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Ramesh Manjrekar (name changed) is a tense person these days. In fact, the advertising sales executive from a leading print media organisation has been worried for the better part of 2011. The root cause of his trouble are India's telecom service providers.

This is not a usual complaint of a publication losing out on advertisements to a rival. It is a problem that his peers at other print media organisations are facing too. Because telecom service providers have been consistently hacking their spends on the print media in favour of television. As data by media measurement organisation TAM AdEx indicates, in a span of two years, the advertising spends by telecom services in the print media has fallen by as much as 30 per cent.

Leading telecom players whose share of print advertising has drastically dropped include BSNL and Reliance Communications. In the case of BSNL, its share of telecom services advertising came down from 39 per cent in the January-June 2009 period to as little as 6 per cent in the corresponding period of 2011.

What has been print's loss has largely been television's gain. In the first five months of 2009 and 2010, AdEx data shows that television spends by telecom companies actually increased by a massive 27 per cent. In some cases, the outdoor medium — usually a distant third behind television and print — has been able to garner a higher share than print.

These points hit the print media companies where it hurts because telecom services as a segment contributes as much as Rs 1,000 crore or about 5 per cent of the total Rs 22,000 crore advertising pie. "Print media is being used increasingly only for strategic purposes. Brand building is largely restricted to television or outdoors," says Manjrekar.

Some, however, argue that the print medium can work equally well in brand building. A case in point is the brand transition from Orange to Hutch in 2005, which used a mix of print and outdoors in the initial stages of its campaign.  

Others say that in some cases, such as for promoting schemes or mobile device tie-ups, print works better than television as customers can read and understand the finer details of the deal in black and white.

"However, on the basis of cost-per-reach, television scores much better than print," counter-argues a senior executive of a leading telecom service provider.

A senior executive at media services giant Mindshare points out a different reason behind the decline of print advertising by telecom services players. According to him the decline is an indication of the weakening spending power at a circle level by telecom services providers. For instance, television advertising spends are largely based on decisions taken by the central marketing teams at telecom companies, while print decisions are taken at telecom circle levels where it is the area marketing teams that make marketing investment decisions. With circle-level budgets being pruned, the print media has been hit hard, he says.

There are, however, a few telecom companies that have been increasing their presence on print. For example, Vodafone's share of print spends has moved up from 5 per cent in January-June 2009 to 16 per cent for the same period in 2011. So all may not be lost for advertising sales executives like Manjrekar. They just need to dial the right numbers.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 12-09-2011)