CNN’s Sunita Rajan on reinvention and adopting a consultative approach

CNN hosted its first CNN Experience in Singapore in June, for its commercial team to bring its business to life and talk more than just news to marketers.

At the event it showcased its content solutions, like video storytelling platform Great Big Story (GBS), its branded content studio Create and its Tourism Advertising Solutions and Knowledge (TASK) group. Hosted at the Andaz hotel, the media owner also brought along star power, like the host of its ‘Quest Means Business’ show Richard Quest, to wow existing and potential clients.

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Speaking to The Drum after the event, Sunita Rajan, senior vice president of Asia Pacific advertising sales at CNN International Commercial (CNNIC), says the Turner-owned brand is keen to hold more events because, ultimately, its job is not only to tell the story, to get it right and to balance the story with analysis and facts. She adds that it also needs to be able to deliver content and the broader kind of agenda of news to its customers and consumers who have their own passions and interests, which go beyond just the headlines of the day.

She also points out that as this means it could be in sport, travel, business, health, style and design, it means CNN can continuously articulate to that and get people to understand what it does beyond news, but with the news as the core because that is the gateway to how people experience the CNN brand.

“The second reason, obviously, is to be able to acknowledge, and thank, and make sure that our partners in the room, and that’s partners across all of our commercial businesses, whether it’s advertising, sales, or affiliate, or distribution, or hotel sales, all know and feel reassured of the business that they place with CNN, which is a lot, and we don’t take that for granted for a moment,” adds Rajan.

In addition, she stress that is very important for CNN to make sure that its customers and clients’ base are constantly kept updated on what the company is doing, because the market is always changing, which means that technology and consumer habits are moving at such a fast pace, forcing the company to constantly iterate and evolve.

That means CNN has to create new tools, new products and new ways telling its story, as well as new ways in which it works with brands, Rajan explains, pointing out there is not enough time to be able to knock on individual doors. 

“I think is really important is to demonstrate to the industry why being the number one brand in the news’ business and a worldwide leader is a sense of responsibility that forces us to lead the way in the market. And to make sure that by doing that, we adhere to what is our DNA and core, which is storytelling with facts first, but also to test and learn, place some bets and do things differently because if we don’t, then who will?” she says.

Constant innovation and reinvention

While reinforcing its leading position in the market is important, it is not about CNN being a maverick or going rogue, notes Rajan, but being able to innovate and creatively reinvent itself because that is what brands are looking for from a commercial point of view and what CNN’s audiences want and expect.

Products like GBS are a good example of Rajan’s point. “We placed an investment and a bet really in launching a product for the first time in 35 years, which was targeted at the millennials, and it has continued to attract a very high proportion of millennials, but they’re not the only audience that we have. But to do it well and do it in a style which delivers a product that audiences see has got a differentiated place in their consumption,” she explains.

“We are not Vice or BuzzFeed, but we clearly are very high-end cinematic storytelling with 4K video, a website and a product that is, again, has in less than three years, has gained 10 million fans and two billion video views, which is pretty baffling.”

That applies to Create as well, which Rajan says is more than just producing branded content that is shot with in 4K, with CGI, drones or 360 video, because that can be bought. Brands can also work with their own creative agency or hire a boutique creative agency to do that.

What Create brings to the table then, is the audiences and the targeting capabilities of CNN, explains Rajan. “The data targeting capability is key and the insights that we bring to the conversation where we’re able to sit down with brands, we take the social handles, we do some research using Launchpad to consult, advice and speak to brands and tell them about how content on social should look, at a presale stage.”

“We are able to tell brands what CNN consumers and audiences think about their brand and their stories, and how they should be thinking about the stories they want to tell, before we even enter into a discussion about what the concept should be, or what approach we should take. That’s pretty powerful, that’s propriety. So, we’re not just producing great content through gut feeling, and with, it’s power of mediator, that’s important,” she adds.

Putting on the consultant’s hat

A few weeks after The Drum’s conversation with Rajan, CNN announced that it was turning CNN Reach, which sat within Create to act, conduct and deliver audiences and audience acquisitions, into a consultancy unit.

Aside from offering first, second and third-party audience targeting, the media owner said Reach will also plan and create campaign content; advise on, and execute distribution and media buying, both on and off CNN’s own platforms and across the company’s products.

Rajan and her team will work with the new Reach team led by Leo Urushibata, CNNIC’s director of content optimization, which currently has four staff with content strategy, planning, paid media buyers and digital marketers, and audience development skills from Singapore.

While Rajan did not reveal this information during her chat with The Drum, she had hinted that CNN was moving towards that direction, as the media owner is realising that its clients and brands have gone beyond just buying regular advertising slots, as conversations now begins with an audience strategy, a data strategy, content strategy and finally the media strategy.

“We have got success, and we are still on that journey, the job is not complete. But for us, success is how we have been able to evolve and hold on to our premier clients and our key partnerships, but also attract a lot of new clients who are on that journey whether that’s, they are first time advertisers on TV, or whether they’re shifting a large percentage of their business to digital and they still want to advertise on TV,” she explains.

Rajan adds that more importantly, it is not just about where the spend is, it is about how brands perceived their partners today. “They are looking for storytellers, and they are looking for authentic trusted storytellers who can help tell their story. But they are also looking for that contextual environment where they feel that they can trust the environment and they can trust the authenticity of the environment for their own created messages.”

“That’s where the conversation begins, and that’s how we then build out our data strategy, which is, we’re in the unique position as a global player to be able to deliver audiences at scale. We also got the number one position on social of any news’ brand.”

With consumers now having various multiple sources of getting their news with the plethora of outlets these days, including platforms like Facebook and Google, as Rajan notes, it is important for traditional media owners like CNN to come up with a strategy that not only allows them to survive, but also the ability monetise its audiences who are coming to them on all its digital platforms.

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