“My entire working life has been about the consumer,” declares the MD and CEO of DTH Service provider Tata Play, Harit Nagpal, who has just released his book Adapt. The aptly named book has learnings from the 62-year old’s over four-decade long career where he has had to constantly adapt to new roles and situations. He started out with Lakme, on to Marico, then to Pepsico and Shoppers Stop on to Hutch/Vodafone, before joining Tata Play (it was called Tata Sky those days) where he has been these last 13 and a half years.

From packaged goods to services and then on to a business that has constantly been hit by new technology must have meant a lot of adapting? But Nagpal says it was simple because he always focused on the basics. One of these is to always be customer focused. “If you know the consumer and her decision-making criteria, the rules apply equally well to a firm selling life insurance policy or a personal care product or a smartphone,” he says.

The quintessential Delhi boy Nagpal, also had to adapt to Mumbai, but he cannot think of being anywhere else now. “If you have survived the first six months in Mumbai and part of those six months were during the monsoon, then you will never want to leave,” he says.

The eyeball game
businessline caught up with Harit Nagal, MD and CEO of Tata Play, who has just released his new book, “Adapt”.

We are meeting at Dum Pukht, the Awadhi cuisine specialty restaurant at the ITC Maurya in Delhi, a place carefully selected by Nagpal. We cannot resist asking him provocatively, how come a Tata executive is choosing an ITC hotel over a Taj for our Table Talk rendezvous. “The food,” comes the prompt reply. “I love Kakori kebabs and Dum Pukht makes the best of these kebabs. Needless to say, our meal starts with plenty of kebabs of all kinds — from Kakori to Dudiya to an exotic banana flower kebab as well as a Murg Chandi tikka. All are melt-in-the mouth flavour bombs and we can now quite understand Nagpal’s choice. “I am a foodie,” declares the dapper executive, ordering an expansive main course of the hotel’s signature Dal Bukhara (specially fetched for us from the other restaurant) and a sizzling vegetable dish, even though we are replete already. “My Delhi visits are all about eating and visiting all the old haunts whether Kareem’s in Jama Masjid, Sitaram Diwanchand in Paharganj for Chholey Bhaturey or Nagpal’s (no relative of mine) in Amar Colony. No one makes food like in Delhi,” he says with relish. We look at his slender frame and grudgingly wonder where he puts it away. “Indian spices have the capability of building more flavour from foods,” he adds. He is also quick to disclaim that when in Bombay, the Taj restaurants are his favourites – Masala Bay at Land’s End and Golden Dragon at Gateway.

Equally passionate is Nagpal when he talks about the innovations he has led at Tata Play. For someone who entered the corporate world only because his father, who was in government service, shaped that decision by firmly insisting that he do an MBA, he took to it like a duck to water. “While I was doing my engineering (from Panjab University), I would get postcards from my father asking if I was preparing for MBA — he had a clear vision of what I must do,” says Nagpal. In 1985, straight out of the Faculty of Management Studies campus in Delhi, he joined Lakme. “Those days we had no computers and had ruled sheets to track 250 SKUs and for forecasting demand.” It was also a time when lipsticks, nail polishes and shampoos attracted very high excise duties. Sales and marketing was not easy.

Then came a stint at Marico and after that was an innings at PepsiCo, for which he returned to Delhi. Those were the heady days when the cola brand’s advertising campaign ‘Nothing Official About it’ had burst through, and it was a clear leader in Delhi. But, Nagpal downplays the role of advertising, and stresses the importance of operations. “Advertising could lead a consumer to ask for a Pepsi at a shop but the availability of a chilled bottle is all about good operations. Communication is just about 10 per cent of the battle — 90 per cent is pricing, distribution and packaging, the design of the product and the attributes of the brand,” he says.

PepsiCo is also where he earned the interesting nickname of Bannerji. “Why?” we ask, and he describes how once a week he would coin a slogan which was based on an event happening that day (for example, an Australia win in cricket) and before Delhi woke up the next day there would be 500 banners across the city sporting a catchy phrase on the event along with the Pepsi logo. He also invented an International Day of Samosas which of course had to be had with a Pepsi and created a fun campaign tying up with halwais all across the city.

Nagpal, we learn, has quite the nifty turn for clever copy — and it’s no surprise that one of his best friends is Ogilvy’s genius adman Piyush Pandey. Given his strong writing skills, it’s also not surprising that his new book Adapt — business stories in a fictional format — is an easy read.

The engaging storyteller takes up the threads of his life again to tell us why he moved to the service sector — retail. “When we left college in 1985, there were no services in the private sector, so we had no options but to take up jobs selling soaps, oils or cosmetics. But suddenly the service sector was opening up,” he describes. The challenge was irresistible and that’s how he ended up in retail with Shoppers Stop.

“Then telecom was emerging and I saw that as a big opportunity. When I joined, Telecom products were being sold by techies. But by then they had realised that this is a consumer product — it’s a technology which can fulfill consumer needs and hence consumer marketers are needed. That was the time when an exodus of talent from FMCG companies to telecom companies happened,” he recalls.

He was in the UK with Vodafone (as Group Marketing Director) when his father fell ill, catalysing his move back to India and thus joined Tata Sky in 2010. DTH was an interesting space and while Tata Sky was the leader in terms of number of subscribers, it was not the leader when it came to attracting new subscribers. And subscription was growing with competition like Dish in the fray. Clearly a differentiator had to be found. “There was no exclusivity between the operators. We knew low price could not be a differentiator,” recalls Nagpal.

Finally, the differentiator was found — which was service. “What we wrote on the wall was we had to be easy and simple to deal with in every aspect, every touch point, every experience so when you are watching TV, you should be able to get to your channel in five seconds, your re-charge needs to be super quick, your TV should not go down. If you do lose connection, you should know who to call and ideally the solution should be found on the call itself,” he says.

The differentiator worked. The feedback from every retailer selling Tata Sky connections was positive. “See these things happened because we were consumer focussed and not technology focussed,” re-iterates Nagpal.

He says in the past he would get bored at a job after 18 months, but in these 13 and a half years, that has not happened at Tata Play, because of the constant disruptions. “Sometimes the industry changed, sometimes we changed the industry, new competition kept coming in, old competitors dropped off, technology kept changing, regulation played havoc with us. All sorts of things happened. Every day is a new day in this industry,” he says. Nagpal incidentally has written a case study on disruption which is part of the curriculum at the London Business School.

To stay ahead, Nagpal says they had to innovate. “But I tagged two words to innovation — “useful” and “inspiring”,” he says. “Innovation for the sake of innovation is useless. You cannot be a technology in search of a customer, you have to first go to the customer, figure out her problems and then go to the techie and say, now use technology to solve this problem.”

We ask him to give us an example.

“The latest one is Binge,” he says. “I saw various OTT apps coming and everybody was selling direct to the customer. First there were four or five of these apps, then suddenly 40. Soon there will be 900. We realised it would be like the old cable days — how do you search for content on a channel? In the cable days we solved the problem when digital came in — you could press say Entertainment or News or Sports on the menu with language options and find your programming. “

This sparked the idea of an aggregator in OTT since there are billions of pieces of content sitting there. “Someone needed to give the viewer just one screen where things are displayed as per the language and the genre. So the techie was given the brief and today we have an aggregator platform that is a world beater. Because it’s on the cloud, it does not have geographical limitations. You may be in Africa. America, the Philippines, wherever. You get your customers. You create your brand, you create your colors. I will run the backend for that,” he says.

“That’s which is why you need to start with the customer,” he again stresses.

“Are you the only one who is doing this kind of OTT aggregation,” we ask

“Ours is the smoothest and we have the most number of apps,” he responds. Binge today has a million subscribers, he says.

While Tata Play has smartly got into the OTT distribution game, Nagpal insists that TV still has huge headroom for growth, and that OTT is as yet not a competition. “Just because an EV scooter is coming in, does it mean the petrol scooter will go off the roads? It does not work that way,” he says. TV has a 60 per cent penetration in India. There are still millions of homes yet to buy a TV set.

The discussion moves on to changing media consumption habits — as a distributor, has Nagpal discerned any patterns. “For that you need to look at BARC data,” he says firmly. We learn though that Nagpal himself refuses to watch news on television. He is an avid film buff and much to our surprise admits he loved The Archies.

As we wind down our royal meal in a really beautiful setting, a fun fact we learn is that Tata Play is available in every single part of the country, except for two pincodes — in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh border — where there is no human habitation. Another fun fact is that the catchy jingalala campaign has survived an agency change. Originally penned by Rediffusion, when the account moved to Ogilvy, everyone unanimously said the line had to remain. For Nagpal too, who has a relaxed attitude to the future (he foresees some teaching at a B-School), life has been jingalala.