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The top brand marketers in India have been faster to jump on the mobile bandwagon than a lot of people have realised

Anuj Kumar is the CEO and a founding member of Affle. In this role, he leads business development and business operations of Affle and has had significant success in forging and managing partnerships with multiple stakeholders including mobile operators, advertisers, agencies, publishers, handset manufacturers and Affle’s investors.

Anuj Kumar is the CEO and a founding member of Affle. In this role, he leads business development and business operations of Affle and has had significant success in forging and managing partnerships with multiple stakeholders including mobile operators, advertisers, agencies, publishers, handset manufacturers and Affle’s investors. Kumar started his career in advertising, working with advertising and media companies like JWT, GroupM and MindShare, managing the advertising business of some of the largest global advertisers in India. He later moved to ESPN STAR Sports, where his role included programming, acquisitions and sales strategy. In an interaction with AlooTechie, Anuj Kumar shares the story behind founding Affle and the company’s plans going forward.

You are one of the co-founders of Affle. What was your objective and idea behind starting Affle? Walk us through the story of founding Affle.

We started Affle in 2006 at a time when mobile phones were primarily used as communications devices. Given the growing reach and functionalities of mobiles, we firmly believed that the handset would evolve into being a preferred and convenient media consumption device. This growth was however constrained by the prevailing technologies, which were cumbersome, not friendly and required consumers to undergo too much learning as opposed to being intuitive. With a view to change this completely, Affle was found with an objective of creating unique technologies which would create and help leverage the media potential of the mobile device. As messaging was and continues to be the most used functionality on the mobile, we focussed our efforts to enhancing the core messaging experience for users while also intelligently blending rich content experiences with messaging. This thought process gave birth to some of our most successful products like SMS2.0, SMS2.0 Live and Pinch iMessenger.

One of the interesting parts about the Affle story is that we started our operations simultaneously across three countries — UK, Singapore and India. The idea was to create technologies and business models, which would be meaningful and relevant in all types of mobile markets. This was very unique because most mobile companies would focus on a particular region, and also extremely ambitious given the resources we had at that time. I get really happy to see that these high ambition levels and entrepreneurial spirit have only grown in the organisation from then and are today the binding force for Afflers worldwide.

Affle started as a mobile marketing and technology company based in Singapore. What are your focus areas and strategies for the Indian market?

India has always been and continues to be one of the top priority markets for Affle. Given the over 700 million mobile reach and the comparatively lower reach of a lot of other digital and traditional media, India has clearly emerged as a mobile first market where consumers are having their first connected/internet experience on the mobile screen.

Our overall vision is to create compelling mobile media products for users and create the largest platform for advertisers to meaningfully reach out and execute scalable, mass reach mobile advertising campaigns. This global vision for Affle is truly being realised in the India market, with our products already reaching out to over 4 million users and our mobile advertising propositions reaching out to over 200 million users in India.

How, according to you, is the mobile market currently shaped in India? What are the factors that you think will drive the growth of mobile as a marketing medium in this country?

The mobile market, as is well known, is growing at a phenomenal pace in India. With the increased penetration on mobility, growing popularity of cheaper and better handsets, easier access to data services and sustained innovation of mobile content/services, this industry would continue to have a significant growth trajectory for a long while to come.

One can already see the changes in the mobile advertising industry in India. It’s very heartening to note that a lot of advertisers are today executing meaningful standalone/integrated activations on mobile as opposed to looking at the mobile platform as just an extension of the PC internet. Until a few years back, most top advertisers were experimenting with mobile by running pilots worth a few lakh rupees only. This scenario today has changed significantly with a lot of the top advertisers committing to multi crore annual investments on mobile advertising. However, the quantum growth for the industry is going to come from getting more advertisers to follow the example of these early adopters and increasing ROI and thus investments from those who are already thinking and planning mobile.

What are the challenges of mobile marketing in India? Do you think that the Indian mobile user is evolved enough to get advertisements on mobile?

I think the challenges don’t exist at the user level. Users across media are open to advertising as long as it is delivered non-intrusively and blended with their favourite content/service. The big three challenges, however, are (1) Spam SMS marketing. It creates a bad perception for mobile advertising amongst both users and marketers. Stricter regulation is thus needed to curb SMS spamming. (2) Products/Services innovation. Both operators and technology companies need to address this challenge by continuing to create new products and services which users value and build an ecosystem which values, promotes and incentivises innovation; and (3) Inertia amongst marketers and agencies where a lot of people still prefer to think of communication within the realms of a 30-second television commercial or a 100 cc newspaper ad.

There is a sudden upsurge of interest for mobile marketing in the APAC region, especially India. What, according to you, is the reason behind this, besides the number of mobile phones in use?

I think the upsurge is driven more by how mobile user behaviour is evolving in these markets. With the decreasing costs of data enabled phones and the easier and cheaper availability of data plans, a lot more users are connecting to consume internet like services on the mobile. While data connectivity and usage continues to increase hugely, there is also significant growth happening for content consumption over Voice, SMS and Applications as a channel. To me, any device becomes meaningful for advertising integration when users start using it to meet their content needs. The same was seen on the internet where the real advertising boom happened when user behaviour evolved beyond just basic email usage. This change is now happening for mobiles in India and thus the growing interest for mobile advertising amongst companies and marketers.

We often hear that the number of mobile phone users is much more than the number of internet users in India. But one view is that the number of GPRS-enabled mobile phones in India is roughly the same as that of the number of internet users. And that mobile marketing is hardly anything more than inserting a text ad in bulk SMSs, the ad whose effectiveness is hard to monitor. What’s your thought on this?

The mobile data revolution in India is for all to see everywhere. I remember reading the TRAI December 2009 report which talked about over 140 million data capable devices in India. In the last one year, we expect this number to have grown by at least 40 per cent. However, with pre-bundled GPRS settings and ‘all you can eat’ data plans a lot more of these ‘potential’ data users have today converted to being ‘real’ data users. You can today pick up a data capable handset at sub 3,000 Rs which comes pre-bundled with GPRS settings, and this is a big reason for this change.

In regards to your second question, advertising on mobile is much more than just text ads or bulk SMSs. Mobile content consumption in India can be seen as a pyramid where Voice and SMS are at the bottom of the pyramid with the largest reach and get topped by mobile internet and mobile applications. Exciting advertising possibilities thus exist on all these channels. Also, even on SMS, we have helped evolve advertising significantly from just plain vanilla SMS integration to more exciting richer formats like SMS2.0 and SMS2.0 Live where contextual advertising is blended with user chosen content and features.

A lot has been talked about mobile being an excellent medium for brand building, but still a very small per cent of media budget is spent on mobile and in that too, most goes to SMS. What do you feel is the reason behind this?

The top brand marketers in India have been faster to jump on the mobile bandwagon than a lot of people have realised. Today, top brand advertisers like Hindustan Unilever, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Maruti Suzuki, Nokia and a lot more have already embraced mobile advertising with this being a key part of their marketing mix. All of these brands started out with smaller experiments a few years back and based on the results they have seen, they are today investing a lot more to do much larger campaigns and activations on this media. We expect these investments to grow tremendously in the coming years as the marketers are also observing this change in consumer behaviour from close quarters.

One of the recent brand building mobile campaigns which Affle developed for Maruti Suzuki around sports sponsorships also got recognised as the ‘Best Mobile Advertising’ campaign for brand building globally at the Mobile Marketing Association awards in Los Angles. This again goes on to show that how effectively some Indian marketers are embracing this media in comparison to the rest of the world. We remain confident that this successful trend would soon be followed by a lot of other leading marketers who have still not fully experienced the impact and potential of mobile advertising.

What are the opportunities that mobile provides to a brand marketer? What steps are taken by Affle to educate the marketers about the opportunities of mobile as a marketing medium?

A large part of Affle’s efforts in India are focussed towards educating marketers and agencies about the advertising opportunities on mobile and how they could leverage these to connect better with their target group. Given the nascent stage of this industry, we try to make it easier for brands to activate mass mobile advertising campaigns as we partner with almost all top mobile operators in India like Airtel, Tata and Reliance to leverage existing media consumption channels like SMS, Voice, Mobile Internet and Applications to integrate advertising. This allows us to go to advertisers with effective solutions reaching out to over 200 million mobile users.

According to you, brands from which verticals are best fitted for advertising in this medium? Also, how small and medium enterprises and businesses can use mobile marketing effectively?

Mobile advertising would work well for all categories of advertisers with different advertisers choosing their preferred channel based on the audience profile, reach, targeting and interactivity potential. I would thus look at mobile being a medium similar to say TV or Print. Like on TV where an advertiser chooses to place his ad on Star Plus, ESPN, Aaj Tak or Sun TV based on their audience profile and reach, similarly on mobile he could choose from multiple communication formats and channels like choosing to build association with cricket on voice and SMS if that’s the most consumed by his TG.

How do you see this medium evolving as a better means of brand communication two years from now?

Over the last four years, we have seen the mobile advertising industry grow in India but not at the pace which we would have liked. However, a lot of constraints and challenges faced earlier have now begun to come down. I thus see the industry hitting a tipping point within the next two years and then growing to become one of the top three media in terms of revenues within five years. External environmental factors like regulations to cut-down on spam SMSs, decreasing costs of smartphones, cheaper and better data access through 3G/GPRS technologies, increased popularity of app stores, amongst others are also significantly helping in creating further impetus for growth. Also, a lot of good work is being done by some of the leading marketers and agencies in mobile advertising and I see a lot of others catching up with these early adopters in 2011.

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