Samir Kale: ‘We are specialists, not generalists’

06 Jan,2012

With Enron for its first client, the journey for the just-formed CMCG India in 1994 was clearly not an easy one. Anyone would know the agony that the AoR would have to face having to back a client with questionable leanings. But that was then. Today, CMCG India has made steady and progressive headway and is being seen as an agency of choice for many clients. The credit for this turnaround goes to Founder and Managing Director Samir Kale, under whose leadership the agency has grown to great heights in the communications world.


In conversation with Johnson Napier, Mr Kale strolls down memory lane and analyzes how 2011 was a good year for the agency, how education would be a sector to look forward to and why it is important for clients to give agencies their due by way of increased premiums. Excerpts:


Q: The year 2011 was a one that had its fair share of highs but it was the lows that had the industry on its toes. How would you define the year for CMCG India?

In terms of our growth this year, I would say we have performed reasonably well. Typically if you observe, globally, whenever there is a downturn what gets slashed are the big advertising budgets. And then people start looking for value – what can you deliver that can get me as much value from spending as little as possible? And that’s what PR as a practice actually provides. So economic downturns actually help the PR industry; that’s how it should be. We have to be able to sell it to the clients that now is the time to look at PR. The thing to be noted here is that India is still a growing economy – whether 6 or 9 percent, it is growing. And therefore the demand for our services will keep on growing in a growing economy.

So to put it positively, it has been a good year for us.


Q: Have you outlined a vision for 2012? What are the immediate objectives for the team?

What is happening today is that PR business as such is getting segmented – PR agencies are offering different services across different segments and different levels of services. In this scenario, we have to identify what is going to be the positioning for us in this matrix. Traditionally as an agency, we are more towards value proposition – we charge more but we give you more value. You have agencies which offer standard services, which I call ‘call centre’ services and we know what they have to offer. I am not saying that it is bad or good; our DNA has been towards value proposition. So we already have a positioning where value is concerned now the focus would be to get the call centre side of the business right.


Q: What was different in the way you went about netting clients in 2011? Any stand-out clients that you were particularly excited about?

Disney was one such client but I would say that the important thing for us last year was the setting up of Campus PR, a division that caters to the educational sector. I think we are the only players doing that right now. We have a good response to the product from some of the leading players in the education space. We would be increasing our focus around education in 2012 and I feel that offering segmented services would be key going forward.


Q: Apart from education, how have the other specialized offerings performed for CMCG?

We have done well across our other offerings as well and if you ask me am I satisfied with what we have achieved, I would say yes.


Q: Given the hue and cry around digital, specifically social media, how have you increased your emphasis around the medium?

Digital today has become a bit of a fashion. Also, today there are a lot of media agencies who focus on providing technological expertise. But we have focused on tapping the digital platform to communicate with the media. A case in point is IPCC, where we were dealing with journalists across the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand sitting here in India and trying to push the message across. That’s what we have being doing because the journalists are also on the internet and we don’t want to go and do things which we are not capable of. Our focus is how can we capture the attention of the media on the digital platform?


I think what happens is it’s not the method, it’s the message we look at. Today it is digital but tomorrow it may be mobile. So what you want to say and communicate is more important and then the medium you want to do that on follows next. It’s content that will drive the way, not technology.


Q: How is CMCG placed in the PR pecking order? What is the market share you seek to achieve in 2012?

All I will say is that we are a mid-sized agency. We are specialists, we are not generalists for sure.


Q: How would you rate your contemporaries?

I can’t rate them as I have not been tracking them closely. But if it is said that they are offering differentiated services then it is good for the industry as such as it would help it achieve greater heights.


Q: How do you see foreign players changing the fortunes of the PR industry in India? Is it beneficial having them increase their base on our shores?

It’s a good thing for the industry. We have always had tie-ups with many international players. The industry has witnessed the buying out of many Indian agencies in the past few years. Having said that, we at CMCG already work with most international clients. They see the value that we bring to the table and they are willing to pay for that value. It is important for international agencies to build a good understanding of the country, regions, politics, etc; be able to offer that level of service that the client expects in the developed world. They need to be able to develop strong local capabilities to be able to work with their local clients in India. Otherwise it is not worth it. So while coming in is a welcome step, developing and understanding the market is a bigger challenge.


Q: Are you still being chased by foreign agencies for a JV?

If there is a good deal I will certainly consider it. As I said in terms of value proposition we deliver it well, what we need is to build our capabilities at the low-end or basic strata of the business. And doing that across geographies in India is what we will look at. So if my partner has a similar vision then it could be a win-win situation for both.


Q: Consolidation would be the order of the day for the industry going forward. Would it help steer the industry in getting more organized?

Typically, consolidation happens when you offer mass services to a large number of customers. But the thing about PR is that anyone can go ahead and start his own business, including a single individual himself. I think consolidation will help the top 10-15 players but beyond that it’s unclear what role it would essay as there are many small players too.


Q: What are challenges facing the industry?

I think we need to attract good talent in this industry. And that will come only if we pay better money, which will only come if clients pay us well. The thing is that the clients must pay the agency for every single activity that they do. Why should they expect everything in one fee? Does that happen in any other profession? I don’t think so. Today PR is still the last mile for the client; that perception has to change.


Q: What would be your key focus areas for 2012?

We will have a clearer idea in terms of how we can grow apart from the value-added services, the base services and how we can add on the expertise across verticals. These would be our key focus areas going forward.


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