As the world battles with economic headwinds and inflation, direct-to-consumer startups and media groups are on the lookout for alternative streams of revenue or business models to increase ad spending and grow revenue.
One alternative business model is 'media for equity' (M4E), where startups trade equity to media conglomerates for advertising space. This model gained popularity in Europe in the 1990s, where one of the very first funds was SevenVentures, a media investor and the investment arm of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE, whom saw an opportunity to use the unused inventory they had on television to diversify their revenue.
In Asia Pacific, The Times of India Group started making such investments through Brand Capital, its strategic investment division, in 2005. In the last two decades, they have made nearly 1000 such investments, of which 900 were in India.
These investments were in Indian-based startups looking to expand and companies outside of India targeting this market. They have also invested in startups in the UK, Nordics and Singapore.
This model is growing in other parts of APAC, including Southeast Asia, where established media groups like Media Prima Berhad have made these investments previously. Hasnain Babrawala, founder and chief executive officer of Fame Media Global, believes M4E creates a win-win ecosystem for all stakeholders, media partners, investors, and startups.
He explains startups turn to M4E when the growth of the company and the industry in which they operate are correlated and when they want to improve their return on equity and return on ad spend. In addition, startups can use their cash to build a more robust business infrastructure to meet the growth through marketing.
For media partners, it is a vehicle to diversify their revenue, create a new pool of advertisers for the future, be part owners of high-growth startups, monetise their inventory, and be prepared for uncertain economic tailwinds. For the investors, the M4E model reduces risk exposure, adds value beyond just "cash," and contributes to the venture build.
"There are a handful of players in this space; while this model is prominent in Europe and India, in SEA, it is at a nascent stage of growth; we are sure this equation will change in the next decade when we will have more second and third generation entrepreneurs who would recognise the need for value towards venture building versus only cash," Babrawala explains.
"I foresee M4E as a win-win model that will be adopted as the desired standard in the fundraising process and increase co-investment participation. It helps the investors reduce risk profiles, add value beyond cash, drive accelerated growth, and hedge against uncertainties."
Diana Florescu, chief executive officer and founder at Mediaforgrowth, explains the M4E model can be a direct investment from a media group, or it could be from an independent fund which aggregates multiple mediums such as TV and outdoor radio.
For example, media companies like Media Prima can directly invest in a startup or an independent fund like the German Media Pool in Germany, which will work with different media groups, aggregate the inventory and act as a broker between the TV stations, media groups and startups.
"This is similar to what you see as a corporate venture capital fund. Sometimes they invest off the balance sheet or have a fund separately," Florescu adds.
Grai Ventures, which Florescu co-founded, released its first white paper in April 2021 to educate startups and investor communities on the M4E model and its advantages to its stakeholders. In addition, it invited senior media experts from Channel4 and Publicis Groupe, investors from German Media Pool and founders to discuss the evolution of M4E as part of a roundtable event.
During and after the event, Grai Ventures facilitated strategic introductions to specialised investors with a startup called What3Words, which previously closed several funding rounds, including two M4E deals. The startup is now discussing with several investors to expand to Europe and other international markets.
Increasing M4E deals in APAC
While some large media groups have done a few direct M4E deals with some companies in APAC, this model did not gain prominence because SEA was a growing region in the last decade.
Companies also require some level of education on how M4E deals can help them improve cash flows, return on equity, and ROAS, which could help them raise funds on better terms and valuations if required.
"The rising story of SEA as one of the priority business expansion destinations is no secret anymore. SEA is set to be among the top four economies by 2030 and a region that would have the highest growth in customer lifetime value, which is a critical decision-making metric," says Babrawala.
"When you layer the potentially high lifetime value of a customer with other benefits that the region provides, whether it is the ASEAN free trade agreement with China and Japan, supportive regulations, increasing disposable income, and an educated digital native population. When one evaluates all this in perspective, SEA will be amongst the top two to three markets in the world regarding assured value creation for the next two or more decades."
Kelvin Tan, chief executive officer and chief investment officer at Venture Capital Fund Management, points out startups have to abandon thinking of cash as the decisive factor.
He says when an investor gives startups money, it does not mean that their business will grow, noting that increasingly, startups are shooting for cash as a means to an end. In contrast, strategic investors will put money or media credit into startups.
"If the startup is a real estate developer and gives out much media space, that can also be a real estate credit. So a startup founder should consider what cash or credit they can get from the media and how this investment has helped them grow," he explains.
"When we started our media for equity program, we had to ask startups what value they bring to the table. Therefore, we are not putting in money or shares in the company as the shares are more symbolic than anything else. We are also not asking for a board seat because we do not want to interfere with their day-to-day operations."
For startups looking to raise M4E in APAC, Babrawala notes in SEA that word of mouth plays a critical role in the purchasing decision. He says M4E companies look at and also advise startups to ask four vital questions:
1. Have you captured at least 5% of the market share in your category? Having a critical mass of customers would enhance the impact of mass media and generate word of mouth.
2. Is your CAC stable or increasing for three consecutive months? An increasing CAC means saturation of performance marketing dollars, and the introduction of mass media at that stage will help the brand build credibility and accelerate its KPIs, whether it is adoption/usage/LTV/revenue goals.
3. Does the brand have optimum online engagement and a decent following on social media channels? If yes, it is time to go live on mass media channels.
4. Does the offer's product or service require education, habit formation, or change? That would require a much more significant investment in media to influence that change. Since the media dollars are equivalent to shares, it is a decision for founders to evaluate.
"The investment needed in media depends on the brand life cycle, the category, and the roadmap, among others. Hence, it is advisable to consider doing an M4E deal to keep these elements in mind and structure the investment, which would deliver results and not bragging rights of your brand advertising on TV or OOH," he explains.
"Once we have agreed to move forward and depending on whether we are co-investing with another VC fund that is putting in cash or we are investing by ourselves, we go ahead with the due diligence process, where we work closely with the management and growth teams to understand the business goals and roadmap. The CMO has to align expectations from mass media and its channel choices."
The role of technology in M4E
Technology is why startups exist, and M4E deals have a tech aspect. However, media groups' main concerns are whether M4E is cannibalising their existing business and if clients will stop spending with them.
They are also concerned that they will discount their product if this leads to clients demanding the same price.
Srikanth Ramachandran, the founder of Moving Walls, explains the M4E deal structure must be built not to cannibalise the existing business. This is because while bringing in new companies like startups that have raised significant money or are on the threshold of raising money, it is usually the new businesses that are coming on board. In contrast, traditional clients rarely come on board for such deals.
He adds that tech now allows startups to tell media groups that even though they can accept the deal, the fulfilment will be based on unsold available inventory. So if there is an opportunity to sell to clients willing to pay without having to take an investment position, that would be ideal.
"Three years ago, this would not have been possible. Our focus has been on digital out of home because many of these startups have been building their presence in OOH. By bringing in unsold inventory onto this product, we can get the publishing or media groups to view it as incremental money they would not have had access to and participate in a high-growth industry," he explains.
"Bringing in some tech automation will allow everybody in that ecosystem to feel comfortable because the startup knows they are being charged for only what inventory was used, which means there is accountability. The unsold inventory does not bother me as much if I'm the chief executive officer or the chief marketing officer of the startup because they know that they get it in the suitable media for which they have already pre-qualified."