"I doubt whether any channel can now do what Star Plus did in 2000": Starcom business development head Ravi Kiran

You would not be blamed if you missed Starcom Mediavest Group India's general manager investment and business development in a crowd. With his hair cropped short, and his dimunitive and lean frame, the bespectacled Ravi Kiran has none of the flashiness which many advertising professionals tend to display. Calm and self-composed, soft-spoken, and non-intrusive is the first impression one gathers on meeting him.

But get a little closer and probe some more and you realise that there's a bomb ticking in his brain, a bomb of media and creative ideas which explodes regularly.

Under his belt are brands which many a peer would just die to handle. This apart, his talent has been recognised courtesy his being invited to industry fora.

You can learn more about Kiran by clicking on the following link (Ravi Kiran: A man of many parts), but for now it's time to read the first of a two part interview with him which was conducted by's managing editor Abraham Thomas who chatted with
him in Mumbai. Excerpts -


Media vehicles on offer have become so diverse that the work of a media buyer-planner has become extremely complex. Apart from the electronic media, what kind of an impact will the alternative platforms like FM, Internet and outdoor advertising create in the near term? Can you offer a picture of the near-term scenario for these streams individually?

The business has become very complex. Nevertheless, media planners and buyers cannot afford to ignore emerging media like digital and radio and established media such as 'Out-of-Home'. In fact, if anything, to maintain a competitive advantage in the backdrop of the increasing complexity of the marketing function itself, media professionals have to include BTL [below-the-line] media such as sports, events and POS (points of sale) in their repertoire. Already, many of us are using 'contact planning' rather than 'media planning' to describe what we do. This signifies a dramatic broad basing of our deliverables and expertise.

In the near future, agencies will need to free their media professionals' time by automating as much of the repetitive and routine work as possible to ensure that minds are free to generate breakthrough ideas. Agencies will adopt two ways to do it. First, better tools will be developed or international tools will be adapted to local market needs to cut a lot of mechanical work. Secondly, in those media vehicles, where concrete data is not available, namely OOH, PR and POS, the agency experience will need to be mined and built into a knowledge base, so that the cycle time in producing solutions for clients is reduced.
"I doubt whether any channel can now do what Star Plus did in 2000. A change in the leadership position in the market will not happen in the immediate future, if at all. TV viewers are not that flippant "


Has television as an advertising medium disappointed or has it delivered? What are its plus points and its negative points?

The mushrooming of TV channels within a short span of time has made us forget that TV is a relatively new medium if one ignores the decades of DD's existence. Has it disappointed? No way. What is disappointing is our over-dependence on TV! We advertising folks have always suffered from this kind of mood swings. There is a tendency to stick to 'It's either this or that'. Therefore, it is either TV or Print. The fact remains that very few media can provide the kind of reach and cost efficiency that TV can. This is particularly true when you look at a huge mass of small town audiences that don't have many means of family entertainment and vast population that is officially literate but cannot really read.

Having said that, TV is also a fairly busy medium in terms of the commercial messages. It is forever squeezing the attention span of viewers and this makes commercial messages less effective. Therein lies the opportunity for media buyers and planners to effectively use other media tactically. Each medium has its use, and the onus is on us to take advantage of it to suit our brands' specific needs.

"Innovation in media is about bringing in new thinking; doing something never done before; actively engaging the viewer; not offending them"


What are the markers you consider while buying or rejecting a certain programme? Can you tell us about the key indicators that you look for in the various genres; for instance the general entertainment channels vis-a-vis the special interest channels?

When we evaluate programmes on general interest channels, we give prime importance to the reach, particularly if our brand is a 'mass market' player. There are some general interest channels that deliver low absolute reach; but also low CPRP, because of the demand-supply situation. We consider these channels for brands that do not have heavy resources and those that target consumers in the smaller towns.

The biggest strength of the special interest channels is that they bring in the ever elusive light viewers of the medium, predominantly the upscale working people. Many of them, again, due to the unique demand-supply situation in our market, have a lower clutter level than their general interest cousins. They are also willing to work along with the agency and the advertiser to build consumer interactivity into media initiatives rather than just pump GRPs.

In July 2002, for instance, Channel [V] helped us launch Kellogg's 'Cheez-It' cheese snacks nationally by putting together an on-air promotion using its VJs. Earlier, Zee English helped one of our clients, Chromozome innerwear, use TV without having a TV commercial, through a unique 3-way promotional deal with an Internet site. The interesting fact is that programming, marketing and ad sales work much closer in many specialist channels, thereby ensuring that the client get a good value-added return on the media investment. Specialist channels can also deliver reach if used smartly. We proved this with the launch of Toyota Qualis way back in 2000 by creating what was India's first TV plan that used only specialist channels. On the face of it, it was a risky thing for us to do. But finally the rigour of analysis and the smartness of negotiation coupled with execution enabled us to carve out a sure-fire winner!

"As incidence of two TV households rises, TV will get even more specialised. One can safely expect Chat TV, Women's TV, Bollywood Masala TV, Gadget TV, Court TV and the like, over a three to five year horizon"

Do you think the TV ad market has deteriorated? Do you expect growth in this sector?

There will be growth in TV. The pace will be slower than what TV sales people would be hoping for. The important fact is the TV hardware sales have picked up and will continue to grow as will cable penetration from the present 57 per cent. As incidence of two TV households rises, TV will get even more specialised. One can safely expect Chat TV, Women's TV, Bollywood Masala TV, Gadget TV, Court TV and the like, over a three to five year horizon. .
There seems to be just no one to counter the domination of Star Plus. Do you see this changing next year? What is likely to change the leadership position?

I don't know why it has become fashionable to look for a counter to Star Plus. Yes, Star Plus does charge a premium CPRP for the audience it delivers; but so what? Look at it this way. Star Plus took a risk when it went Hindi, kept building on it consistently by launching new programmes; and even today takes very few short cuts in quality. So, if it dominates viewer popularity now, I think it has earned it. In fact, if you look at cost per reach point, rather than rating point, Star Plus actually is the most effective channel even now. It's amazing that very few of us are asking similar questions about Sun TV, which has a very similar domination in TN.

I do agree that it is not in the interest of any market to allow a monopoly for long; and perhaps that's why we are hoping someone provides a counter. But would we rather have a shoddy product than a monopoly product? Not me.

Having said that, it is but natural that Star Plus is unlikely to grow much from where it is, in terms of viewership share. It should try to hold on to what it has. I doubt whether any channel can now do what Star Plus did in 2000. A change in the leadership position in the market will not happen in the immediate future, if at all. TV viewers are not that flippant.

The other channels have to constantly experiment, innovate, continue launching new programmes and consolidating existing winners, spend more energy understanding the changing consumer preferences and launch initiatives to cater to that. So far, most of the programming people have been treating TV like Bollywood; now they need to be much more viewer sensitive. The viewer votes come in regularly and they need to monitor them better. The channels need to treat programmes like consumer brands, something that is bought daily or weekly, and apply all the principles of consumer marketing. That's what Star Plus did with KBC - a good launch, huge trials and continuous innovation to secure repeat buying. I doubt whether many programming executives have a grounding in consumer marketing. Perhaps that's why they rely much more on gut call and hit-and-trial rather than the development and application of formal knowledge.
What are the probable changes that will come in over the next few years?

Two kinds of fundamental changes will happen in future: property building and interactivity. I believe that over the years, we shall use TV in conjunction with other media, rather than instead of them, to build what we at Starcom call 'ownable media properties'. Our thinking will need to go beyond a year when it comes to such things. We have to have the courage of conviction to commit ourselves to multiple years of investment behind a media product we believe in.

Look at the Femina Miss India contest. Despite being backed up by a print powerhouse, would it have been as big a product, if it were not for TV? I also believe we need to drive a lot of consumer interactivity into the way we look at TV planning. What is the action we expect people to take once they have received our communication? We have to grow beyond just exposing our commercials. We have to move the consumer, who is getting increasingly cynical about advertising.
The question of authenticity is constantly thrown up regarding TV viewership data. Do you have any comment on this?

Speaking for myself and Starcom, I can categorically say that we have no doubts about the authenticity of TV Meter data, despite all the chaos created. There are issues of representation and accuracy; but that is true for all the research that use sample survey. No one is claiming viewership information to be a census, right? So why expect 100 per cent accuracy?

No one questions the hunches of a creative director or a product manager. No one questions the clients and agencies when they use the 'findings' of the dipstick research involving 15-20 respondents or badly moderated focus groups. Yet, instead of looking at the benefits of viewership data, we have made it fashionable to do meter bashing.

I believe people who keep bringing up this issue, every once in a while, either fail to understand research or have some other priorities. But that does not mean we should stop the debate. I believe we should look at the viewership data as directional and descriptive rather than prescriptive. If we allow ourselves to be prisoners of data we should blame ourselves and not the data. The truth is, any kind of research tells us about the most recent past. If we choose to ignore this and start blaming research, it will be at the cost of our own progress.
Are there enough innovations happening in India as far as media buyers/planners are concerned?

Frankly, no. I believe that the understanding of innovation as a media concept by our market is rather primitive. As a result, we have a blinkered way of looking at media innovations. We think that the only role of media innovation is to cut through media clutter and increase pure visibility. Therefore, some of us feel that sponsoring any show, or running a few crawlies, can be called an innovation. Some others think that anything done in cricket beyond taking spots is innovation. As a result, we have a strange situation of 'innovation clutter'.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that 'innovation' is different from 'irritation'. If our so-called innovations alienate the viewer, we would have achieved nothing. So we should work together with the channel programming folks in conceptualizing and implementing innovations rather than force our so-called 'innovative' ideas on them. After all, they are much more interested in keeping the viewers on their channel than any media planner or buyer ever would be.

My discontent with our current state is that too often I see innovations that are designed to make the agency earn brownies for itself rather than offer any substantial benefits to the brand. And many of them conveniently forget the fact that the viewers out there have a remote-control in their hands!

I believe we should broad-base our notion of innovation from what has been traditionally known as innovations to instilling innovative thinking in everything we do. This should cover everything from media strategy to implementation. Recently, for Hugo Boss fine fragrances, we did some unique 'fact finding' in the retail stores; brought innovative thinking to the media strategy; recommended a media mix dramatically different from what is normally done in that category. We reaped rich dividends as the brand sales went right through the roof! One of our other clients, Dr Morepen, has a fantastic and a new way of looking at innovations. The client puts so much emphasis on innovating, that it is constantly keeping us on our toes.

Innovation in media is about bringing in new thinking; doing something never done before; actively engaging the viewer; not offending them; creating 'opportunities to interact' as opposed to 'opportunities to see'. To sum it all up, it is building, what we at Starcom call, 'ownable media properties'. But it is imperative to always keep ourselves focused on what matters most to our brands --- 'results' in the market.
Do you think there is maturity in television ad sales professionals in terms of utilizing the potential of television as a promotional vehicle?

I am perhaps going to upset a lot of sales people, but I feel that most of the ad sales personnel are far from mature. Under pressure to deliver revenue, we are pushing sales executives into the market literally days after they have left college. They are armed with a very perfunctory induction programme and very inadequate training. We are not imparting any skills to them other than selling. They do not understand how consumers choose brands. They do not understand how advertising works. They do not appreciate that other media may have a role in a media plan. They are clueless about the real issues consumer brands face in today's competitive scenario. They talk proudly about content, without perhaps believing a word of it themselves. They use vague words such as mileage, impact, ambience, quality and expect you to entrust them with millions from the client's budgets.

It seems ridiculous, but all they are trying to do is fill up the inventory as fast as possible. And most of them are playing the game by the rules someone else had created. They seem to be following a supposedly 'winning' formula devised by someone else. Ask a sales person to tell you the last time she or he did something fresh and new and you will find that a select few would raise their hands.

It seems ridiculous, but all they are trying to do is fill up the inventory as fast as possible. And most of them are playing the game by the rules someone else had created. They seem to be following a supposedly 'winning' formula devised by someone else. Ask a sales person to tell you the last time she or he did something fresh and new and you will find that a select few would raise their hands.

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