The Past, Present & Future of Ormax Media

17 Jun,2014

 

Behind every channel and reality/fiction show’s success is a lot of hard work by its programming and business teams. And over the last few years by a  Mumbai-headquartered research firm called Ormax Media. It’s small in size, but big in ideas. Almost every television channel will vouch for that and in recent times other media companies too. But the maximum growth has been with films where the processes are getting structured and scientific. As Ormax Media completes six years in the business, Pradyuman Maheshwari spent an hour-odd with co-founder and CEO Shailesh Kapoor in his office last week and asked him for insights on the firm’s journey and plans for the future. Excerpts from the interview:

 

Six years seem to have just flown by. As you look back, how’s the journey been?

I think the most interesting part of the journey originates from the idea that while we are a media insights firm, we set ourselves up to be more like a media company than a research company. We are very proud of the fact that we don’t follow some of the processes and practices that typical research companies follow either in the way they approach their proposals, they way they do fieldwork or the way they write presentations and reports. We have always taken a very media expertise-driven approach instead on processes and people. It’s really worked well over time. Increasingly, when we meet our clients today, they see us less and less as a research company, but instead see us as people who understand their business well and also have a contact with the consumer. But ‘understanding the business well’ part is critical to Ormax Media’s existence.

 

The fact that you were already part of the industry must’ve helped much in the early days?

Yes, in the first year, a lot of business happened through personal contacts, both Vispy Doctor’s and mine. But that can only take you to a certain level and thereon you have to create equity and grow. I think we did something very well in 2009 and 2010, which is giving us rich dividends now. Which was that rather than just scouting for bespoke business, we focused on creating a lot of standardized products that could cater to common industry needs. Today, we have about 24 such products. Our top-end products keep us very stable in terms of our business growth.

 

For example, Ormax True Value is a product we use to test television shows for GECs, kids, youth and other categories. Many channels were testing shows using qualitative research, but there was no standardized product for show testing that would give a forecast of the viewership and actually get into the diagnostics of what will work and wouldn’t, and have a very strong predictive sense to it. So once we have a product like that, which no other research company is offering, there is a natural advantage we build. If you need to test a show and you see a good product and that is the only product available in the market, you would tend to use that. And once you’ve used that once or twice and you like what you’re getting as an output and you get the confidence that this is accurate, you start using it more and more. We have used this product-led model to secure a lot of business over time.

 

Content testing is a tricky business, right? Television software is very tough to forecast viewers. So, aren’t you forever treading on very tricky terrain?

Yes, it is tricky. But I believe that forecasting any business parameter, be it box-office or viewership, has a very ‘put your money where your mouth is’ kind-of feel to it. There are times when we get it wrong too, but if we don’t take the risk, our impact on the channel’s or film company’s business is considerably reduced.

 

When we were not in the forecasting business, our access was more to the marketing and research departments. Now that we are forecasting across industries, we deal a lot more with CEOs, CFOs, GMs, Business Heads and CXOs. I think that’s a very encouraging shift for us from commanding a certain market positioning. Today, 70 percent of our meetings have a boardroom impact. The number was less than 40 percent till two years ago.

 

Of course, there is a lot of back-end work that goes into creating the right forecast models and generating accurate forecasts over time. A lot of data has to be collected and analysed. It’s like the black box or the secret sauce.

 

Can you share some examples where you’ve made some specific comment and that possibly transformed the show for a channel?

There’s very little I can share with names, as most such work is commissioned. But to give a general idea, there was a show we tested around three years ago. We tested it three times over a period of six months. It first tested average. There was an issue with the casting of the female lead and some issue with the narrative treatment too. But the basic idea tested well. The channel backed the idea and re-tested another pilot with a different female lead and director. By the third testing, the show had scored exceptionally well. It continues to be a successful show even today.

 

Is it right to say then that Ormax has clearly moved from being essentially a research firm to now advising CXOs?

I think that’s an accurate description of our recent journey. We’ve always had some consulting assignments, even when we started in 2008. But at that time, 90 percent of our work was still conventional research. Today, we are increasingly getting projects that are ‘mixed’ in nature, where we are playing the role of a consultant, doing some primary research, relying on some secondary data already in our system, or in the client’s system. So, we have liberated ourselves of the distinction between research and consulting, or between various types of researches for that matter. All that matters is the impact on the client’s business.

 

When you speak to CXOs directly, doesn’t it create resistance with the research guys?

There may be certain instances of that. But our Bollywood experience really taught us a lot regarding this area. Film people are driven strongly by box-office. Whether it is the studio head or the director or the marketing head, everyone understands the language of box office numbers. Even the creative people like directors and actors have a very strong orientation towards their film being a hit.

 

Dealing with the film industry, we realized that the moment you can talk business language, people just open up to you and are far more willing to have discussions that they won’t have with a research company. We have applied this insight to TV, radio and other areas of our work. If we can tell you that this is the way you can increase your GRPs or TVR or whatever the currency is, then everyone would want to be in the room listening to us.

 

When you have CEOs, CFOs and programming heads pouring their heart out to the problem they have, how do you manage with the confidentiality? Is that an issue?

It’s an often-asked question, but it’s never been an issue so far in six years. Confidentiality is at the heart of our business. It is one of the core values we espouse as an organisation. Since 2009 itself, we started spending on data collection so that we build insights that are owned by Ormax, and hence, can be freely shared across clients. But the life of the data we collect on a client project ends with the project. That’s a clear distinction we make.

 

We are bound by Non-Disclosure Agreements across clients. But more importantly, confidentiality, and the maturity needed for that, runs in our bloodstream as an organisation.

 

Tell me a little about your structure, team size etc.

We decided in 2009-10 that we won’t look at how the research industry is structured and replicate that. We intuitively structured ourselves as a service company instead, like say a good ad agency. We have three departments under which the 35-member team is structured.

 

Keerat Grewal heads the Account Management team, which is responsible for business development, client servicing and relationship building. Amit Bhatia is a part of her team and in-charge of our Delhi business. He also handles new priority products strategy for the entire company as an additional responsibility.

 

The Insights team is structured by domain. Anurag Bakhshi heads television insights, Gautam Jain leads film insights and Namrata Sukumar is responsible for print, radio and branded entertainment. Their teams include product managers and researchers.

 

The Operations team, headed by Khushroo Dumasia, is responsible for quality execution of projects. We have a state-of-the-art CATI (Computer Assisted Telephonic Interview) setup in Surat, from where a lot of our products run. It’s arguably the best CATI research facility in India, in terms of technology, processes and best practices.

 

What will the breakup of various domains in terms of their contribution to your business?

TV would currently be about 60%, films about 20% and the rest put together will be the remaining 20%. All three domains are growing, and the growth in films has been the fastest – over 100% for the last two years.

 

I remember you also doing work on radio. Give me an example of the work you do there.

We have a long-standing relationship with Radio City. Also, one of our very popular products is Ormax Heartbeats. It’s a weekly music charts product, which radio stations, music channels, music labels and film studios use to decide which songs to play and promote more than others. We also have an annual RJ Track we conduct in about 10 cities across India.

 

Are you looking at news channels?

Definitely. We have a product called Ormax Brand Matrix (OBM), which is a viewership maximization tool. OBM is being used widely across genres, ranging from news to infotainment to movie channels, and of course, GECs.

 

A lot of research companies offer ‘brand track’ products. The problem with brand tracks is that they are good-to-know, but not actionable. They give you a lot of data, but don’t help you convert it into specific plans to increase viewership.

 

OBM is a complete 360-degree turn on the old idea of a brand track. It gives a brand track a complete viewership orientation. That’s where our domain expertise comes in handy.

 

What about the kids’ genre?

A lot of very interesting work has happened in the kids space in the last five years. Ormax True Value is used across channels to test new kids shows. Ormax Small Wonders, our kids tracking study, is now into its tenth edition. It captures media and entertainment habits and preferences of kids every six months.

 

There is a lot of very satisfying bespoke work happening in kids’ genre, whereby the focus is on understanding trends and need gaps. We are very proud of our association with kid’s channels in India.

 

As you said, your films business has increased considerably over the years. Are they relying more on consumer insights or have you established your expertise or both?

I think it’s a bit of both. We’ve been very committed to growing our films business. We launched Ormax Cinematix, our flagship product in the films space, in 2010. Today, nine studios are subscribing into it for box office forecast of unreleased films and marketing inputs to improve their opening box office. But in the first year, we have only one client. We knew that film tracking and box office forecast is a big deal internationally. Our internal discussion was that we need to back our belief. Till 2012, we won’t question whether this product will work for us. We started seeing big results in 2012, and then there was no looking back.

 

Our other films product is Ormax Moviescope, where we pre-test the actual film weeks or months before its release with real audiences, and give content inputs and lifetime box office potential estimate of the film. We have now tested about 40 films across studios. Word of mouth really spreads in the film industry, which is how we have grown so rapidly in this sector. TV is a little more insular.

 

You’ve, in a sense, reached a stage of super-stardom in your business. There’s no direct competition, no specialized research firm doing this. So what next?

There are two clear areas we want to focus on in our seventh year. We still believe that our journey from being seen as researchers to being seen as media super-specialists has still not finished. We’re probably 50-60% there. We want to be in a state that six months from now, we can say that we will not take work that does not do justice to our boardroom positioning. That day, we would have completed the transition. It should happen by early 2015 if all goes well.

 

The second area we are focusing on is technology. We firmly believe that to remain relevant, we need to embrace the latest technology available to us, than sticking to traditional research methods. I understand we’re still not an Internet country as far as GECs or mass content is concerned. But that doesn’t mean we can’t bring in technology in another form.

 

One of our recent collaborations has been with a UK-based company called RealEyes. They provide automated facial coding services. Suppose you have a video, like a promo or a trailer even a half-hour episode, you can get the viewer to sit in front of a computer and watch the content, and the webcam will record their facial expressions. In the backend, the software will analyse the emotions. When did the audiences feel happy, sad, confused, scared, etc.? It’s actually not “research”. You aren’t asking any questions. It’s behavioural data. It can be quite spooky to know that normal viewing of content can be converted into emotional response.

 

We have created an India-specific product called Ormax Xpressive based on the RealEyes technology. We have already finished seven projects, even though the formal launch of the product is slated next week. The results are very encouraging. The sharpness of response we have got is something conventional research will never get close to.

 

It’s like you can have your ECG and see how the heartbeat reacts when Arnab Goswami speaks.

It’s like you just realized you don’t need an ECG! The technology is entirely via the webcam. No gadgetry is required, yet the results can be very interesting. We tested the first 2 States trailer as a pilot, when we were building the India product. The moment Amrita Singh would come on screen, the engagement with the promo will show a huge spike. This happened thrice in the trailer. It was clear that the trailer is working far more for its cultural stereotyping-led comedy, and less for its youthfulness. Claimed responses rarely give such clarity of thought.

 

We’ve already started building India benchmarks. Also, you may see a graph for a promo and say this is the scene where it went up and this is the scene where it went down. But you need the expertise of the category to understand what exactly led to the rise or the fall. In a promo test, we realized that close-ups are working much better than long shots. And that became a larger point. We are now wondering if it is true in general for all promos? So, we want to and can marry technology with our understanding of content. That’s the advantage we have.

 

There’s a belief that the best channels or the top shows across the world are all based on gut feel. Shows like Satymaev Jayate and Bigg Boss etc are on air more because of gut feel than research (or at least as much of both). What’s your view on this (and does basing content strategy on gut impact an insight advisory firm like Ormax)?

My answer to this question often surprises people. Ironically, though we’re in the insights business, where we should negating gut, we’ve been quite open to the idea that gut is very important. We try and promote the whole idea of ‘informed gut’. We say, you should look at all evidence, whether it comes from the consumer, it comes from ratings, internal discussions, gut, anywhere.

 

The research industry is globally moving towards evidence-based consulting, where you look at all the evidence available to you, including gut, and then you take an informed decision. We don’t enter a meeting where we’ve done some research and we say this is what it is and this has to be done. I think we put various perspectives on the table. Once the choices are sharply articulated, good business leaders find it easy to make choices. Even if they go with their gut, it will be an informed decision.

 

Also, our role is to increase the probability of success. There’s no guarantee, but if out of ten shows you launched last year, three worked, if you work with us, five will work! So if we can push that ratio, we are relevant.

 

You’ve been a business head of a channel yourself. Do you sometimes feel you should be sitting on the other side and actually running a channel?

The answer is a definitive no. Just the amount of diversity of work Ormax offers, and I think I speak for many others who work here, is enviable. In the morning, if I have a GEC meeting, in the afternoon I’m working on a kids’ project, and then meeting a film studio head in the evening. Next morning, it’s probably a radio research, followed an editorial meeting at a news channel. This variety in work can create vast knowledge and always a sense of freshness. The ability to learn and grow is decided by every person working at Ormax, not by the market. I’m not sure how many media organisations can promise this.

 

Would you be open for an acquisition or such a thing? There are others in the business that are looking at value-added television research.

I think while you should never say never, at this stage, that’s definitely not a thought in the mind. Instead, there’s the thought of going public in next 2-3 years, say around 2016. There are a lot of ideas in incubation, which may require funding at some stage. We believe we have only scaled a small peak so far. There’s a lot more to achieve. But the acquisition route is not a thought on either Vispy’s or my mind.

 

 

 

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