The journey of Chandamama, a Chennai-based children’s magazine, has been as adventurous as that of its most popular characters Vikram and Vetal. Since it was launched by B. Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani in July 1947, the family-owned business has seen several ups and downs.
In 1998, when it was selling more than half a million copies in 13 languages every month, it had to down shutters following a labour problem. It hit the stands again the following year, but with a new set of owners. The Reddys’ stake had been reduced to 40%, with the then Morgan Stanley India managing director Vinod Sethi, Karvy Consultants Ltd’s Sudhir Rao and others holding the rest.
The next buyout came in 2007, when Geodesic Information Systems Ltd acquired a 94% stake for Rs10.2 crore. The interest in this company was hardly surprising as animation is one of the high-growth segments in media, and Chandamama is sitting on a treasure trove of content, with rights to 25 characters and a library of 16,000 stories.
While the children’s books and magazines section continues to grow, acceleration in mediums such as radio and the Internet adds to Chandamama’s prospects. Its new CEO L. ‘Subu’ Subramanyan, a former journalist, says: “Growth is not going to be a problem. Both market and revenues are there.” He is looking at a triple-digit growth, after taking circulation up from 100,000 to 300,000 in three months. Mint spoke to Subramanyan about his plans. Edited excerpts:
On brand value
The brand has been around for 60 years, and here I get an opportunity to build the brand all over again and make it relevant for 21st century India. Today, we are the largest storytellers in the country, probably even in this part of the world.
Chandamama CEO L. ‘Subu’ Subramanyan
Chandamama’s messaging (is) largely focused on the fact that there are a certain set of values that you live with and characters you draw inspiration from. Today, children are growing up in a climate of exigency, always worried over getting a certain work done. The superheroes they associate with are usually Superman or Batman.
On how the deal was struck
Walt Disney was a part of Chandamama for a long time. I don’t know about this particular transaction (reports of Walt Disney Co.’s offer to buyout Chandamama for Rs20 crore). It still continues to be a partner of ours.
(Now) Geodesic has 94% ownership, the Reddy family owns a minuscule amount and the Tatas and other institutional shareholders, who had primarily come in to help the brand, have allowed their shares to be acquired by Geodesic.
On the problems he faced
Distribution was not robust. We had to fix issues in (the) supply chain. We didn’t have much of an organization. There is a difference in running at maintenance level and running a magazine at growth level.
On the new platforms
Chandamama will now be built upon multiple platforms, though print would be the core. Circulation is growing very fast and advertising revenues are trickling in. We are going to build the books and comics business. We will have series on Vikram-Vetal, Dushtu Dattu, Panchatantra, Jataka, Arya, the bandit warrior and Apoorva...
The second platform is mobiles. We are tying up with operators to run our content—comic strips, wallpapers, ringtones and stories-on-mobiles. This will be rolled out in the next few weeks.
The third platform will be radio, and we are in talks with two radio operators. Audio stories have started on World Space radio. Next will be a Chandamama hour on the weekend, perhaps by April. By January-end we will probably be launching audio stories on one of the channels.
The fourth platform is going to be online. When I took over, we did not own Chandamama.com. We have got it back now.
The fifth platform will be movies—animated, live action and 3D action movies, and so on. We are already in fairly advanced discussion with different studios.
The last platform will be television serials. What we bring to the table is the content, IP (intellectual property) of the character and, in some cases, directorial abilities. Don’t forget that the traditional fount of Chandamama is film. And while we do have a relationship with the film fraternity and the director may be a part of our team, we are unlikely to get into production.
We will build synergy between each platform. For example, the Arya comic strip will also be carried on online, mobile and radio.
On offline vs online
Offline is the current reality. But the new consumption pattern is also heavily into online. Wherever we see consumption going up, we will go for that. Our tag line is: “One safe place for your child.” The website will be free, except for a premium section. One cannot make (revenue) projections at this point. The day I get substantial traffic, there would be online advertising. For now, I will focus on increasing freebies rather than chase advertising. Also, there would be other forms of revenue such as building personalized comic strips, advertising in comic strips and sponsoring comics.
On new characters
We have IP rights on 25 characters, not including Vikram and Vetal. We will choose (new) characters we think are most relevant. It is a question of putting old stories into today’s context and making it look cool. Gandhi died in 1948 but Munna Bhai (from the film Lage Raho Munna Bhai) came only in 2006. Bottom line is the market is the ultimate decider. If they do not find it relevant, they won’t read it and our job is to make sure that they do.