BARC is not keen to take part in industry rivalry: Sunil Lulla

MUMBAI: Eight years ago India’s viewership monitoring agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) was born. Its conception was the result of an unhappy industry and several Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) interventions that resulted in the  shutting down of viewership ratings as an industry currency by Tam Media Research. 

Since its launch, BARC has done a commendable job of building the world’s largest audience measurement system in one of the most fragmented markets. Last year, the affable veteran media industry executive Sunil Lulla was brought in to lead the organisation after the departure of its CEO Partho Dasgupta.

Lulla,a well-rounded professional, has had around three decades of work experience in advertising, music, the internet, youth and news broadcasting, production and OTT companies.  He could not have come in at a more challenging time: TRAI has been making noises about bringing in another viewership monitoring agency. Then some member or the other from time to time has been raising a stink about his channel’s viewership. Also, hardly six months of his joining, the pandemic hit, and Sunil and team BARC had to turn to working from home.

Lulla got into a fireside chat with founder, CEO and editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari on all things related to the organisation he heads. He spoke at length about his vision for BARC 2.0, challenges faced during pandemic, controversies revolving around the company and much more insightful details. Excerpts from the interview as written by Shikha Singh.

Watch our fireside chat with Sunil Lulla

How are you guys working now?

At the start of the epidemic, we were not equipped to do work from home. We got ready when we had to. We pick up people and drop them. We had to resize our company in terms of cost structure because we knew revenues were going to fall, and I was successful at doing that. I think the team has done a brilliant job of making sure BARC delivers output and stays relevant. We made sure that we ran at a commercial value that the industry warrants us to. I think it's all about how you approach things.

We have got back to the office.  We are working with 83 employees across locations. Our productivity has gone up. People enjoy coming to the office. For a lot of people work from home is not easy in India, because of space or other constraints. Work from office is a professional space. There is enough social distancing. We have field operations in every state. In some places, they can’t travel in every city, because there may be a containment zone. But in many places they are. If I remember correctly, the stats for this week are that 97 per cent of people are on the road.

Was there any impact on people who were having meters at their home?

There is a people meter box in a particular home, and then there's a people meter box in a retail outlets, restaurants, bars and cafes. So the HoReCa (hotel, restaurant and café) business is shut because there is no out of home consumption of food, spirit beverages or any kind, no restaurant is open no coffee shop. We have access to those places but we are not utilising them as there is nobody there to measure television content.

The home panel, as we closed in March, is continuing at the same pace. We have not added new homes until now, because in many places there were restrictions. But we will add new homes in the next few months as the restrictions open up. Some of the homes did move out,  some came back. We had to do routine maintenance of the box. During May and June some of the homes did not recharge their SIM cards, cable bills, DTH. But right now, relatively speaking, we are much better off and almost as good as before the lockdown happened. 

The good part is that most of the people have watched television and TV viewing went up by 43 per cent. January 2020 is what we call the pre-Covid2019 period. We are now 15 percent higher in viewing, six per cent higher in daily reach,  nine  per cent higher in daily viewing, and 18 per cent higher in ad volumes as compared to January. July and August 2020 have done better than July and August of 2019. In September we are trending higher. All parameters of engagement are on the positive side.

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Was it an individual decision to invite you or was it a collective decision to have you onboard?

A large part of my life has been representing the audiovisual industry directly or indirectly. TV networks have taken a large part of my professional existence. BARC represents the stakeholders of advertising, marketing, and audiences. It basically is a currency of  where the audience is and marketers and sellers, that is broadcasters, exchange that value. It is a big privilege for me to represent the stakeholder body. We help provide the information, for them to understand what India watches

It was a board-based decision, the chairman of the company then and even now is Punit Goenka. Many people have known  me because I was involved in the TV and advertising business. So, they reached out to me and it was a good opportunity to build what we are building. It has lived upto the expectation and  I have set myself a calendar, and an agenda for all of us to build BARC 2.0. We are stretching and pushing harder with some constraints in this particular environment. But I think we will build a much stronger measurement system.

What BARC 2.0 is going to look like?

Measurement science is the heart of the company.  We have been able to build or reinforce that in terms of processes of measurement as well as in processes of validation. We have invested very heavily in terms of validation of  what we do. And there is that every day correction. It is not something that you dial up or down, but something you statistically wade in and out of. Because when we say that this is what India watches, we better be sure of that statement. Yes, it is a sample, it’s an extrapolation of that sample within a reasonable range that you can look from an estimate point of view. So there will always be those statistical errors, which are statistically validated. For us, it will be some amount of expansion that we will do in sample homes, the continuous corrections that we do, the processes we bring in, the volume of data that we generate is humungous and people tend to think of it in terms of audience measurement. But it is also picking up and hauling that data, storing it and being secure about it. It’s the ethics of the organisation that are really important – the standards that we set out over there.

Also, if there is one big takeaway from this pandemic it is that there has been a huge adoption of digital consumption. We are working very closely with the industry to build something which can offer a ‘one video view.’ You may watch TV, you may watch the TV show on your telephone or you may watch an OTT content which is not coming on TV. We would like to bring that measure to bear and that’s what we are working towards. We will begin that process next year of being able to share that data in 2021.

BARC’s previous attempts to monitor digital video consumption were ambitious. What you need to understand is that the currency starts with advertising. Television was estimated to be a Rs 32,000 crore industry. It is going to be a little less this year because of the pandemic. It’s going to bounce back pretty much. What is going to accelerate it is the advertising investment happening in digital.

So you start from where the marketing money is being spent, because marketing drives consumption, consumption drives the economy.

That’s where I see BARC’s role playing out in benchmarking, measuring, projecting or stating out on how the consumption is happening and how that economy is being driven. We already have had conversations with the stakeholders. We will now to have to build proof of concept, build pilots, though it could take a year. Everybody need not participate.  On TV all channels get watermarked, all channels want to get measured. In digital many players may or may not participate. But we will navigate this as we go along. I do believe that if we have a good successful commercial model, then there is one neutral entity called BARC that measures television and if we can bring other components that bring digital, give it time, then we should be able to deliver on both accounts. We are open to partnerships. At the end of the day, it is not about a number. Any independent streaming platform can give you a number. It's a demographic relationship that you need which comes from the audience. And that information is not easily available. That information is available at the TV end. We can link in those two and that’s a conversation for 2021. The right tool will come in place. We will all work together, learn together – both locally and globally how to build it.

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What about expanding the sample of TV?

We are at 44,000 boxes today. We will get to 50,000. Expansion is a moot point given what’s happened within the industry. These things cost money. The industry pays for it. And we have to also be allowed to do the processes and measures we can do. So we have to wait for a little more unlock, a little less scare and then be able to progress this. Our repair centre has been working two shifts a day and we have started replacing repaired boxes.

You took over BARC in end of 2019, what have you been doing since then?

The big part of the exercise that we did was to report the data as is where is. And consistency is not a simple act. You need to sort that data and be consistent with your processes. You need to make sure you have all the safeguards in place, it’s not an easy act. The pandemic made it a lot more difficult as we were not able to move out, getting the data around, and getting the boxes going, not being able in expand in May, June and July.

Installations were not happening as you are dealing with fear – both at the sample end and at the organisation end. We  made very big steps in data validation. The board appointed an oversight committee that validates every single thing we do. We brought back trust into the industry.

I spent a lot of time from December to March, going from city to city and town to town talking to our stakeholders over there and explaining to them about what we were trying to do. The algorithm we were trying to do. One of the big demands which was coming in from the industry was to address the inflated viewership that sometimes comes due to the forced viewing due to landing pages. We took a long time to address that. It is a large scale technological and statistical project.

We have got our company far more ingrained in deep processes, and the culture of measurement. For me that has been the changeover, that we have made within the company. I think the industry recognises it, the board too does, the stakeholder body too. We have continued to run our techcom measurement, oversight meetings in the same rigour that we did. The data goes out there. The same time every Thursday.

Despite all this there was News Broadcast Association (NBA) writing to you about TV9 Networks' spiking viewership?

The best part of doing something is to know that somebody is always  unhappy in the world. They are unhappy because everybody wants to be number one. Our job is for the marketing industry to give them credible evidence, that those people who are watching TV, we can report on that with accuracy.That’s what we do.  Which channel people choose to watch or how much time they want to spend is their choice. We have to make sure the sampling and representation of that sample is accurate. Competitive rivalry is part of the industry, we don't  partake   in that. There has been a shift in people's choices. Men have started watching a lot more television in non-prime time. Similarly kids got exposed to a lot of news. There was no original content for the first few months. A lot of habits changed over there. If you look today and compare it to a year back, there are significant changes in preference. And there are always changes, channel preferences change from year to year. There is a resettling back to where we were in January now. Some consumers may have started watching digital content. We are going to have live with these changes. 

There have been departures in the past few months. Have we seen the last of that?

BARC's functioning organisation is eight years old. The operations and release of data started five years back in 2015. On an average, over the last many years our average attrition of 10 per cent, and it is not a surprising number in this market. People who have worked for seven to eight years want to do other things and are justified. I am grateful for their contribution. Also I don't think you need to replace senior people with other experienced people, we have given a lot of younger people an opportunity to grow and redesign the organisation a bit so there is greater participation.We have given a lot more people a lot more say in the management of BARC. It’s not as pyramidic  as it used to be. When you start a company you start with a pyramid, then it starts expanding. We are at that part where we have started expanding. The natural evolution of BARC has been good. Apart from that the functioning of the company remains the same.

Measurement science team has got stronger, more robust. Dr. Derrick Gray runs that.  Data and product team sit together. This was not as aligned over the last five years but because of I believe that data measurement is at the heart of the business and it will be consolidated. Technology which is a very important aspect of securing the data and churning the data as well as transporting that data has a very strong role to play in the day to day management of the company. Our commercial function is centric within our CFO. We have given other functions like HR, legal a lot of new leaders. I think the management is more robust, it is wider, it is less centric and more participative of the company.

I would also like to have many more advertisers buying our products and services. We have a lot of broadcasters and agencies buying; we would like to have a lot more advertisers. Some have really shown confidence and faith, our large customers, and I would like to grow that pie. Because I would also like to have many more advertisers buying our products and services. We have a lot of broadcasters and agencies currently. We would like to have a lot more advertisers. Our large customers have really shown confidence and faith and I would like to grow that pie. there is a lot in the TV data that many marketers can benefit from and it's just not ratings. It’s the habit of buying; the way you plan your spots. There are some agencies who are doing a phenomenal job of planning. Advertisers have started spending a lot of money on TV and they are challenged to spend a lot of money on digital. I believe they can understand the TV data better. And as the economy starts unlocking and marketers will want to bring back their volumes, their market shares, their numbers back on the table. They will start spending more both on TV and now digital. Marketers can participate in that data pool and then use the expert partners – the agencies – to build a better proposition for their advertising.  I think there is a great opportunity in terms of the tools we are developing – both for broadcasters as well as marketers. 

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