Dhawal Ghusain

EVP - Head of Content Ops & New Initiatives Disney+Hotstar

Good content is backed by science and storytelling that a customer relates to: Dhawal Ghusain 

In an era where content marketing is redefining the way brands are connecting with target groups, it is becoming increasingly important to differentiate good content from bad content. One of the mainstays of good content is good storytelling. This is the unshakable belief of Dhawal Ghusain, EVP - Head of Content Ops and New Initiatives Disney+Hotstar. In an insightful and fast-paced interview, Ghusain underlines how as a marketer you are struggling to justify the ROI on your content marketing efforts. This, he says, is the biggest pain point for marketers today, especially those in the content business. 

He delves into the difference between good content and not-so-good content, and the importance of good writers who understand the art and science of writing. Another important takeaway from the conversation is how Ai generative content will actually help customers or the end user relate to the brands better. Join us as we explore the constant battle that marketers face in justifying ROI and creating compelling content.

1. How has your professional journey been through the past few years? 

I was also an engineer and never wanted to pursue that as a career. I graduated from IIT Kharagpur before taking up a job with Hindustan Unilever. Back then it was called HLL. I spent 3 odd years at HLL. I think that was among the best experiences to learn. To date, I say it is one of the best management institutes you can go to. 

There was this web series called Pitchers. I remember one of the dialogues from the series: India mein aadmi jab 9-5 job se bore ho jata hai toh teen hi option hote hain - IAS, MBA ya start-up (When a person gets bored with a 9-5 job in India, he or she has 3 options - become a civil servant, an MBA or float a startup). So, the startup option was there but not on the scale it is now. I believe Flipkart and Snapdeal were just small startups, barely a year old back then. I come from a family of civil servants and took this opportunity to break away from the tradition. I didn't want to pursue IAS. So, I was left with an MBA. 

I wanted to experience Silicon Valley and was fortunate enough to be accepted by Stanford. I arrived at Stanford in mid-September. This was in 2008 when the Lehman Brothers crashed. I graduated in 2010. I come from a family of civil servants and took this opportunity to break away from the tradition. I didn't want to pursue IAS. So, I was left with an MBA. 

2. How did you get into a startup business? 

Things were quite difficult in the Valley after the Lehman crash. Unfortunately, the markets crashed and I needed a startup that was funded. I  became a management consultant and ended up traveling a lot - Phoenix, Cleveland, and Minneapolis. Those were an interesting few years. 

Then Dropthought happened. It was a company that used machine learning to structure feedback, from different segments of users such as patients in hospitals, teachers in schools, and other customers. Insights from the feedback were channeled into an actionable process for the end users such as the school and the hospital to improve their services. I was heading Strategy and Business Development. The Chief Data Scientist was a professor. He introduced me to Neural Net and Machine Learning. 

In 2015, I moved back to India. I was approached by a friend from my undergraduate days for The Viral Fever or TVF. I became the CEO. I was out of India for seven or eight-odd years then and did not even know if I understood the country as much as now. I had no idea of the content. But I found it crazy enough to jump in. I started handling the non-creative functions - sales, marketing, and technology products. 

3. Tell us about your time at the Disney+Hostar

Around 2020. I decided to sample the other side of the buffet and see how the big companies operate. I was lucky enough to get a chance with Disney and Hotstar. Disney had given Hostar the charter to develop in expanding markets. I have worked in three diverse fields of content. These are Content ops (sourcing the content and publishing it), new content initiatives (revamp of our premium strategy in India), and content insights (A big data product we were creating to figure out more sense out of all the data that we were gathering).

But then, I decided to go back to doing what I love most - that is building things. Right now, I am in transition. I have moved on from Disney and am involved with a new startup. It is a very early-stage startup. It will be in the content and B2B space. 

4. How did you convince your family of civil servants that you don’t want to pursue IAS?

I think, initially people said that you are all over the map. They would say, sometimes you are in the US; sometimes you are in India; sometimes you're selling soaps. There are two ways of looking at it. The easier and simpler way of explaining it is with a dialogue from the Batman movie, The Dark Knight. This is when Batman basically asks the Joker, why do you do what you do? He answers, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? Do you know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it!” 

The more involved one would be to say that, is curiosity and challenge which I definitely cherish in my career. I have moved to places that piqued my interest and found them challenging. At the end of the day, I just did it because I wanted to do it. At that instant, they made sense. There was never any pressure from my family. 

5. What are the biggest pain points for a marketer today? 

Let me give you the root cause that is the source of these pain points. It may not impact people at every level but its manifestation translates into a pain point down the line. It comes down to Return On Investment (ROI) because marketing is often considered a cost center. So, how do you justify the ROI on content and marketing? How do you quantify that? In my mind, the constant battle that one has to fight as a marketeer is the moot point of how do I justify the ROI. But how do you quantify user trust? How do you put a value on it? The constant battle to justify the ROI is a major pain point.  

The pain point in content marketing is that it comes down to ROI because marketing is often considered a cost center. But how do you quantify user trust? How do you put a number to it?

6. You were talking about the difference between good content and not-so-good content 

ROI is a lagging indicator. Post facto, post mortem. Biggest lead indicator. Good content is basically a good story. You need good writers. Those who understand both the art and science of writing. The art part is fairly self-explanatory. A part of it is a god gift. Science will hold you in good stead. You need to understand user preferences. What kind of people are you writing for? To research the topics. Sometimes, I can totally see that the writers have done zero research. For example, certain movies and series are researched to the T. for instance, Chornobyl. The amount of research that has gone into the set design is phenomenal. And, that is fairly evident. It is also important how you structure the stories coherently. Good content is basically a good story. I'm just trying to illustrate the difference between good writing and bad writing.

6. How do you see the future of content creation with new technological advancements like ChatGPT and MidJourney? 

AI will become an integral part of what we do. There is no point fighting it. It is time to connect these generative AIs to marketing. A product like this can make a company’s interaction with its users and clients far more human. If you have a disgruntled customer whom you can delight, he or she will be your biggest advocate for life. AI can do a phenomenal job of making our interaction with customers far more human. It is indeed a disruptive technology. 

7. How do you see the coming year in terms of content marketing?

First of all, we have to address the elephant in the room. I sense that 2023 may not be as bad as 2022 but the economy is going to be suppressed because the broader problems that triggered the inflation are still around. There is going to be pessimistic sentiment in the market at large. What does it mean for content marketing? Budgets will be slashed. Marketing will be a discretionary spend with a reduction on the budget side of it. 

In terms of what is going to be the trend in the upcoming years in content and marketing, we are going to see major investment in short-form content and marketing strategies than in mid-form or long-form ones. Users are spending decent time on short-form and it is economical. Secondly, people will start using content marketing as a profit center rather than a cost center. If you can have a handle and start making better ROI from the ads, then why not? Third, with the advent of AI generative content, users would prefer relatable content far more than formal talk. The intuitive models will be far more human. The underlying part is that they are all cost-effective. 

We are going to see a major investment in short-form content and marketing strategies than in mid-form or long-form ones. Users are spending decent time on short-form and it is economical. 

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