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‘Vast Disruption In Media Driven By Google & Facebook’: Neel Chowdhury, Inc Southeast Asia


Neel Chowdhury, the publisher of Inc Southeast Asia (Inc ASEAN) and principal of Sycamore Media, which holds the master license to publish Inc in the region, believes that the Indo-Asia Pacific offers many compelling media opportunities amid a fluid media landscape where content is no longer king.

A graduate of Harvard and Oxford University, where he studied English Literature and Philosophy, Chowdhury has worked in editorial roles for FORTUNE Magazine and as Page-One Editor of The Wall Street Journal Asia.

To succeed as a media operator, the Singapore-based Chowdhury argues: “Your content obviously has to be very good, and it has to have a distinct identity. It also have to be useful in terms of shaping decisions in the life of your consumers, so for instance with Inc we’re providing content that helps entrepreneurs or would be entrepreneurs, start a company, grow a company, and go from good to great. All of our content is designed to help an entrepreneur start, or run their company. We learn very practical things, and I think that kind of content always has an edge.”

“The second thing I think that’s very important for a media operator in this increasingly tricky media landscape where so many things are in flux and changing is to manage the costs. If you cannot manage your costs, then I think your chances of success are much lower.”

Backed by Singapore-based REAPRA Group, the investment vehicle of Japanese businessman Shuhei Morofuji, capital from REAPRA in a deal that closed in April 2017 has allowed Chowdhury to expand the digital footprint of Inc ASEAN and expanded its digital capabilities.

In an interview, Chowdhury highlighted: “We’ve invested particularly heavily on the technology side and built a small but a modest technology team. Our traffic numbers are going up between 15% to 21% month on month. We’ve also undertaken many changes and improvements to the site, such as the addition of more video, which was a key goal of ours.”

The investment also enabled the launch of Inc ASEAN’s print edition in May 2017 at the Innovfest Unbound conference on 3 May 2017 in Singapore, which Chowdhury see’s as a foundation for building its circulation base across the region.

Headquartered in the city-state of Singapore, it maintains a dual office structure that sees its head office in Singapore and its back-office and digital operations based out of Manila, Philippines. WIth both digital and print editions, Chowdhury believes that these synergies allow complementaries to emerge.

He explains: “When we produce stories for the web, online we publish between 60 to 70 stories a day. What often happens editorially is that the stories that we produce on the site, and these are relatively short stories between 400-600 words and serve directly as rough drafts for longer magazine pieces.”

“For instance, we wrote about Go-Jek and Nadiem Makarim on the site several months before we actually profiled him in the June 2017 edition of our print issue. But that gave use the basic overview of business and enabled us to establish contact with their team and with him. Many of the best magazine ideas are born and germinated on the web, so it’s been very complimentary in that sense.”

He adds, “Additionally, when we edit and publish a magazine story, we invest time and resources we don’t commit to web content. What we can write for a magazine piece is an in-depth story of about 2000 to 3000 words that involves the writer conducting several interview with the founders; its the culmination of weeks – sometimes months – of reporting in addition to the art elements we invest in the print edition that we don’t do for our digital edition, such as commissioned photographs, and layout design and et cetera.”

Asian media shifts

Looking at the business ecosystem for the media sector in Southeast Asia (ASEAN) and the broader Indo-Asia Pacific – Vice Media announced the launch of its APAC HQ in Singapore – Chowdhury notes that the city-state has traditionally been a base for specific kinds of media, despite a media environment that can be restrictive in certain contexts.

He observes: “Singapore has always been a base basically for certain kinds of media, meaning the broadcasters have been here for decades, at least 20 years – as long as I’ve been here – and it’s a combination of financial and logistical reasons. It’s a low tax environment, it is very easy to setup a company, it’s very legally transparent system, all the usual Singapore advantages. It’s very easy to travel in and out of Singapore and therefore use it as a hub. So those advantages still remain and that’s one reason why Singapore will probably continue to attract global media companies such as Vice.”

“You have limited choices when it comes to setting up a headquarters in Asia. It’s either Hong Kong or Singapore. Tokyo was once a place you could do this, but the Japanese market is highly distinct and separate from both China and the rest of the Asia Pacific.”

Chowdhury also highlights the major role that both Google and Facebook have played in shaping the media landscape internationally, as well as across the Indo-Asia Pacific. He notes: “One key trend you can’t ignore which is reshaping the landscape is the increasing dominance of Google and Facebook in the online advertising market. Globally, they control an estimated 50%-60%, of the online advertising market, possibly even more.”

“When you look at the growth in online advertising, again, it will vary from region to region but it’s generally between 10%-20% annually. Google and Facebook capture something like 80% to 90% of that growth. So what those numbers are telling you is that the online advertising revenue of the media industry is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of two companies, Google and Facebook. This is having a ripple effect on the entire media landscape. The advertising-led revenue model is increasingly difficult for smaller operators to survive on.”

Chowdhury highlights the example of gaming and how studios and publishers develop games that are distributed for free, but which monetise through the sale of in-game goods and services directly to gamers and generating revenue through micro-transactions, as well as the rise of social influencers on platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

He notes: “Brands are increasingly flocking to those social influencers, and this has seen the rise of intermediaries between the brands and the social influencers. So instead of a large brand like United Airlines or Federal Express taking out an advertisement in a magazine or doing a television spot, what they are increasingly doing is to engage a social influencer.”

“There is, I think a vast disruption that’s underway across the entire media industry. While it’s hard to identify common threads defining this disruption, the single common thread all media companies have to deal with is the rise of Google and Facebook. And they usually deal with it in a defensive fashion, meaning they’re not benefiting from the increasing dominance of these two companies in terms of their finances.”

“Secondly, advertising is becoming increasingly fragmented. The days when an advertising budget would go to certain fixed categories like print, TV, and digital, those days are coming to an end. Advertising is in decline when it comes to traditional media like TV and print, and that will continue. But even digital advertising is increasingly fragmented. So it’s increasingly difficult to capture that kind of advertising dollar.”

A third factor Chowdhury perceives is the growing role of technology platforms as distributors of media content. He argues that platforms such as Instagram and Facebook , which are fundamentally technology companies, are increasingly evolving into media companies.

He comments: “The so called content creators, whether they be in print or TV, they’re becoming increasingly subservient to those platforms. I would say that content is no longer king. It certainly retains a place in the royal court, but I think that content has been effectively dethroned.”

India, which is forecast to become the world’s fifth largest economy in dollar terms by end-2018, is also a distinct market, with a recent trend of content startups in India receiving significant investor interest, particularity in niche categories.

Chowdhury observes: “The Indian media market strikes me as an interesting market in the sense that you have traditional media that is still in a very dominant position. Whether it’s newspapers or TV, right now the vast majority of the Indian population don’t possess a smartphone. They are also becoming, only in this generation, literate and therefore media consumers.”

“So the first things they gravitate towards are the more traditional and accessible forms of media, such as a low-cost newspapers or a TV set. Now, you can couple that with a trend that’s been underway for some time of a smaller group of digitally savvy people that possess smartphones and are looking to the future, particularly at Western trends. It makes for a very interesting market; it’s very hard to talk about India as a uniform market, as it’s not like China in that respect.”

Evolving media landscape

The media landscape has also evolved, with the emergence of the journalist-consultant, a particularly notable development given that Bloomberg has expanded into the consulting space in the US, a possible sign of things to come in Asia.

Pressure on advertising revenues has driven media businesses to seek out new revenue channels and growth sources, ranging from events to e-commerce. Bloomberg is best known for its financial information terminals and wire service and is the the first major publisher enter the management consulting space.

This will see it leverage data from across its assets to inform its advisory services, which include brand consulting, corporate communications and marketing strategy advice, among others.

Coupled with its master license to publish Inc ASEAN, this has seen Sycamore Media launch Seekscribe, an integrated content marketing platform, to capitalise on the demand among entrepreneurs, small & medium enterprises (SMEs) and startup ventures for new content.

Speaking on the matter, Chowdhury explains: “Brand new content marketing is increasingly important to carry out your SEO strategies and any kind of social media marketing campaign, particularly given the dominance of Google and Facebook. If you have an article written about you from a credible source, it’s more likely to rank higher on a Google search than if you didn’t.”

“Similarly, if you have brand new content that was widely shared on a social media network such as Facebook, that has an incredible effect on your brand and business. So it struck me that SMEs, startups, and entrepreneurs had a tremendous desire for more brand new content.”

Chowdhury argues that in Southeast Asia, many entrepreneurs and SME owners are underserved in the content marketing space and unable to afford it, with the space largely being offline and dominated by public relations firms and advertising agencies.

With excessively high price points and a lack of time to undertake content marketing, this drove the creation of Seekscribe, which will act as a branded content/content marketing portal where SMEs can transact on a single platform.

“You can describe what you want in terms of the branded you want. There is a whole service request process that takes place online, and we deliver the product to you within 24 hours at a very low price point, basically between $95 to $155 depending on the kind of content you choose. We saw it as a very easy, low cost, a high quality, and efficient way to do content marketing for these underserved clients.”

In Singapore, online classified platforms such as PropertyGuru and – both property listings portals – as well as personal finance portal are also players in category-specific media, which leverages content to generate and drive traffic to their listed products.

Commenting on this reshaping of the media space, Chowdhury says, “If you look at Bloomberg it is already such a well established platform for the financial service industry, meaning when traders and bankers enter their office the first thing they often do is to login to their Bloomberg terminal. And they get their mail on the Bloomberg terminal, they send instant messages on the Bloomberg terminal, they obviously retrieve news on the Bloomberg terminal, they trade on the Bloomberg terminal. It’s already a very established financial service platform, and has been so for the last 20-odd years. It’s only natural that Bloomberg is trying to leverage the strength of that platform. Other platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are also doing the same.”

“Facebook is trying to create more content. Instead of being what it was when it began – an aggregator of content – it’s getting everyone to supply the content, whether it’s in the form of photos or silly cat videos or even news about which restaurants you went to or movies you’ve seen. It’s now trying to create more proprietary content and using it’s huge platform … to become a content creator. It’s a natural outgrowth of that larger trend. We’re living in the age where these platforms are becoming increasingly dominant.”

*Shiwen Yap is a STEM enthusiast and a pragmatic centrist interested in the intersection of technology, business, entrepreneurship, science and public policy.

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