reasons for English being aspirational in India as I am not qualified to talk about that. Bollywood and Advertising, in its finest tradition, has always used English to cleverly leverage its content.
However, we sometimes forget and mostly fail to recognize that the same product (TV shows or movies) creates different emotional responses in different cultures. In India we need to be even more cognizant of this, given our depth of diversity. These differences in emotional responses need to be studied before launching any English TV or radio channel.
According to me, the foreign English language studios and networks have only touched the tip of the Indian English-speaking market iceberg.
If you were to relaunch the Turner or Warner Movie channels in India, what would your advice to them be?
It would be presumptuous to advise Turner or Warner on how to re-launch their movie channels in India without first understanding and accepting their brief.
However, I would always advice anyone entering the Indian market to look at their packaging, movie selection and promos From the point of view of the Indian viewer. Many international products like Coke, KFC etc. learnt this quickly and changed not only their communication tone for India but also adjusted their product to some extent.
India is a giant market and ideally you should launch your product only once.
My belief is, Radio is the most difficult medium to survive in. Would you agree? What does one need to do to be able to survive and thrive in Radio today?
Radio, according to me, is the simplest medium and should be treated as such. I’ve heard professionals describe it as the ‘theater of the mind’, while I consider radio to be the connecting of hearts.
Humans learn very early the emotional importance of sound in our lives. Even before we can see, we hear our mother’s voice talking to us. We must use Radio to connect with our listeners in an uncomplicated fashion. That way the chances of success significantly rise.
Radio medium becomes difficult when career professionals try to take this simple medium and run it like a TV network. Massive offices, complicated designations and aspirations of ruling the minds of the listeners.Whereas, really, they should focus on ruling their hearts in a simple and consistent manner.
Radio stations try to create big ticket shows and events as a quick path to instant success. This is lazy thinking. One cannot rely on superstars to make successful shows without first creating a fantastic script. Remember, your mother’s voice, with which you bonded with as a baby was not an international superstar.
All this creates super escalated costs of running the radio business, thus unnecessarily making it one of the most difficult mediums to survive in.
You have successfully explored and professionally performed in almost all possible mediums available. What about movies? Do you plan to produce or direct a full-length movie?
It’s funny that you should ask that. Since the last twenty odd months my good friend Lekhesh and I have been working together diligently and excitedly on a movie script. We both are extremely passionate about the story. The screenplay is nearly ready. Since Lekhesh is a lawyer by profession and I have received no formal training in script writing, we have literally reinvented the wheel. The dialogues have been constructed very differently and the story progression keeps you on the edge.
The full bound script will be ready in a few months to be converted into a mega full-length movie.
I have also been writing a science fiction book based on time and parallel universes. Though most people don’t know it, I am a huge fan and connoisseur of science and astronomy. The book was nearly complete two years ago, but I lost all my data. All that remained of the 200 pages I had written of the book was in my head. I did the only thing possible that any other passionate person would do, I switched on my spanking new laptop and started writing my book again. It’s turned out to be a blessing because I like the new version of my book even better.
What is your personal value system like? What do you hold most important?
I think the essence of every human being, his actions and in-actions, boil down to their personal values. And in their essence, these values are very simple to speak about and understand.
For me, it would be, love everyone with an understanding of the frailties of human nature.