Abhinav Mohapatra, New Delhi
Ascribed as an outdoor industry veteran with over 30 years in the field, Pramod Bhandula, Executive Chairman of JCDecaux India, in an interview with Abhinav Mohapatra of allaboutoutdoor.com explains how the outdoor industry landscape in the country has changed and the direction that it needs to take to gain momentum.
1. What changes have you seen in the outdoor advertising industry since you got associated with it, how did it help you run your business in JCDecaux?
I started working in the OOH industry when I was 19 years old and I have seen a lot of changes in the industry. For example, during my early days, there used to be only billboards on highways, we used to work for tyre companies since they used to be the major spenders at that time and there were a couple of towns that had never seen billboards in their lives. Since that time, the industry has really evolved; till the early 90s it was just a hand painted, conventionally structured industry, but then digital printing came along and changed the landscape. Now the shift I have noticed is from large billboards to small formats that give services well as beautify the cityscape.
Way back in 2006, we saw India as a billboard dominated country, we thought that we should start with something new and introduced the street furniture concept. That is what our core focus for the country is and we are targeting the top 10 cities and going forward, top 50. Our philosophy is different, we say that each city has a different character and need, we can bring a design that fits into that specific environment. We don’t say that a bus shelter designed for Delhi should be in Mumbai or Chandigarh, each face has to be different and unique to its city. This is how we have been talking to the administration of the city. Last seven years of my career I have seen that there is a change, but it is slow, the administration likes new ideas but the processes are slow.
2. What are the challenges that you face in the city and how do you counter it?
The challenge that we face is vandalism, which is a concern, we have started putting up messages on our faces, that the site has been vandalised and we get feedback asking whether it is a campaign, but we are appealing to the people that we want help to monitor and maintain the sites. There are few pockets that are very violent in terms of vandalism and it is a regular fight to stop vandalism.
The JCDecaux DNA is about accountability and it is the premise that the company was started with by Jean Claude Decaux in 1964 with the concept that said: ‘whatever you are creating has some service to the city and it should be maintained’. In our case, the government has the best infrastructure and can invest a lot, but when it comes to cleaning and maintenance, it is a disaster. We have our own vehicles and maintenance crew that does a day to day cleansing of the sites and the surrounding areas. If a bus shelter’s environment is not clean, the advertisers or the commuters will not like to use it. It is a relation that we have with the city; our philosophy is that we create the site and all through the concession period we try to maintain it so that it looks as good as new.
3. How has your introduction of bus shelters been accepted by the advertisers and the city administration?
Initially the bus shelters used to have rooftops and the market used to work on big is best, but with our introduction of the small format bus shelters in the NDMC areas has brought a new wave, as if the clients were waiting for something like this to be created. I think it has been accepted by clients in their hearts and been a great journey.
The government has a specific view on how they want to see their city and there is a vision attached to it, we need to discuss with them whether they want billboards all around or a good cityscape. It is purely up to them. Till now there aren’t many who go to the regulatory bodies to tell them that this is an innovation for the city to beautify it in a specific manner.
4. JCDecaux has airport showcases around the globe, what is your view when it comes to India?
If we look at airports, one should see what we had done six years back when we had acquired Bangalore Airport, it was a small airport with a capacity of 1 million. It was a treat to the eye at that time, and all others followed. 2010 Delhi airport came up and now Mumbai, Bangalore too has expanded and everywhere digital formats are growing. We have airports all around the globe and most of the airports have digital displays. In India, most have followed what has been done abroad. It is a miss for us that we could not take Delhi and Mumbai, but we would like to call ourselves trend setters for both street furniture and airport showcases.
5. What are the regulatory roadblocks that you face from the authorities and as an industry what can be done about the same?
Challenges are many and cannot be wiped out in a day, for example, vandalism is something that cannot be eradicated but bought down, in NDMC areas where we started several years ago there was a lot of vandalism, but now it is hardly 5 per cent. Apart from these there are two major challenges, one is from the city side; the city administration needs to decide the way forward for outdoors, for them this is a small part of the hundreds of problems they have. Slowly they have started realising that this is an important format, they can have best of the best infrastructure if they want and if they un-regulate outdoor advertising, one can do whatever and clutter the cityscape making it look bad. OOH is treated as an accessory, like a tie or a pocket handkerchief to a suit. Once the city bosses decide that this is also needed, the sector will become organised and there will be uniformity. The industry has to get ready for that and the city has to prepare that.
The IOAA is lobbying with the government to firstly get recognised properly and then bring uniformity to the business. There was an article in the newspaper a couple of days back that had a reference to the ‘mafia’, we have to come out of that and do good things and bring good investment so that we become partners to the city for development. There are policies in place, but strict enforcement is the need of the hour. The second challenge is to have accountability to the business; we are trying to have some kind of data in the industry so that the media planners and marketers can put their faith in the industry. There is a huge cost attached to the same. We are talking to a firm in the US to undertake this, but it might take about two years to get the first report.
On a different note, it is sad that we are talking about digitisation and on the other hand, the policy does not allow digital in the city streets, I feel that it has not been conceived well. It needs a change, there is a future for digital, five years back I thought it is going to take 10 years, but no work has started in that direction. Like in T3 of the IGI Airport, one can see a lot of digital and in the coming two years I think it will be 100 per cent digital. We did Heathrow Airport five years back and 85 per cent was digital. Hopefully things will move in that direction and we will see the change in the landscape.
6. How many outdoor properties does JCDecaux own in the country and what is your vision for the future?
We have a small business in the county, we operate in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. In Mumbai, we operate only 120 bus shelters in the BKC area, in Delhi we operate 1,200 bus shelters and 500 other street furniture, the airport expressway properties are also owned by us both indoor and outdoor. Hence, in totality I would say we have more than 3,000 sites.
As a company we are very clear in our thought, if any city wants a good infrastructure, they have to give us good space and a long duration. If we don’t have duration we cannot give the best. I say this because ultimately the cycle and proposition in our street furniture is sustained through advertising, if we don’t have advertising, the projects will not take off. It takes time to establish the area and show the advertiser its potential. Having said that, we are looking to a bright future, we have signed most of our contracts for more than 20 years and have a long term perspective. This is how we are striving to educate the cities that this relationship is good for them and we can partner with them.
7. A few years back, in a press interview you had said that regulations for OOH advertising is a distant dream, is it still the same?
It is still the same and killing us slowly, when the government is talking about smart cities, there should be proper regulations for the outdoor adverting too. There are 24 elements that make up a smart city, this is one of the elements and this is a key element that is visible. One appreciates the cityscape not individual factors, it is the overall impression that makes the city smart. The advertising faces are the accessories that make the city smart. Like in Paris there are 2,200 twilights, the size is one-fourth of Delhi but it does not look bad. Here we create spaces for individual advertising not for the city per se.
8. What are the most pressing issues for this industry?
The operators and media owners have to self regulate themselves, we have to bring the confidence of the advertisers, which is our bread and butter, the city which is our principal and the people who have the perception power. We have to be organised to go ahead and do something different, we cannot be going with the conventional way that we have seen following from the last 100 years, we are talking about smart cities and digital so we cannot have the conventional mindsets. We have to get recognition from the principal, government and the advertisers. The other challenge is the relationship between the government and the industry, we have to work together and guidelines have to be framed.
9. There are always claims about the size of the outdoor advertising industry, with reports that are never able to give a number. How big is the OOH industry according to you?
The last data floated by the IOAA said that OOH was around Rs 2,120 crore industry, but my feeling is that it will be something around Rs 2,500 crore, which is nothing actually. We are not equal to even Thailand when it comes to outdoor advertising. It is a very small industry inherited with so many problems which is restricting growth. Unless the ecosystem is organised, which includes city and media owners, there won’t be any investment. Whatever the revenue the city administration gains through giving space to media owners is peanuts. By deregulating, the damage to the city is huge. Mumbai corporation has a budget of about Rs 30,000 crore and the budget for revenue from outdoor is not more than Rs 80 crore-Rs 100 crore. They should make the operators their partners to change the cityscape.
10. What trends do you see in the coming year 2015 and what will be JCDecaux’s focus?
I am not very hopeful that some major change is going to happen, but I foresee that some of the cities which have understood the importance of outdoor will emerge as accepting to the idea of beautification of their cities and for that you have to take partners from outdoor adverting industry. The announcement of smart cities is a 10-year project and not a one day job, so change will come but it will take time for implementation. One thing I can say is that the revenue, which was fluctuating quite a bit for the last couple of years, in 2015 with a stable government the outdoor industry may grow by double digits. My dream is that we get more self regulated players who work for particular cities that they operate in. We all have great potential, we are half the size of Europe and there are so many people who can get accommodated in this space. In 2015, the focus for JCDecaux will be street furniture and partnering with city administration to shape the city’s infrastructure and go towards beautification.