ACK Media, the owner of Indian comic content such as Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and Karadi Tales, has a slew of projects lined up for the year:  online games (one called Suppandi World), two animation movies, a Facebook application for Amar Chitra Katha Story Of the Week, and mobile games for the Android.  ACK Media CEO and co-founder Samir Patil, in the first half of a two-part interview with MediaNama, talks about the various segments, challenges and why he feels the promise of new media has not worked.

What are the challenges you face – what’s worked for you?

There are two-three big challenges. We are dealing with a very heterogenous consumer base. Everyone has their pet theories on what will work, but its just stories. We have to recognise that we are dealing with 4 or 5 markets, very different, some price sensitive some not. So how does one meet the needs of such a market? It’s almost like you are dealing with Europe. There are different dimensions to the customer: one is price. We have to have products at different price points. There is both an opportunity  to create a really expensive product that goes to a family in Colaba or a less expensive one for a railway station, just as the FMCG did the sachet model with shampoo: that’s a lesson for media companies.

Second, distribution is super critical. You know, if content is king, distribution is God. That is a key learning: if you cannot have control of your distribution you cannot scale up in consumer products business.

Language: Ironically those who want content in Indian languages are not in India. They are trying to teach their kids their mother tongues and language needs are very different. Bi-lingual content is very popular with NRIs.

Buying occasion: Of the total lot, only 3-5% buy from a bookstore. If 100 going to a shopping mall or grocery store or some form of a shop, of them no more than 5-10% go to a bookstore. If you need to target an impulse buyer you need to have thousands and thousands of vendors.

What would you say has not worked for you?

The promise of new media has not because broadband has not happened. That is one big thing, neither 3G nor broadband is here. Much of the new media plans remain, for most people, on paper. The economics of broadcast are changing in terms of investment in content and so on but broadcasters remain hobbled due to expensive costs of distribution. Investment in content other than for GECs is not much. There should be more innovation in broadcast – educational channels for the distribution bottleneck, more DTH satellites and such.

We continue to invest because we make money both from TV and in the physical world. But if you are a standalone animation studio, it is not viable in India in my opinion.

There was talk of an IPO – is it happening? What were your revenues for the last fiscal?

There is no formal discussion of an IPO that has happened yet. We will raise capital, but will look at private equity, strategic, public. I can talk about the overall strategy but nothing specific about IPO. We are still private and I am keeping all revenue numbers under wraps.

What are your key business lines?

The first business is consumer products, which includes print, magazines, comics, home video and it will soon include merchandising and stationery. We expect to introduce 115 titles this year under various brands. In home video, around 75 titles over the next 12-18 months. In terms of the title mixes, they will be roughly equal between the three brands. We are planning to do the core of the distribution ourselves: home videos, comics, going to the 10,000+ newspaper vendors and emerging modern trade as well as book trade. And we will approach those wholesalers and distributors who are strong in upcountry: for a Bangalore I might be strong but for Hubli, Dharwad etc we will partner.

In new media we have Legend of Katha, Tinkle Online and Amarchitrakatha.com. We have broadened this storefront with not just Amar Chitra Katha content but more – what we think is good, childrens content, to make it become the number one go-to site for kids for media.

The second part of the business is Indian TV & film production – where we do both Live action, like we did a quiz show for NDTV, IPL Deccan Chargers quiz. We also do animation – the Cartoon Network deal for animated series, our Karadi Tales is (working) on already.

The third business we are building out is our educational division, which is around creating fun and learning content which is under the Karadi brand to begin with and we will expand a lot more content in that.

How are your reading lounges called ACK Lounges working out?

We are looking at adding another in Hyderabad and expanding the existing one because people have liked it and it is doing well. This is purely a marketing exercise. It’ll probably take us 3-6 months to announce how we are expanding to other cities.

ONLINE

What is the traction you have seen with Amarchitrakatha.com?
We see around 500-1000 transactions per week; 40% from outside India, 60% from India. Surprising thing is a large number are from non-metro states. And we are seeing a 30-40% growth rate every quarter, 100% year on year. It has gone from almost nothing to contributing 10% of consumer product revenues in the past year.

Traffic from Tinkle online also goes to the store, because underlying, it is the same store. Tinkle is more traffic oriented, we see 3000 unique users per day. We have more than 100,000 active users.

When will ACK Pedia be launched?

We have delayed ACK Pedia because we want to create a significant amount of content to begin it with. Plans are on hold for when exactly we will do it; it will be a while before we launch it. The idea around ACK Pedia was to make it child friendly, with Indian topics and open source it – like Wikipedia. The challenge with Wikipedia is that it has become too complicated. We were talking about making ACK Pedia a separate site for kids because it was pulled out of Amarchitrakatha.com. Because it is an e-commerce site, Amarchitrakatha.com is squarely for parents; Tinkle Online is a kids site but for slightly younger than tweens while Legend of Katha is for tweens.

Are you planning Facebook comics?

We are looking at Facebook as a way to display comics and will probably integrate our own application into it. The Story of the Week that we have right now on Amarchitrakatha.com will probably be on Facebook but that’s an internal discussion right now. It should happen in 4-5 weeks from now.

We already have pages for Suppandi and some of the characters in Amar Chitra Katha and fan pages. We have a Twitter contest for Karadi. We have been using social networks to create awareness and get customer feedback. Social media is the right media to listen to your customer rather than trying to tell them what you are doing. Largely, we have been letting fans develop the community otherwise it becomes too commercial and people don’t like it. If you look at it, the more successful use of social media is when it comes spontaneously. If a company tries to overdo it, then people will become like “Oh, what the heck” and this is not social media by definition.

And crowdsourcing to get ideas for developing new comics?

The crowdsourcing idea is powerful, we have extended it to talk with various people who want to publish comics. We also have a contest on Tinkle inviting ideas.

GAMING

How is Legend of Katha faring?

It’s still in beta, 300 people visit everyday. We are waiting to integrate with global portals to make it available in their portfolio of games. We are in the process of integrating payment gateways with MMO aggregators, once that happens we will have a full fledged launch.

We are working with a Spanish company to develop an educational world. We are going to create multiple worlds: Legend of Katha is just one of them. They will be completely different games – at one point there will be a Suppandi World, which will be coming out around Diwali.

What is the contribution to revenues from gaming?

Nothing significant. It’s more about audience development, connecting with the kids, keeping the brand relevant to the next generation: it’s all  marketing related than revenues yet. But I do expect the virtual audience to be revenue generating especially when we tap the international markets.

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