Q&A with CNN APAC sales chief Sunita Rajan

Sunita RajanAsia’s international media scene was shocked by the news that Sunita Rajan, who has spent much of her career at BBC Worldwide building the company from the ground up in Asia, was moving to rival CNN at the start of the year.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella’s editor Robin Hicks, Rajan, who is vice president for advertising sales for CNN APAC, talks about her first 100 days with the company, why she left the Beeb, and why the CNN brand has more clout than ever in the era of young, web-first news brands.

Sunita, after 16 years with BBC Worldwide you had become synonymous with the brand is Asia, a much-loved fixture and company icon. Why did you move?

When I started the journey in 1999, it felt a little bit like joining a startup. The BBC brand barely existed in Asia then, and I had a mandate to build it from scratch and develop the vision and sales strategy. It was exciting to see the brand evolve over that 16-year period.

But what typifies the media and entertainment business is that change is a constant. Media consumption has evolved along with the market. To be offered the opportunity to work for the number one brand with such a strong portfolio of assets, and with digital growth and the ambition to take CNN to the next level, was too good an offer to turn down.

What’s your brief?

The business is in an extremely important phase of growth. There is an opportunity to amplify that growth across platforms. How do we increase digital revenue both from cross platform partnerships as well as a standalone digital business?

CNN styleWhat’s exciting is the digital roadmap. We have a product roadmap and vision for our digital platforms. CNN Style has just launched as a standalone fashion and design vertical online, which will also be brought to life through featured content on TV. What you’ll see with CNN Style, as with CNN Travel and CNN Money, is a breadth of content that really drives engagement across platforms.

And a different sort of audience than goes to CNN for news?

I’m not sure they’re different. These verticals are about giving our existing users – who are high net-worth business decision-makers – content that they find interesting and that they’re probably not getting anywhere else.

What sort of growth are you seeing in digital versus traditional TV airtime sales? I’m betting that the vast majority of CNN’s revenue still comes from TV…

We’re not unique in recognising the growth trajectory that consumers are offering to all brands, whether they’re media companies or products and services – and whether that’s from mobile consumption in India, China, or Indonesia or digital growth in Australia. There are macro factors that cannot be ignored. But is there an appetite for content? That is the question – to service a need and fill the gap. There’s never been a more important time for global news. We’re in a completely connected world, and there’s an opportunity to get access to information that’s authentic and which is delivered as a seamless experience across screens that does not exist through local avenues.

What do you mean by news not existing locally?

In a lot of markets in Asia, news is restricted or curtailed. There’s also a limit on how stories are deconstructed. But what’s going on in Greece is as important to people in China as it is to people in Greece. Our coverage
has been about the local story unfolding in Greece, but also about the global implications.

So what sort of revenue growth are you seeing from digital sales?

We are seeing double digital growth. Our ambition is not just to keep pace with the market, whether that’s in Australia, Hong Kong or Singapore. The narrative is about – and this is nothing new – brands adopting a multi-screen or cross-platform approach, which the vast majority of them are now doing. They’re not just buying the linear proposition anymore.

We’re seeing a big opportunity in a data-led smart solution approach to advertising. Brands want that, marketers are interested in that, and that’s where we will see the next wave – for instance with programmatic.

We’re seeing a very fast take-up of programmatic through the Pangaea Alliance, a group of premium publishers including The Economist, Financial Times, Reuters and The Guardian that got together in March of this year. The alliance is about creating an opportunity for brands to trade with other premium publishers through one space for global campaigns.

That is looking at programmatic across digital platforms, but in the US programmatic TV has already emerged, and Australia will likely be the first in APAC. We’re having conversations with the trading desks, and we work with Google and Rubicon to offer inventory with targeting and contextual capabilities, and we’re now talking about private marketplace deals.

What’s your perception of the shift in media away from pan-regional – particularly in Asia – towards a local buying approach?

Ultimately, it’s about the content that pan regional TV companies can offer compared to local terrestrial TV in the region. It’s the reason why brands have always been interested and attracted to international TV. The power of pay-TV continues on, just as print in some markets such as Singapore is still vibrant and alive.

Media consumption has not only become multilayered but also extremely complicated for brands and content owners to find their space in the complex world of consumption. So it’s even more important to have a very well recognised brand and one that offers a seamless experience. For us, for all the effort we put in from a product and technology point of view, CNN is about being at the front and centre of news consumption. We were the launch partner for Apple Watch, and we were among the first on SnapChat and Apple TV.

Measurement is a big headache for pay-TV, as it emerged at CASBAA last October. The boss of Astro, Henry Tan, described the current system as “flawed”. What’s your view on this?

Recall-based surveys [the long-running PAX survey by Ipsos] are part of the ecosystem that we live and operate in. That’s the currency we work with, and it’s gratifying that we continue to claim the number one position in Asia. But from a brand partnership point of view, we don’t just rest with that. We also run bespoke or customised surveys to be able to have a very robust conversation about how a brand partnership should work with CNN, and to offer another layer of accountability.

What is CNN, as the market leader in pay-TV in APAC, doing to improve the audience measurement system?

We recognise that in a world where ROI and audience engagement are key indicators for brands to do business with us, we need to have conversations about how to substantiate the audience story. As I mentioned, we do a lot in-house and invest a lot in accountability tools. We’re looking at this – the question will be better answered in a few months’ time.

Though it’s a concern, I don’t think advertisers are turned off by the measurement piece. The pay-TV ad market is expected to grow from $10.6 billion this year to $14.9 billion in 2020.

Compared to the likes of relative newcomers Buzzfeed and Vice, the CNN brand is a very traditional player. Is CNN getting harder to sell as a platform that can reach younger audiences?

If you look at the demographics of the people engaging with these brands [Vice, Buzzfeed, etc], they are the digital native demographic – the millennials. But if a big story breaks, people will still turn to trusted, credible news brands for analysis.

What is CNN doing to attract a young audience?

We’re attracting a large, younger audience of 20-35 year olds because of the introduction of new content, and globally we already attract a younger demographic online, as you’d expect. In the US over the last few years, we’ve seen a shift in the demographic watching CNN from over 60 to the high 50s with the introduction of shows such as Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.

A study we released this year in the US found that 60 per cent of millennials trust CNN as a news source compared with four per cent for Buzzfeed. CNN was the number one news source for political and government news, and second only to Facebook overall.

What do you want to have achieved after your first year at CNN?

If I tell you that, I’d give too much away to our competitors! My job has only just started. We’re looking to add to the team and open offices and offer branded services in other markets in Asia. We want to find partners in countries where there’s an appetite for and resonance with our brand [CNN has launched in Indonesia and the Philippines through licensing deals over the last year]. We want to be closer to our customers in markets where there’s an opportunity, and build on our presence in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and India.


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