On July 12, a day after joining Facebook, Umang Bedi met Sanjiv Mehta, chairman of Hindustan Unilever (HUL).
As the new managing director of the California-headquartered social networking giant’s India operations, Bedi’s meeting with Mehta wasn’t just a casual catch-up. HUL is the highest spender in advertising, in India, and Facebook lives on advertising dollars.
Bedi, the former head of Adobe India, had known Mehta for long. In fact, Mehta even joked saying his own job was the best in India, and congratulated Bedi for getting the “second best” one.
It was a fun moment for the two. “Sanjiv, if you don’t buy me breakfast, I would argue mine is the best,” Bedi was quick to reply.
In the first 100 days, Bedi took 75 flights to meet heads of various brands — those who were using Facebook for advertising, and those who weren’t. For brands that did, Bedi explained how they could engage more; to the rest he showcased how brands can be built using Facebook.
Bedi’s job hasn’t been easy.
When he joined, Facebook was not completely out of the FreeBasics debacle. India was still small in digital advertising, and the social network had hoped to add as many users as possible to drive advertising revenue in the long run.
FreeBasics fitted right into the strategy — to bring India’s poor and rural population online with an irresistible proposition, and pay nothing to access the stripped-down versions of sites curated by Facebook.
But the programme was caught in the “net neutrality” debate. Kirthiga Reddy, Bedi’s predecessor, couldn’t save the project as the government shut it down, resulting in her exit.
No wonder Bedi gets uncomfortable when asked about FreeBasics and the company’s troubled run. He looks at Carson Dalton, the company’s head of communications. They exchange glances. “Free Basics was asked not to operate, which was fine, and we decided to move on… we quadrupled down our effort on advertising partnerships,” Bedi says after the initial pause.
THE INDIA CHAPTER
The company has been focusing on its India operations: it added 28 million new users in the last one year, made Facebook available in Hindi, added 11 more local languages, and also launched Facebook Lite, a stripped down version, which works on low bandwidth.
But it still has a long way to go.
“Its challenge in India is monetisation. At less than $0.50 (₹34) per user, it has a lot of upside... Bedi has experience in growing consumer revenue. He understands brand, content, creative, and community, as well as the need of scale and localisation,” says Ray Wang, principal analyst at Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research.
It was those traits that had got Bedi the job, even though he wasn’t an active Facebook user before joining the firm. His posts were few, and likes on his posts fewer. In 2016, after joining, he added two third of his of 1,748 Facebook friends.
In his first few days at Facebook, Bedi spent a lot of time with the leadership team. “I learnt through the conversations,” he says.
One of his biggest learnings came from Facebook at Work, a growing threat for office emails. It taught Bedi that Facebook was all about increasing engagement, and in this case, with advertisers, ad agencies, and ad makers.
Advertisers want returns, and so Bedi is working on that to get results – be it driving sales online, helping companies sell products offline, increasing lifetime brand value, or improving the presence of brands in cluttered categories.
Traditionally, Facebook focused on e-commerce and consumer packaged goods as the two large verticals. “We have revamped the focus, and have dedicated teams for about six more verticals — retail, travel, financial services, tech and telecom, automobile and media,” says Bedi.
So when Ola wanted to boost its brand awareness, it ran a series of targeted video and photo ads on Facebook, which resulted in 60% growth in sales for the cab aggregator. Recently Tanishq, a chain of jewellery stores, put up ads to display its products on Facebook, and added a “shop now” button, through which people could sign up for a discount voucher. Sales went up 30% in no time.
The digital ad business, with a revenue of $1.6 billion globally, is expected to grow faster than any other medium. To get a larger share of that pie, Facebook has hired people who work with brands on digital campaigns. The team creates ad formats — based on requirements — from short videos to live videos to long videos to highly immersive ones. “When we go to an advertiser, we go with a package,” says Bedi.
That’s not all. For people stuck with low bandwidth, Facebook has Slideshow, which combines a bunch of still pictures, but gives a video-like feel. To help businesses think of mobile-based brand building, there’s a Blueprint course. “In the next three years, digital advertising will go from 14% to 40% of total ad spending,” adds Bedi.
E-tailers like Limeroad built its brand using Facebook. All of Pepsi’s campaigns are mobile-first. “The growth of mobile-based advertising will increase in the next few years. Bedi has built relationships with enterprises and content publishers, which are critical for Facebook,” says Sanchit Vir Gogia, CEO and chief analyst at Greyhound Research.
Facebook, undoubtedly, offers a reach that is unparalleled, and has the ability to segment audiences like no other platform. The breakfast with Mehta might actually be a new beginning for Facebook’s relationship with HUL — at least that’s what Bedi wants.
“My biggest strength is my deep commitments in the market and deep relationships at places I have worked. I have lived by my commitments for the last 20 years, and will live by them here, too.”