The fortnightly was launched right in the middle of the economic slowdown, but its place is secure because it has set lofty standards for itself. Sophisticated readers who had ‘lapsed’ are back to its fold, and it is looking at premium biz magazine position.
When you come in with a brand name like Forbes, you don’t compete with Business Today or Business World,” Indrajit Gupta, Editor, Forbes India, says this very simply but that one sentence defines the publication’s thought process of approaching business journalism in India. Forbes India’s launch had marked an interesting turn for the domain. The combined might of the Forbes brand name and the strength of the Network18 Group had set high expectations from the magazine. While it is to be debated whether the magazine has lived up to those expectations or not, in the last few months, Forbes India surely gave the industry enough talking points.
The magazine launched at the peak of the slowdown period in May, 2009. Coinciding with it were industry studies indicating a decline in business readership. As Forbes India’s CEO Ajay Chacko points out, the publication was doing everything against the advice of so-called industry experts.
Sailing the Sinking Ship?
Chacko recalls, “We were told in no uncertain terms that this was the wrong business to engage in, but before we took the plunge, we did our homework. And we figured there was an appetite for a quality product.” Forbes had done in depth interviews with potential readers, comprising a sizeable portion of “lead users”. Elaborating on this, Gupta says, “These are the discerning and sophisticated readers who lead changes, the ones who are the first to get on an iPad app or look for something new. And the clear insight we had was that most were lapsed readers of business magazines.”
And there, Forbes India got its starting point. Like any respectable media brand, the first thing that Forbes paid attention to was content. “We were very clear that we wanted to build the premium business magazine position. The objective was to put together a magazine that had influence and impact. All the editorial and marketing initiatives were targeted in that direction.”
The magazine made a conscious call not to be amongst those who were neither about news reportage nor perspective. Chacko says, “We were putting ourselves in the perspective business rather than do something on everything just to save time. We took on issues and stories that would take longer to materialise. There was a content benchmark, design benchmark and the Forbes brand name helped.”
Intersections that become knowledge
There were two things that Forbes India concentrated on from the very beginning - the basic editorial position of critique and the editorial mission of celebrating entrepreneurial capitalism. Gupta admits that wearing a critical lens did wonders to the magazine’s credibility, and there was more of this on the road ahead. He says, “We see ourselves doing more of this to strengthen the core.
We have had the good fortune of working across a wide array of subjects. Although we are a quintessential business magazine, we have looked at public policy, strategic affairs, strategy and business leadership, as business is increasingly becoming centre-stage in today’s economy and our readers are interested in all of these things.”
A point that Gupta makes is the magazine’s thought process of choosing the subjects it writes on. Forbes India is amongst those who believe news is everywhere, knowledge is sought after. But how do you define and create knowledge? Gupta replies, “Our job is in some ways to put a lens on some of the intersections that you see panning out between institutions like a tussle between regulations and enterprise, when you speak of the education sector for instance.”
Forbes India’s views are that India, over the next 10 years, would be one of the most important markets in the global scheme of affairs and at the time, there would be exciting narratives to be told. The question facing domains like business journalism is how these stories should be told. And the Forbes’ team in India is attempting to reply to that challenge now. “You cannot be carried away by the India story but keep a level-headed view. In the days ahead, we have to explore new ways of telling stories, getting to new themes, finding interesting subjects that intersect because that is where new knowledge is created.”
Balance and authority
Gupta cites the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) development and points out that while none of it is revelation in its own right, the fact that technology is being architected in a way to create a solution for millions of Indians shows enormous possibilities. “Those are things that are very interesting to us as a magazine,” Gupta remarks, adding, “The cover that we did on UID was great fun because it had new ideas and creative solutions to a very challenging project. When Nandan (Nilekani) gave us feedback on that story, he said, you got it right. The government is in need of creative solutions and it can come from outside sometimes. It was a project that needed to be celebrated but with a critical lens.”
The need for balance and authority and fine-tuning the story-telling technique is foremost on Forbes’ content agenda, followed by design.
The commercial benchmarks
The magazine also set a benchmark in revenues, costs and pricing. “We were the first to do a cover price of Rs 50 and then increased it to Rs 100 in six months,” says Chacko. Forbes India’s advertising rate at the time of launch, according to Chacko, was two and half times that of market leaders.
At present, around 35 per cent of the magazine’s revenues come from subscriptions. Market estimates have indicated that Forbes India had to decrease its print run as well due to low off-take of the magazine. Chacko explains, “When we started, we had a higher print run since it was launch phase. But numbers have grown. We were targeting 30 per cent from subscription revenues and we have been more or less constant on that for the last two years. But there is a set reader for Forbes. Tell me one CEO who does not read it and we have focussed to maintain that profile. The subscription numbers will increase only when the number of entrepreneurs and top leaders grow.”
The magazine continues to price itself high. Chacko explains, “There is no point in trying to pit ourselves too low just to get volumes. That was our philosophy then and in two years, what was then a new philosophy became the way of business for the category.”
What next for Forbes India?
For Chacko, Forbes India readers have got used to the magazine’s benchmarks but they would expect more. He states, “The big challenge in the coming years for the Forbes India reader is the first adaptor of iPad and e-book. We are trying to stay relevant to an audience that is in any case in the top-end of the technology that we are consuming.”
The magazine’s digital strategy is also high on the Forbes plans ahead. Gupta observes, “As we move forward, we have to get better on listening more closely to what is in people’s mind and what makes them pick up a copy. Right now, that is the struggle and that is not going to go away.”
He points out that people already talk about the stories and share it on networks allowing Forbes India to have a strong presence on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but those conversations now need to move to dialogue. Focus is also on multimedia content with blogs and social media endeavours.
The future of a category
Both Gupta and Chacko are candid in stating that the entry of Fortune India helped in category building. Gupta says, “The premium business magazine category in India was virtually non-existent, so when we quoted the kind of cover price that we were quoting, there was some resistance. It helps when there are more players.”
But according to Chacko, in two years, Forbes India has made its mark. “In the Forbes global ecosystem, Forbes India is a benchmark already. The editors of the new editions reach out on how we have approached some of the things here, our stories are picked by the international editions and all this indicates that these two years have been on the right track.”