Ashwin Padmanabhan, who recently got elevated as the President – Investments, Trading and Partnerships at GroupM, heads the GroupM Motion Entertainment (formerly Motion Content Group – MCG). The practice, which is focused on merging brands with content through partnerships with content creators, is eyeing significant expansion by widening its content network across multiple languages. In an exclusive chat with MediaNews4U, Padmanabhan elaborated his plans for GroupM Motion Entertainment:
You were on the media owner side and moved to an agency. How did it happen? Did the background help in your agency journey?
When I reflect on my experience prior to joining GroupM, a lot of it was in the space of actually setting up and running a publisher network. My first exposure to media happened in 2004. I used to work for an investment firm called iLabs in Hyderabad and it was investing to set up TV9. I was thrown into the project primarily to help set up the studios. So, I moved into media through the technical route where I worked with some of the best design consultants to set up a state-of-the-art studio for TV9.
The next project of iLabs was a partnership with Getty Images through a company called Visage Media Services. We became a master delegate for the images in India, became their representative, involving both distribution and content creation both. It brought me into the creative side of media, because it was not just about selling stock images but also creating a bank of Indian stock images which didn’t exist at that time. That pushed me into understanding creativity, consumers, trends in terms of fashion and social trends, because we had to create images which could be relevant for the next three to five years. Then I onboarded Big FM. It was an exciting journey of my life, the 11.5 years I spent there, starting at Hyderabad and finally getting a chance to run the network as Chief Operating Officer. It exposed me to the business of media as well as content creation.
When I joined GroupM, my initial mandate was in a way an extension of what I had done all my life, to bring in all that expertise in an environment like GroupM. I got the freedom to apply it not just in one medium like radio but across mediums. So personally, for me it was a huge step up in terms of growth, understanding of a multimedia environment. Moving into the agency ecosystem I realised that I have the opportunity for a deeper understanding of brands because of the extremely close relationship that an agency has with the brands that it manages and advises. My first project was to actually set up GroupM Motion Entertainment, our content production and investment arm. Then about three and a half years ago we launched INCA, which is an influencer marketing practice, and again an understanding of both technology as well as content and creators helped us set that up. Today both businesses are flourishing, growing. This year, GroupM Motion Entertainment has moved into production of movies. We are producing 10-odd feature films today, seven in Marathi, two in Tamil.
GroupM Motion Entertainment is the same as MCG. As we speak, we are rebranding it as GroupM Motion Entertainment.
In my new role now, I continue to manage these products and also have an additional mandate to drive the investments that we make on behalf of our clients into the media. Honestly all these experiences of having worked in a media environment and over the past five and half years working in an agency environment is helping me being empathetic to both, requirements of our clients and media partners, to be able to marry the two to create magic.
What is the objective of GroupM Motion Entertainment and your plans for the same?
We are trying to create an ecosystem which is self-sustaining, not within GroupM as an agency but in the content creation and monetisation ecosystem that exists. Today our consumers have a very limited attention span. We as consumers are consuming content in different times, places, devices, and the same content is being actually repurposed in different ways. This is making the job of content creator and publisher very difficult to actually reach and retain a consumer. Similarly, it is making the job of a brand to reach the consumer also tough.
Through GroupM Motion Entertainment we are trying to create an environment where we work with publishers, platforms who are best in content creation so they get a partner who is an equal in the risks that they take in content creation. We also keep in mind that our clients are constantly seeking innovative ways to tell their stories, where the brand story is seamlessly merged into the consumer story. We are able to actually offer access to our brands to exclusive content opportunities; to our platform, publishing partners, we are investing in them upfront in content creation and helping them monetise it.
The idea is to create incremental value through our participation and there are multiple ways in which we do it. Every platform partner has got a different structure in which they operate and we are flexible too. The way we are approaching movies is while we have taken the risk of producing it, the idea is that when we license these movies to a platform, we are able to offer them a path to monetisation as well. We are a studio who works with a larger creative ecosystem. We are not really competing with anybody, actually adding capability, complimenting and collaborating with every creator in the ecosystem to enable them, enabling platforms to do more and our clients to get something which is exclusive and unique.
We have done web series on YouTube. In fact, one of the biggest shows we did was Vallamai Tharayo, with Vikatan. Season 1 was on YouTube, it got critical acclaim, multiple brands benefitted from the participation and we have similarly done two other shows on YouTube. We have collaborated with partners in Tamil Nadu to actually do three reality/non-fiction shows on Sun TV. In fact, Vijay Sethupathi’s first ever television appearance was on a show that we created for Sun TV. From that perspective the idea is we look at opportunities to create content which works for both the platform as well as the brand. The biggest shows in the formats that we have created over the years is a show No. 1 Yaari, which was created along with Diageo. That’s become a very big format.
As we speak currently, we have a show in Bangla My Startup Show, which is in collaboration with Star Jalsha and Britannia. This is where the content that we are creating gels with the brand’s and platform’s objective. We created a unique format for women entrepreneurs – it is a reality show for them.
Britannia has been running a very interesting and innovative programme ‘My Startup’. As a part of that they have been funding deserving small and medium businesses run by women to enable them to grow and flourish. When we created this format and discussed it with Britannia, they were very excited because they could imagine that this platform will allow them to actually multiply their own programme multiple times. With that understanding and support of Star, we were able to actually go live in Bangla. The ambition is that we now take this show to multiple markets and languages.
The GroupM Motion Entertainment team has been working with the WPP OpenX team, to design, build and produce Coke Studio Tamil. It is produced and managed by us and it’s been a fantastic partnership. In fact last year in the first Coke Studio project we worked on, was the single Memu Aagamu with Allu Arjun and Armaan Malik. The Coke Studio concept was created 14 years ago by the team of Coke in Pakistan. It’s been very successful, but this is the first season of Coke Studio Tamil. The beauty of Coke Studio is that it leverages the local sensibilities and culture of every market. Coke Studio Tamil had to be unique to the culture, sounds of Tamil Nadu, and what we did was we worked with them to design the creative template of this season as well as executed the whole season from a production perspective. Coke Studio is an IP founded by Coke. We worked with them to take it to the new market.
It works in different ways; they built the capability as a studio. Some part of the work we do is where we invest in creating our own formats and then taking it to brands and platforms. Some part of the work is to create good, great content for brands who believe that content is what will help them connect with audiences and help them build the culture.
You tie up with content creators and studios in various markets, how do you identify potential partners and what are the parameters under which you associate with them?
Movie business is still a business that we are experimenting and figuring out. We have never produced a movie before. Obviously, I have a very strong and small team, the whole content business is led by Satyanarayan Murthy who is based in Bengaluru. The movie Business Head is Zara, who has been a creative head at GroupM Motion Entertainment for many years. Now she is running the business part of the movie business as well. We keep on meeting partners and understanding multiple things. One is the kind of story we want to tell. We are very clear that we want to tell positive stories, stories which are culturally close to what is happening and stories which brands will also want to associate with.
On the studio side we are constantly looking for partners who are themselves professional, who have got systems and processes to be able to organise the space. A lot of our partners themselves are corporates, a lot of them are working with systems and processes that enable us to build confidence. So, it is not just two individuals working, it is two organisations working with each other.
How about working with individual talents or content creators who are aspiring ? Any scope for that?
A lot of the work we do with individual talent, content creators, is in the space of influencer marketing and that is under INCA we started three years ago. Our focus in GroupM Motion Entertainment is primarily long form content, be it reality or scripted drama. What we do in INCA is primarily short form and which gets deployed on social platforms. That’s where we work with individual creators the most.
Recently you got the expanded role with the investment portfolio being added. How have you taken it so far? How does it benefit you to deliver better output?
Honestly, it gives me both a huge responsibility and at the same time it is an opportunity to be able to bring two sides of the business together to create a lot more value. Now it gives me the opportunity to talk to more partners, understand their requirements, needs, build those partnerships in a much more holistic manner. It allows me to engage with clients in ways in which we are able to share a complete landscape of everything that we can do for them. There’s an opportunity to create significantly more value for both the clients and partners.
You spoke about Vallamai Tharayo. Have you done more projects of a similar kind at the national level?
Content is a business. We are clear that it needs to be done in a controlled manner with partners that gel with us. Honestly, we were very lucky that we found a partner in Vikatan and Mr. Srinivasan and his whole team who run their business professionally and understand the consumers in Tamil Nadu very well and know how to create content and tell stories. When we look at other markets, our endeavour is to find partners like Vikatan everywhere because we also acknowledge that while we understand the business of structuring content, we are not ourselves individually storytellers. We need partners who can tell stories beautifully, bring the story alive and who understand consumers in those markets from a storytelling perspective.
While our ambition is limitless, our execution of that limitless ambition is more pragmatic. I would say constantly seeking partners like Vikatan everywhere.
Would you be looking at companies like Sri Venkateshwara Films (SVF) an established player in Bengal, they are also into content creation through hoichoi, or like the Geetha Arts in Hyderabad who are connected with OTT aha.?
Reality is that we are in discussion with all the names that you spoke of. They are also in this business for the long term. We do see synergy with businesses like these and we are in discussion with them to see how we can work on more projects. From a GroupM Motion Content perspective, 2023 is the time of proving and 2024 will be the year of inflection. I anticipate that all those partnerships and projects that we are investing in ’23 should allow us to cross that point of inflection in 2024 and grow significantly and exponentially.
There were instances where brands got extraordinary reach through platforms like TVF and Pocket Aces, whereas big monies spent on mega projects disastrously failed because of the poor cooperation and understanding of the creators. How will you be able to overcome that challenge?
That’s where we built our skills and capability. Because we are ourselves producers, we have the empathy towards a creator and brand. We understand both and that is exactly the skill we bring to the team.
The reason why you work with the creator is because you want to connect with the brands. If you end up creating content which doesn’t connect with the audience, the brand also doesn’t benefit. So it is important for us to advice a brand and show how it can feature seamlessly and be a part of the story rather than a burden on the story.
We have worked with the TVF, Pocket Aces. The system is an example of how you can do it beautifully. We have examples of success and we need to learn from that. We need to recognise, it is possible to do if you’re conscious of both the creator’s storytelling expertise and what the brand wants to achieve. I am very proud of that capability we have built over these six to seven years.
Brands have been trying to associate with cinema constantly and GroupM was upfront in doing that in so many years. But a recent report by TYNY in which out of a total spend of Rs.1.5 lakh crore, movies were able to clock around Rs.800 crore. Does this mean agencies or brands were unable to get along with cinema as an industry?
Cinema advertising industry was the hardest hit because of the pandemic. For more than two years there was no option to advertise in cinema because you didn’t have theatres open and when theatres did open you didn’t have enough movies to get people into the theatres.
Even today, cinema advertising industry struggles, in pockets it works very well, like in the South it has revived but in Bollywood it’s still struggling. We don’t have that pipeline of movies yet. Some of the big budget movies have also not fared that well in the box office. The story of cinema is not whether agencies and brands see cinema as relevant to connect with audiences. The story of cinema is about supply. The more supply you are able to generate, ‘supply’ means in terms of eyeballs, new movies getting released into theatres, drawing in more and more footwalls into theatres; brands will spend more. We didn’t have the option to spend, which is why that number is what it is.
We are seeing more spends happening in the South because there we are seeing footwalls coming back to theatres, a very strong pipeline of releases and it is continuous. I think it is imperative for the advertising business in cinema to grow, that the Bollywood industry does well in theatres, and that will then create the incremental supply. Brands have not gone off cinema, we need the supply to be able to bring the brands back to cinema.
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