Life OK will be #1 Hindi GEC in 18 months: Ajit Thakur

18 Dec,2013

 

When the media heard Ajit Thakur was returning to the country to join Star India and relaunch its second Hindi GEC, it didn’t require Star bosses to tell us that it wasn’t just a flanking strategy. As General Manager and Business Head of the channel, he was sure to make it formidable force. Although the start may have been slow for Life OK, there appears to have been a method to the growth, says Mr Thakur in this extended interview with MxMIndia. As it happens, today (December 18) is when Life OK completes two years of existence. And on the eve of this milestone, Mr Thakur told us he wants Life OK to be the No 1 Hindi general entertainment channels in a year-and-a-half. May sound ambitious, but look what’s happened at Multi Screen Media with Sab TV consistently ahead of Sony! There are of course many content plans up his sleeve, and a refresh and brand-push is also on the anvil. Excerpts from the interview:

 

Two years on, how has the Life OK journey been?

I think it’s been a rollercoaster in the truest sense of the word. Because we’ve had as many downs as ups. For me, that’s been the joy of it. We said we’ll aim to make a place for ourselves without following the code of conduct of GECs – target the woman, do soaps and pitch these women protagonists – as the only way to grow a GEC channel. We didn’t do any of the three. So the good thing is 14% market share, 2 years later without following the three GEC codes. I’m very satisfied. And the bonus has been we’ve broken even.

 

At the time of Life OK’s launch, we spoke with Sanjay Gupta and some others on the one reason why your predecessor Star One didn’t work was the attention given to it, or rather the lack of it. It was always Star Plus that was getting primary attention. Obviously your personal existence here has, kind of, changed that. Would you say the primary channel’s got more prominence even now?

I think the big difference that has happened from Star One to Life OK is that the flanker strategy has changed to a full-blown challenger strategy. And that’s important in many ways than one, but to answer your question directly, the way it works right now is that Life OK is seen as sometimes the best, sometimes a star, sometimes as the younger sibling who wants a lot more attention in all forms.

 

So everything – from internally emotionally blackmailing to whatever it takes for us to get attention, we do that. And the great thing is that the attention has been coming both in terms of softer aspects as well in terms of harder ones. Which was in terms of investment that we needed. And we’ve got it. And to the extent that now, every time I’ve met Uday in the last six months, after we’ve kind of, managed to establish: there’s only one thing he says. So when are you beating Star Plus? And that is unheard in the corridors of the Star network in the last few years. That’s the only question he asks me. And I think for that we had to make sure we put our feet firmly on the ground… which we have done in the last six months.

 

Did this change happen mid-course in these two years or was it there from the very beginning?

I think in terms of the intention and investment, it was there right from when I joined in August of 2011. That’s the reason why they wanted pretty much a separate management to the extent that we were told to run out of an independent office.

 

I’ll tell you what the last 12 months has seen. And it is linked to a couple of things that happened in the universe. As we were going into digitization and LC1, there was a lot of uncertainty of what’s going to happen. By then we already had 10% marketshare. We were doing fine and all that stuff. But what it gave us in that entire churn of both LC1 and digitization and metros first and the next tier towns was that suddenly the share of the Top 3 channels in terms of absolute numbers was declining and from the lower three, two channels, one of which was Life OK was clearly growing and then six months back, we broke away from the pack. And as that has happened, it’s given us the third reason which is a tangible proof of saying that yes, it can be a good long-running GEC to saying oh, we have a serious chance at becoming No 1.

 

For a long period after launch, you were not among the Top 5

Yes, we were No 6.

 

So, it took it’s time?

Yes.

 

And in the past, we’ve had GECs which turned No 1 in a year!?

Yes.

 

As mediawatchers, one wasn’t very sure whether Star India was walking the talk on making Life OK strong enough to be the No. 1?

I’ll give you very clear answers on this. I could substantiate the numbers but because of reasons of confidentiality, I won’t. But I’ll give you a very clear answer on this. Because nobody has asked me this question so directly. There are three things.

 

First and foremost, among the many channels that have launched in broadly the GEC or Hindi category, there’s been only one before us that has sustained for a good run. And all credit to that launch.

 

But when we started, we said we’ll fund ourselves. So we’re not going to lose a lot of the company’s money in the first 3 years to see where we land to get that marketshare. And I’m very, very proud of that fact that we broke even at the end of our first full year of operations. At the end of June last year, we were breaking even. This year, we will turn profitable. And that nobody can claim including the one channel we’re talking about.

 

There are many who’ve come, not wanting to be called GEC. And some have come and said they’ll be GECs. One has succeeded long-term, yes, full credit to them and become No 1 overnight, like you said. But nobody’s broken even or turned profitable within the first two years of operations which is important because in today’s market, as we’re getting into digitization and more and more fragmentation, the quick win doesn’t equal to sustainable, profitable growth. Today somebody can create a No 1 GEC at three times programming investments and not make money and somebody can be a No 3 GEC at 1.5x programming investments and make money. Which one would you choose? I would go for the latter.

 

Hmmm.

These are two different channels among the current Top 5 where the 3x and 1.5x is very relevant and say we’re at 1x of investment. But the 1.5x may not be a No 1 but significantly more profitable than the 3x. So that is important. Right? And then comes the third factor, which is where I think may be we are wrong, but we won’t change it. Which is that the kind of genres and programming strategy we’ve taken on, there are two things that are happening. One, there’s a faster burn in our stories. So when you pick up a show which is a family drama but rooted in domestic violence and you want to treat it like a thriller. Today, what did we come and do?

 

Our first hit which was ‘Saubhaagyavati Bhava’ was treated like a thriller, not a regular kitchen soap. We exhaust our stories much faster. Second is that there’s a certain kind of viewership that is happening in middle India where there’s familiarity with the ‘Saas-Bahu’ type of shows. I have nothing against dramas, I have a predominance of dramas set in the kitchen. Right? The familiarity of that means that anything new that you want to push, either you manage to get it right but you exhaust the story fast, you don’t get noticed at all. It has happened to every two of our three launches. Because the DNA of the show is so different that you just don’t land it there. This is not for me. And for whatever it’s worth, the dominant viewer in the household on weekdays is still the housewife. The dominant viewer, I’m not saying the exclusive viewer. And that changes on the weekend. Which is why our programming changes so much.

 

So every time we leave a show which you know is a sure takeoff point because it’s set in the kitchen, we have a little moment of ‘we should’ve done it’. But we haven’t done it. And we’re happy for that because now when we go back and talk about it, they’re very clear that amongst the Top 3 there’s nobody who offers them variety. There are other people who offer them variety but not the Top 3. And Life OK is definitely one of those channels that offers them the variety where there’s something for everybody in the family to watch, including kids. We have a very conscious kids strategy. At 8 pm, our next launch, ‘Hatim’ is purely designed for kids. But enough of a narrative like any of the good animations from Hollywood. Adults can watch it.

 

Was the intent of Life OK being a Star Plus killer in existence from the very beginning or did it change as you moved on?

I won’t use the word killer but I would say a serious challenger to the No 1 position. It was there right from the beginning. Both in terms of investment and intent. What the last 12 months or 6 months in particular have done is that it has given a tangible proof of that we can achieve it.

 

I was telling you the three things that make us stand out is One, turning profitable, having sustained a two-year run and looking to continue consolidate, which has been the case with one more channel, but, I think no one has turned profitable so quickly. Second is that, in two years now, it seems like the journey is only 25% done. So we know the plan ahead. So we know where we want to go. And, third, and most important is that we’ve still not given into the temptation of doing the same.

 

Given that there’s a Star Plus already wouldn’t it have been better for Star India to offer a channel with a similar content strategy so that advertisers can be given a better packaged deal?

If the corporate strategy was to bring in Life OK to fill in the gaps or get whatever is left after Star Plus, we would’ve continued to be a flanker channel and we wouldn’t have been where we are today. What we’ve been told is chart your own destiny, find a space for yourself that’s distinct from Star Plus but still big enough to challenge it and cross it. So we’ve never had a brief of saying what is the best way to monetize the two channels together? If that was the brief, we would’ve remained an 80 GRP channel and at 8% share and it would still have made a lot of sense for the corporate.

 

Has LC1 helped you or been a shot in the arm for you?

What has helped us a network is that we have been aware of the power of the smaller markets much before the others and without giving details we’ve gone and activated that for all three channels… for Star Plus, Star World and Life OK. And that we did before the measurement came in. I think too often in the industry we’ve been guilty of chasing the measurement matrix to market and plan content. And I think every time somebody does that you’re always behind the trend. So we’ve taken the leap of faith and I can tell you that we’ve just gone town by town, village by village and taken the message of the network with a very unique programme that we’ve created. So much so that now there are some clients who now want to come on board on that programme. Saying hey listen, we went there and we saw a poster of Nayi Soch and Life OK Mahotsav… what have you guys done?

 

So, being aware to the smaller market did help. Did digitization help? I don’t think it helped Life OK. All it did was it made an even playing field for everybody for content to finally win.

 

When you started out, you had this huge digital thing. Your name was Life Ok. The fonts used in your identity were cool. You had a Madhuri Dixit as the ‘sutradhaar’ So it had a fairly urban as against a middle India feel. Did you at that point of time feel there was a bit of a disconnect?

When I say middle India, I mean middle class India. For me that exists as much in Mumbai as in Moradabad. So for me that was never a disconnect. Over time, as the content has been consumed differently, without any intentional push, some markets have become stronger than others. So our first market that became strong was completely intentional, which was UP and Delhi. But after that an MP nad Punjab came to us much faster than Mumbai and people started saying you’re more small town India than big town India! But digitization happened and now in Mumbai we’re growing as fast as any other market.

 

What about the all-important Gujarat market.

There are so many people are competing for it, I’d rather leave it for now. The only way to cater to Gujarat is to create content for them. Unfortunately in two years I haven’t found a single show which is set in Gujarat which I’ve liked.

 

In a city like Mumbai you don’t find Gujarati content?

I found a lot of Gujarati content which is set in the kitchen. But by definition we won’t do it. So, in April we’ll do our first content targeting them and which is a musical. I can’t tell you anymore.

 

We’ve had a situation where you’ve had a flanking channel which is become the No 1 in the network. You’ve been yoyo-ing with that channel – Sab TV – for a while in terms of the ratings. When can we expect a Life OK displacing Star Plus to be the No 1?

You know I wish I knew the answer. But jokes aside, I’d give ourselves 18 months to make it happen.

 

To be the No 1 Hindi GEC in the country?

Yes. I mean, you can’t have a longer timeline then that! So I’d give ourselves 18 months.

 

You have a background of having achieved a fair bit of success at Sony

Yes, but the glass was half full. I would’ve loved to finish that. Not a fair comment to say on a LifeOK interview but family came first and I wanted to move to Singapore so all that happened. But I must tell you, I’m a big fan of what Sab TV does and that I can say officially.

 

It’s a channel which stands out for me. I’m very happy for them. My personal attachment is to Sony because I’ve worked there. But for us, our destiny is not there, because nobody is trying to target the whole family. And we’re trying to make this big statement that we must in the Indian context allow the family to come together and watch TV. And not divide them and make them watch their programs.

 

And by doing that if we can come to 14% and No 4, we’ll have to work much harder, but we can become 24% and No 1. And that’s what we want to do. But we’ll do it by keeping the family together.

 

In terms of programming hours, is it going to change? You’ve done your share of reality shows. Not a good share but some reality shows. You’ve not had too much success with them.

Yes, I’ll tell you on reality shows and then I’ll come back and answer in terms of programming hours. That’s why I told you that every two of the three new ideas we do, fail. And I enjoy our failures because there’s so much to learn from each one of them. On reality shows my brief to the team is don’t bring me a singing-and-dancing idea. We’ve tried a show about making people find love, which is ‘Bachelorette’ or a show about finding talent beyond just adults which was ‘Kids: Hindustan ke Hunarbaaz’ or ‘Saavdhaan’ it’s fiction, non-fiction, it’s about crime or we did ‘Come Dine with Me’..

 

Did you think ‘Mahadev’ would be such a success?

No, not at all. No clue. We had no clue.

 

But you kind of put many eggs in a basket.

On three shows.

 

You also had a whole concert around Mahadev?

Because he was a unifying hero. I have this big thing that all content must unify. So we’d think who’s the one hero who unifies? But our highest investment was on ‘Saubhaagyavati Bhava’. The second was ‘Meri Maa’ which failed. Sach ka Saamna Bhrashtachar ke khilaf: failed! Because nobody wants to see a show on voyeurism around corruption.

 

Are you looking at Sach ka Saamna again?

Yes, we’re trying to find the right take on it. Then the last one was Mahadev. Mahadev was a No 4 at that time. And by the way Mahadev didn’t take off till four months of launch. It was kind of hovering. Saubhaagyavati Bhava became a big hit. A show we didn’t promote at all called ‘Main Lakshmi tere aangan ki’ became our second big hit. A simple thing about a girl’s choices between money and love.

 

So tell me, now that you’ve mentioned about the 18-month window …

I just made it up.. but, yes, that’s it.

 

… which is just a year-and-a-half away. What are the specifics you’ve thought of for what you’ve to achieve over the next one year?

Obviously I can’t talk about specific plans but I’ll tell you things that are a part of the DNA of the team. So the first specific and it’s an important one is that we’ll continue to be modest. The problem with some of our predecessors who’ve had a good start and failed is that at some stage you start thinking that you know it all. This audience is evolving fast. The market is fast-changing. With digitization we don’t know how many more dynamics will come into it.

 

An integral part of that modesty is knowing that we’ll still continue to fail more often than we’l; succeed. If we don’t keep failing, we won’t do the next thing better. This thing that we’ll have zero failure rate doesn’t exist in my dictionary.

 

The second thing is that I think we’ve to take our content play to the next level. For a number of reasons. So, with advertisers now, we’re full. Our inventory is full even in the leanest months now. Because they can see the efficiency with which Life OK delivers for them. We are going to do a big award show for which we’re going to make a formal announcement around Christmas.

 

Is it the Screen Awards?

I wouldn’t confirm it right now, but the reason I’m telling you this is so that you understand there’s a method to the madness. One is about humility and continue to learn from failures. Second is about creating impact. In fact on reach in some weeks, we’re No 2 if you’ve been tracking it in the last few months. That message to advertisers has completely gone through. That Life OK has some impact properties which are not regular ‘Saas-Bahu’ shows, they also know that. But now we want to give them the impact properties as big as any channel. The only difference is that for us impact doesn’t equal to the next big dance or singing show. After the award show, we’re going to open up from March to June with impact in fiction. And there you’ll see the method to madness.

 

Hmmm….

If you realize after launch, we’ve been lying low on the brand. There’s no point going and saying this is the brand that’s gonna change your life! Until enough people are watching it. So come Quarter 1 next year, by the end of it, on the impact of the changes and stuff we’re doing in ficiton and the award show, we’re going to refresh the brand and this time we’re going to say what we want to say. A brand that wants to go more with entertainment, a brand that wants to keep the foundation.

 

Have you started working on that already?

Yes, we’re ready with it but we won’t launch it yet. Because we want to launch it along with our content.

 

With the award show or later?

First quarter, we don’t know the timing yet, but between January and March.

 

Post a Comment 

One response to “Life OK will be #1 Hindi GEC in 18 months: Ajit Thakur”

  1. arvind says:

    hi can i give a very important message to ajit thakur or at least can u pass on the msg 2 him which will help many humans worldwide including the channel life ok……

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