THE STRONG LINK

It is imperative to redo your OTT technology infrastructure every couple of years, says Gourav Rakshit, COO, Digital Ventures, Viacom 18

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He started his career as a marketing professional—a conventional marketing role at Nestle in its FMCG division. From once, being largely on the buyer side of media, to being the COO of Digital Ventures at Viacom 18, Gourav Rakshit, moved to curating and publishing media. He joined Viacom18 in May, last year. The first two avatars of Voot as a digital business vertical of Viacom 18, were more around proof of concepts. It was oriented to occupy digital space, giving consumers a digital option and getting it out as soon as possible and making a mark.
“As I moved from Nestle, I continued in consumer-facing roles but increasingly on the tech side. I was consulting at Apple and few other firms in the US. I came back to India and joined Shaadi.com as the CEO. So, I have been at the internet tech space for a long time—say, early 2000,” said Rakshit.
The opportunities he saw and grasped, owed to his love for technology at large. When the OTT boom began, it gave him a lucrative opportunity to flex both aspects of his expertise, namely, consumer-facing and technology-driven. “I have always been some sort of a tech geek. Most new things I have worked with are technology enabled. To find truly a good idea in the area of technology is difficult because other people already have it or have scaled it up. So, technology sector works very differently from retail or other models. In technology domain, you must have the best idea. I enjoy that style of operation which is a cool form of business and has a very powerful multiplication effect on financial growth,” shared Rakshit.
A typical day for Rakshit begins by his daily ritual of checking his emails. He believes in spending some time thinking about things on his own, early in the day. He makes use of his personal time to wrap his head around what has to be done during the course of the day—followed by business review meetings, brainstorming sessions, to ensure his team is attuned to the business.

PRESENT VS PAST
The most fundamental difference in the digital domain today, as compared to that a few years ago, is the proliferation of OTT, according to Rakshit. “Now is the phase when people are realising that this shift is happening around the world, if it hasn’t already happened. It is important to orient the business from a long term point of view. That’s how the next step of consolidation looks like in terms of business models, content, technology, distribution. OTT has moved from appointment driven viewing to Video-on-Demand (VoD). This convenience offered to consumers changes everything. It changes the nature of the content you built because you are no longer building content for the lowest form of denominator at a particular time slot. You can actually build different types of content for different sets of audiences at the same time—by the virtue of being a part of VoD eco-system. That definitely enables you to be able to segment your audience, know your audience and over serve your audience,” explained Rakshit.
This, he said, has given rise to this huge momentum in terms of people adopting and consuming OTT services like never before, across India and the world. He added, “While all of this has happened, there are two parts to this. One is the advertising led business (AVoD) and the other one subscription led (SVoD) businesses. The advertising led business found their feet sooner and subscription businesses in India are still very new. So, it’s a long journey for subscription industry. As we go deeper into markets, deeper into plans, it is going to evolve in the next two decades.”


Today, majority of the Indian population is spending most of its time watching content digitally. The strongest proposition owes to the fact that one can watch what one wants, and when one wants—in the luxury of one’s home, without having to share screen with anybody else. “The commencement of this movement has been with the widespread use of mobile phones and access to cheap data. These two factors have been macroeconomic drivers of this push in the country. Without that, the proposition, in spite of being a sturdy one, would not have been affordable by a large percentage of the population,” elaborated Rakshit.

THE TECH RACE
When asked about how India fairs with respect to digital technology as compared to her global competitors, Rakshit said, “At different points in time, you will find us behind as well as ahead. The mobile revolution was witnessed in India before it took to speed elsewhere. If you compare the technology with Netflix and Amazon,with that used by the broadcasters, the OTT players have very strong tech stacks. On the other hand, the broadcasters are getting their technology together into the market and they are actually behind in the market. Our broadcast partners are already distributing it through Netflix. It all depends on who you are benchmarking; if we were the broadcaster, I think we are in a good shape and I don’t think we are lagging too much and if its’ required to be rebuilt, we do it. We did it this year which helps us stay ahead and in four years, I will feel the need to rebuild.”


For any new, nascent industry, there are two key aspects that need a continuous balance according to Rakshit—speed to market and built to last. “You don’t want to be too late but at the same time you don’t want to keep revisiting technology because that same technology can evolve very quickly, and if you are not building smart then you are forced to start from ground zero over and over again. To give you an instance, last year we actually ended up over holding out entire tech stack. Primarily because our first tech stack was built for speed to market as we wanted to be out there and make the service available, and I think we did a great job out of that. But the challenge with technology is that you suddenly want to scale up in different markets and scale across different devices, and changes are not necessarily supported by old systems. People are watching content on Amazon Echo, on television and suddenly the hypothesis you had may not be as flexible and scalable as you want it to be,” said Rakshit.
He went on to explain that he faced certain challenges while using old redundant technology, after which he restructured the tech infrastructure. They tried to make that version work, continued to enhance that version to try and deliver all the wide range of things they wanted to do within one code that was not built to do it all. “The belief system in technology is that if you give enough time and money, you can build anything. So, you can theoretically change your existing code base to a new one. But the wise concept prevailed and realising that rebuilding from scratch is a much more painful but effective solution. You are continuously getting your code base up from scratch and then there is a small period of pain when you are moving from one to the other but it isn’t dealing with all the compromises that you have built in to your old code base at that time. This is one of the important calls that was taken foreseeing the benefit for the brand that is playing through,” he added.
This gap led him to rebuild the entire stack in the course of the year gone by. Restructured versions are forward-looking, only for a few three to four years though, because nobody can predict technology trends beyond that time period. This makes it important to redo the architecture stack every three to four years or at least make foundational changes to it, because technology does evolve that quickly. “We undertook one such change, and it really helped us. While it is painful sometimes, to re-engineer the entire technology, it offers more flexibility once you get there—and we are benefitting from it now. We had outsourced the entire tech setup in the previous years and now, it is entirely built in house by our team, which translates into heightened levels of control. As a result we were able to launch Voot Kids in November, 2019, and then Voot Select in March, 2020. We would not have been able to do all of this on our old stack,” explained Rakshit.


He strongly relies on the Kaltura system for video delivery. “It’s the guts of video delivery for us right now,” he said. As far as most of the technology employed at Viacom’s digital entities is concerned, the company keeps pace with new advancements. “You are able to plug in and plug out new species of technology based on what is the fastest way to engage the customer. Technology evolves rapidly. One of the things unique to us, while everybody else in the OTT space is presenting video content alone, is the fact that we provide read-along capabilities for our kids platform. This includes audio books and interactive puzzles for kids,” he said.

LATEST VENTURES
Viacom 18 launched Colors Bangla, Colors Marathi, Colors Tamil, et al on Voot, its OTT platform. As a digital first, it launched Colors Telugu on Voot before it was launched on television in August, 2019. It recently launched Voot Select and Voot Kids. Viacom 18 recently collaborated with TikTok, a video-sharing social networking service, and helped the latter by building a program for its fitness series with celebrity endorsers. “On the AVoD front (Voot), the big success that we saw last year was in the area of user interaction. We are one of the most interactive platforms for users in the Indian OTT space and that also reflected in our engagement metrics, which are higher than any other platform in the industry which includes global majors as well. The last part is that users coming back to the platform with the interactivity we have built in on the platform,” shared Rakshit, who believes in chasing and making the most of opportunities. To make its platforms interactive, Voot employs home-grown as well as outsourced tools. Rakshit aims at building an interactive destination for its customers to drive engagement—now, the prime focus for the company. 


For him, the most immediate goal would be to solidify the subscriptions businesses, which is a new domain for the media giant. He shared, “There is a view that video is limited to only entertainment, but it can embrace sports, education and different facets of our lives. We will continue to identify opportunities where video can enhance life and start to figure out compelling services we can offer in those spaces. We will start to take on those opportunities as and when we think that the time is right.”

TO THE BEGINNERS
The media industry is a great example, when it comes to providing insight into digital revolution and consumer behaviour. With the digitisation of businesses, it has become easier to track changes in consumer consumption statistics and other dynamic relevant data. For somebody new to media technology, it is imperative to think and look at things from a customer point-of-view. “The three digital mediums for the media and entertainment industry are consumer, technology and content, according to me. Anyone who comes in and balances all three will have a very successful career. The industry has a very long way to go and that’s always a good thing for people who have just joined, because mature industry patterns are so set that it growth and expansion becomes slower as compared to the media industry. For the exploding talent in our country, the opportunities are immense,” concluded Rakshit.
Roger that!

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