Amar Chitra Katha CEO Vijay Sampat on biz restructuring, foray into digital media & more

Edupreneur Anant Pai started Amar Chitra Katha way back in 1967 which went on to become one of India's biggest comic book series for children – presenting the tales from Indian mythology. But like any other publication, it was facing challenges in terms of re-inventing itself for a digital world. In 2007, entrepreneurs Samir Patil and Shripal Morakhia acquired and incorporated Amar Chitra Katha and its sister brands like Tinkle and Karadi Tales, besides bringing together the publication and the distribution business (India Book House) under a single corporate entity called ACK Media. Thereafter, they sold a majority stake to Future Ventures and also brought in the PE investor Elephant Capital. Techcircle caught up with Vijay Sampat, a partner with India Capital Advisors, who took over the reins of ACK Media as the CEO under the new owners. In a video interaction, Sampat talks about ACK's restructuring and its plans to go big in the digital media space. Here are the edited excerpts.

How are the revenue streams split in ACK Media? What about growth in core brands?

The revenue primarily comes from publishing. ACK has two businesses. It produces content for products like Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, Karadi Tales and Brainwave. Then there is a distribution business called India Book House (IBH). So the break-up is almost 90:10 – 90 per cent of the revenues come from our content creation in published formats and 10 per cent from the distribution of our content via media, film and other mediums. The revenue flow is built on our brands, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and others, and each represents a different story-telling format and idiom.

There is a content team who creates the core product. Then the TV vertical distributes the same via audio-visual medium and the print unit prints it as comics or books. But whatever we produce, we only sell and it is not licensed out to anyone. IBH is our sole distributor and we sell printed comics and books to IBH, who in turn retails them in the market.

Since 2007, sales have been growing upward of 30-40 per cent year on year. Around 90 million copies have been sold in total since the inception of Amar Chitra Katha. Currently, we are selling 4-5 lakh copies of Amar Chitra Katha per month and 2.5 lakh copies of Tinkle.

What is the action plan to re-invent the business in a world where printed comics are a dying species?

First of all, we are a story-telling company. Comic books happen to be the old form; now we want to have a 360 degree multimedia form. As we go ahead, we are creating engagement points through gaming, TV, film and mobile – all of which will create a wholesome experience for our consumers.

Sons of Ram and Tripura were ACK media's fist ventures into the film business. How successful were these?

Both the movies were first steps for us to understand the movie business. Tripura was a pure play telefilm; it was made for TV and Cartoon Network. That was a small budget project and we have recovered the amount. Although there is a demand, the culture for animation movies is not that strong in India. The past year and a half have seen a lot of interest from content providers in this space, but the market is still very nascent. Still, as we go along, we will create an appreciation for animated content.

But once you enter the animated film space, you will be competing with giants like Walt Disney. What's the plan to create a mark?

For us, the challenge is to create quality output like that of Pixar where the recovery of cost is at a global level and it typically has $100 million projects from investment and recovery points of view. In India, we are creating content that is mostly appreciated within the country. If you look at the Bollywood blockbusters, you will see they are in the range of Rs 100 crore, which is only a fraction of what a Pixar movie would cost. So in the overall scheme of things, we are in a different league and need to focus on our core strengths which is story-telling and that will create audience appreciation.

Why not partner with Walt Disney or other majors in the animation movie space?

We want to partner with organisations who can create a marketplace for us. As far as content and production go, we are very strong and we have already partnered with people with the best practices. Sons of Ram was animated in Malaysia and we are always talking to the partners in the animation space in India.

What is the vision for the lesser-known brands? Is there an opportunity to sell or hive off non-core businesses?

We have an age-based portfolio of products. At the very beginning, we have pegged Karadi Tales for very young children; so it is an infotainment product. Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle are at the belly and meant for children aged between 6 and 12. We have recently created Brainwave as a new brand to cater to children who like science subjects. So it is a product that will inspire kids' curiosity for science. We have also partnered with National Geographic to cater to the adults.

What's the blueprint for the move to digital?

We want to take the comic book reading experience to mobile phone and will be launching our own apps store for Amar Chitra Katha. And this will be followed by Tinkle. So the app store alone will be for a new generation of readers who are using mobiles and tablets. The other aspect of our digital space is gaming and for this, we will need a partner who has a strong go-to-market platform for the global space.As of now, we are in a testing phase because we know that the apps space is very crowded. With a good mobile app, you can have great success overnight and then lose value over a period of time. So we need to take a step-by-step approach.

What's the market segment where ACK media is competing?

Our key market is the SEC A-B audience today, primarily the metro. There is a secondary diaspora market, mostly based in North America and the UK, and some small Asian markets. So these are the areas where we are now focusing upon. Our objective is to become the Indians' favourite story-teller.

ACK Media is cash rich. How do you intend to deploy these funds?

We will deploy our funds in the digital space. Also, there are big opportunities in the legacy space and we are exploring those. For example, we are making strides in the Hindi market space where there is a lot of growth. Then, we have the money going into our global distribution space. Film and entertainment will also have a fairly significant investment. We have three movies in the pipeline, all in various stages of production.

(Edited by Sanghamitra Mandal)

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