Karan Bajaj: A winning discovery
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When you see his credentials—mechanical engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology (Ranchi) and a degree from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore—you are tempted to silo him as an archetypal corporate leader. But Karan Bajaj, the head of Discovery Communications in India, is anything but a stuffy head honcho leading the American broadcaster’s operations in the country. It’s not easy to label him. Under the Discovery umbrella, he oversees a clutch of channels, including Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC, Discovery Science, Discovery Kids and DSPORT, as the company’s senior vice-president and general manager, South Asia, a role he took over in October 2016.
To discuss the road ahead for Discovery in the Indian market, we meet on a pleasant November afternoon at Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel in the heart of Delhi. After a brief struggle locating a quiet spot in the busy restaurants, Bajaj finds us a cosy and sunny corner at the Italian Sorrento, where we settle down to talk over fresh lime sodas. There’s a charming informality about Bajaj. Politely, he tells the restaurant staff to turn down the piped music to enable effortless conversation.
The bespectacled, tall—6ft, 4 inches—and lanky head is affable and sprightly. And at 38, he’s probably the youngest executive leading a multinational broadcasting corporation in the country.
The big news at Discovery is the impending launch of its first Hindi-language general entertainment channel (GEC), Discovery Jeet. Slated for an early 2018 launch, it is taking up most of Bajaj’s time at the moment. Although the plan to expand Discovery’s footprint in India was seeded by Arthur Bastings, the managing director and president of Discovery Networks Asia Pacific (who resigned in November), it was Bajaj and his team who gave it the shape of a Hindi GEC over the last year. The company even shifted its headquarters from Delhi to Mumbai, which is more suited to building a national Hindi entertainment channel.
The idea behind the move—to have a Hindi GEC—was to scale up the business. Bajaj believes that so far, Discovery’s bouquet has the strongest propensity for the top 15 million TV households—the English-speaking classes with a strong affinity to foreign content. Scalability requires it to expand to the next 110 million homes that have cable TV. For this viewer segment, he believes, television will continue to be the centre of family viewing for the next 5-10 years.
To address this mass, Discovery is building a brand new channel comprising what Bajaj calls purpose-driven programming. To drive the channel, it’s looking at creating 1,000 hours of local programming in a year—today, it produces 10 hours of programming in a year.
The content will target upwardly mobile consumers in tier-II and -III towns. “Our research showed that they see a boom happening in India but they are not seeing themselves as a part of it. The mujhe kuch banna hai, mujhe kuchh karna hai (loosely translated as I want to be something, I want to do something) feeling is powerful among these people. That’s the insight. So ‘underdog winning’ became the Discovery Jeet thesis. We will showcase stories of underdogs who won. But we will do it in a very dramatic, larger-than-life format.”
Besides, he understands that in television, appointment-viewing works best. People log into their favourite channels every day. Scale is not built with weeklies. So Jeet will mount dailies with no less than 100 or 130 episodes. “We’re breaking one rule, that we are not into kitchen politics. But we cannot break all the rules. There’s some merit to the TV formula,” says Bajaj.
His confidence in differentiated programming for his channel stems from the new kind of cinema that’s winning audiences. “The film industry is evolving. Content-driven films like Dangal, Airlift and M.S. Dhoni are doing well. Television is ripe for a similar revolution,” he feels.
To be sure, Discovery’s tryst with a mass-market channel may not end with Jeet. The broadcaster may explore more channels that give it size. “But we will be measured and go one by one,” Bajaj says.
Once Jeet is launched, he expects to focus on DSPORTS. “We may look at putting cricket on it next year,” he says. Plans are afoot to increase local content on Discovery and TLC, with 40 hours of fresh programming on each channel. With this, the company will be looking at increasing its revenue to $200 million in the next three years, from the current $80 million.
Driving growth at Discovery shouldn’t be an uphill task for Bajaj, who is known to have scaled up and turned around businesses at multinational firms such as Procter & Gamble and Kraft Foods in his previous roles. Interestingly, Bajaj has balanced his 15 years of work life with a couple of sabbaticals to unwind and fill what he calls his “creative well”. In fact, the Discovery assignment came his way immediately after the last sabbatical he took to complete his latest novel. The chatty Discovery head has three novels to his credit—one of them has been published in the US.
He wrote his latest novel while working at Aden + Anais, Inc. an American start-up for children’s wear. The novel, titled The Seeker in India and The Yoga Of Max’s Discontent in the US, was published by Penguin Random House in 2016. “After the break, I was ready to come back to the world,” says Bajaj.
Probe a bit and you realize that taking impromptu breaks and writing comes naturally to Bajaj. You listen to him in awe as he describes his life’s journey, which is no less fascinating than, say, a mix of a documentary on yoga on Discovery and an exotic holiday destination showreel on TLC.
Bajaj, who comes from an army background, is struck with wanderlust. There’s a creative tick as well—though that doesn’t run in the family. Growing up in the Shimla hills (schooling was in Dagshai), he nurtured a passion for hiking—an experience he captured in his first book, Keep Off The Grass. He wrote it while working with P&G from 2002-08, managing the Ariel laundry detergent in India and Herbal Essences for the firm in the US. Keep Off The Grass was a Motorcycle Diaries kind of book, explains Bajaj. “It was a travel, backpacking adventure…a story based on my unique experiences. It wasn’t great writing but elucidated interesting personal experiences,” he says modestly.
The book did pretty well and the publisher, HarperCollins, insisted he write a second one. “I started to write and realized that my life was too small to have a second story in it.” He quit P&G and took off nine months to travel through East Europe, South America (Peru, Brazil, the Amazon) and Central Asia (Mongolia). There was no great objective to this journey, nor was there a structure to it, he says.
After the break, Bajaj joined The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) on the consumer and retail strategy side and worked closely with companies such as Walmart and Starbucks. While at BCG, he penned his second book—Jonny Gone Down—“a very Forrest Gump-ish novel about an Indian who ends up in a drug trade in Brazil,” he says. The film rights to this book are now with serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala.
After his second book, Bajaj was eager to raise the bar and publish in the US. But he went through a turbulent time when his mother died at the age of 54. “I saw her wither away in the last six weeks and wondered about the meaning of human life. I was always attracted to ancient philosophy, but because I saw death at very close quarters and in a very personal way, I went deep into moksha, enlightenment and nirvana.”
Although he returned to the US and joined Kraft Foods, he was still restive. In 2014, he took off again. This time, with his American girlfriend (now wife), he travelled from Scotland to India by road via Turkey, Azerbaijan and China. “It was a couple of months of wilful poverty,” is how he describes the journey.
What followed was very elemental too. The couple spent a few months at the Sivananda Ashram in Madurai learning yoga. Another four months were spent practising yoga and meditation at an ashram in Uttarkashi where they lived like monks, survived on two meagre meals, slept on the floor and shared the dormitory with 60 people.
“That time I was so deep into it and I was okay with the scenario that I could become a monk. It was mind-opening and gave me different learnings,” Bajaj says.
“And then I spent the next two-three years writing this perfect autobiographical novel which not too many people read unfortunately,” says Bajaj with a laugh. “Honestly, it was a disaster. In India, it sold 15,000 copies and in the US, I used all my marketing knowledge in vain,” he adds.
It was a humbling experience. “When I came into this (Discovery) role, I was very clear that I might have written novels but I am not going to play the creative head, I am going to hire people who know the rules of this market,” he says.
Yet, at Discovery, Bajaj has also found his calling. “Earlier, there was a business side and an alternate life. But Discovery is a very good left-right combination. I have never felt more in sync,” he says. For Discovery, too, it may be good to have a person who loves storytelling and has invaluable experience in running successful businesses.
But what did he learn from his ashram phase? “You understand the concept of dharma? I realized that it is not my dharma to be a monk. It is my dharma to be in the corporate world. I am in my full element in a business environment. I was comfortable with taking personal risk, and yet I was clear that this is not my path.”
Detours work for him, he says, because you grow tremendously as a human being, which you wouldn’t if you spent a year in the same profile. Moreover, they do not allow him to become complacent even at work.
Passionate about his current role, he is looking forward to building scale with a purpose and making Discovery one of the top five media organizations in the country. “Yet I want to do it in a way that doesn’t add noise to TV,” he says.