| 28 Sep 2022
Red FM COO Abraham Thomas - Our focus now is to look beyond radio

'Ram blesses Red FM Mumbai with 52 weeks at the top! Condolences to all the others who tried! Bajaate Raho!' went the cocky text message sent out soon after TAM's radio monitoring service confirmed 10 days ago that the station had stayed top of the heap in Mumbai in the last one year.

Red FM COO Abraham Thomas, usually subdued about the station's plans and activities, is now in a mood to celebrate, visibly moved by RAM's corroboration of the station's consistent peformance. The mood in Red's funkily done up Lower Parel office in Mumbai if upbeat too, and the team is rightly, in a frame of mind to paint the town red.

Excerpts of a chat with Abraham Thomas, in which he traces the evolution of Red as a brand, offers a peek into its working and a preview of more to come.

Can you trace the journey of Red FM thus far?

It's been a year that we have actually stayed at the top. One part of the journey was getting there, from being an Asli Masti brand to being Bajaate Raho. As for all the other things, God is in the details.

We have consistently delivered our brand promise in every interaction with people, whether the listener interacts with us on air or an on ground event, or on any other form, he gets the consistency of what the brand stands for. That's where the effect gets multiplied. A detached message and a detached tagline can be very confusing at one level. The best test for a brand is if we go out and talk to 10 people to articulate what they mean by that brand. A year ago, when RAM started, on an average, people were surfing four stations. That has come down to around two and a half stations in a year's time.

People are now making conscious choices. There is this favourite debate on the perceived lack of differentiation which is true at a macro level but the actual listener is deciding which brand he wants to listen to. So, one of our biggest strengths has been to consistently deliver the brand promise. And in a cluttered environment, with apparent no perceived difference, it is this that is making us stand out.

Secondly, earlier when there were four or five stations playing similar music, the songs would have a longer shelf life. When there are nine stations playing the same music, the songs burn out much faster. If you are not quick enough to refresh your music soon enough, you will sound jaded. Similarly, if you have a great idea - within three to four weeks, you know if it's working or not, and sure enough, somebody else has already copied it. So, the last one year has been about staying ahead of the curve. You have keep deciding whether to rest a particular initiative, to refresh it or just do something else. Continuously keeping ahead of the curve has become the challenge.

Thanks to the measurement that's in place, internally it gives us some clues about what's working and what's not working, which allows us to make slightly more informed decisions. Thirdly, as a brand we have taken a 360 degree approach to communicate our brand values. The consistency across the different touch points is one. We are considered to be one of the visible brands in radio, but the reality is that we spend much lesser money than the other players do, and we do this because we go into the real micro level touch points kind of strategy.

For this, we hve mapped a day in the life of a typical listener, and we go out and try to catch him at least five times during the day. He sees us in different forms and there's a consistency in our messages, so the message gets amplified. We have also done the best job of integrating an on air idea, on ground. I have realised that if you have a great idea, but if you don't multimedia-spread it, it doesn't create an impact. So, the 'Vote for Boat' campaign, and the Red Mike, are all an effort to make radio interactive.

As for our touch points, we seem to be everywhere. But in terms of simple two dimensional mass media campaigns, we have done very few, we are not consistently spending huge amounts.

Where do all these innovative ideas come from?

It's typically an internal exercise. There's a continuous brainstorm on what do we do next, at one level. Second is the ability to take a big idea and really make it big. The execution is really important. It has to be a combination of great implementation that goes with the big idea, otherwise the big idea will stay just that. We actually took the boat on a canter to various places in Mumbai, we tied up with various news channels and they actually covered it and mobilised local opinion.

Taking the idea ahead with a 360 degree experience was the big differentiator, something that we have been consistently focused on finding.

The consistency with which the on air, off air and on ground works together is how it all clicks. I have realised that if you take one communication and flash it on one medium, it has a certain impact. But you add two media and multimedia flash it, the impact becomes manifold.

That's where we are getting into as far as client solutions are concerned, too.

While we offer solutions on air, they expect us to offer on ground solutions too. Some of them ride on the properties we are doing, for some we create separate solutions. That's how we launched Red Active a year and a half ago, the team that works with clients for activations ideas for themselves. So, a 'Bajaate Raho' awards is our property, but multiple clients are comfortably riding on it. It's a pure on air property, which we decided to take up on ground, and then put it on television.

These are the ways in which a radio brand has actually gone beyond radio, the brand gets amplified, and equally important, clients are beginning to use it and are giving us a revenue stream too.

You have been a big champion of retail advertising all along..

As a medium, radio makes a lot of sense to these advertisers, because it's local - so their geographical area gets covered effectively. It's live, so it's possible to give more current and more live messaging on it. But these advertisers also need education. We have sales teams focused on individual categories - like real estate, education etc. Secondly, we have the client solutions team whose only job is to create ads and create solutions for clients, who may not have agencies to do that work for them. So, we create copy for them, record a scratch, going back and playing it to them, and then getting them to try the medium out. We also advise them on how many spots they should play to make their communcation effective. For example, we might tell them to go high-intensity for a certain period and then see the response. So, we actually work with them to improve their response. We spend time and effort educating the category. That is how they will become long term categories. If we crack three or four of the bigger players in the category, the other players also get on.

There are three levels of categories of advertisers - one are the national advertisers who need to be present in multiple markets. These are the more evolved media planners and buyers. Then, the national advertisers also have regional and local circles, who too have budgets and do very tactical stuff. Then there's the purely local advertiser. Both the second and third categories are what will drive radio. While the large guys will be present across multiple stations, over time, the smaller ones will begin to pay. The other problem that these national advertisers have is that they are skewed towards operational efficiency. A single release order covering multiple stations is more important to them than studying and deciding which individual stations to invest in.

What's the plan for the year ahead for Red FM?

It's at two levels. We are extremely brand focussed. When we started 'Bajaate Raho' it was about playing great music, then we got to the second level about 'bajaaoing' issues and getting relevant. Then we said let's add the CSR aspect to it, so we came up with 'Bajaao for a cause' and we did activities around it. That gets decided at an annual level, and we plan activities in every quarter to drive that milestone. At a day to day operational level, there are monthly plans about activities that are either different or topical. That is the great challenge. We have to own a great idea and then push to make it a success.

So far, we have been able to come up with innovative ideas at regular intervals, and that is owed to the environment, the culture, our ability to brainstorm. There are no compartments and walls between functions to hamper the process.

How crucial is an RJ in a station's scheme of things?

Red FM was the first to go out and promote an RJ, two and a half years ago with the Malishka campaign - Akkha Mumbai ko nachaoongi. It's flattering at one level to see others following you. It's very critical to promote talent, because as a brand you get defined and these talents get promoted as sub brands of the overall brand too. If they become an independent personality, then there is no sync. Then, an RJ can be on any station. So, Malishka's become an ambassador for Bajaate Raho, in a sense, helps, because it helps in the brand definition. But if talent gets promoted as entertainment that is not owned by the mother brand, it will not work. We have managed to build Mantra in the areas of cricket and films, whereas the city is fronted by Malishka. They fit into what we are, so it adds up.

Also, there has to be a certain progression to build that stature. Just putting up a face is not going to give you that. In the first year, we have only promoted the name, then we promoted an aspect to it, then another facet and only then revealed the person. The name is so large now, it works.

Would Red FM consider regional language programming?

You can't be all things to everybody. You have to define your target audience and make sure you play entertainment that is according to their taste. If you are clear you want to be a large, mainstream player, that will decide the language preferences you take. The tonality eventually depends on the TG you address.

Four years ago, when we came in, the other radio stations were almost generic. So, we decided to go for the younger audiences, 16 to 35. Today, when the data comes out, the station seems to appeal to a much larger TG than the one we have been focusing on. But we continue to focus on our critical TG, though the other listeners are also welcome. We will not programme for them though. Different markets play out differently.

In Kolkata, in the below 35 ABC audience, we are the clear number two, which is where the brand is targeted at. The picture changes for different TGs. But when an advertiser buys, he rarely buys for the entire universe, but is looking at a focused TG.

What do the revenues look like for the current fiscal?

We have been maintaining a very healthy share of volumes, in terms of advertising in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. We are consciously focused on that share and focused on maintaining that certain share of the total advertising. That focus helps us to be conscious of the fact that if a certain category goes bust for certain reasons, as long as I am holding on to a share of the category, I am not really worried. It gives us far more comfort and predictability in projecting what our market looks like and better measurement of performance.

This season, while there are signs of tightening up and slowdown, the festive season is still booming. While people are cautious, the October - December season looks good, yet.

Healthy enough to absorb the ad rate hikes?

For us, it was more of rationalising. We are delivering a lot more audiences than we were earlier. We have always been a transparent organisation. There is no supply constraint. Inventory is available, with so many players having come in. We are now saying that we are giving you a certain profile and a certain value in terms of the audience we deliver. We have moved from being number three to number one, and we definitely expect our revenues to ramp up accordingly.

Would you be pushing for the electronic measurement by RAM?

I supported the ILT too when we were using that because I believe the fundamental requirement is to have a measurement system. All of them have their inherent pluses and minuses and one off data, is never 100 per cent accurate. But trends are very accurate, looked at over a longer period. The diary clearly has that advantage and offers much more enriched data. I believe the electronic measurement will be more accurate. But it hasn't settled down as a technology anywhere else. As it is, a bulk of the cost of these researches are borne by the broadcasters. The weightage of cost to accuracy will have to be checked. As a long term, I believe all three technologies can co-exist. The evolved markets can have elecronic data, the mid level markets can have diary and the smallest markets can have day after recall. But there has to be some measurement; only then will advertising increase.

What do you plan to do to ensure that Red FM does not become complacent at the top spot?

One advantage is that we are fairly small and young and therefore we will try to stay away from too much of structure in our working environment. Our focus is now to look beyond radio and therefore other media, whether television, digital, on ground - these are the spaces we want to drive the brand into. It will help the brand and there's money to be made because we will be taking our clients along. As for on air, it's game that continues to played out every week.


Pic by Mitesh Bhuvad