"We will be pumping money here to help grow the market and benefit from it.": AXN Asia marketing V-P Gregory Ho

Gregory Ho is an old hand at the broadcasting business. He cut his teeth in the cable and satellite industry with Asia Business News, where he managed the regional distribution sales of ABN in South-East Asia.

Following its merger with CNBC, Ho became the regional advertising sales manager for S-E Asia. At AXN, Ho handles the network's Asiawide marketing strategy including overseeing all viewer and trade marketing activities as well as corporate and public relations. Among his achievements since joining AXN are the launch of the network's website and several signature viewer events including the AXN Anime Festival and the AXN Challenge series.

Ho, who was in Mumbai recently for the 'Be a World Record Holder' event, took time off for a tete-a-tete with's Thomas Abraham.

Excerpts -

Are you satisfied with the response the Guinness world record initiative has received in India and other Asian countries?

The AXN Be A World Record Holder presented by HP Deskjet was a promotional initiative for one of our most successful reality programmes - Guinness World Records Primetime which airs on AXN at 9 pm every Wednesday.

This was a "first of its kind" promotional effort for the show and was done only in India. We received over 6,000 entries and are extremely pleased with the support our viewers have given us. The brave guys and gals who attempted to break/set new world records have done not just themselves and AXN proud but also, I believe, the whole of India should also be proud of their achievement. They are outstanding role models in the community and their feats have been submitted to the Guinness World of Records for verification.

Looking at Asia as a whole, how do you break up the markets?

Well, we have three dedicated feeds - Taiwan, India, and South-East Asia, which is the way we look at it from a marketing perspective. However, we do not look at South-East Asia as one market. The Philippines, Hong Kong and the rest of South-East Asia is how we have broken it up. Our biggest market is Taiwan, which interestingly has a 95 per cent cable penetration. It is the most competitive market, but also our cash cow. In some ways there are some similarities to India in the way the business is organised as far as the distribution side is concerned. There are five major players with the rest being made up of mom and pop operations.

As far as overall revenues are concerned, what's coming in from where?

Taiwan accounts for 40 per cent of our revenues, India 30 per cent and South-East Asia the remaining 30 per cent. In Taiwan, 60 per cent of our revenues are from distribution while 40 per cent comes in from advertising. In India, it is the exact opposite with 60 per cent from advertising and 40 per cent through distribution.

What has your revenue growth been like?

Well, we have just changed our accounting year to March to March, so there is some reorganisation as far as budgeting is concerned. Still, we have grown 100 per cent over the last year. Of course, it should be noted that this has been achieved from a small base. After all, we're only five years old (come September).

"We plan to launch in (South) Korea by January. The soft launch of the Korea feed will be in December."

What are your main focus areas in Asia?

We're still growing. We plan to launch in (South) Korea by January. The soft launch of the Korea feed will be in December. We're also looking at China, which is what everyone is looking at. In terms of real growth numbers it is China, India and Indonesia that are the three countries in Asia that everyone would like to get into. China is still a restricted market and there is too much instability in Indonesia so at the moment the only market where we're confident of immediate results is India. So, we will be pumping money here (India) to help grow the market and benefit from it.

How successful has the channel been in growing the brand among the advertising community in India and Asia over the past year?

As a relatively young brand not even five years old, AXN has achieved a remarkable level of awareness amongst the advertising trade. Our relative success is best evidenced by the large number of advertising clients already on the channel from blue chip multinationals such as MSN, Samsung and Ford to leading local corporations like Videocon International, NIIT and Shaw Wallace.

Have any targets been set for the channel in terms of viewership and revenue?

Our target is to maintain consistent ratings and our position amongst the top international channels in India. In advertising revenue, we are pacing well to achieve growth over last year's accomplishments.

"China, India and Indonesia are the three countries in Asia that everyone would like to get into. China is still a restricted market and there is too much instability in Indonesia so at the moment the only market where we're confident of immediate results is India. "

What other brand building on ground initiatives will roll out to push on air programming and increase ground presence during the course of the year?

Viewers can look forward to several more exciting promotions in the months ahead including the AXN Action Movie Festival: a 10-city tour across India starting in September stretching over five months. A whole week of action movie screenings at a leading cinema in each city with tickets given out to viewers. This is the third year of what has become an established and highly anticipated promotion.

Is the channel planning to build the online community further on by introducing interactive features like broadband which would give the site a more interactive feel? A possibility could be seeing brief previews of new shows in 3D.

Our on-line ambitions are relatively modest as our primary focus is still very much on building the core brand of the television network. Having said that, the website is regarded as an important means by which we build "bridges" to our viewers and interact with them directly. As such, we do already have a level of interactivity on our website that goes beyond the "usual" programming and corporate information. Monthly contests, an extremely active forum, regular voting polls and unique content not found even on the channel has enabled us to grow our on-line community to 70,000 members and an average traffic of 3.2 - 3.4 million page views per month. And 38.5 per cent of our membership is from South Asia. We are definitely looking at more interactive elements and features in the future.

Are there any plans for tie ups with FMCGs concerning cross promotional activity?

We have noticed an increased demand from advertising clients for creative solutions that encompass on-air, on-line and on-the-ground exposure for their brands. This is not a trend unique to India as we move increasingly towards a true partnership relationship as opposed to a supplier-buyer relationship, and AXN has been at the forefront of offering such integrated solutions. Recent examples include the Pepsi and the AXN Action Movie Festival, Samsung and Action Movie Premieres, and HP Deskjet and the AXN Be A World Record Holder event.

Instead of merely offering trips to Los Angeles, how about promoting action films like MIB 2 and Minority Report in the Asian region by having the stars like Tom Cruise visit other Asian countries besides Japan?

While it is an extremely difficult and costly investment to get Hollywood stars and celebrities to go on an Asian road show, AXN has nevertheless already done so as we do recognise the appeal of such publicity tours.

Last year, we brought the lead actress of the popular action series Sheena - Gena Lee Nolin - out for a two-city (Mumbai and Delhi) five day visit to India. This was her very first visit to Asia and as an indication of how important the India market is to us, we chose to bring her to India and to spend the most time in this market even though her show is also extremely popular in many other countries. This year, we will be bringing Australian cricket and TV celebrity Mike Whitney on a five-city tour of India.

What about launching merchandise connected to programmes like Who Dares Wins and Guinness Book of World Records in terms of books, music CDs, posters? I make a reference here to Cartoon Network which has managed to leverage brands such as Scooby Doo and the Powerpuff Girls through products.

This is an area that we have recognised as having great future potential for us as our brand AXN continues to grow from strength to strength. Our initial efforts which are designed more to increase brand visibility rather than create a new revenue stream have been reasonably successful and include a collaboration with Sony Music for an AXN Action Movie Hits CD / cassette music compilation as well as a collaboration with Milestone Interactive to create a package of four action oriented computer game software - WOW AXTION! Both are currently available for purchase in retail outlets.

"Localisation from our perspective does not necessarily have to be in the form of dubbing or subtitling of programmes or local production. We view our aggressive efforts in creating events as another form of localisation as the ultimate objective of any localisation effort is to create greater relevance with the viewer."

In terms of distribution, how has the channel been faring in India and Asia?

AXN continues to show strong growth in distribution. AXN is now available in over 30 million homes across 16 countries. In S-E Asia, we are now available as a basic channel on every major pay TV system. In India, we are seen in over 21 million households.

What about the possibility of the channel forging an alliance with regional channels for dubbed programmes to appear as programming blocks?

AXN is already an integral part of the strongest alliances, the Sony bouquet. Our distribution activities are also undertaken by the One Alliance, which boasts some of the best international TV channels and the Sony channels.

Our research tells us that the majority of AXN viewers prefer English as the broadcast language. As we penetrate deeper and deeper into India however, we are constantly evaluating this language opportunity.

Localisation from our perspective does not necessarily have to be in the form of dubbing or subtitling of programmes or local production. We view our aggressive efforts in creating events as another form of localisation as the ultimate objective of any localisation effort is to create greater relevance with the viewer.

How has the channel been faring in terms of audience share vis-a-vis rivals like HBO and Star Movies over the past year?

We are a "unique content channel" - the only network in India/Asia focussed on action and adventure and the only channel to offer a diversity in programming that ranges from popular action movies and action series to lifestyle sports and adventure and reality programmes. We are not a movie channel.

AXN is consistently amongst the top performing international channels in terms of audience share. Unlike movie channels, the ratings for which fluctuate according to the "hit / blockbuster" movie being screened, AXN has the advantage of different types of programmes such as weekly action series and adventure-reality programmes which establish a loyal base of viewers and help us maintain a consistent high level of viewership week in, week out.

When there are so many options available to the advertiser, as well as the viewer, is it not increasingly difficult to hold attention. What is AXN's value proposition?

In this type of a market, your branding and programming is critical. And this is the way cable TV is going to develop. We have to build a very clear idea of what we offer and what our key proposition is. That is what you offer to the viewer. I think a lot of channels get muddled in that area. Our proposition is very clear - action adventure. And we have to stay true to that. Clearly, we have achieved some level of success. We are the first with that and my job is to keep that lead and reinforce it to the viewer.

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