GroupM’s content investment and rights management company, Motion Content Group, has a second season of MasterChef in production in Singapore, coming on the back of, among other Asia-Pacific productions, the premiere of Asim Abbasi’s 10-part Pakistan drama, Churails, on Indian streaming platform Zee5. ContentAsia talks to Motion Content Group’s APAC MD, Steven Murphy about investing in premium content in Asia and where the value lies.
You’re putting Pakistan on the map in terms of premium content. What’s driving that? “The story starts a few years back. We’d been doing a little business here and there and recognised the hole in the marketplace for Ramadan shows. It’s a premium time for advertisers, and yet there wasn’t any content that was quite working. So we started producing a series that was live six hours a day, throwing in live satellite with performers in some of the countries around the world that also celebrate Ramadan. It was part travelogue and part Ramadan.
“Off the back of that, and through our discussion with channels, we recognised a strong demand from the B-level channels. They wanted to do more dramas that would make more of an impact. They were having trouble accessing really good talent, both in front of and behind the camera, which we had access to through our larger business and we started making series that way. Off the back of that, it was just a matter of time before we built credibility... and then we started hiring people.
“It comes down to our very strong team there and the recognition that it’s not just the everyday drama of making daily soaps and the kinds of things that typically get produced in Pakistan. It was about how do we raise the game for these players and that’s what we were after.”
Let’s talk Churails, a female-centric drama from writer/director Asim Abbasi about women who join forces in a detective agency to track down men who cheat, and your broader relationship with Zee5. “Our India team is also speaking to Zee5 about doing some things India-based, but that’s very much in development. On the Pakistan side, we were producing shows like Alif and Dhoop Ki Deewar – they were interested in more of that kind of content and they introduced us to Asim... again that’s down to my team there who are very switched on.” Another series, Ek Jhoothi Love Story”, premiered on Zee5 Global on 30 October 2020.
Is there any conflict when you come up with a script, like Churails, that is controversial and the brands that might be attached to them? “Motion Content Group is not necessarily brand focused at all. In fact, I would say as GroupM’s content business, what we’re after is supporting a healthy ecosystem. So to that end, we’re working with channels and platforms and producers to produce, develop... , depending on the market and depending on what’s needed. We’re not a one-size-fits-all business, we don’t have a one-size-fits-all model either, but generally speaking we’re focused on driving premium content. That could look like we’re supporting free-to-air networks because, let’s face it in this day and age with adspend drifting away and the cost of premium content going up, it’s a perfect storm for some of these channels, where they’re just treading water barely.
“So what we do is bring an investment in that can create content and bring some spend back to the channel perhaps.
“At the same time. I have to look to the future, and especially at the AVOD channels, the OTT channels that are more or less starting out and dipping their toes into the premium content space.
“This year, for the group, I think about 50% of our spend will be online for the first time ever over all of APAC. So, that’s a significant amount and that largely is going to a couple of players.
“We would like to see a healthy ecosystem. So diversifying that spend, diversifying that investment by supporting those OTT channels to become stronger with better local content, is important to us.
“We’re looking at a lot of things like that and when it works, when you get the mix just right, you get to drive engagement and audience for the channel or the platform.
“We get to create opportunities for our clients, our brands, to come onboard, not that they necessarily do... But it gives them access. In the case of MasterChef, at the time Dairy Farm/Cold Storage was one of our clients. They’re not the natural fit for Mediacorp in Singapore. That would more likely go to another of their competition. But because they were our client, they got the first look and so they were able to come on as the pantry sponsor, for example. So in that case, you’ve got a very happy client who’s getting access in association with a brand like MasterChef. You’ve got a happy channel who’s getting content and audience reach and incremental revenue flowing through via that sponsorship that we delivered to them, and then of course you got a happy audience. Everybody’s happy.”
So basically, there’s an element of editorial independence that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from an advertising company? “To be very very clear, we’re not the branded content arm of GroupM. I spend almost no time talking to brands or thinking about them. I’m really interested in speaking to channels and supporting their aspirations and I work with production companies to help energise their content and bring it to the right distribution platform.”
There’s a big space between MasterChef and Churails. Is there a particular genre preference? “Every deal is difficult... I’m focused at delivering the aspirations of the channels or the platforms I’m working with. There are two different ways in which a deal can get made in the simplest way.
“One is for me to find a great piece of content. So in the case of MasterChef, it didn’t start with the channel, it started with a conversation between myself and Fotini [Paraskakis], who was at that time at EndemolShine, about how we can bring MasterChef to Singapore...
“In other cases, I have a large funding envelope with a platform or a channel and we’re looking to support their aspirations. It’s a matter of ‘can I pitch them some content’, they pick the content, and we mutually agree to make something that’s going to drive either audience or incremental revenue for them through sponsorships, if that’s what they’re after.
“So it’s not a matter of which one’s easier, it’s a matter of which one is going to get made because the channel or the platform really want to do this. The conversation about MasterChef could have ended in a dead-end if Mediacorp didn’t say yes to our proposition.”
You talk about building an ecosystem, which includes a YouTube series... “Our team in India is working with one of the largest Tamil-language producers in India. We’ve made some soaps that went on Sun TV, and then were carried on their YouTube channel... They are making the first-ever daily soap that will be on YouTube only. So we are funding and co-producing that... it’s changing the game a bit and we’ve got the first season order of 80 episodes.”
Soaps in India are perennial and YouTube is a huge destination. What took you so long to marry them? “Finding the right partners, finding the right deal, part of scaling up our business... India is a very different business. We started out producing small YouTube series; building credibility in the marketplace is really important to us. Our Telugu talk show Yaari, which went live a couple of years ago... is the number one regional chat show. It created a bit of a stir. Once you have that one solid hit, everybody takes notice – or you make sure they take notice – and then you change the conversation into what you really want to do, and that’s about building credibility. It’s about doing the right thing for our business.
“Through the lockdown, we shot another YouTube series that’s all about cooking with cheese, for instance. I mean, it was just one of those things that you do because there’s an opportunity.”
On funding, where does Motion Content Group typically fit in the production funding process? “Sometimes it starts like that MasterChef conversation, where it’s the content idea and we have potential funding. In other cases, it’s about us having a funding package with a channel already, whereby we have a dedicated amount of investment ready to go and we need to find a piece of content. And then sometimes it’s a bit of both... We’re not one-size-fits-all and it’s depending on the market.”
Do you need to own the IP of what you invest in? “In the ideal circumstance, I would love to have an equitable share of an IP. My perfect deal in this part of the world is a three-way split equal between channel, producer and us. We bring the funding, the producers bring in great ideas and giving them ownership, which a lot of channels don’t do in this part of the world, encourages them to bring their best work. So they have a share of ownership. We feel that that’s a net positive to the whole project.”
You said in an ideal world it’s a three-way split. How often does Asia present you with your ideal world? “Every once in a while. It doesn’t happen that often. But when it does, it makes me very happy because I believe firmly in that... I believe that all the partners should share in the success of a good format.”
What’s the top investment market for you in Asia Pacific right now? “It’s probably a tie right now between India and Thailand. Thailand just stayed very strong. India was poised to... Covid has delayed that, but in my projections for year-end, India is neck and neck with Thailand. We’ve got a lot going on in both markets. Pakistan is also doing very well. Those are my three biggest markets... with Australia a big contender as well.”
What are you seeing in Indonesia with all the streaming activity? “Lots of opportunity... We’re doing quite a bit there in the OTT space and I suspect that we will see those coming to play as well as things move forward. It’s just a matter of time.”
Where does Asia Pacific sit on Motion Content Group’s global map in terms of number of productions, amount of investment? “Since 2013 we’ve been involved in roughly 200 shows in one form or another. In some cases we’re partially financing things and some cases we’re doing the full finance and some cases we’re producing it. That’s why it’s not always clear, but it works out to somewhere around 2,500 hours of content. In 2019 we were involved in about 80 different projects across the region.”
What would you like to do in Asia that you can’t do or may not be able to do at the moment, not Covid related? “I don’t think there’s anything that we’ve set our minds to that we haven’t been able to do. I would like to see us growing in the OTT space, with those AVOD platforms specifically. Again, that comes down to my thinking around where the future of this business is. Free-to-air will always be there and it’s still a huge part of our business... supporting the aspirations of ad-supported OTT is high on my list and I would love to do more with them... Part of doing these deals seeds those opportunities for building a premium platform that our clients will want to spend on. So again, if you’re looking at it from a higher level, it’s about creating a healthy ecosystem.”
How do you measure your success as an investor? “I would say that my number one KPI for my bosses is no losses.
“I want to drive incremental revenue opportunities for both us and our partners off the back of any investment we make, so that we’re both seeing value from this investment. But what we want to see is those additional things, whether it’s spinning off live on-ground events, whether it’s driving e-commerce solutions that can suddenly be attached to a reality show, or funding any of those kinds of opportunities, are always in our minds.
Mostly we’re really looking to empower our partners to achieve their aspirations... The biggest one being having a healthy ecosystem, but also in terms of those content opportunities that we can create.”
Published in ContentAsia's December 2020 magazine