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Digital content creator TVF has big plans for the future

An IIT-graduate created a successful business by balancing method and madness. But Arunabh Kumar and his The Viral Fever now have to contend with competition from big production houses and boutique creative firms alike

I love a good story, be it through advertisements, movies or an entrepreneur who dared to think differently. I believe in bringing in fresh perspectives -- to a corporate profile or a Facebook post -- like new wine in an even newer bottle. I graduated with a journalism degree from the Xavier Institute of Communications. My weekend rituals involve watching Bollywood movies and reading up on style trends.

Arunabh Kumar, founder and CEO of The Viral Fever Media Labs
Image: Joshua Navalkar
Arunabh Kumar, founder and CEO of The Viral Fever Media Labs

As a student back in 2004, Arunabh Kumar found the absence of Indian content on IMDb (Internet Movie Database) ratings disappointing. Like many others, Kumar, who was studying mechanical engineering at IIT-Kharagpur, would use IMDb’s Top 250 shows (TV and web) as a filter for what to watch. But there were never any Indian shows in the mix.

Kumar made a mental note to change things, and it took less than a decade for him to get there: Today, there are only two Indian shows in IMDb Top 250 shows, and both are from his online content creation company, The Viral Fever Media Labs, or TVF, which was founded in 2011: Pitchers (No. 22, entered in 2015) and Permanent Roommates (No. 174, entered in 2014). They are also the first YouTube shows to make it to this list, says Kumar.

“I observed that there seems to be a big population and demand for better and progressive content which nobody is catering to. So I thought why not try and make something for them,” says Kumar, 33, CEO of TVF Media Labs.

In 2016, the company raised $10 million (around Rs 66 crore) from investment firm Tiger Global Management, thus increasing its valuation from Rs 200 crore in December 2015 to Rs 270 crore; in FY2015 it had revenues of Rs 4 crore.

“I met Lee [Fixel, co-head of Tiger Global’s private equity and venture capital investing] in September last year. But it was important for us to figure out our drawing board. I did six months of homework before going ahead with the funding,” he says. The money will be used to improve their app, production process and create more content. This is the first external infusion of funds into TVF, which was bootstrapped by Kumar till this point. Their strategy was to first master the art of writing a good script, explains Kumar, and then get more cash to be able to make more than two shows in a year.
 
They seem to be heading in that direction. Season two of Permanent Roommates, in association with Ola, was launched on February 14. TVF also collaborated with global dating giant Tinder to create a branded content video Eat, Pray...Swipe | Tinder Qtiyapa! The video, published on January 31, has got more than 14 lakh views as on March 18. This is apart from shows like Barely Speaking with Arnub, Qtiyapa and Chai Sutta Chronicles.

TVF has 15 lakh subscribers, over 130 videos on its YouTube channel, and garners an average viewership of 12 lakh per video. The company has also created five divisions—TVF Branded Entertainment, TVF Production Labs, TVF Live, TVF TV Production and TVF ONE Online Network for Entertainment, which offer services like branded content for the internet, production services, live events, television shows and web series. To reach a wider audience, TVF launched its own app, TVF Play, which lets viewers watch all their content in mobile-friendly resolution.

This evolution, says Kumar, “is a simple case of good product-market fit”.

But it isn’t quite simple. The boy from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, has the world in his sights. Take, for instance, the recognition he received when he represented India at Google’s first ever Global Creators Summit and the fourth edition of Brandcast, both in New York in 2015, alongside stalwart organisations like Vice, Universal Studios and Buzzfeed. TVF was the only Indian company to be invited to the annual initiative, which discusses current trends in online content and identifies key drivers for growth.

“There is tremendous opportunity and there will be more and more co-opting synergies and partnerships between brands, creators and platforms,” says Neeraj Roy, managing director and chief executive officer at Hungama Digital Media Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, a digital services agency.

Media investment company Group M’s report titled This Year Next Year 2016 says digital advertising is expected to grow by 47.5 percent in 2016 to Rs 7,300 crore from Rs 4,950 crore last year. The boom in digital media will only help TVF as branded content, combined with an engaging storyline, will be the way forward for most brands this year, say experts from the advertising industry. And Kumar, who figured this out in 2011, seems to have had a headstart. “The change has happened and people need to catch up with it,” he says.

The genesis of TVF is embedded in Kumar’s love for storytelling. He found his way to it through a circuitous route. He interned with David, a subsidiary of advertising agency O&M, when he was at IIT. After graduating in 2006, he worked as a research consultant on a US Air Force Project from Mumbai. In the same year, he quit this job to work as an assistant director on Farah Khan’s Hindi film Om Shanti Om.

After dabbling with multiple roles in the media industry—making short films, documentaries and music videos—Kumar began freelancing for Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative officer of the India office of BBDO, a New York-based advertising agency, in 2009. It was here that he was introduced to the concept of creating branded content, i.e. video content centred around a brand, usually for consumption on the internet.

Kumar’s mentor, or “tor-mentor” as Paul refers to himself, says, “What I find interesting about Arunabh is his ability to connect with a younger India. Given his experience and where he comes from, he understands the journey of the country’s youth because he went through it.”

Eventually, Kumar founded TVF Media Labs to explore things on his own—which appropriately had the motto ‘Lights, Camera, Experiment!’—and Gillette and Colgate Plax were some of his first clients. The company has worked with over 45 brands, including Flipkart, CommonFloor, Shiksha.com, Procter & Gamble and FreeCharge to create branded content.

In parallel, the intention to create more meaningful TV shows for the Indian youth translated into ideas like Engineer’s Diary, a spoof on the life of college students. He pitched the concept to channels like MTV and Channel V. “They liked the ideas, but refused to air them saying the Indian youth is not prepared for this type of content,” he says.

An indignant Kumar decided to go solo. “I had learnt online processing in college and knew that YouTube is a good platform to reach millions of consumers,” he says. In February 2012, he put together a site, TVFPLAY.com, created a YouTube channel called TheViralFeverVideos, and decided to upload content he had planned for TV. The money he had made from branded content was invested into creating videos for the web.

The first video, Rowdies, got 10 lakh views in 10 days. “The YouTube team tells us that the online internet paradigm in this country is divided into pre- and post-Rowdies. Before Rowdies, no original content had ever gone viral in this country,” claims Kumar. The success streak continued with Gaana Waala Song (2012), which was a covert promotional video campaign for Dharma Productions’ film Student of the Year, and Gangs of Social Media, a parody of the film Gangs of Wasseypur (2013).

“Arunabh has cracked the code of speaking in a language the youth understands and that makes his work a success,” says Paul.

By 2014, TVF had also built a strong team of over 80 people with offices in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. A standard instruction for all employees is to not get carried away with either success or failure. “One word which defines TVF is progress. We never talk about yesterday in our office,” he says.

“The one thing that I picked up from him is the ability to not be disillusioned by praises or disappointed by failures and keep working towards something better,” says Biswapati Sarkar, who plays the role of anchor in Barely Speaking with Arnub, which has had guests like Shah Rukh Khan, Arnab Goswami, Ranveer Singh and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

Notwithstanding the success of these shows, the bigger dream for Kumar was to create long-form content for the web. Essentially, transform TVF into an online TV channel by streamlining and bolstering the content mix.  

In 2014, Kingfisher approached TVF to create a web series with beer at its core. “The youth today spend more time watching content online than watching TV, perhaps because most current TV shows don’t appeal to them,” says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, senior vice president, marketing, United Breweries Ltd.

After a couple of ideation sessions with TVF, they zeroed in on the world of startups, which is in the middle of a revolution, and made a five-episode web series, Pitchers. It’s a story of four young men who leave their jobs for a startup venture. In fact, the idea for Pitchers had come to Kumar in 2012, when he was sitting in Quickies, a small bar in Bengaluru, but he had to wait for the right time and resources to develop this. The name of the series is a hat-tip to entrepreneurs who ‘pitch’ their ideas and discuss strategies over ‘pitchers’ of beer.

“Their approach to story telling and quality of content helps them engage closely with millions of digital-savvy youth,” says Sudarshan Gangrade, vice president, marketing, at Ola; the taxi aggregator has associated with TVF on the second season of Permanent Roommates.

That was the good news. Now the bad one. The competitive landscape has changed since Kumar started. His USP—differentiated web content for the youth—is no longer unique. Online content creation companies ScoopWhoop and Pocket Aces started experimenting with web series too in 2015. Also, albeit in a different genre than TVF, comedy collectives like East India Company (EIC) and All India Bakchod (AIB) have become synonymous with edgy spoofs and satire.

Ashish Patil of Yash Raj Films
Ashish Patil of Yash Raj Films

“2014 was the year when a whole lot of creators across genres like comedy, beauty and food started to emerge. Also, more smartphones were getting sold, connectivity improved and internet penetration increased,” says Satya Raghavan, head of content operations, YouTube India, Google.  

Identifying the opportunity, one of Bollywood’s biggest production houses, Yash Raj Films, too jumped onto the bandwagon last year with Y-Films, a subsidiary. Their output, so far, includes Man’s World, a satire on the battle of the sexes, and Bang Baaja Baaraat (BBB), a spoof on Indian-style weddings, and more recently, Love Shots, six individual short films on romance and relationships.

“It was a logical extension for us to take our storytelling equity built over decades and stretch it to the web. It also allows us to experiment with genres, formats, test fresh stories, talent, both in front of the camera, and behind,” says Ashish Patil, business and creative head, vice president, Youth Films, Brand Partnerships, Talent Management, Yash Raj Films.

Till recently, Patil adds, their YouTube channel, Y-Films, had just 18,000 subscribers, as the production house had not uploaded fresh content for more than four years. However, since launching in September 2015, Patil claims the channel has got more than 2.2 crore views, the subscriber count has gone up 14 times and most videos have watch-time retention of more than 90 percent, courtesy their original digital content.

“It is no more candid camera or vox pop. When we came in, we brought in a certain cinematic vision and production quality, which this medium deserves,” says Patil.

The challenge for TVF, then, is evident. But Kumar is unperturbed. “More creators entering this space just gives validation to what we have been doing. And when people like YRF follow in our footsteps, it is flattering,” he laughs.

He adds that the web is a transparent medium, and is not distribution heavy. “Bigger production houses can’t put a lot of money behind a web series and hope it becomes a hit. Here, you are as powerful as your content and the community you have built,” claims Kumar. This, he believes, is his strong suit.

“I think TVF is really leading the charge of this new form of content. We are going to see a lot more web series come up on the platform this year from a lot more creators,” says Raghavan of YouTube India.

If Kumar’s idea was “to disrupt the consumption ecosystem,” he seems to have made a start. The success, though, comes with caveats. “Today, because of so much clutter, original content will not be discovered and go viral. Content discovery is the biggest problem,” says Kumar. In the ‘Popular on YouTube’ section, original content remains as rare as in 2012 and that is something which scares him.

To leverage their early mover advantage, TVF has started partnering with other, newer content creators. The first of such collaborations was with Pocket Aces in December 2015. TVF released an 11-episode series called Not Fit on their website. “The traction and viewership of TVF provides an opportunity to partner with creators who fit the TVF lens. At the same time, we are very careful and stingy about collaborating, because it has to pass through TVF’s filters,” he says.

The other cautionary note from Kumar is on the content creation process. No matter how well one designs a chair, he says, it should be comfortable to sit on. Similarly, while creating content, one needs to respect the method and the madness. “If you don’t balance this, you will fall off,” he warns.

The ‘me-too’ phenomenon of trying to emulate successful models is also confusing to him. “It is not a business of commodities. It is a cultural and intangible product. You need to invest time in it. And no amount of money will take care of that,” he says.

This year, Kumar aims to give TVF a proper corporate structure, which it can do now, courtesy the fund infusion. “We never had an HR head, an accountant or even a peon. This year, we want to get all these systems in place,” he says. The new office in Andheri, in suburban Mumbai, which TVF moved into in January this year, is a step in that direction.

But for the future, even though digital is his touchstone, Kumar admits he is unable to resist the lure of the feature film. “That’s where the ultimate power is—in a theatrical release,” he says. “When we say we will make an Avengers in five years, we don’t joke. We will actually make it.”

(This story appears in the 15 April, 2016 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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