Content, traffic, revenues: How Sandeep Amar rolls as CEO of Indian Express Digital

In the next six months, Sandeep Amar wants to double the numbers and revenue streams at Indian Express

sandeep-amar

“Criticism from a government is wonderful news for journalism,” mentioned Raj Kamal Jha at the recent Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards organized by The Indian Express, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi honoured 37 journalists from across the country. The strong talk from the Indian Express Chief Editor had a mention of an unheard anecdote – Ramnath Goenka once sacked a journalist when he heard a CM of a state telling him, “Aapka reporter bahut accha kaam kar raha hai” (Your reporter is doing good work).

From the black days of emergency and even before, Indian Express resonates with journalism of courage. So when Sandeep Amar, CEO of Indian Express Digital (IE Digital Media services) requested me to excuse him for 5 minutes, as an important mail needed to be sent, I was wondering what may have happened. He was busy drafting an email to his entire team educating about the gifting policy of the publication.

“Diwali here in Delhi is a time when you get gifts from everywhere. It is easy for the new kids to fall for the gifts. As a company we have a strict policy when it comes to gifting – if it is sweets, it gets distributed, and if it is something else then it needs to be submitted at the HR.”

Earlier this year in June, Sandeep, an industry veteran in digital and content space joined the Noida office of Indian Express Digital (IED). I felt it was a prized catch for a publication that has been aggressively working on its digital offerings. Before joining IED, he was the CEO of India.com. In his tenure of close to three years, he contributed to its revenue growth of over 300% and traffic growth of 250% in one year. He drove the relationship to bring Mashable to India and launched Mashable.in.

“Me and Anant (Head, New Media at IE) have chatted over the last 8 months, before me accepting the offer. I wanted to scale the digital massively and Anant was ready to back it up. I am happy to say that we are cash positive now and we have listed some very aggressive targets for the next three years. Exciting times ahead!”

My first email conversation with him happened when he decided to quit his job at The Times Group. By the end of November 2012, he decided to launch Pikboo.com – a platform to build websites for kids. The platform that moved around kids and their parents couldn’t gain investor confidence post the initial round of funding.

Post that I have followed Sandeep’s professional journey – from strengthening India.com to joining IE. So when the Delhi trip happened, meeting him was right at the top of my list. With a post lunch meeting scheduled, I landed at the tall tower of IE after gulping down a plateful of mini samosas from a street vendor.

The Express Group – Journalism of courage. #indianexpress #journalism

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Waiting at the lobby for a while, lazily swiping up my Instagram feed, I saw a simple looking man in a checkered shirt and jeans inquiring about me at the reception. It took both of us a while to recognize each other in real life, but post that our conversations were quite lighthearted.

Passing through the open working space, Sandeep took me to his desk, which was slightly in the corner with just an extra couch. There are no cabins or walls; the CEO has direct access with his people on the floor.

“Publishing business, right now, is in a very difficult state,” he remarked. “Today the valuation of a social network like a Facebook or an online publisher Buzzfeed is more than a New York Times.”

Getting into the challenges, he told me how the distribution models for a publisher are getting choked. “While you have the Facebook Instant articles and Google AMP, there are the distribution models like UC Web, Cheetah Mobile and Opera Mini who are now controlling ads. Then there are 10% of ad blockers who are polluting the business model with whitelisting ads.

You also can’t ignore the growing competition from publishers like Scroll, The Quint, Catch News, etc. There are also portals owned by political parties who are polluting the journalism standards but getting traffic.”

“Adblocker plus is now whitelisting ads. It is like McAfee creating the virus and then it sells the antivirus.”

He believes it’s really a shameless business model of making money by whitelisting ads. “If they were so good why did they have to come up with such a business model?”

Ad blocking – a way in which you block the ads online – has frustrated publishers globally. Ad blocking software is set to cost digital publishers almost £19 billion by 2020, a new report from Juniper Research reveals, with global ad block users rising 41 per cent year-on-year.

Indian publishers are not left out either. According to a latest report by PageFair, at least 419 million people are blocking ads on smartphones. So far mobile, considered to be a safe haven, is seeing twice as many as ad blockers than desktop. China leads the monthly active users by 159 million and India stands at 122 million, followed by Indonesia and Pakistan.

To overcome the situation, Indian publishers have decided to crack down on the ad blockers. Players like Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Hindu, among others have decided to stop readers who use ad blockers from reading their content.

In 2015, The Washington Post decided to do the same – intermittently redirecting desktop users to a subscription page if they are using the popular AdBlock software. The publisher hasn’t given up; along with The Newspaper Association of America it has now filed a federal complaint against the ad blocking industry.

Publishers declaring a war against ad blockers is understood but why should readers face the brunt? Don’t you think that the reader is getting sandwiched between the publishers and ad blocking industry? I asked Sandeep since the problem of adblocking was created by publishers and marketers themselves. Sipping his tea, he commented that we are not being fair with digital publishing.

“Today pick up any major print daily, you have to go through four pages of ads then you get to content. Why isn’t that a problem?” He further said that while he understands it is a utilitarian medium, advertising is the only way to go forward, however. “If you don’t like it, you read it somewhere else.”

But do you think that advertising in publishing needs to be re-looked at? Sandeep said “No” because with adblockers choking the advertising revenues, more ad dollars are being pumped into native content. “Native is a bigger problem than advertising. Do you want content to be pushed by brands or editors?”

That doesn’t mean that IE is not doing native, it is aggressively working on native models but it is following the path of clean native – keeping the readers informed and not fooling them by pushing sponsored content in the form of editorial. “Credibility is our central thing. I am turning down business every week because native is a very difficult business.”

“If you want quality journalism, you would want them to make money.”

Publishing is going through a sea of changes. We live in a world today where the Like button and the Re-Tweets decide the fate and importance of the story. As Raj mentions in his speech – “Good journalism is not dying; it is getting better and bigger. It’s just that bad journalism makes lot more noise than it used to do five years ago.”

Google is no more a search engine today; it has also jumped into the publishing game like Facebook. “While no one can stop Google from getting into publishing business but it is pushing players like us to adopt Google web light version without even checking with us.”

Sandeep admits to getting irritated when people debate on advertising in publishing. “I don’t get the philosophy. You want quality journalism for free? And I also don’t get the rationale of showing less ads or tasteful ads. Advertising is advertising.”

Before joining IED, Sandeep had a very successful and challenging role at India.com as the CEO. “I failed as an entrepreneur and post entrepreneurship I joined India.com which was also an entrepreneurial venture. First three weeks were tough; we had to let go 30 people. In my three years time, we grew the strength from 90 to 270. We moved to number two from the eighth position and again a cash positive business. I think it is the biggest achievement in my career since here we built brands from nothing.”

The company, which also runs websites like BGR India and Cricket Country, among others, reported a profit of Rs 2.6 crore, on revenues of Rs 64.5 crore for the financial year ended 31st March 2016 (FY16), according to the annual report filed by Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL).

While these three years were a great learning phase in Sandeep’s career, he wasn’t quite happy with all the travel he was doing to Mumbai. With his family in Delhi, travelling extensively and quite often was getting tough. This was the time when he met Anant incidentally. “All our conversations ended up in the Airport. There were lots of learning’s in Zee (India.com’s parent company) with regards to making money. Zee is very clear that they want to make money, they are very aggressive on P&L, they give you complete freedom and their risk-taking appetite is more. All my discussions with Anant were around this and IE drives lot of courage and credibility in the market.”

“The best learning is to make money and move very very aggressively.”

Being a capitalist, Sandeep has always been a scale guy. With IE accepting his vision and business plan for the next few years, the new job also solved the extensive travel that was affecting his family life.

In the last six months, he has already lent his magic touch. The traffic has significantly grown 50% (I am shown the Google analytics data) and the team is also expanding on the editorial front. “Speed and comprehension are very important in our business and this has led to the growth of our numbers.”

Giving an example on the speed, Sandeep talks about the Uri attacks. “We broke the story first and that brings a lot of value on search and social.” From a tech perspective the publisher has worked on the known factors such as page speed, load speed and getting the right CDN.

The second bit the publication is focusing on is comprehension, which is also a kind of IP for the company, so Sandeep was a bit hesitant. But he shared that it is a selection of number of stories, tonality pieces coming at the right time on Facebook and it also comes with the strategic experience of his professional experience. Explaining a little more, he cited how the publication covered Kabaddi League. “We started covering the game from the time of Pro Kabaddi league and during the Olympics we were running four blogs simultaneously.”

Today the publication is not about search only, it is treating social very seriously and has different strategies for both Twitter and Facebook. While Twitter is more about brand building, the massive power lies in Facebook. This has led to the recent announcement of a new youth portal from the group – InUth.com. It has hired Kunal Majumder to run the show; he was earlier with Catch News.

@the_indian_opera_boy is vloging for InUth from #Coldplay concert in Mumbai. Keep checking this space

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Building a youth site was one of the key things that Sandeep had suggested to Anant. “While I like the old and long form of journalism, at the same time I’m impressed by five companies – Buzzfeed, Vox, Vice, Gawker and Mashable. This modern media methodology has been my interest and core expertise which we are going to bring to InUth.”

The other bit that IE is stressing its focus on, like most publishers, is video. He considers video to be a big thing for publishers and it will save the soul of the business. “Video is our focus but we are yet to complete our video strategy. While we have a lot of plans around videos for different portals, we still face two big challenges: cost and time. Another big problem is the bandwidth cost.”

But there is a happy side for the CEO – the cost per thousand (CPM) on video is high and the demand for videos is growing. Besides, the video will be platform agnostic.

“Publisher business is no more a sexy business”

While Facebook and Google rule the publishing business as of now, which bothers Sandeep a lot, he is a business guy and knows the right selection of channels. Going forward he wants to hire content guys who can lead to discovery and monetization. Early next year the group will enter into commerce, niche products for business and services to grow the top line.

And when I asked him what’s the agenda for you in the next six months. “We double the numbers and revenue. And we will introduce products where we see strong revenue models.”