PR must look up to advertising: N S Rajan

16 Dec,2011

By Johnson Napier


With foreign players taking a keen liking to India, the PR industry is poised for a quantum leap. Not the one to miss out on the race, Ketchum Sampark is doing everything right to stay on track and be counted as a contender worth the deal. In conversation with Johnson Napier of MxM India, N S Rajan, Managing Director of Ketchum Sampark outlines his agency’s plans to be counted amongst the best and why quality, and not numbers, will be the differentiator in the race to win and retain more clients. Excerpts:


Q: It’s been some 7-8 months since the much-hyped tie-up with Ketchum. How would you analyze your journey post the acquisition?

There has been no change as such at the ground level but yes, processes have changed, reporting has changed – it is now more in terms of financial and MIS reporting and not so much in operations. Also, what probably has changed and helped us is the access to information, access to best practices, access to case studies… so it is a win-win situation for us while we continue to work the way we are.


Q: Could you elaborate on your choice of shortlisting Ketchum as your foreign partner?

We have been working with Ketchum for more than three years now so this tie-up is actually a formalization of our relationship. We have been very comfortable with the cultural match. I think philosophically, Ketchum and Sampark have always had the same focus in terms of client deliveries, choice of clients, etc so there were a lot of similarities between us.


Q: Come to think of it, the venture looks like Omnicom’s reply to making its presence felt in India – just the way Publicis did with Hanmer. Your thoughts?

I think this is something like a process of evolution. We have been working with them for 3-4 years, and it just happened that the timing is now. It did take time for us to tie the knot as there had to be a comfort level on both sides. We probably got into a JV at the opportune time as the media is opening up and India remains a good market for bringing a foreign partner where we are able to service global clients in India and also open up our offices and network for Indian clients wanting to go abroad.


Q: On the growth perspective, how would you analyse the year 2011 for your agency?

I think we have done well. We have grown by 25 per cent and this has come on the back of 30 per cent growth that we recorded last year. Also, we signed on a lot of good clients. This apart, we just recently announced Ketchum Sampark Digital and also set up specialised verticals in healthcare and infrastructure. We believe this tie-up will take us to the next orbit in terms of skill-sets, information flow, etc. More importantly, what we have learnt from this venture is best practices. We have to understand that the market dynamics are changing and people are looking for specialised services in each of the areas. I think there is a lot of comfort at the client level if you are able to bring in value in each of the domains. That’s because clients are also looking at core focus, specialisation, skill levels, agency background, etc. So to that extent healthcare and infrastructure remains our focus areas because a huge growth is predicted in these areas. Another important area for us is crisis communications; we believe a separate vertical would be good to go with for crisis.


As for our agency, we are divided into four verticals – brand, corporate, technology and financial services. Healthcare and infrastructure would continue to be separate verticals but could probably be clubbed under corporate. This apart, sports is another area that is huge for us. We have handled some very big marquee properties across India ranging from cricket, golf, football, etc. So that would continue to remain a focus area for us. We also engage in organising festivals like the Jaipur Literary Festival which witnessed the gathering of more than 400 authors and many media professionals from around the world.


Q: How according to you will digital change the way PR functions, say, in a few months from now?

According to me, the game changer in 2012 for the PR industry will be digital, as its significance and importance will be largely felt. The traditional way of communicating today will probably go direct-to-consumer with the help of digital. Also, with digital, there is a lot of opportunity for content, for social media, for gathering traffic to your site, to build conversations around content and also monitor them, etc. With Ketchum being one of the global leaders in digital I think we have a huge advantage in terms of assimilating knowledge much faster, so we will be able to scale up very quickly.


Q: You’ve mentioned a growth rate of 25 percent plus; does that translate to occupying a fair market share as well?

While we figure amongst the top 5-6 agencies in India, our emphasis has always been on quality. We would probably be happy if we were perceived as an agency known for its quality. I may not be the No 1 in terms of size, but I certainly will be No 1 in terms of quality. We would love to earn the respect, trust and long-term partnership from our clients. Also, we would like our employees to be happy. If in the process of doing all this we improve our ranking, we’ll be happy with that.


Q: Despite the low-warning signs, how are you warming up to the current economic situation being tagged as ‘tough’?

While on the slowdown, let me tell you that during the 2008-09 recession, when most agencies lost business, we were the only agency that grew that year – even if the growth was single digit. So there will always be some amount of hardship so long as clients believe that you will be able to deliver value to them. In our experience, our clients have retained us during the tough times as well. The challenge for any business is to see through the bad phase and that is possible when you are focused on quality, people and such attributes. But if you are chasing to be the No 1 player then there are chances of you losing out.


Q: Do you plan to scale up operations across other centres in India?

We are currently present in seven cities and we do have aspirations to roll each of the practices in each of the regions. We just hired a senior person to handle our office in the South so we are taking all steps necessary to grow all our offices. Also, we have an SBU concept where we encourage and handhold all our businesses to be profitable and contribute to the growth. So that process is happening. Finally at the end of the day, it is important for each SBU to contribute to the overall growth of the agency.


Q: Where the industry is concerned, what can be done to make it more organised than the state it is in now?

I think it should begin with individual agencies taking the onus and coming on a common platform to address the woes of the industry. It is important for the PR industry to look up to the advertising industry which, despite having its share of problems, is much more organised. Today, one is not even sure what is the exact size of the industry. If you put the top 10 PR agencies together I think they would be estimated to be around Rs 300-400 crore whereas the unorganised industry would be around Rs 150-200 crore. So the total industry size could be anywhere between Rs 500-600 crore. Also, the problem is compounded by the fact that compared to other markets, our fees are a little lower. Our fees are 30-40 percent lower than even that of China. There are too many players in India leading to the fees being compromised. But having said that there are clients who are willing to pay a premium if they are convinced about the quality of the service being offered.


Q: What is the way forward then?

I think in the long term a lot of agencies would opt for the consolidation route. What is happening is that companies here are also realising that they need networks that will lead them to get more organised, have access to better offices, skill sets, etc. All this is possible with a larger network. While pop-and-mom stores will continue to exist they too will increasingly take the consolidation route.


Q: Any other attributes that need to be paid greater attention to?

One attribute I think needs more attention is people. I think we don’t have too many qualified people. Also, the good PR professionals are not adept at running a business – a lacuna that needs to be bridged. This is possible with effective training programmes. We have our own in-house training programmes and we hope to train our colleagues on this front as well. Also, we plan to have a fixed number of hours for training our staff. At the end of the day, being in the services industry skills and people are important attributes that one needs to pay adequate heed to.

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