Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Insider Reports: Media outside its comfort zone

Should media houses lend their brand name to activities which they cannot positively influence? I was prompted to ask myself this question upon seeing the results of the recently concluded ET Young Leader’s program. Leadership has become a stereotype that is often associated with a business suit, degrees from ivy-league institutions and sporting an elitist attitude. The ET merely promoted this stereotype instead of taking a more holistic perspective like the media often takes on other issues. My piece, co-authored with husband, appeared in the Hoot. The link is as follows§ionId=19&valid=true

For those who unable to read the link, here is the full piece –

Last weekend results of the much hyped ET Young Leaders program were telecast announcing 22 leaders, all of who would be eligible to enroll for short term executive programs from the Indian School of Business (ISB). On closer observation, the results turned out to be disappointing. The program had picked candidates who fit the stereotypical version of leadership.

Why did Economic Times, a market leader itself and one that has time and again identified unconventional leaders and given them their fair share of exposure, allow such skewed results? Was ET merely associating with this program to drive visibility, mileage and potential revenues?

While there have been many commendable corporate backed programs aimed at finding leaders (such as The Aditya Birla Scholarship and the Tata Smart Manager program), The Economic Times is the first Indian media to undertake such a corporate focused initiative. Predictably the program generated much interest, primarily because one expected the media’s perception of a corporate leader to be different (and broader) from the corporate perception of a leader.


 The results, however, re-iterated what the CAT exam- B-School- Corporate nexus has always told us – that to be a leader it is important to have studied at a Tier I B-School and to be working in a Tier 1 company in a leading industry. (For more details please see the end of the piece).

For a brand like ET to promote such myopic thinking, does not augur well. The media in India has shaped people’s opinions, given voice to those not heard by the establishment, and identified heroes from unconventional backgrounds. In this case, ET seems to have merely promoted the corporate belief of leadership and not taken a greater role in monitoring the selection process and including candidates from diverse backgrounds to ensure all forms of leadership are promoted.

This brings us to the much debated question – Should media houses lend their brand name to initiatives that they cannot positively influence?


 A quick analysis of the leading English news organisations from the around the world indicates that many organizations lend their brand name to only those initiatives that are in some way aligned to their core business or where they have subject matter expertise. Common initiatives include:

1. Events/ Conferences - Many news organizations lend their brand to events which they sponsor as a way to create greater awareness of the issues impacting their readers. Leading journalists from the organization are invited as speakers to facilitate and drive meaningful discussion and ensure that the lesser heard voices are heard. The topics discussed are often familiar to the journalist and could be widely reported by him/her.

A case in point is the Economist, which organizes conferences to bring policy makers, businesses and citizens together for a common cause. Another example is the American City Business Journals Group, which has around 40 newspapers focused on small and medium businesses, and holds breakfast events to help connect small businessmen with speakers they would like to hear from. The organization uses its relationships and/or influence to get those speakers who are otherwise inaccessible to its readers.

2. Blogs – This is a common section today in most news organization websites where journalists, eminent personalities as well as readers can post their views. At times, issues emerging from such blogs have found their way into news. Seattle based Post- Intelligencer, in fact stopped brining out its newspaper and changed it business model to blog-based aggregation of news where reporters in combination with bloggers provide extensive news coverage.

3. Job sites – The Economist recently started a job site that specially focuses on recruitment in sectors such as Development sector, international public sector, NGO, Academia, Humanitarian and charity jobs. This reflects the jobs advertised in the print version of the magazine and gives an opportunity for many job providers to take their advertisements online to reach a larger audience. Most general news dailies either have an online section that lists the jobs which have appeared in the print editions or have a separate division that runs a job site.

In India, quiz contests are a popular activity for news organizations to promote. Quiz contests are aligned to a newspaper’s core competence – sharing knowledge. Many a time, most of the questions can come from reports / features in the newspaper. The Hindu Group sponsors two Quizzes – The Young World Quiz and the Business Line Ad Club quiz. Business Today till recently used to run a Quiz (and a Debate) competition for B-school students and corporates called ‘The Acumen’. The entire quiz planning and execution is outsourced to specialist third parties to ensure independence. Only the event funding and part of the prize money is provided by these organizations. Incidentally, ET has been organizing the Brand Equity Quiz competition, hosted by Derek O’Brien for 20 years now.

What comes closest to the ET Young Leader’s program is The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Festival. The festival has looked beyond the National School of Drama and its alumni and picked lesser known talent from amateur theatre and given them an opportunity to enter professional theatre. By doing this, it has indicated that talent and leadership in theatre can be found outside of professional institutions.

Does the ET Young Leaders programme have similar potential to identify less known leaders? It does, provided it takes greater interest in broadening the scope of the program to give confidence to a wider range of youngsters to compete and win. Merely outsourcing all elements of the process will not help.

For now, ET has in some way benefited from the Young Leaders Programme. It now has a database of young achievers and future business decision makers (those who registered for the programme) who it can target for selling other initiatives/ products. It also has strengthened contacts with potential big ticket advertisers, namely the companies that the winners and panel of leaders represent. Given the business savvy minds at work in the ET’s corporate office, one cannot rule out a televised version of the ET Young Leader’s Programme in the coming years.

   ET Young Leader’s Program – Highlights
  • 22 leaders were identified, all of who would be eligible to enroll for short term executive programmes from the Indian School of Business
  • Two thirds of the winners come from just three industries – Financial services (5 winners), management consulting (5 winners) and FMCG (4 winners). 
  • 17 out of the 22 winners are employed at leading firms in their respective industries (ITC, IBM, McKinsey, Dr. Reddy’s Labs etc), where there are many such talent recognition and grooming programs.
  • Over two-thirds of the winners have an MBA degree from a tier I B-school (including 7 from IIMs, 2 from ISB and 1 from XLRI). – Source:
  • Over one-third of winners have a sale and marketing background while there are few winners from finance and IT functions and none from human resources.
  • There was only one winner in each of these sectors – public relations, retail, telecom, construction and engineering, pharmaceuticals and health care.
  • The programme was monitored by a panel of 8 industry stalwarts – Anand Mahindra (Mahindra and Mahindra), D Shivakumar (Nokia), Harsh Mariwala (Marico), Kalpana Morparia (ICICI), Nitin Paranjpe (HUL), Pramod Bhasin (formely Genpact), Vineet Nayar (HCL) and Adil Zanulbhai (McKinsey). Incidentally, more than a majority of the 22 winners are either from the companies that these stalwarts represent, or from their alma mater.
  • The assessment for the ET Young Leaders program does not take into consideration results (as achieved by one in the course of their employment) in the preliminary levels of the selection process. The program assesses job competency, personality, verbal and numeric reasoning and only looks at results through group tasks and role play at the penultimate stage of the program.