Adventures in Marketing: Reflections from my career in Print Media

Recently, someone sent me a message about the closure of Pune Mirror and change in the periodicity of Mumbai Mirror, from daily to weekly. Much before the Covid hit businesses, the print media has been struggling on two counts; first, there has been delayed thinking and action on the business transformation – a strategy gap and second, learning to live with a dynamic planning process. Covid complicated things further and reactive response followed – layoffs, closures etc. This news about Mirror transported me back to 1989 when I started my career. The problems were similar and yes, many magazines were on the chopping block!

 A career span of 25 years does not really make me qualified to write about the history of newspapers in India. However, my experience integrated with the experiences of my seniors collectively somewhat justify my attempt to chronicle the transition of newspapers business from the established world of journalism to the evolving domain of marketing. I would explain this transition by expanding on the key phases of my career-

1.      Circulation is all about distribution and logistics

2.      Making space for marketing

3.      Using Pricing as a strategic advantage

4.      Marketing is about action

5.      Be a challenger and have fun

I started my career in 1989 at the Times group which was at the cusp of a change; the newly appointed Vice Chairman (VC) was driving the business and he was bringing in younger employees, possibly to execute some kind of a cultural shift. A fresher MBA in those days was a great situation to be in. I was offered a job in the circulation department and when I asked about my responsibilities, this is what I was told – you need to visit depots in the morning.

Circulation is all about distribution and logistics:

I joined at the Times Patna office and when I met my seniors, they told me the same. It’s all about distribution and logistics. Therefore, no surprise for me when I spent the first day in the office and the night at the Press to see the dispatch operations. My initial disappointment with the job responsibilities grew by the days and weeks till one day I was told that I will be making a presentation to the Director-RMD (A few months after I joined the department it was renamed Results and Market Development). The concepts studied during the MBA years were still fresh and I started thinking about crafting my presentation. I refused to accept the idea that I work for a distribution function and one of the ways that could be expressed was through my presentation. I did two dramatic things at that meeting. I used the term ‘Channel partner’ for the dealers and instead of referring to our newspapers and magazines as publications, I termed them ‘Brand’. The Director nodded in appreciation and I could sense that we were not far behind from marketing – we were closer than what we thought.

Making space for marketing

One of the reasons that marketing as a function remained alien to the print media business was the dominance of the ‘journalism’ or if I may say, the editors. I remember how some of the journalists would say – newspapers are not products; you can’t treat newspapers as soaps or detergents. The VC, however, thought otherwise and to implement a strong marketing orientation through the organization, S. K Mehta, an FMCG veteran was brought in. He set the tone for the editors to appreciate the idea of newspapers as a product and later as individual brands. By 1991-92, the groundwork for transitioning into the marketing era was complete. Within the organization, it was the marketing orientation that was driving tactics and strategies – for example, RMD-Director gave us a mission which was named RMD Panchshila: Competitive advantage, Cost-effectiveness, customer service, advertising relevant circulation and trade relations. A reluctant acceptance by the editorial teams followed and those who wanted to hold on to their strong views moved on to ‘pursue their interests’ outside the organization.

Using pricing as a strategic advantage

An interesting part of the media folklore goes like this: the VC in his younger days was once on way to office from his Alipore residence in Kolkata. He noticed a long queue in front of the Alipore Zoo. This was his regular route to the office but he never noticed such a big crowd waiting to go in. The driver sensed his curiosity and informed him that the entry was free every Monday. Considering the small entry fee that zoo charged those days, free entry did not justify the swell in the number of visitors to the zoo. However, this intrigued him and the idea of ‘zero-price high attraction scenario’ stuck on. With the launch of Brand Equity, it was time to experiment with the idea. Many executives looked at this idea as superfluous – can reducing Rs.2/- on a cover price of Rs.4/- get more readers for a premium product like The Economic Times(ET)? Unlikely, many predicted. However, this idea was to be pursued and the legendary marketing genius S K Mehta who was the Director Marketing (fondly called MKD) thoughtfully gave this strategy a name: Invitation Price.

Based on the Pavlovian theory of conditioned learning, he expected that the stimulus of low pricing would elicit more purchases on the days of lower prices. And it worked, and how! Sales of ET on Wednesday swelled up (almost doubled) and there were a large number of new readers (that included me and my batch mates) getting hooked to the paper and thus reading it on other days as well.

The zoo intrigue fructified and it set the stage for a pricing revolution in the print media business. It’s ironic that despite the price elasticity on display, many industry stalwarts did not take a note of it till 1994. That was the year when invitation price was launched for The Times of India(TOI) in the Delhi market. The competitor could not sense its long term impact and that started TOI’s journey towards leadership in the Delhi market which it attained in 2003, after a long battle of nine years. This was not only a strategic win for the Times group but it also established its marketing thought leadership. The reluctant acceptance by the editors in the early 90s gave way to the pride that started manifesting in the closer ties between the business function and the editorial function. The transition for the editors; from editors to product managers was almost complete. By 2002, it was formalized when the group started associating editors with a market (e.g. Resident Editor-Delhi Market).

Marketing is about action

As we entered the 21st century, print media’s transformation into a business driven by sound marketing was at its final stage. We were fighting a pitched battle with HT for the leadership position in the Delhi market and in one of the review meetings S.K. Mehta (who made a comeback as a consultant) was making his observations on our marketing plans. He asked a question – where are your key activities that can be seen by the readers? A profound observation that changed the way we looked at our own activities. This was further strengthened by the aggressive push orchestrated by three fine marketing minds – Ravi Dhariwal, Rahul Kansal and Sanjeev Vohra. The action came alive in the marketing function and how – it covered the entire spectrum of marketing i.e. of creating, communicating and delivering customer value.

What followed was a perfect harmonization of the product, promotion, price and place strategies – fit to go in a textbook as an example.

As for RMD, for the first time, it ventured into an unknown territory of prepaid subscriptions. We learnt through trials and perfected the art of acquiring readers and the science to retain the readers to deliver a strong audience to the advertisers. To the best of my understanding, by 2010 marketing had almost peaked in the print media business. However, the business strategies were just unfolding before us.

Be a challenger and have fun

In 2010, Shrijeet Mishra moved on from HUL to our group and coming from the FMCG business, he was quick to identify business opportunities in language newspapers. For long, the Times group had focused on English dailies and grew its business in a spectacular manner. However, that growth curve was flattening and the group began to strategize its entry into existing markets with new products. One such tough market was Kolkata where TOI was a very successful challenger to The Telegraph. The Bengali newspaper market leader ABP (Ananda Bazar Patrika) was a very strong brand with over a million copies sold every day. The next competitor was Bartaman at about 3.50 lac copies. In 2012, we started planning to enter this market – a unique challenge because the group had not launched a new broadsheet newspaper brand in the last four decades! In fact, when the word went out, a newspaper vendor union leader came to my office and asked – I have heard that you are planning to launch a Bengali newspaper? Can you really compete with ABP? Korte parben na (you will not be able to do it!). He was wrong. Clearly, he undermined the power of good marketing which starts with understanding and articulating customer value.

Between July 2012 and October 2012, what Kolkata witnessed was a perfectly coordinated marketing strategy in action that resulted in almost 2 lacs pre-launch subscriptions. By any standards, we exceeded all expectations and what was born on 17th October was not just a newspaper called Ei Samay but it was a testimony and a tribute to the core idea of marketing – create, communicate and deliver customer value.

In the preceding paragraphs, I have made an attempt to capture the successful transition of newspaper business into the business of solutions for the advertisers. The last decade has brought in a new tangent of transformation. As the consumers are increasingly engaging more and more on digital platforms, newspapers are presented with an opportunity of convergence; where the physical and digital world complement each other to perform the task that marketing does best – as Peter Drucker would say, “create value for customers”. Therefore, the marketing ideas of the 90s and early 2000 need revision. This is a courageous task that can be performed by someone who understands consumers of this new age. I am waiting for the new breed of thinkers who can play like S.K. Mehta and Ravi Dhariwal, and would redefine this business, again!

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