YouTube a reflection of what India is evolving into, says Satya Raghavan

Satya Raghavan, director, YouTube Partnerships, India | Illustration by Binay Sinha
Satya Raghavan raises his six foot-plus frame out of the chair as I walk into Eest. The Asian restaurant at the Westin, Gurugram, is empty and Raghavan strides across to give me a quick hug. It has been a while since I met the 45-year-old head of partnerships at the largest OTT platform in India. For some reason, we chat about Ogden Nash’s poetry before turning to the menu. Raghavan opts for the Chinese vegetarian Bentobox and I go for the non-vegetarian one. Soon we are comfortably settled and sipping our Chinese teas. But Raghavan, who I have known in his various avatars for close to two decades, is not a man for cosy conversations. It is time to talk shop.  

At almost 275 million unique visitors in September 2019, YouTube is way ahead of Times Group’s MX Player (95 million) and Disney’s Hotstar (91 million) says comScore data. It has tens of thousands of channels and made over Rs 2,000 crore of the close to Rs 10,000 crore that parent Google India made in revenues last year. YouTube’s India business is its largest and fastest growing one globally. What makes it intriguingly placed in the Indian context is that it is part of the $137 billion Alphabet which also owns Google. The company is, along with Amazon, AT&T, Disney, Comcast, Apple and Netflix, among the movers and shakers of the new media world emerging as telecom, technology and media collapse into one simple search for audiences. The most viewed channel on YouTube globally, T-Series, comes from India. Yet YouTube is never talked about as a media company. Why?

Raghavan doesn’t pause. “YouTube is an economy by itself. It is driven at one end by what established media companies like T-Series and Sony do and on the other end by creators and discovery,” says he. Thanks to the open, online auditorium that YouTube is, anyone can come in, show a talent, share information, expertise or simply post a video they liked among the thousands of things people do on YouTube. Many of the comedians who came on board — Bhuvan Bam, Amit Bhadana or Ashish Chanchlani — have gone on to build mini-empires which span, TV, other OTTs, live events and brand endorsements among other things. “Earlier very few people were doing YouTube full time. Now so many people are proud to be earning a living on YouTube,” says Raghavan.

We have opened our Bento boxes and the food looks good. My prawns and steamed rice is delicious but there is nothing Chinese about it. It tastes more like Goan or Konkani prawns. The Mumbaikar in me is happy. Raghavan digs into his fried rice and veggies as he lists the genres that have popped on YouTube over the last few years — lifestyle, beauty, kids, nursery content, learning and education and village food. This year it has been farming and gaming. 

“YouTube tends to mirror India as it moves into the next million (users). The reflection of what India is evolving into with every million consumers is different,” says Raghavan. And it throws up surprises all the time. For example Village Food Factory (Tamil) which had hit 3 million subscribers earlier this year. These are videos of anything from french fries to chicken biryani being made in huge quantities in a village by locals. The production values are basic compared to some of the polished cookery shows but millions of people are watching it because “it is about nostalgia value and vicarious pleasure”, says Raghavan.

When something pops, the first question is “how scalable is it”. And if it is, then YouTube helps in the birthing of a new vertical and its sub-verticals. When stand-up comedy popped as a genre on YouTube in 2014 it spawned several sub-verticals — long-form, short form, web series and so on. More than 7 million candidates preparing for the railway exams or 2 million teenagers who appear for class twelfth exams, use YouTube. “We supplement or complement the sources of knowledge for this or are at times the only source,” says he. 

That is just a sliver of the YouTube usage for education and “how to” kind of information. From how to make rotis to how to do fish farming or setting up your mobile phone there are thousands of videos people use. This educational, information connect with users is what excites Raghavan the most. The reasons, probably, lie in his somewhat restless professional journey. 

A classic tam bram (Tamilian Brahmin) as he calls himself, Raghavan did his engineering in the early 90s. It was during this time that he started writing for The IndependensLater in 1995, he was among the four people who set up India’s first youth magazine, JAM (Just Another Magazine). He left soon after in 1996 to go to the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow. A stint with Coca-Cola, two with Star India and one with General Mills followed before he did a second MBA. This time at Harvard followed by a stint with Microsoft and venture funding firm Helion where the whole idea of funding an education start-up took hold of him. Arguably some of this interest in education came from his mum who used to run a school. Soon after he left Helion, in 2011 Raghavan co-founded Skoolshop with a batchmate from Harvard. It was supplying books and school stationery to over 200 schools when it was acquired by another firm Hopscotch in 2014. That is when Raghavan joined Google. “At YouTube all of these things (which he had done) became the dots that just joined,” says he. 

Will they connect in this new media world that YouTube and Netflix have kick-started? One where broadcasters are becoming OTTs while OTTs are doing exactly what broadcasters did, launching many apps, channels, niches and genres. 

“Once you understand the niche or space you want to occupy the medium is not important. People are consuming YouTube on the smart phone and the smart TV. If you really want to crack the choice, convenience conundrum the ability to scale is important. And how big you become is defined by the type of content and ability to mine the smaller more varied clusters. TV is homogenous, there are soaps and shows. The scale we are able to see at YouTube is at another level. Our platform is scalable to the nth billion,” says he. And given the reach and texture of the medium each vertical has a different growth curve. “Stand-up comedy is more like one stalagmite curve while the growth of food is like a glacier, it keeps rising forever. Music on the other hand grows in waves,” says Raghavan getting into his element. 

Advertisers, YouTube’s biggest source of revenues, understand shows and soaps. “But a tractor company may not know that farming will be the next big thing on YouTube or that agriculture related content is getting traction,” says he. This matchmaking between advertisers, revenues and audiences that YouTube does by being the world’s auditorium, dictionary, news, entertainment, information and learning hub, is its biggest strength. 

We are done with the food and opt for a healthy dessert of cut fruits. Raghavan forks his sliced apple as he dismisses the notion of conflict in the broadcaster-OTT ecosystem. “Whether they use it to promote or put out their content, some of these broadcasters are our largest ad partners. Sony, for instance, has 60 million subscribers on YouTube. Someone might put 10 minutes of content or a promo or someone might use it for catch-up TV, all these are on various points of a continuum,” says he painting a broader canvas.

That’s so Raghavan, I think, as we bid adieu.

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