New Delhi: Attention teenyboppers crazed by latest dress fad and heavy metal and the crowd young at heart! If your fantasies belong to a zone where a handsome prince rescues the planet’s most beautiful princess from a terrible demon or a bird gives moral lessons instead of chirping, here is plenty to know from the person who promises to add wings to your imaginations.
Sixty-year old Chennai-based children’s magazine Chandamama that was acquired by Geodesic Information Systems early this year now runs under the stewardship of Chief Executive Officer L. (Subu) Subramanyan, a former IT journalist.
The magazine, which nearly faced extinction, was held afloat by a set of people who grew up with it and could not bear to see it die. Subu plans to carry the brand forward across different multimedia platforms. He hopes to in the process preserve culture, educate children and make the Chandamana story a financial success too. Simantik Dowerah spoke to Subu about his strategies to turn this old Indian brand into a profit making business. Edited excerpts:
What value did you see in a magazine like Chandamama that had a successful innings as a children’s magazine in the 70’s and 80’s but lost substantial brand equity?
The brand has been around for 60 years. The last decade saw it run into rough weather. As a child, I grew up on Chandamama and so did my parents. In that sense, this is a legacy and one that provided an opportunity to rebuild a set of values for the current generation.
This was a good platform to reach out to children and something I felt good about being associated with, after having put in 15-20 years in IT journalism. In the first 100 days that I have been here, I have stumbled across far more information and insight than I had expected to find. From the marketing perspective we had a great brand called Chandamama and here I get an opportunity to build the brand all over again and make it relevant for 21st century India. At both levels - in serving the market and children, it holds huge potential value.
You mentioned a difference in the kind of message that is transmitted in the other children magazines. Can you elaborate on that?
Chandamama messaging during the last 60 years 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. If you ask them, who are the superheroes they associate themselves with, normally you would hear Superman or Batman. I would dare say they are more comfortable with western classics than Indian classics. That I think is a shame, not that I have anything against western classics.
Part - I: Complete interview
We have a treasure trove of literature and mythological stories like Jataka and Panchatantra tales. It is not the label rather the message that they drive that is important. I found that those messages are as relevant to children today as they were 60 years ago. Taking pride in your culture and heritage does not mean you have to be a fanatic. Unfortunately, we have not inculcated in our children the discipline to look into their own backyard, examine their own history and culture and to learn from the same.
Part - II: Complete interview
Today we are the largest storytellers in the country, probably even in this part of the world. My library has 16,000 stories, a lot more than anybody else has in this country.
From the time it was launched by B. Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani in July 1947, Chandamama has come a long way. It was suspended in October 1998 for a year, at a time when sales figures were half a million copies a month. What led to this suspension?
The problems that Chandamama was facing were typical to a family business. Nagi Reddy’s bigger business was films. He was also unwell at that time. There was a family studio business that got into trouble and Chandamama was just an innocent casualty. There was a strike in the studio and as troubles mounted, its publication was suspended.
The magazine again hit the stands in November 1999 but with a change in ownership pattern. The Reddy family had only 40% stake in its new incarnation and the then Morgan Stanley India MD, Vinod Sethi and Sudhir Rao of Karvy Consultants and others made up the remaining 60%. How did the change in ownership pattern help Chandamama’s revival?
At that point what Chandamama wanted was a lifeline. Vinod and Sudhir allowed it to stay afloat. Early this year that ownership pattern once again changed and was passed on to Geodesic who decided that if it has to run this publication, it needs to have somebody who knows the business of publications. I was interested in this genre and this is how we have managed to reach this far.
Prior to your association with Chandamama in August this year, how was it faring in these last eight years?
The circulation was ranging between 100,000-30,00,000. But we were printing in all 13 languages. We have not jettisoned any language. Having said that, we had situations when distribution was not robust. We had to fix issues in supply chain. We didn’t have much of an organization. There is difference in running at maintenance level and running a magazine at growth level. Hopefully, what will happen as we go forward is that we would enter a growth phase of the magazine and start building circulation as we have been doing in the last 100 days.
Bouncing back: Chandamama CEO L. (Subu) Subramanyan pledges to take the children’s magazine to newer heights
Geodesic Information Systems acquired a 94% stake in Chandamama for Rs10.2 crores this year. Who owns the remaining 6%? What is the role of the Tata and Dabur Groups and the Reddy family?
94% ownership is of Geodesic. There are a few individual shareholders who are unable to transfer their shares. The Reddy family owns a miniscule 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.
Before Geodesic, Walt Disney was in talks with Chandamama for a buyout at Rs20 crore. You offered half that amount and still clinched the deal. How?
(Laughs) I have no knowledge of that transaction. Walt Disney was a part of Chandamama for a long time. I don’t know about this particular transaction. But Chandamama used to print Walt Disney comics for sometime long before. It still continues to be a partner of ours though I don’t know the specifics of the particular transaction, which you are referring to.
What is your revenue model? Apart from print circulation and print ads, what else are you planning to augment the top and bottom lines?
Chandamama will now be built upon multiple sphere platforms though print would form the core. Circulation is growing very fast and advertising revenues are trickling in.
The second platform that we are building is on mobiles where we are tying up with mobile operators to run our content on mobiles - comic strips, wallpapers, ring tones or stories. This will be rolled out in the next few weeks.
The third platform will be radio where we are tying up with two radio operators. As we speak audio stories have started on World Space radio. The next progression on radio would be a Chandamama hour on the weekend.
The fourth major platform is going to be online. You would be interested to know that when I took over we did not own chandamama.com. We have got it back now and have rolled out a fairly basic version of stories. A more interactive version has been developed in the form of animated stories, blogs and community building activities for children and other stakeholders like teachers.
The fifth platform will be a movie platform – animated films, live action movies, 3-D action movies so on and so forth. We are already in fairly advanced discussion with different studios.
The last platform will be television serials with children-specific/ family specific content because the mandate on which Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani built Chandamama was that content should be ‘consumed’ by the family. There should be nothing that we produce that the family would be embarrassed to see together. That’s the sixth platform. Our business model will encompass all of that.
In print, we are going to build the books and comics business. We own 25 characters. We will have series on Vikram Vetal, Dushtu Dattu, Panchatantra, Jataka, Arya - the bandit warrior and Apoorva.
We will try and build synergy between each platform. For example, the Arya comic strip will also be carried on online, mobile and radio.
Tirupati-based Sri Venkateswara Digital Library had earlier offered to digitalize all issues of Chandamama in all languages? At what stage of execution is the project presently?
That’s a great effort by Venkateswara Digital Library. Professor Raj Reddy of Carnegie Mellon University has helped us with this project. The English digitalization is done and we are in the process of doing Tamil and Telugu versions. But we are going slowly since creating jpeg files takes time. We are also scanning and tagging it before putting it up as an HTML page. This makes search easier and more maneuverable.
Currently, you publish in 13 languages. Any plans to add more?
Let me not say no. For example, we don’t come out in Punjabi and it is a very vibrant language. So, it would depend on the consumption of the stories. At the same time, when we talk about languages now, it could be in any format. I may not have Punjabi in print but I may have Punjabi rendition on audio. At least for the next one-year we would stay with the current languages. You know that we are doing Santhali and Sanskrit. These are purely for development purpose, essentially to develop these languages. We will probably take a call on new languages in 2009.
Are you thinking of revving up revenues by making web content, subscription based?
I feel stories should be free for people to read. The site will be free except for a premium section, which has rich media and therefore subscription-based. You can come in, give your particulars, read stories, join a community and have fun. The tag line we are using is: ‘One safe place for your child’.
What are your strategies to garner online advertising?
We have just launched the online version. It is difficult to answer that now.
What kind of revenue do you visualize for the next six months in the online section?
One cannot make projections at this point. The day I get substantial traffic, there would be online advertising. For now, I will just try to improve my reach and traffic and focus on increasing freebies rather than chase advertising.
Also, more than advertising, there would be other forms of revenue like building personalized comic strips, advertising in comic strips and sponsoring comics.
Which mobile service providers are you tying up with?
I cannot give you names at this stage. In the next 30 days, service rollout will start. We are dealing with large companies, which are fairly strict on non-disclosures.
What about a Chandamama TV channel?
We don’t see ourselves as a production house. We view ourselves primarily as content and IP owners. For animated products, we have tied up with animation studios and for live action we are partnering with production houses. What we bring to the table is the content, IP 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.
Chandamama was associated with satellite radio station WorldSpace and did a radio play on the folklore of Vikram and Vetal. Any plans to occupy a significant space in the radio sector?
We are not experimenting with audio stories. By January-end we will probably be launching audio stories on one of the channels. We are also in talks with a radio station to launch a Chandamama hour on the weekend for children. That will perhaps start taking shape during holiday season in April. We will be launching audio books on CDs and will definitely leverage radio, which is a powerful medium.
What about being on the popular FM radio channels?
The channels that I am talking to or will talk to are FM channels.
Any tie-up with All India Radio as it has got the highest reach in the country.
Not as yet. It certainly has the highest reach but we have a bandwidth issue. Once we get into the market, we will talk to every service provider. That’s really the sequencing. 40% of the Indian population is below the age of 25, which is a huge market. We see a definite role for ourselves.
What is your larger strategy in marrying online with offline content?
Both must coexist. Offline is the current reality and that would continue to grow. But the new consumption pattern is also heavily into online. We are not going to have any bias towards which medium to go for. Wherever we see consumption going up, we will go for that.
Is an IPO or venture capital route in the offing?
No. Not at this stage.
What kind of revenue and profit numbers do you see in the immediate future?
We will start seeing triple digit growth. Growth is not going to be a problem, our ability to execute will be. Both market and revenues are there. We have jumped from the 100,000 to 300,000 range in a three-month time frame.
Who are your competitors and how will you deal with competition?
I am not being fictitious when I say I don’t know who my competitors are. I don’t think there is any other magazine that exists in this genre. There is no other product that provides a collection of stories on a monthly basis. The product is also a medley of moral stories, science, technology, culture and heritage. Competition is certainly not an issue for me. The challenge is how do I leverage the brand and reach out to as many people as I can.
Do you see Vikram and Vetal co-existing with modern characters like Superman and Batman, for that matter even Munna Bhai? Will these modern characters overtake the traditional heroes?
There is no taking over. Munna bhai and Rang de Basanti are examples of old messages being packaged and executed brilliantly. Gandhi is a known message but the way it was executed was exceptional. There is a place for Chandamama, Superman-Batman and Munna Bhai. Society needs all three of them without bias for anyone. Chandamama is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. The only difference is in the names of characters, which may have to be changed.
It is a question of putting old stories into today’s context and making it look cool. Gandhi died in ’48 but Munna Bhai (Lage Raho Munna Bhai) came only in 2006. Bottom line is that 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.
Which character do you like the most in Chandamama?
I like the character called Apoorva who is a six-inch tall character. I like it because unlike other superheroes, he not only does things but also enables you to do things.
Chandamama is synonymous with Vikram and Vetal. Which other characters do you think need as much of a fan following?
Like I said we have 25 characters. Actually, when I say 25 I don’t include Vikram and Vetal. We have created the 25 characters I am referring to and we have their IP rights. We don’t have the IP of Vikram and Vetal. We will choose characters, which we think, are most relevant and appealing to the audiences. It will also depend on the possibilities it would provide for us to excel on different platforms. Presently, there is a short-listing going on with few animation studios and we should be in a position to announce our first animation venture in the coming weeks.
Chandamama has survived 60 years and in another 40 years it will be a century old. How do you visualize it post 2050?
Somebody who is born in 2007 and in 2050, when he is 43 and has got children, should immediately say ‘I grew up with Chandamama’. 60 years is essentially three generations. My mandate is to build it for the next 30 generations. I think it is possible.