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Roudra Bhattacharya

With ad rates and revenues showing subdued growth year on year and brands taking increasingly the content route, branded content and native advertising are positioned to become one of the biggest growth areas for all publishers, feels HT Brand Studio’s Lead Roudra Bhattacharya.

In an interview with BuzzInContent, highlighting the growth potential that content marketing holds and how the brands can make the most of it, Bhattacharya said, “The ecosystem is getting better organised, and metrics are getting standardised. Great content has a much longer shelf life in consumer memory, often making its way into conversation. That builds fantastic recall and increases consideration and conversion — exactly what brands want.”

“A word of caution though — content marketing requires sustained and quality effort to build a strong narrative and should not be seen as a one-off activity. It requires patience. Also, the brand integration needs to be subtle,” he added.

In the last two years, HT’s content marketing arm Brand Studio has become a significant contributor to the overall revenue of HT Digital. In the next phase of its growth plan, the studio will increase its play into the fast growing vernacular market and the branded videos.

HT Brand Studio currently provides an end-to-end native advertising and custom content solutions to brands across all HT digital properties.


Why did HT feel the need to launch HT Brand Studio and what is the scope and contribution of the arm to the company’s overall revenue?

Web advertising today faces the twin challenge of high clutter and ad blindness. Thus, brands are increasingly looking for innovative ways to reach out to and engage their consumers. While the seed was planted in late 2015, the HT Brand Studio really came to shape by mid-2016 with a vision to leverage on the HT Group’s strengths and replicate the highest standards of editorial content for partner brands. The vision was to create an end-to-end native advertising and custom content solution that spans the entire value chain — from ideation, medium agnostic content creation, planning to finally digital marketing. Distribution is, of course, across the HT Group universe. In terms of scope, the team creates/manages any and all forms of content — videos series, comic strips, articles, social media engagement campaigns/contest, and websites. In two years, revenue has grown several multiples and today it is a significant share of the digital pie.

Do you think the brands and even publishers are doing content marketing and native advertising the right way?

I wouldn’t say brands are going wrong, rather that these are early days yet in content marketing. Most brands today have realised how important content is for building long-term share of mind. Most brands are experimenting and learning — so are publisher platforms. It’s a process where the entire ecosystem is figuring out the ropes.

That said, two things need to be highlighted. First, brands need to have a different approach to content marketing versus display and programmatic campaigns, which are very conversion-driven. Content requires both continuity and quality messaging to capture the imagination of today’s consumers. So patience is the key. Second, it is very important to remember that the brand’s own messaging needs to be very subtly integrated. At a time when everyone is a cynic, this helps great content stand tall on its own feet. Once that is done, it is easy for the brand to get its message across.

How much does HT Brand Studio focus on native advertising vs branded content?

This is very demand-driven, and at the moment would be more of an equal split. In some cases, native advertising works very well in its seamless integration with our news products. Though for some long-term campaigns, customer branded content solutions allows us huge flexibility in design and creative content.

Brand Studio provides content solutions to brands only on the group’s digital properties that include the HT, Mint and Hindustan websites among other platforms and not print. Do you think including the print will help maximise the revenue?

As a central in-house team, HT Brand Studio is integrated with the group’s print business and other arms, often co-developing brand campaigns and supporting group marketing plans across mediums. The team is a part of HT Digital Streams — a subsidiary of HT Media. As a part of the digital business, the team leverages on the flexibility and energy of one of the fastest growing areas for the group. True to the nature of the medium and the young audience, our websites and social media allow us immense creative potential in both content and marketing. That said, as and when required for client campaigns, we offer the group’s strength across print and radio, which when combined have unparalleled reach with a very premium audience.

The ad growth for newspapers has been muted in the last two-three years as the ad rates have remained almost stagnant. Wouldn’t content marketing eventually become significant source of revenues?

Yes, I agree with that. While display and programmatic ads have strong relevance for certain campaign goals, content marketing is increasingly playing a more important role. The ecosystem is getting better organised, and metrics are getting standardised across the entire value chain of advertisers, agencies and publishers. Great content has a much longer shelf life in consumer memory, often making its way into conversation. That builds fantastic recall and increases consideration and conversion — exactly what brands want. Consumers today are well-read, travelled and aware of their options. Storytelling thus personifies brands, and increases the share of mind. Most brands have realised this today and have increased their play on content. Platforms have also come up to reflect this shift in demand. A word of caution though — content marketing requires sustained and quality effort to build a strong narrative and should not be seen as a one-off activity.

You carry branded content under the ‘sponsored’ tag and various other traditional media houses also follow the same approach. Whereas, the new-age digital only platforms are carrying it simply as content. Do you think there’s a need to change the mindset of traditional news platforms towards content marketing?

Clearly tagging partnered content maintains credibility for both publishers and brands. The consumer is aware, informed and must be respected, and as long as the content is of great quality, it will always see great engagement. Look at our experience — content we created for a client’s campaign in India has been referred to in school text books all the way in Sweden. Now that’s the biggest proof of quality. We view our work with the journalistic lens.

Do you follow the same model as your international counterparts such as the NYT and Washington Post?

As a publisher native advertising studio, our approach is similar to our global counterparts, yet with an Indian spin. We are set up in a similar way as an intersection between business and editorial, and keep the high quality standards as well as transparency that is key for both our partners and the HT brand legacy. Yet, the kind of content we do is more tuned to local tastes. So more short form pieces, videos, and social media engagement-driven campaigns. Vernacular media is also another major growth area for us.

Globally, nearly all major publishers such as NYT or the Washington Post clearly mark out branded content from editorial as a policy under different tags. At HT, we follow a similar practice in order to keep our readers informed and maintain transparency. I feel a mature industry needs to move in this direction and judge content by its own merit. 

Can you tell us about the most successful campaigns that Brand Studio has undertaken?

I would touch upon three campaigns, which represent the variety of our work very well. In fact, the first two have won awards.

The first was Tata Tea’s Jaago Re campaign, a unique social awakening exercise where we had a great time ideating and executing content over six months. This was a hugely successful campaign where we wrote articles, shot videos, got petitions for a cause, built a website and drove an entire marketing plan across mediums. The reach here was massive.

Another fun campaign was a two-part video series for Aviva on encouraging women to seek life insurance. Here was a unique problem we were looking to solve by helping women realise their contribution, and encourage the segment to plan their finances better. It was key to project women’s insurance as a security measure for the entire family. This had a fabulous response from the audience at large.

The third campaign was in the B2B space for Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. Focused on the cloud computing services offered by HPE, this activity was spread over several months. We created a central portal, while partnering with CNBC-TV18 for a series of episodes where several senior CXOs across industry spoke of how business efficiencies are being brought about with the latest technologies.