It is innate wisdom that when an organisation is faced with turbulent times, calm under pressure is the one single attribute that can help tide over the storm.
His impressive résumé apart, the ability to maintain a cool head may have been a key factor that led to Ajit Mohan’s appointment as the new chief of Facebook’s Indian operations.
Despite its unparalleled popularity and 270 million users in India, the Menlo Park, California-headquartered social networking giant has been in the eye of a storm in India for quite some time. Mohan’s composed demeanour, his background as a consultant with McKinsey – globally renowned for its business transformation capabilities – and the experience of leading India’s largest television network’s digital charge with a popular video-streaming platform may have led the $40 billion-company, led by Mark Zuckerberg to repose its faith in Mohan.
Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Mohan has, for long, been Star India’s chairman and CEO Uday Shankar’s blue-eyed boy. He has been a key lieutenant who was by Shankar’s side, as the former sought to transform Star’s image from being a foreign broadcaster beaming television content into the living rooms of Indian households, to an Indian entity, which empathetically reflected the hopes and aspirations of an Indian milieu.
It may be argued that the solution to the challenge facing Facebook in India, including an atmosphere of distrust with regulators and users stemming from a revelation that users’ data with Facebook may have been passed on to third-party entities, lies in going the Star way.
Facebook consistently harps on its stated mission of fostering more close-knit communities around the world and intends to do so in India. The best way to do that, perhaps, would be to be seen and felt as more Indian and less American. And who better to implement that transformation than Mohan, who would have seen his former boss Shankar do exactly that from close quarters.
Mohan has spent close to six-and-a-half years at Star India, during which time he has also run the CEO’s office, before being put in charge of Star’s over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platform Hotstar.
If there were any doubts that this is a part of Mohan’s KRA at Facebook, apart from driving revenue growth obviously, the media statement announcing Mohan’s appointment laid them to rest: “Ajit will be responsible for Facebook's India strategy and for driving the company's continued investment in India. He will lead a senior leadership team in India that will strengthen Facebook's relationships with people, businesses, and government and intensify the company's efforts to help people in India connect with the people and things they care about most.”
Facebook’s statement emphasises that the position that Mohan would occupy, that of managing director for India (a vice president-level role) would be a new one being instituted and he would report directly to the headquarters in Menlo Park and not Asia Pacific.
What remains to be seen, however, is how adept would Mohan be in terms of maintaining relations with the government at a time when the latter is keeping a keen eye on the role of social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook, though Mohan will have nothing to do with it) in curbing the flow of fake news. To begin with, he is likely to shift base to Delhi and will surely spend a considerable amount of time walking the corridors of power.
As the chief of Hotstar, Mohan’s interactions with government authorities are likely to have been limited since digital media is still a largely unregulated space and not subjected to India’s censorship guidelines, which can be irrationally harsh at times.
But Mohan’s unquestionable strong suit is his experience of running Hotstar. Since its launch in 2015, Hotstar has gone on to become India’s leading OTT platform with 100 million monthly users and over 100,000 hours of programming content. Apart from a wide array of content such as films, seasons of TV series and original web series in English, Hindi and other Indian languages, one of Hotstar’s prime attractions has been live sports.
Shankar has articulated in the past that the idea of launching something like Hotstar came about to better utilise the digital broadcast rights for Indian cricket, which Star had bagged from the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Since then, the bouquet of sports offerings on Hotstar has expanded to include properties like English Premier League football, Indian Super League (football) and those conceptualised by Star itself such as the Pro Kabaddi League.
Facebook clearly sees synergies between Mohan’s digital media experience and its own ambitions of building a sizeable business based on video streaming, for which it recently bagged rights to live stream Spanish football league, La Liga’s matches in India. It had even put in a bid to stream Indian Premier League’s matches in the country but lost out to Star.
Not only will Mohan have a firm grasp on the intricacies of running a large digital video network from an operations and technology standpoint, he will also bring with him a keen sense of how to commercially exploit such content on the back of strong ties with advertisers.
Intuitively, the role of the India head of the world’s largest social networking platform should be a coveted post for any media executive. But Facebook has been unable to find a stable incumbent for the post. After Keerthiga Reddy, the former head of Facebook in India relocated to the US, Umang Bedi was appointed as managing director, However, he quit barely 15 months later and the position was lying vacant since October 2017.
In an interview with this writer in 2015, Mohan had stated that Shankar was one of best “non-linear thinkers” that he had come across. Someone who could connect the dots in a non-linear manner and come up with insights never articulated before. Facebook will be hoping Mohan can do the exact same.