Times Group continues evolution of innovation through culture-changing conversations

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


When it comes to a publisher’s role in the context of brands and society — the role of newspapers in driving culture changing conversations — Malcolm Raphael says the key word is “evolving.”

This is especially true in today’s world where things keep changing, seemingly by the minute.

Speaking in an INMA Webinar last week, Raphael, senior vice president and head of creative strategy and planning/trade marketing and innovations at Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd., told INMA members that today’s news media publishers are in a constant state of flux.

“But there are three pillars on which we always base our publishing on,” he told INMA members.

  • Technology, which serves an important role, but with limits.

  • Thinking, strategic versus tactical.

  • Teams, culture and collaboration.

“Evolution cannot happen without collaboration,” Raphael said. 

Innovation cannot happen without evolution, Malcolm Raphael told INMA members in a Webinar.
Innovation cannot happen without evolution, Malcolm Raphael told INMA members in a Webinar.

The Times Group consists print newspapers, television, radio, and digital. It is also not just a news source but a culture-changing organisation that changes the course of thinking in society and policy.

“So when you talk about the context of brand and society, you cannot delineate it from culture and conversation,” he said. “Because society is culture, and brand is all about conversation.”

In India, the habit of reading the print newspaper is more than a habit — it’s a very strong part of the society and culture. This habit only strengthened during the pandemic, Raphael said. 

Reading the newspaper is not just habit, but part of Indian culture and society.
Reading the newspaper is not just habit, but part of Indian culture and society.

Culture and brands

Brands and culture rest in the realm of the masses, and are kept alive through stories, Raphael said. Stories shape conversation and therefore shape brand and culture — even more so in today’s digital culture.

“How do you capture this,  how do you anticipate change, and how do you leverage that change?”

He believes that the role of a newspaper publisher is accentuated during these times, serving as a counter of digital democracy in an age where a 15-year-old influencer can reach as many people as the largest media organisation, but with none of the responsibilities that journalism holds.

Trust is one of the most important attributes that news publishers have and can capitalise on.
Trust is one of the most important attributes that news publishers have and can capitalise on.

“I think that is a huge difference that we have and also a responsibility,” Raphael said. “In today’s world, there’s a huge deficit of trust. Newspapers become a beacon of trust in a world of fake.”

That credibility is a factor that newspaper publishers can use to play a key role in creating culture-shifting conversations.

The Times Group and societal influence

Raphael shared some examples of how The Times Group has done this, noting the group’s culture-changing role falls into one of four buckets:

  • Influencing society.

  • Influencing brands.

  • Influencing business.

  • Influencing policy.

The first example was one in which Times Group influenced society, launching the first national activist campaign by a media house in 2007.

Times Group led societal change with a "Lead India" campaign in 2007.
Times Group led societal change with a "Lead India" campaign in 2007.

The campaign was called Lead India, with a prominent message being “I am the I in India,” and Raphael said it was highly sophisticated. It offered a high degree of cynicism about politics and governance at that time, when activism was gradually taking root in a society that desired change.

Lead India gave the ordinary Indian citizen a platform through which to contribute to the leadership in the world’s largest democracy. More than 37,000 young, patriotic Indians came forward in an iconic initiative that is still talked about today.

The initative was not about criticiding the system, but rather asking citizens to convert their words and thoughts into tangible action and be the change they sought. Lead India caused millions of readers to believe an empowered citizen could be a true change-maker.

The second example Raphael shared occurred when the pandemic struck in 2020. The Times Group saw a need to influence certain behaviour in society, and did so through a #MaskIndia campaign during lockdown to encourage Indians to mask up. It asked citizens to make their own mask and then upload a picture of themselves wearing it, with the hashtag.

“This was very early during the pandemic and was a clarion call to get people to wear masks,” Raphael said. More than 100,000 mask selfies were shared during the #MaskIndia campaign. 

Influencing society and policy

Raphael discussed the next example, of how The Times Group has influenced policy by taking up the cause of migrant workers. In general elections, nearly 300 million Indians could not cast votes because they were away from their registered place of voting.

The “Lost Votes” campaign asked how the country could make it possible for every Indian to vote, irrespective of where they were temporarily located. This was an issue brought to light for the first time.

“This actually had a huge influence,” Raphael said. “Today, the election commission is working on a tech solution so hopefully, in the next general election, we will have a system where migrant workers can vote from where they are working.”

Influencing brands

When it comes to influencing brands, Times Group combines purpose with action. Until 2013, organ donation in India was merely a concept, its process obscure and surrounded by myths. 

Times of India decided to tackle the issue head-on, starting an Organ Donation Drive that busted myths, generated awareness, and gave a ready opportunity to individuals to make a decision that could potentially save the lives of many. Essentially, it made a taboo topic cool.

The initiative drove approximately 170,000 Indians to pledge to donate their organs, as well as impacting governments at both local and state levels. Raphael said that systemic changes have followed.

Influencing business

“We also do a lot of stuff to reflect the business culture that’s happening,” Raphael said. 

Through The Economic Times, various business initiatives are undertaken, including:

  • Corporate Excellence Awards (the “Oscars” of business).

  • Family Business Awards.

  • Innovation Awards that showcase business innovation.

  • Start-up Awards.

  • India MSE Awards, celebrating micro-enterprises and small businesses.

  • 40 Under 40 (the definitive listing of India’s 40 brightest corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, and owner-professionals under 40 years old).

The culture of creativity

Influencing a culture of creativity is something near and dear to Raphael’s heart. 

“We’ve actually seen the creativity [in print] go down over the last 15-odd years, and we realised after talking to a lot of senior creative people that the younger creators are actually very lured by video and digital. So the challenge was, how do we get them back into thinking creatively in print?”

This led to an initiative The Times Group launched about four years ago, which is still going strong today, called “The Power of Print.” This celebrates creativity in print, with a live brief open to creative talent across the country to enter. 

Each year sees about 800 entries, with 200 participating agencies. The winning creative is published in The Times’ newspapers, and the winning team gets to travel to the Cannes Lions awards, all expenses paid.

“What we realised was, the quality of creative often has a direct impact on the responsiveness of the advertising,” Raphael said. “This was an extremely important initiative that needed to be done, and as leaders in the media industry, we had to do this.”

In the four years the company has been doing “The Power of Print,” it has seen the quality of print advertising increase. It has also given the company an opportunity to connect with top creatives in the industry.

Ideas: A side effect of COVID-19

“The pandemic threw all of us off guard,” Raphael said. “I think one of the severe side effects we had is ideas. I think this was a very welcome side effect. Brands went silent, brand managers didn’t know what to do, and therefore the only way to engage with them was to have a conversation around ideas.”

This kept the window of conversation open, even with brands and advertisers that reduced advertising during lockdown. Raphael shared three effective things the Times team did that changed the conversation about creativity with brands:

  • Moved from a transactional relationship to engagement.

  • Moved from pricing-focused to value additions.

  • Moved from “why should we do it?” to “how do we do it?”

A shift in approach from transactional to relational put Times' readers and advertisers front and centre.
A shift in approach from transactional to relational put Times' readers and advertisers front and centre.

This entailed a shift in approach.

“We said every rupee counts, no matter how small. We de-averaged the product, we started breaking down the product into smaller editions. And most importantly was, how do you keep the excitement going — not just internally, but also externally.”

To do this, the team created a lot of branded programmes that shifted the focus from one of being sold something, to a buying approach with the consumer front and centre.

“What we realised was we should anchor on our strengths,” Raphael concluded. “I think the strength that newspapers and publishers have is trust — and I think trust is the central glue that will hold audiences and advertisers together. Continuous innovation through evolution is the only way forward.”

INMA Webinars are free to members. Check here  for future Webinars and recordings of past Webinars.

About Shelley Seale

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