Times Internet CEO Gautam Sinha on What Makes the Online Giant Dance

Gautam Sinha, CEO, Times Internet Ltd.

It is not very common to find a CEO in the media industry who also wears the hat of the CTO—and wear it with panache. But then, Gautam Sinha is not your run-of-the-mill chief: he helms the digital arm of India’s largest and best-known media conglomerate, The Times Group.

A media and technology industry veteran with around three decades of experience, Sinha is currently focused on making Times Internet a world-class product and technology company by building and nurturing an entrepreneurial culture of highly competent and passionate teams. He has also been a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and, ahem, a DRDO Scientist.

It was a great learning experience to listen to his CEO Keynote at the just-concluded 5th Media & Entertainment CIO Summit organized by dynamicCIO at Planet Hollywood Resort in Goa.

Sinha spoke about what he said is a favorite topic of his: transformation. “In itself, transformation is a very complex thing and it fails 90% of the time,” he noted. So one must take the right approach to transforming a business.

Transformation is also something that cannot be achieved overnight. “You have to patiently work in the maturity model of the company to reach the desired goal,” he said.

He emphasized that Times Internet Ltd (TIL) does not look at digital transformation as a set of zeroes and ones: it is a continuous, evolving process in which the company keeps aligning itself with the market landscape, keeps learning from the goings on and thus takes the business vision forward.

With 60 brands under its kitty, multiple apps and a constant whirl of activity enveloping its variegated business units, one can easily see that those are not merely words; indeed, TIL does put its money where its mouth is.

“Information, entertainment and transaction” are the three key words around which TIL aligns its businesses. In a similar tripartite analogy later in his presentation, Sinha made it categorically clear that any Media & Entertainment business that does not get any of these three pieces right—content, technology and audience data—is in imminent danger of losing out or even shutting shop in the next five years.

No wonder, then, that TIL has put its combined might behind the trio. Sample this: the company boasts of a large team of technologists on its roster. I would be laughed at if I try to explain to anyone how content-rich TIL and its websites are (for obvious reasons). But the real wallop for the wallet, in my opinion, is how finely, granularly and collectively is the company able to leverage its humongous audience data for monetization in myriad ways. (Times Internet covers more than 50% of India’s Internet user base; it is among the top five in the world in terms of engagement on news and media properties.)

An example Sinha gave was the much lower cost of audience acquisition for Times as it is able to spread it across multiple properties and offerings through cross-selling and promotions.

With audience data comes the question of privacy, and a CIO in the audience did ask that question. According to Sinha, not a single parameter of that audience data, as far as Times is concerned, corresponds to what is called “personally identifiable information” (or PIO for the acronym-hungry).

Times Internet typically operates its businesses in five major buckets: News & Lifestyle Content (TOI, ET, Indiatimes, Mensxp.com, etc.); Entertainment (CricBuzz.com, Gaana.com, Dineout.co.in, etc.); Information (Haptik, MagicBricks.com, etc.); Saver/Utility (Coupon Dunia, Smart Spends, etc.); and Transactions (Task Bucks, Data Back, etc.)

Sinha enthralled the audience with his sharp business acumen, deep technological understanding (he described himself as a technologist-geek) and amazing poise as he recounted numbers or showered insights from the Times experience. (Indeed he turned out to be quite a sport, too, as he attended the evening CIO Fashion Show and participated in the ice-breaker sequence delightfully orchestrated by the emcee.)

It is easy for many to dismiss what TIL has achieved as something natural for a progeny of a 178-year-old brand with deep pockets and all the resources in the world. But remember, while some giants can indeed dance, if the information age has taught us anything, it is this: not even the dancing giants can do so for multiple tunes. (Think of the multiple failures that the poster boys of the net like Google, Facebook and others have had to go through and the ones they still continue to go through).

Times Internet is also in the midst of its digital journey, with different units operating at different degrees of success, of course. But, from what I could gather from Sinha and the way he confidently put forth his views, this jumbo does seem to have found its jig.

Offering some insight into the workings of arguably the only Indian Internet media giant of such a wide girth, Sinha said the company believes in an entrepreneurial culture—and, in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit, a “fail-fast” philosophy. Failed in something? Not to worry, do it fast and move on to something else, utilizing the learning as a fulcrum to pivot and move forward.

Sometimes, even a simple thing such as a well-articulated vision can have a positive impact across the board. Sinha narrated how defining Times Internet as a digital business helped the company send the right message from the top to the bottom and yield good results.

Another key construct of success is the leeway employees have and the work culture. Sinha even went to the extent of saying that, for many of its acquired businesses or functional units, TIL lets them retain their own organization culture and working ethos. What really matters, finally, is the end results that people who work for or under the Times Internet umbrella are able to produce.

In the next few years, the demographic of digital natives is likely to have a significant say as online and mobile businesses, especially in the Media & Entertainment domain, become more competitive in a crowded but constrained market (constrained by poor connectivity). Nevertheless, digital natives are an impatient lot. So when it comes to the battle for attention in a hyper-connected world, companies who can capture their interest long enough will stay in business long enough to survive what is yet to come: a seamless, near-complete digital convergence.

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Sanjay Gupta

Sanjay Gupta is former Editor at Grey Head Media....

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