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While the past couple of months have seen a dramatic change in the way consumers live, work and shop, Nikhil Rungta, Country Manager, Verizon Media believes that there could be no turning back from here especially if social distancing continues to be the norm for the next year or two. He tells us more about the steps Verizon Media, which is home to platforms like Yahoo News, HuffPost India and the recently launched MAKERS, is taking to help advertisers navigate the new normal. Here are excerpts from a conversation with him.

 Q] What are some of the lasting changes in consumer behaviour that you expect the COVID-19 outbreak to create? 

None of us could have predicted how fast consumer behavior would evolve in just 50 days. Changes that were already on the horizon, accelerated during the lockdown. Consumers moved overnight to digital channels, transacting and buying online. All around us, people now live, learn, work and shop very differently. India was already the world’s fastest growing e-commerce market before this crisis -- Deloitte had estimated India’s e-commerce market would jump to $84 billion by 2021 (from $24B in 2017). But now, many more first-time users have logged on, amplifying this growth even faster. Buying even kitchen staples like milk, online during the lockdown. There could be no turning back from here, with the new normal becoming the ‘default normal’. With social distancing expected to continue till 2022, consumer behavior will continue to consolidate in the current direction, becoming ingrained for millions of Indians. Think online education and hybrid classrooms, telemedicine -- from video consultations with doctors to buying medicines online -- and e-commerce shopping for everyday essentials like bread and milk. Meetings and conferences could continue in virtual venues, even as e-sports and gaming hold onto quarantine audiences with safe arenas to play in. 

Traditionally price conscious Indians may weigh the risk of a trip to the cinema hall, with the comfort of binge-watching (for much less) at home on an OTT platform. A KPMG report is already predicting that the rise in OTT consumption could be habit forming, resulting in accelerated growth in consumption and monetization.

An important change will come in what customers expect from brands. If anything, this crisis has put the spotlight back on ‘trust.’ Customers coming out of one of the most difficult periods in their personal and professional lives will want to engage with brands they can “trust to do the right thing,” as a new Edelman Report has found. That’s a change that will endure. 

Q] As a company that works closely with brands across categories, what changes do you expect to see in brand behaviour/advertiser strategy?

We are seeing brands being understandably conservative and judicious in where and how they invest. Right now, our clients have their ear to the ground and are focused on solving for their customers’ immediate problems and needs. There is no one size fits all strategy given the varying economic impact and how unpredictable the situation remains. But depending on their industry and goals, advertisers will need different strategies to stay on top in this unpredictable environment.

Certain businesses whose economics are challenged will have to refocus on how to drive enhanced performance. They should look deeply at what and where their consumers are now engaging in content, leveraging insights tools that bring transparency to how omnichannel campaigns perform.

We are seeing businesses that want to strengthen their brand through this crisis. Staying contextually relevant and ensuring a brand safe presence is critical for them. Brands have to stay flexible, responsive and above all, sensitive with their creative -- in sync with what consumers ‘need,’ but also ‘feel’. Recent research from Kantar found 75% of consumers agreed brands should not exploit the COVID-19 situation to promote the brand. 

Then there are companies whose business models have shifted in the current climate, They need to pivot to engage consumers in this new normal and drive growth. Such brands are focused on redefining their target segments, leveraging qualified data to help them engage with these new sets of consumers in new ways. They want greater transparency in their media buys, and measuring in rapid cycles to ensure their campaigns are on track -- as they change course-- with the ability to optimize.

Q] What should the advertiser’s focus be during this crisis?

We are already seeing more strategic conversations with brands who have partnered with us, as they look to the future. Advertisers want to understand how to reach their audiences in the most efficient, engaging, and relevant way in the ‘new normal’ ahead. Accurately anticipating community mobility ---- people movement trends within a geographical area -- / could guide more informed decisions --consulting our partners on driving traffic and increasing content consumption across devices is already helping our buyers plan and execute awareness and acquisition strategies not just for right now, but in the months to come. 

DOOH may have hit the pause button temporarily, but that should not take away from the opportunities it could present after the lockdown. By modeling each level of lockdown restrictions, it is possible to predict exactly where to execute DOOH campaigns, based on anticipated community mobility after restrictions are lifted. This would make it possible to target potential locations for more effective DOOH campaigns.

Advertisers will also have to sharpen their focus on transparency. A recent Verizon Media and IPG global study found that 87% of consumers were concerned about how their personal data is being used. This is a growing concern in India too. Consumers have rapidly shifted to online and in-app tools through the lockdown and much of this has been a forced change, born out of necessity. These users are likely to feel violated if there is a lack of transparency on how their data is used, particularly for advertising. What is heartening for advertisers is that 88% of respondents (in the same survey) said they would willingly exchange their data for a service. The takeaway for brands? Lack of consent and one-sided profit are a big no-no. 

On a more fundamental, human level, brands will have to stay in tune with how dramatically consumers’ lives have changed. I see ‘Share of Empathy’ replacing ‘Share of Voice’ in the post COVID-19 world. Marketers will have to act with sensitivity and integrity to help regrow consumer confidence. Just as we build immunity against illness, going forward, brands will need a form of ‘immunity marketing’ to strengthen their relationship with consumers.

Q] The company has quite a few brands in the country – HuffPost, Yahoo and the recently launched MAKERS. Tell us a bit about your plans for these different platforms during the current COVID-19 situation in India, and post COVID?

Indians are riveted to the news with the situation evolving everyday. Readership on HuffPost and Yahoo News has increased not just in India but worldwide by nearly 80 per cent in recent days. HuffPost India has a much-visited coronavirus hub that curates the best content from across India and our partner editions. The HuffPost India team is also at the frontline of cutting-edge hard news reporting on India's coronavirus response. Readers are also relying on its quality service journalism and of course, entertainment recommendations in the form of Celebrity recommendations and watchlists! Beyond its COVID-19 coverage, Yahoo India is also running a very successful podcast series called Lockdown Diaries, that has seen great traction on social media. The episodes that cover mental health and women's issues, have deeply resonated with listeners. Our brand MAKERS India is shining a light on the more human side of this crisis, reporting on the surging domestic violence, mental health issues, while also highlighting uplifting stories on amazing Indian women helping out through this crisis. 

We find Indian consumers turning overwhelmingly to trusted news sources right now, because there is such a tsunami of fake news to wade through. Our dedicated ‘Trust & Safety’ team at Verizon Media is on the frontlines of this fight against fake news, helping identify and flag content that contains misinformation or fraudulent information related to COVID-19, across our Ecosystem. It ensures that harmful or misleading content does not find a home on our platforms or products like Yahoo News, Yahoo Finance or HuffPost India.   

As a company, we are rapidly innovating to create solutions for our customers that fill in gaps created by this new normal. International conferences, for instance, are now going digital and such experiences can evolve to become more inclusive and participatory for people everywhere, including our users here in India. Recently, Yahoo Finance exclusively livestreamed Berkshire Hathaway’s Shareholders’ Meeting. This much-anticipated event -- held while most of the world was under lockdown -- was the company’s most streamed shareholders’ meeting to date, with 2.5 million on-network streams and 3 million more on social media. This was extensively watched in India and discussed across financial channels here. 

Q] Take us through the various initiatives the company is rolling out to meet communication needs during the lockdown specifically.

Staying transparent, facilitating dialogue and creating a community that can reach out and support each other, is helping us communicate through the lockdown. At a time like this, communication channels have to remain open all the way to the top. Our CEO Guru Gowrappan has led by example in being transparent and accessible to employees globally. Through virtual Q&As, Guru responds directly to questions from employees, addressing what’s top of mind for them. Clear guidance gives teams the clarity they need, especially at a time when everything keeps shifting. 

 Working remotely for such a prolonged period of time has brought its own communication challenges. For instance, how do you communicate as a community when you can’t meet up in person? Our ‘Daily Connect’ newsletter narrows this gap, with up-to-date information and news employees need. But it’s also our virtual water-cooler break. Employees contribute and express themselves, through sharing crazy memes or curated binge-watching lists, for example. 

This crisis has brought teams together to share at many more levels. Given that we are all adapting as client needs evolve, teams across regions have been generous in sharing knowledge and insights, offering learnings from customer feedback and consumer trends, as well as analysis across markets. Externally, we are listening and talking to our clients, understanding their challenges, sharing guidance and consultancy to address their current business needs. But alongside, there is now a much deeper, strategic focus on driving smart, focused solutions for the months ahead. We have been conducting webinars -- completing over 10 till date -- for both agencies & advertisers on how certain platform strengths on our DSP can be leveraged for greater efficiency and gains in the post COVID-19 world. The number of users who have completed the Verizon Media DSP certification has increased through this period. We also have newsletters going out to keep consumers up-to-date on news relevant to them.  

If anything, this process has strengthened our relationships with our stakeholders. It has reinforced how much we value these long-term relationships, and the trust our clients place in our business.

Q] How are you keeping your employees and teams upbeat during this time of adversity? 

Our employees aren’t working in a vacuum. They are moms and dads, they are carers for their parents, juggling home and work priorities. Which is why, helping them balance work and family life is critical. And it isn’t just our employees, but also their families who have to be included into this circle of support -- whether it is playing virtual bingo after work, which we all look forward to, or joining in Zumba classes, everyone is invited!

On staying upbeat, we love that our employees are showing us how it can be done creatively! They have formed peer groups to connect with colleagues and provide interactive content for all our families. #forthekids, a daily activity, has been a big hit! Employees host story time, a magic show, a fun workout, or lead an activity for all of the Verizon Media-team kids.  
Staying fit mentally and physically is crucial right now. Towards that, we had a very useful virtual session for our India teams with Dr Shivarama Varambally, an integrative medicine specialist, from NIMHANS recently. He had great advice on how to deal with worry and anxiety, keeping our kids calm and staying healthy and protected through this crisis. (Team members found the session immensely useful -- you can catch the archived conversation on Yahoo India). Virtual daily group meditation sessions are open to employees and their families, who also have access to a meditation app with thousands of guided meditations available in 30 different languages. Above all, we are ensuring employees and their immediate families have the support they need at the moment they need it, with access to 24/7 confidential crisis support and virtual counseling sessions globally. As a company, we have been proud to shape the way mental health is perceived and supported through our brands. And right now, we are living these values as a company.


Verizon Communications Inc., headquartered in New York City, operates one of America’s leading wireless networks, delivers integrated solutions to businesses worldwide. It posted revenues of $130.9 billion in 2018. The company’s media group helps consumers stay informed and entertained, communicate and transact, while creating new ways for advertisers and partners to connect.

Verizon Media is also home to popular technology and communication brands widely used across the globe such as:

the platform for news, entertainment, sports and finance

the source for breaking tech news

platform for news and commentary for today’s diverse, connected generation

brings to life stories that impact and accelerate the women’s movement

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