Culture Machine has set the tone for digital media with brands like Being Indian, Blush and Viva. But what comes next?
Their content is often inescapable (thank you, Facebook autoplay) and is touted to be among the panaceas of millennial boredom clocking over 640 million views a month with about 1.5 billion watch minutes.
Culture Machine’s success story is fascinating: its presence in the digital space exploded when the firm realised how to target social networks: It’s all about the shares.
Culture Machine managed to fuse branded content with human emotion- publishing content that is inherently shareable. Now, the company has successfully flagged off over five original channels, has over a dozen brand partnerships and garners millions of views on an average piece of content.
In a nutshell, it has set the tone for digital media. But what comes next?
Brand Equity caught up with Sameer Pitalwalla, CEO and co-founder, Culture Machine to figure out how the digital conglomerate operates now that they have over a million pairs of dedicated eyeballs following their every move. (Edited for clarity)
Handing advertisers expectations of ‘going viral’
Culture Machine is running a digital empire while we absently scroll through our digital feeds. So naturally, when a digital channel hits that level of success, advertisers come knocking with one dominant demand: Let’s make this go viral!
Pitalwalla deconstructs this desire: “I think what advertisers want today is for their communication to be delivered and for that communication to also be popular” he explains.
“For the communication to be delivered, the content doesn’t have to be popular among the entire audience on the interwebz- it’s okay if only a certain community is resonating with it. Now, for example if you want to reach out to Tamil speaking audiences, then we need to be able to put out communications via Put Chutney; Telugu content goes via Viva; content that is focused on women, through Blush- that’s, I think, the order of the day”
“Some genres, like comedy can be big- something that will show up on a whole bunch of people’s timelines- but it may not necessarily deliver your brand’s objective as well as if you’re a food brand and you want to talk to an audience of people who like that.
So what we’ve ended up doing now (which, I think, we have always been doing but now advertisers have picked up on the trend too) is the ability to be able to create communication for a certain community and deliver it for that community via a particular owned and operated media brand. So, I think advertisers are now a lot more comfortable with that idea of being able to go deep rather than go wide.”
Advertising: Culture Machine’s Do’s and don’ts
With the recent Google-YouTube ad fiasco, advertising has been a sensitive issue lately. Several brands and digital channels are being extremely selective about the ads they allow to be featured alongside content.
So, what are the criteria for ads appearing on Culture Machine? Surprisingly, they’re not as stringent as one would believe.
“There are two parts of the business, the inventory part is really something that is already established thanks to the regulations YouTube and Facebook follow in terms of what kinds of ads they allow.
On our branded content pieces, where we fuse the advertising with the storytelling, we have to work with what consumers would like to watch on our platforms. Having said that, the ads should also be able to deliver to what the brand’s business objectives are.
Everything is open as long as it doesn’t turn our consumers off” simplifies Pitalwalla.
Providing for the internet generation ain’t easy!
You’d think if you’ve done it once, you’ve done it all. But despite hitting millions of shares and views on each piece of content, Culture Machine knows that basic formulas don’t work on the internet generation which is subject to constant change.
“I think one general challenge that we face is that platforms keep getting added so there’s no respite” frowns Pitalwalla. There used to be a world where there was only YouTube. Now there’s YouTube, Facebook Instagram, U C Browser, Twitter, Instagram stories, Facebook stories and WhatsApp stories and video. These are just 9 and out of these, 70% have been added in the last year and a half which shows how media has become bigger. All of these guys (several of whom we have partnered with) also want video content and that is not even taking into account subscription platforms like Amazon, Vuclip, Netflix, Hotstar and others. So, yeah, there are a lot of mouths to feed and you basically have to constantly find a way that your brand scales to all these platforms and make sure that they consistently align” says the CEO.
Balancing the love-hate relationship with social media influencers
Culture Machine was essentially designed for the post-Facebook, post twitter world.
Arguably, the advent of Instagram, Facebook Live, etc. has given rise to user-generated content which could rival digital bigwigs considering that now, practically anybody could make a video and be catapulted into superstardom. (Thus also birthing influencers etc). We quizzed Pitalwalla on the same: “Our challenge really is to be able to build audiences in demographics as well as genres where our brands can become iconic and feature in the top three in the particular genre. That doesn’t stop an individual from building a community around themselves, so I do believe that the sheer rise of the influencer does pose challenges even for a digital media company because they can sometimes deliver a reach which is as big if not rival that of a digital media agency” he states.
“But the challenge with influencers is that they basically have such a distinct tone and a voice embedded and built around a cult of personality. So, the moment they stray away from that personality they become a media brand and then they have to step back and let the media brand take over. The other challenge with that is you have to submit to the vagaries of what happens if they go astray.
We’ve seen that so often with large comedians, even in India, who might be part of a media brand, but when they become individuals suddenly they become open to all sorts of things which in terms of brand value you might not want to associate with. I think that is inherently a moat which allows us to still be successful while maintaining an editorial voice which can be something that appeals to audiences but is also brand friendly- which may not always be the case with an influencer”.
Culture Machine, however, is not closed to working with media influencers. In fact, many actors who feature in the company’s content, go ahead to don the hats of influencers themselves. Here is what Pitalwalla has to say on the phenomenon.
“We do work very closely with them [influencers], we have in the past and will in the future. Like I said, the path we’ve taken is to build rather than co-opt them because sometimes some of these communities may not make sense for you to get attracted to. Now there are several influencers who have been amassing millions of subscribers and millions of views- we haven’t necessarily collaborated with them predominantly because they may not reach the subscriber base that we’re looking at. There are millions of other eyeballs, sometimes quality matters more than quantity”
Being Indian, Blush, Put Chutney, Awesome Sauce, Viva Channel are all Pitalwalla’s babies, and when asked to pick a favorite- he couldn’t. However, he did list one defining feature about every digital brand:
“Being Indian is sheer mass. it’s tonnage. The eyeballs which we interact through with that brand is huge and it’s North India centric. Being Indian is our first most scaled-out brand. It is multi-platform- it’s got its own website, it does well on pretty much each and every platform. It’s big” he says.
“Blush is focussed around a feminist voice. It’s basically, well, growing up I remember Femina portraying the ‘woman of substance’ with Sathya Saran. I think we wanted to recreate that sense of media brand- meant for millennial women but it doesn’t cater only to beauty and style. So, it’s a strong feminist voice that is not in-your-face, which is confident but silent.
Put Chutney is by far the champagne of any Tamilian brand. It is run by one of the most amazing teams in the market and I’m happy to announce that it is probably the only first brand to go from digital content to TV while still keeping its heart inherently millennial and Tamilian in that manner.
Viva is such a core YouTube brand for Telugu it has now become one of the fastest growing brands in India. I think Sabarish [Kandregula] and team have really managed to keep that ethos alive. We’re working with the best of the best in the Telugu digital space.
And last but not the least, I think Awesome Sauce is just a phenomenal growth story. We launched it nine months ago and it has been the fastest growing brand. It is part of an incredibly crowded market. on Facebook there are currently 60% to 70% food pages out there and in six months, Lopa, Varun and team have managed to break out of the clutter create new formats, be innovative and grow organically to be the second most watched Facebook brand in the country.”
How to constantly churn out fresh content in the fast lane (And be good at it)
Culture Machine started in 2013 and with the traction and popularity the company has gained (8 offices, 4 countries in less than 5 years!) we wondered whether the channel ever found itself battling the concept of legacy media wherein they become anchored to the way you have always done things. Believe it or not, Pitalwalla’s answer is a yes.
“I think a good case in point is Being Indian. We reinterpreted the brand roughly six months ago and actually began executing revised programming, keeping in mind the North Star of what we wanted the brand to be and while engagement has been phenomenal, it’s easier to do some of the older videos and get viewership really quickly. But in order to make sure we don’t fall to temptation we have to go down a path which we know will be a much wider ocean for brands to breathe into in the years to come. You have to take those kinds of decisions, I believe. Which might get you into trouble with near-term viewership but long-term is where the focus lies.”
When adblockers can’t stop your hustle:
In a world of ad blockers we asked the company’s CEO if he thought that Culture Machine has the upper hand with branded content: “100%” said PItwalwalla. “All ads are basically going the way Google went with text advertising, where you couldn’t tell the difference between advertisements and a piece of content. It feels organic like it was stitched into the fabric of the search result. I think that’s what’s happening with video- eventually. You won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s an ad and what is a piece of content. The challenge is to do it in a manner of scale because videos are harder to scale out which will continue to relentlessly scale out content and marry it so organically with ads that you can’t make out the difference.”
Don’t forget where you came from:
When quizzed about whether Culture Machine ever had to struggle to monetise digital content, Pitalwalla’s response was a passionate affirmative.
“Yeah! The first six months after starting Culture Machine, we didn’t have a property. We were doing whatever came our way, Being Indian was infantile, it had about 20,000 to 30,000 subscribers. And it remained that way until about a year and a half when we really began to use some parts of what was then again foetal machinery in order to bring it out. But I think year two of Culture Machine was when the market also awoke.”
He further explained, “There was no market until Culture Machine entered the scene. There was us and TVF- and TVF too wasn’t heavily into branded content. So, we were the first to actually create a sales team and go and talk to people. When we entered the Tamil space, nobody was looking there; when we entered Telugu space, it was vacant; when we entered the women’s arena with Blush, no one was looking there- So, this space was as new to advertisers as it was to consumers.
So yeah it was challenging because we had to sell the industry, the concept and then the product.”
Culture Machine in the next 5- 10 years:
Culture Machine is here to stay. And here is a sneak peek into what is happening in the workshops of the digital media company:
“I think we will continue to expand on two great growth stories,” says Pitwalwalla. “One of which is our technology stack which has been licensed internationally- we have expanded to South East Asia in partnership with some agencies and soon we will properly build on our US market. `So, those are the two current objectives, to go deeper into the South East Asia with our technology business and then go deeper into the US”
On the media side of it, I think we are in a great spot right now. Given the leadership position these five brands have. I think we’re a really big company behind the brands so we spend time to build the machine that designs the machine. That machine will now be able to add a lot to media brands without breaking a sweat” says Pitalwalla signing off.