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Varun Shah

Last year, Publicis Groupe consolidated its content production arm Prodigious and Content Factory under Varun Shah and appointed him as Executive Vice-President and Head of the division in India. Since then, the division has grown from around 10-12 people to a 43-member strong team. The content arm now aims at hiring 120 people and growing by 3X over the next two years. 

Shah told that currently, Prodigious produces 80% ads and 20% branded content, but he sees the branded content space picking up exponentially. The content division already delivers around 10,000 video assets for clients like Daily Hunt’s Josh and content for over 21 countries from India. 

“We have dedicated end-to-end content teams for our clients. Prodigious is able to offer a holistic integrated model to the clients,” said Shah. 

Prodigious and Content Factory bring together production expertise in video, digital and print to design, produce and deliver branded content across all channels. While Prodigious expertise lies in video content, it is also upping its ante on the audio content front and is setting up a podcast studio. 

Shah added, “Going forward, every brand communication is going to have a podcast angle to it. It’s going to be what radio was back in the day and how it has become now.”

Over the past few years, Prodigious India has created renowned campaigns, including those such as Spotify India – There’s a playlist for that campaign, the Whisper Keep Girls in School, Pampers It Takes 2, along with work for brands like Skoda, Isuzu, Hero Moto Corp, Garnier, Nivea, CarDekho, OLA, ACKO, HDFC Bank.

Prodigious works with clients even beyond the Publicis purview. For example, it works on GSK content’s initiative globally and Shah is the APAC content lead on the account, irrespective of the agency GSK is associated with for any particular content. 

Talking about the growth of branded content in India, Shah said, “We had thought that the digital content revolution will happen by 2024-2025, but that shift is already happening now because of Covid induced lockdown. Consuming content on digital has already become a habit. Branded content has become equally big as mainline content. The next 100 million content consumers will come from vernacular India. If brands don’t start tapping this space, then they would lose.” 

Prodigious India has in the past collaborated with Indian directors like Shakun Batra, Piyush Raghani, Lloyd Baptista, to international creators like Jim Weedon Eden Tyler and Bruce Sinclair.

Sharing an interesting concept, Shah told that Publicis Groupe India’s Content Factory internally runs a programme called ‘Breakfast Club’, where Publicis employees come and pitch branded content and creative ideas. “It is like a think tank to develop branded content creative ideas. If we like the idea, we package it and propose it to the client,” said Shah. 

With the launch of platforms like Amazon Mini TV, Shah believes that smaller and micro-content space is the next content format to watch out for brands. 

There is a general notion that advertising professionals can be good copywriters but not great scriptwriters for branded content. If advertising professionals get down to writing scripts for branded content, they end up looking like long-form ad copy. 

Sharing his thoughts on this, Shah commented, “Advertising writers come with a lot more cultural exposure than a traditional narrative writer. Advertising and the traditional narrative writer should team up to write branded content. This will bring in far more synergy because a narrative writer will write a great narrative, but will forget the brand. An advertising writer will bring in great ideas from the cultural perspective and integrate the brand into that story.” 

Another conversation that keeps on erupting in the branded content world is whether should each branded content piece aim to drive immediate business results or we should look at it in a way that is more of a long-term brand building exercise and not necessarily meets business-driven performance metrics. 

To which, Shah answered, “I believe in the cusp of both. Every communication initiative has a different agenda. Brands in the life cycle need to do both. There is a difference between everyday, tactical communication and brand-building communication. A brand can look at doing brand-building communication once in 4-6 months to create community and build affinity. At the same time, brands must continue producing tactical communication on different platforms to drive existing or prospective consumers to purchase that brand.”

Shah also emphasised the need for brands to have their long-term content strategy and calendar in place to maximise results from branded content. 

Having the best set of skilled branded content professionals on board is every content agency’s desire, but hiring and retaining them is the toughest job. Shah said, “I think the best way one can acquire skills is by learning on the job. Although, I think the demand for skilled branded content professionals is more than the supply. With the growth of OTT and mainline films, a lot of good talent has moved to that side.”

He further said, “It’s a bit easier to find skilled people in advertising, but the burst in branded content and digital content has happened in the last eight years. Therefore, the maximum number of people with experience in creating branded content is only eight years. By the time one trains them, they are ready to change the company.”

Talking about how Prodigeous goes about hiring people for branded content, Shah said, “I am very instinct-driven. I pool in all my previous experiences to find the right match for us. There is also a lot to do with nurturing that talent. I have hired freshers and seen them grow. I spend time with the prospective hire to understand how rich is her/his thinking. It can’t just happen in one meeting. Then once I hire, I entrust them with responsibilities.”

Shah then went on to speak about Prodigious’ unique assets that other content companies don’t have. He said, “We have a wide variety of producers who are extremely passionate to deliver at scale for clients. For me, producers are really critical part and at Prodigious, they come from varied backgrounds to bring in different thinking and approach to work. Prodigious is not another traditional content company. It looks ahead for trends and offers work that is future-ready.”

Shah believes that the biggest challenge in branded content is never in executing a branded content piece, but with creative thought. He explained, “The biggest problem is that every fifth brand is doing the same thing. This happens because the demand for branded content is so high and the supply of ideas is low. Everything else can be managed.”

Finally, shedding light on managing creative blocks, Shah said, “Creatives must engage and brainstorm with each other on ideas. One might not get the right idea, but this engagement process helps clear the mind and improve the scope of thinking and creativity. Creativity is the product of a lot of people coming together. Also, at times, we must let be. We take things far too seriously. At times, things solve on their own if we give them time. One needs to find what helps them sort their mind creatively.” 

Shah concluded that with the growing demand for branded content in India, there is a place for every branded content service provider to co-exist. “There is no rat race in this space in India. With the kind of model Prodigious has, the future looks bright for us.”