Koombiyo: Seven good marketing and management lessons

It has not transformed the world or even Sri Lanka’s TV audience at large, but this popular teleseries has strengthened our belief in good marketing

Many moons back, I completely alienated myself from local television channels. They were certainly not for me. The news was melodramatic, exaggerated and simply irrelevant. Political debates were full of manure. Reality shows, to say the least, were a sheer waste of time. There was no good music or drama. It appears the channels were so desperate for ratings and advertisements that they were willing to compromise anything. So soap operas – or teledramas as they’re known locally – are focused on the largest market segment of the population pyramid. As I wasn’t there, I was not interested and disconnected my TV set from antenna. I was content with my growing DVD collection and YouTube. I guess many others did the same.

Then there was this interesting phenomenon that brought me back to TV – a new teledrama everybody was talking about. Well, not everybody, but at least those in my circles. It never reached the top in TV ratings. Still, it made me purchase a coax jack and connect my TV set back to antenna. I was watching local TV again, something I thought I would never do. This outlandish series was Koombiyo (The Ants) – a 2017 Sri Lankan thriller created by Lakmal Dharmaratne (a first) based on a screenplay he co-authored with Damitha Chandrasiri (another first). Based on the life of a conman who served powerful politicians, it was a novel experience for the Sri Lankan audience.

The show premiered on ITN on 26 August 2017 with 30 minute episodes airing on Saturday and Sunday at 8.00pm every week. This isn’t a promotion for Koombiyo (It was over in March). Neither is it a review. My intention is to highlight a few marketing lessons that it retaught me. Some of these came as a surprise. I present these because Koombiyo gave us hope even in a domain that most of us thought nothing new and productive was possible.

Interestingly Koombiyo’s script was developed jointly. This synergy led the story reaching further than the imagination of one individual.It’s a good point to ponder for those professionals who work alone

Lesson 1: There shouldn’t be limits to one’s imagination. Don’t be afraid of creating something new for the fear of rejection: Koombiyo wasn’t even remotely close to any series the Sri Lankan television audience has so far seen.

It was a thriller full of suspense. It was fast moving. The lack of female characters was evident. These were not the characteristics of a typical teledrama. Still we accepted it for the sheer power of imagination it demonstrated.

Lesson 2: Teamwork too makes creativity work: Our understanding has been the opposite. We normally think creativity has something to do with individualism. A Midsummer Night’s Dream could not have been written by a committee, they say. Interestingly Koombiyo’s script was developed jointly. This synergy led the story reaching further than the imagination of one individual. It’s a good point to ponder for those professionals who work alone.

Lesson 3: Niches exist in every market for a product of superior quality. We see them even in markets better known for inferior products: We wouldn’t have watched Koombiyo if its creators had doubts about the niche they were about to cater to. They didn’t know of its existence. They just presumed. They could have been wrong, but in this case, the risk was worth enough. Koombiyo wasn’t a mega series that won the hearts of the vast majority. It wasn’t a series aimed at rural housewives who watch TV while preparing dinner or attending to other household chores. It was intended for professionals – especially the youth. Its success entirely depended on the acceptance of the drama by this narrow segment. It worked.

Lesson 4: You don’t have to be a celebrity ‘kalakaaraya’ (artist) to make a great production: Lakmal Dharmaratne – the director of Koombiyo – wasn’t a typical film director. His field was advertising. Yet he boldly moved beyond his comfort zone. He didn’t wait for the recognition. He went for it. It could have been his advertising background that worked. Typical film directors have 2 or more hours to pass their message; advertisers get 15 seconds. So they have to be extra creative. A typical film director in Sri Lanka would not have created Koombiyo. A parallel that comes to my mind is Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, another advertising professional. It too could not have been done by a typical writer. All advertising professionals, be proud of yourselves. Some among you have incredible skills.

Lesson 5: Let the best play the roles: This is more a lesson for managers. My observation here is limited only to the drama but it can be extrapolated to any situation. Every role in a project is unique. It should be played by the individual best suited for the task. Age should not matter. Whether they are veterans or amateurs should not matter either.

Some actors in Koombiyo were well experienced film and TV personnel. For some it was their first time before a camera. Still, the director seems to have got the best from everyone. His bold selections worked – a living demonstration for a leader. Always use the most suited for a role. Forget everything else like qualifications, background or experience.

Koombiyo gave us hope even in a domain that most of us thought nothing new and productive was possible. This can be a turning point for local TV channels to rethink their strategy

Lesson 6: Respect your customers; they will return that respect: The Koombiyo creators never took their customers (audience) for granted. They treated the audience with respect. Normally, the more the number of episodes more the money a TV series can make. Still, despite making losses (the producer claims that with each episode aired he lost about Rs. 50,000) and despite its significant popularity towards the end, neither the producers nor the channel increased the number of episodes. Instead they made the story shorter and reduced one episode. They thought it was redundant. Yes, one puts a product to market in order to make a profit, but not every transaction need be profitable. With the goodwill they made and the fame, the team can easily cover the losses. Winning customers’ trust is more important in the initial stages than profitability. And remember, customers will always make repeat purchases of products that don’t cheat them.

Lesson 7: Social media’s role in promotion is indispensable: I have not studied in detail or even seen the social media strategy of the series at work. So my assumptions are based largely on guesswork. It looks like the producers implemented a comprehensive social media marketing strategy though they cannot take credit for everything that happened on Facebook or the web.

Towards the later stages fans drove promotion. The producers claim they had nothing to do with the most active promotional Facebook page of the series – Koombigula. It was a fine balance. Few things might have happened automatically, but the production team has been receptive. They took constructive criticism while not fighting over negative comments. A job well done.

It would be naive to expect that business models will be altered overnight in response to Koombiyo. Yes, it didn’t make money like some mega series’ do on the tele. Yet this can be a turning point for local TV channels to rethink their strategy. They would be blind if they still haven’t read the writing on the wall.

Tagged as: