Malini Agarwal, the brain behind MissMalini Entertainment is fond of saying #tothemoon as that is where she believes it can reach. Topper of IMPACT’s 50 Most Influential Women in Media, Marketing and Advertising List 2017, Malini talks to us about her journey, her upcoming book and much more
By Srabana Lahiri
(with inputs from Simran Sabherwal)
Enthu cutlet – that’s how Malini Agarwal, Founder & Creative Director, MissMalini Entertainment, describes herself. Looking at her career graph, one can’t help but agree. The former back-up dancer/RJ/columnist, inspired by Perez Hilton and a love for the written word, is arguably India’s best known digital influencer. Out of a blog, she has created a vibrant and profitable media empire that has gone beyond the digital space to television and other media, and is a favourite with brands looking to connect with the millennial consumer. Her arsenal, she says, is “the right content”. This is backed up by the solid support of her husband Nowshad Rizwanullah, a Bangladeshi national educated at Yale and Harvard, who ditched a corporate career to become CEO at MissMalini Entertainment. He is the business brain complementing Malini’s creativity, and between them, they have hit a veritable jackpot. The company became profitable within two years of its launch, says Nowshad, not divulging any figures. “We have grown everything off on our own cash flows. The company is doing financially quite well and all this has been run by our own internal sales, revenues and cash.”
The ambitious Malini, who often uses the phrase #tothemoon, has written a book called ‘Blogging my way to Bollywood’, which is soon going to hit the stands. But, it is the future of her empire that has Malini all fired up. Next on her agenda is content for OTT platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix, going beyond Mumbai and English to having a national footprint, venturing into regional languages, exploring all media platforms and even going international. According to her, MissMalini the brand has barely scratched the surface and there is great potential for growth. The company, that raised its first round of funding in 2012, is soon expected to announce the second round of funding from a US-based venture capital fund. Meanwhile, Malini thrives on “love and FOMO” as her social media following crosses seven million and her website gets more than four million organic visitors from over 200 countries every month.
THE MILLENIAL OPPORTUNITY
Malini also calls herself a ‘diplobrat’: “My father was a diplomat and I grew up all over the world and realized that people’s perception of India was based on what they saw on National Geographic or Slumdog Millionaire. They didn’t have a concept about the Indian millennial and I realized that there was so much enterprise here – Bollywood, glamour, fashion, that no one was talking about. I thought it would be cool to have a voice and develop that voice. That’s why you see that little anime on my business card, that’s Miss Malini, (a joke as I am married now so no longer Miss Malini). It really was about representing the millennial and bridging this gap. That’s how my journey began.”
She says Tariq Ansari (then head of Midday) taught her that when you are on Radio, you might be broadcasting to millions of people, but for the four people sitting and listening to you in a car, it is an individual experience as they connect with you, the RJ - so you must speak on Radio as if you are speaking to one person. “I always apply that thought and try to bring that same voice to my site, talk to people and make a connection. When the person is connected with you, they will care about you, and you will have a real friendship. That’s really where it started and how I got here,” Malini says.
GROWING THE BUSINESS
To be truly relevant to the millennial audience in India, a content company has to play on multiple platforms, and team MissMalini is way ahead on that count. “There is a lot of demand for content that appeals to millennials. Today, a brand can come to us and we can give them an ad campaign that has video, digital support, and amplified on social media. If they are willing to go the extra mile then we might have some TV coverage. It’s all smartly done by this team and that’s how the business has grown. We are primarily English language, based in Mumbai. The goal in future is to have a national footprint, both in terms of physical presence and the content we cover which means getting into new languages and formats. The beauty about India and Indian culture, pop culture is the NRI community which is connected. We have started doing a little bit of that in Dubai with our volunteer team. Once we get a foothold there, we will be able to create content that appeals to other audiences outside of India,” says Nowshad.
‘We are looking at a Mr Malini version of the brand in future’
Here are excerpts from a candid conversation with Malini Agarwal:
Q] Tell us stories from your childhood that showed the earliest signs of you influencing people…
I have always liked to write and would contribute to the school newspaper. I have always been someone who likes to take charge and be the leader – be it a pep rally or making college year-books. I have never really been someone forcing my opinion on others, but have always been a story-teller.
Q] What got you interested in social media back in 2008 when you started the blog? How did you spot the opportunity?
I have always been a social person and love any mode of communication. Pia Trivedi (model) first told me about Facebook saying it was fun, try it. I was fascinated by the fact that you could connect with so many people, find old school friends and this was the first medium I started using. I started Twitter in 2009 but didn’t really know how to use it for a long time. All these mediums keep changing as Instagram and Snapchat are popular now and tomorrow it will be virtual reality. It is fascinating that these mediums allow you to communicate and become your own media house.
Q] How did the gossip blog turn into a business? And what made you take the conscious decision to move away from covering gossip?
There were a few instances where I genuinely felt bad about writing gossip. One instance wasn’t even gossip, it was pictures of actor Rajinikanth without hair and make-up and people flooded me with anger and hate messages. This led to the realization that if I am making someone feel so bad that I am afraid of what they will say to me, then what I am doing is wrong.
In terms of business, Nowshad told me how digital brands are becoming big business and are turning into digital empires. I realized there is a real audience for content and we decided to create a magazine format – covering Bollywood, Fashion, Lifestyle and Miss Malini will be the influencer. The best way for me to describe the business now, is that if Oprah Network were to be created today in the digital space for the global Indian millennial, this is how it would be. While the blog is the mother piece, we have expanded to do other pieces. We have done TV shows – two seasons of MissMalini's World on TLC, Kya Seen Hai @MissMalini on Zoom and Inside Access With Miss Malini on VH1. We do digital radio for Saavn with a show called Bollywood Plus. I am writing a book. We do ad films, that may have nothing to do with the MissMalini business, and have created a couple for Imagica. We are now also a full-fledged media house that can produce full shows.
Q] Tell us some interesting stories around your work with brands.
I have been lucky that I can work with brands that fit me and the content I create. I can work with make-up products, travel and have worked with brands like Queensland Tourism and New Zealand Tourism; in fact my husband and I turned our trip to New Zealand into a honeymoon. Some of the most important associations I have had is where we have been able to create a meaningful campaign. For the lingerie brand, Amante we did a #GirlLove campaign. We asked Bollywood celebrities to say something nice about another Bollywood celebrity in their competitive landscape and this was one campaign that I really enjoyed. We have done fun things with Diageo and went to their ‘World-class Bartending Challenge’, drinking and writing about cocktails. I got an opportunity to meet former US First Lady Michelle Obama, thanks to Maybelline, when she spoke to 50 influential bloggers from around the world. What she said resonates with me: “I am very optimistic about the future because the women in this room represent tomorrow’s mothers. They are the ones who are going to teach their sons to be sensitive and caring and teach their daughters to have pride and be ambitious. The next generation is going to be great. They are going to be sensitive, there is going to be less war, there is going to be understanding, there is going to be less abuse of children and women.”
Q] How do you decide on working with a brand… what boxes do you tick before taking it on?
It’s very important that it’s a brand that we believe in because as an influencer-led network, when you promote a brand that doesn’t represent what you stand for or it isn’t a good product, people will stop believing you. You have to be very careful that you only promote products that you believe in genuinely and that stands for things that you stand for. For example, at MissMalini, we do not do anything with fairness creams, because I genuinely feel that fairness products not just hurt you physically but do a lot of psychological damage. However, those brands still work with us for their other products. The other boxes I have to tick is how do they work with us and whether they allow us to have the creative freedom to create the campaign for them. We don’t really just take a press release and put it up, we try to create a holistic campaign. We try and decide if this brand is best represented with a TV campaign, Print campaign, Digital or Video. We are honest enough with brands to tell them what they need to do.
Q] Brands still spend barely 10% of their advertising budget on digital. Does that worry you? Do you see it changing in the near future?
One of the things that we are really happy about is that we have spent years educating the market about the value of digital. Earlier we would be knocking on doors but now we don’t have to go through agencies anymore. We go directly and work with the brand on bigger projects and brands are spending. If you look at the circulation, of your average glamour magazine, it might have a readership of 40,000. We have four million unique visitors a month, that’s a huge number. The demographic is 18-35, mostly female, educated, probably no kids and they have spending power. Half a billion Indians are online, 75% of them under 35, and that is the demographic brands want to speak to. The best way to get through to them is go to the party they are at. These kids are sitting on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat all day. Numbers say that people check Snapchat every half an hour, Facebook 12 times a day, Instagram probably 18 or 19 times a day. We create advertorial content, and say this is how you can use this or this is what you should wear with this. We are a virtual BFF creator and that’s what brands need. They need people to represent them so they don’t feel so brand-y anymore. We are careful about the brands we work for and the message we send out and you can trust us that we will promote the things that are fun, that people will enjoy and are good and brands are starting to see the value of that.
Q] Tell us about your upcoming projects…
We had a great run with VH1 and are definitely going to do a new season with them. We actually did an AFP (Advertising Funded Programming) on TLC and brought our own sponsors which is quite unheard of in TV shows. We had Myntra, HTC to BBLUNT, Maybelline and they actually moved with us when we moved to VH1.
Our content is customized according to the platform, so the content on our blog is different from what is on Instagram and Snapchat and will be the way people want to consume it on that medium. I spend all my day thinking what can we do differently on Instagram, what’s next? I read about different things people are doing, interesting campaigns being done around the world. We are looking at regional languages as nobody is really covering South Indian cinema the way that we want to. We are looking at Travel, moms, Mr Food – a Mr Malini version of the brand, there is a lot that can be done there. We want to do more things in Print and have a signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins. In addition, we are looking at multiple series of books like Mills & Boons, on health and lifestyle, a Chicken Soup for the Soul series, but under the MissMalini brand.
Q] Tell us about Team MissMalini.
Mike Melli, our chief revenue officer, is the first person who joined and he has really been the heart and soul of the business. He has been my manager and my sanity for years. My husband Nowshad, who I call the CEO of my company and my heart, takes care of literally everything as we are a start-up. The team has a lot of interesting people - 10-12 bloggers, a stylist, make-up artist, people in sales, an entire video team now, a director of fashion and beauty, a Bollywood writer. Everyone has a role to play. We have a small volunteer team out of Dubai and a small team in Delhi and a few writers and we are expanding. The one thing they share in common is a real love for social media and entertainment. I actually hired 75% of my team from Twitter or Facebook or comments in my blog, because I feel those are the people, the ones who write, they will understand the audience best.
I am really proud that out of my 35 employees, 30 are women.This wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened.
I am also proud that we forged and created an industry of blogging where there wasn’t one. I am happy to meet new bloggers and am excited about an academic bloggers network that we are creating.
Q] As a woman entrepreneur, what have been the biggest hurdles that you faced?
The biggest hurdle is finding good people. Whenever I come across someone who I find interesting and talented, even if I don’t know what they are going to do at the company, I hire them. Also, as a startup, sometimes I don’t have the tools, the manpower and that prevents me from doing everything I want to do. Like, we did a line of merchandise and jewellery, I would love to do that again, but now we have to focus on something else.
Q] Is being a woman difficult in the business field?
I have had a wonderful experience. I never felt that anyone has treated me in a way that was abusive or looked down upon me. I have actually felt being a woman has worked to my advantage, especially when I started blogging, I could say ‘excuse me’ and go in front and take a picture and the guys would let me go stand in front. As a woman I have really been very impressed sitting in board rooms and conferences with big brands. Men have looked at me as if I know better than them. Even Rishi Jaitly (former Twitter India Head) very kindly said that he looks at me for direction of things Twitter can do and I felt very humbled and honoured as an entrepreneur that people look at it that way.
Q] What wakes you up in the middle of the night?
Ideas wake me up and then I put the notes in my phone. To be honest, sometimes my WhatsApp messages and Instagram, because I am addicted to my phone.
Q] Behind every successful woman, there is a man. What has been your husband’s role in your success?
He has been amazing and has really believed in me from the beginning. He was the one who said, ‘quit your job’, and I will support us for a year, try it, see if it works and he said that without hesitation. That’s really the only reason I was able to do it. The confidence that he has given me has played a huge role.
Q] Where would you want to see yourself five years from now?
I would like to see myself on my own pink yacht. I would like to see myself building a larger empire. I always say I want a giant pink building as my office. I really want to build an empire, a business, a brand that can never be erased, that people will always remember. I want to be living life that’s comfortable, to be able to holiday when I want, to have children definitely. And, to be happy!
@ FEEDBACK email@example.com