Vijay Subramaniam, group founder and CEO of The Collective Artist Network
wan, the largest talent agency in India, is now rebranded as the Collective Artists Network. Its roster of celebrities includes actors Deepika Padukone, Tiger Shroff, Sara Ali Khan and cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin. For more than a decade, Kwan has shaped how business is conducted in India's entertainment space, where its celebrities went from endorsing a brand to becoming one.
The agency has also launched a pop label called Big Bang Music in collaboration with Sony Music. With the help of its new social influencer platform—Big Bang Social —it is finding the next big thing to take India's digital influencers industry, which is valued at $150 million, as per the Advertising Standards Council of India.
The Collective has a checkered past. One of its founders, Anirban Blah, was accused of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement in 2018, after which he was made to step down from the organisation. Then, in 2020, Kwan also found itself in the eye of the storm caused by the untimely death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who was represented by the agency.
Vijay Subramaniam, co-founder and group CEO of the Collective Artists Network, says an overhaul was a long time coming. Edited excerpts:
What prompted this overhaul?
The idea crept in a couple of years ago. We were always of the opinion that what got us here won't take us to where we want to go. One key decision was to bring in new energy. We've also on-boarded seven new partners as equity shareholders into the company. We restructured the management, keeping talent management at its core, and realigned the future business line. Kwan is not an isolated example. A lot of people, when they're looking at the next chapter of their lives, infuse fresh energy—either a logo change, or a name change, or a brand change. It is important to have a new narrative stitched in.
What do the three pillars—content packaging, influential commerce, and digital media—mean to the organisation?
One of the key reasons we've been successful in the motion picture business and the talent management business is because we've not had a singular view of just representing actors for unidimensional endorsements, appearances and shows. If you want to have influence, you need to control the mothership. We have probably the country's largest literary business, which is the films business that represents directors, writers, DoPs and so on. We were in a strong position to package the films internally.
How do you break the brokerage cycle? By putting packages together that just require a buyer or line production. It's because of that pivot, we were in the position to manage 12 to 14 large pieces of content packaged completely in-house. This is across series, features, and straight-to-digital films.
We do the same thing in the music part of the business. We formed a joint venture with Sony Music to package music content. For example, Tiger (Shroff) wanted to use the lockdown more constructively. We were in the position to package a couple of singles (for him).
There are two parts of the business—celebrity management and influencer management. [The] latter is a bottomless pit. An influencer is a person with a circle of influence, it doesn't necessarily need to be a celebrity. We decided to build a technology platform within the company called Big Bang Social. You could be a mother of two and be a marathon runner with 3,000 followers on Instagram. Or you could be a great home chef in Surat, and your YouTube channel could be going bonkers with your recipes. You have them on the platform, but how do you get B2C and mainline brands to connect with influencers? For that, you have Big Bang social.
The third aspect is the commerce business—products and services with influencers and celebrities. Traditionally, it requires agencies to get rid of short-term endorsements and revenue to build long-term scale and value. This commerce business is something we hope will add value to our clients, where we will bring in capital, and will partner with key people to expand the horizon of the brand-products business.
As the largest talent agency in India, how do you see your place in the industry?
The industry, per se, is not an industry. You only call yourself an industry when you outlive founders, when there is a methodology, a line of succession; when you build organisations that have capacity across both breadth and depth. The talent management business in this country has been there for the last 20 years and it's very young. We would like to believe that we were the first ones to make this into an actual, sustainable organised business. We see ourselves being the only real institutional player in this business.
It's not just about managing talent or just not about being in the glitz and glitterati of the entertainment business—it's a serious career option. This is why, for me, the summation of this as an entertainment and pop culture marketplace important. I think we're a bunch of isolated companies that deal in verticals—somebody in comedy, somebody music, somebody in Bollywood.
How has the Collective set up a conversation between pop culture and people? What is the influence you see yourself heaving on which of the sub-cultures take centre stage in the mainstream?
We started representing [social media influencer] Bhuvan Bam five years ago. You see the impact today that Bhuvan Bam has on mainline pop culture. It is no longer a subculture because of Instagram, short videos, YouTube etc. The industry's monetisation value is on par with mainline entertainment. These guys are clearly defining [pop culture]. Look at the merchandising they sell. It's like Metallica merchandise selling [out] in 30 minutes at the concert venue. So in every aspect, I think the pop cultures' definition in India has broken the binary of cricket and Bollywood.
Kwan has had a big role in turning a few subcultures into the mainstream. How do you see the Collective's influence going forward?
I feel it to be more mature. That's one of the main reasons we build a tech product. When you build tech, you build scalability. What we do is white-glove service, where we are present in our clients' daily life. Other influencer marketing platforms have operated in isolation. They've never really had the 360 [degree approach]. Our in-road and our depth into that vertical of influence are only going to increase and that's why we want to scale it using technology, products, commerce, and not just content. At the core of it, content and commerce will merge and that's where one plus one will be eleven.
After the ouster of Anirban Blah in 2018 and a difficult 2020, have you identified the pitfalls you need to avoid?
When you have a gap, your job is to address it and take action. Organisations worldwide have had crises. We happen to work in entertainment, in a country where Bollywood is idolised, that's why it gets highlighted a lot. But we've been quick to act. When we've had to take decisions, we have.
We're trying to build a value-centric organisation. You've named two incidents, but what people don't realise is, (in that duration) we've grown four times as a company. So clearly there's an employer brand. We've grown two-and-a-half times the business. We've done a joint venture on the music side with a very credible company. There's no way you can last 100 years without going through ups and downs. The company's become also much more ambitious, pitching in the right values. A lot of people told us that 'you guys are really fat for an organisation of 200 people, there are going to be layoffs,' but here we are, one-and-a-half years after the pandemic, and we managed to retain all our people. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
How has the entertainment industry changed over the last decade?
Fundamentals of the business have changed. Look at the disruption of OTT, tech, retail. If we were faced with this [pandemic] in 2009, without Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon, where do you take these [show/movie] deals? Without social media apps, the TikTok, Instagram revolution, how do you think we would have monetised? In 2009, some of the primary sources of income were shooting a film, shooting an ad, and going to Jaipur to open a store. That's changed. The industry has become more organised.
When we started with Kwan, we'd taken the bets for two years down the line, even if it meant a financial loss. Sometimes it worked, sometimes those bets didn’t pay. Like when we started managing writers and directors, we didn't make any money for the first two-and-a-half years. Until there came a time where today, that's pretty much become the backbone of the content packaging business. I think you have to have an eye on the future.
How's entertainment changed? Well, from the fact that you don't need appointment viewing anymore, there is something called an OTT star, an Instagram star. If you were fighting for talent in 2009, you had a pool of 50 actors and about 30 cricketers. The addressable market of A+ level of talent management was no more than 200 people. Today, I don't know where my next star is going to come from. I don't know whose next video is going to go viral and which guy's going to become the new cool thing.
How do you decide the best possible growth opportunity for people on your roster?
I think growth is only going to come in two ways—it is what I call the 2 Cs—the content they make or the commerce they do.
If you are a digital star, your fundamental medium of commerce will be online. If you're a movie star, your fundamental distribution will be either OTT or theatrical. So you ensure that you are in a position to facilitate as much of the content pieces that they can put out. You ensure that you have the best, branded opportunities for them. Keep an eye out for all the new emerging trends you can think of putting out there.
For example, we have an eye out today on audio. Everybody said video is the next big thing, and all of a sudden, you have the podcast revolution. The boundaries are breaking and that's the exciting reason to be in our business. People are going to consume content and commerce. You're going to shop, you're going to watch or you're going to read or you're going to hear. That is why we have to be present in all the key nodal points of all these products.
Dharma Productions has come up with a venture with Cornerstone, Yash Raj Films has YRF Talent. Is this a challenge for the Collective?
Yes and no. I don't think it's a bad thing that the market grows. You're not just playing for market share, you are also playing for the creation of a new one. It's important to have more players come in to create that. As it becomes bigger, the opportunity and scalability for people become wider and deeper. More importantly, for us, they're also clients, somebody we respect. Will we compete on a certain part of the business? Yes, 100 percent.