[PR Channel] We want to grow organically, not exponentially: Dennis Taraporewala

13 Jan,2012

In this competitive era where clients don’t mind slamming the brakes on services that do not bring much to the table, it is often the vulnerable who fall victim to the siege. And for an industry like PR which is anyway sidelined by clients and media alike, the scale is always in favour of large agencies. But then there are a handful of small – or rather ’boutique’ agencies, as Dennis Taraporewala, Director, Criesse Communications, would like to call it – which are changing the market dynamics and giving the biggies a run for their money.

 

With a flurry of big and key clients vouching for the services of this communications shop, the going has been very good for Criesse thus far in India. In conversation with MXM India’s Johnson Napier, Mr Taraporewala declares that boutique shops can redefine the way PR functions as a discipline in India, and talks about how the larger players will be compelled to work in a cooperative fashion with the smaller players, and not in isolation, in future. Excerpts:

 

 

Q: It’s been five years since Criesse made a formal foray into India. How have you grown as a communications agency in India since then?

Criesse Communications was started in 2002 by Gitika Taraporewala (Managing Partner) as an agency in Singapore with Kodak as our first client. For quite a while it was a small firm based out of Singaporewhere we did a small amount of PR in the region for a few clients. But the real take-off for the agency was in 2006 when we came back toIndiaand decided to set up the company for the Indian market. We originally started out by picking up a few corporate-cum-entertainment clients like Mid-Day, Radio One, Indian Express Group etc. From there we also picked up a range of entertainment clients like Kangna Ranaut, Sonu Sood, Jimmy Shergill, Gul Panag, Chitrangada Singh etc. Eventually we realized that we were catering to two distinct kinds of clients – one was corporate and the other was entertainment. We realized we had a unique standing in the marketplace that made us different from the other players who were more focused around a single domain. So that was the differentiation that we were able to bring to the table.

 

Q: Tell us about your client roster and the range of services that you offer them?

We recently have signed up with new multinational clients like Sofitel Hotels, US-based FranklinCovey, etc. We have also been working for a long time with BBC Worldwide and have in fact been asked to come and pitch for BBC Global News as well. Then there is Elder Healthcare and O2 Sparkling water that have aligned with us. Also, there are clients with whom we work on a project basis like The Indian Express for their FE Best Bank Awards, etc. So quite naturally, the strength of our agency is the ability to bring together the corporate part of the business and the entertainment part of the business together.

 

Q: What is unique about the way you function as a small agency? Why should a client stick with Criesse as the AoR?

We intend to stay small – a boutique agency – as we offer our clients highly personalized services. Our retainer clients have managed to stick with us for the kind of solutions we offer them. What you get to observe nowadays is that agencies sign up a lot of clients and within six months the client is on the lookout for change. So we decided that we will work for only a few clients; we will be selective about whom we sign up with. So we have about seven people in our team but we offer our services whole-heartedly to the clients. We make it a point to see that there is one senior partner always involved even with the operations with the client. That is why our clients are extremely pleased with us.

 

Q: As a boutique agency, is there a standard industry code you adhere to while pitching for a new client or do you follow a different practice?

Initially, if we are called for a pitch it follows a certain process, especially for the large corporates. So we go and pitch just like any other big agency but we tell them that we are a small agency and we intend to stay small. But if we sign up with them we assure them that the team will have at least one highly experienced individual at the top along with the junior members. The main thing is that you can win big accounts, but if you don’t have good talent working on that account, eventually the relationship breaks down. So we may have 30, 50 or 100 clients with us, but if they are not satisfied with my work then it’s not worth winning such a large number of clients.

 

Q: How friendly is the PR environment for boutique agencies like yours as compared to large agencies?

I think there is a big opportunity that has been created for boutique agencies right now, because what is happening is that though the large companies have a vast network and are fantastic with their thinking, in terms of execution they have not been able to handhold the client. If an account director, for example, has 20 clients under his belt how can he get involved with each one of them at a personal level? It will be left to the juniors to build up the relationship with them and that’s not a good thing. What is unique about Criesse is that we have a brand strategy practice, and not just PR. We are always linking into the client’s corporate brand strategy. We always insist that the client share his corporate brand strategy with us; without that we do not proceed ahead. So this is how we are positioned as an agency.

 

Q: How would you rate your growth story in numbers?

We have witnessed very transformational growth in the last year as we have signed 2-3 large accounts. As for the numbers, all I can say is that we have doubled (revenues) from what we were a year ago.

 

Q: It is alleged by large agencies that clients are not open to paying a premium because of the underpricing exercise that medium and small agencies resort to. What are your views on such allegations?

What is termed as premium service and what is it that you can classify as premium for premium prices is very relative. So if a small agency undercuts a big agency just on price it won’t be a long-term relationship. Because eventually, no matter what a client pays, if you do not deliver they will leave you mid-way. So the best approach is to ensure that the quality is delivered. We only directly compete with the big agencies when there is a coordinated pitch. So if small agencies are undercutting large agencies, it won’t last if they are doing it based on cost. It will last if they are doing it based on the quality and the value proposition that they bring. And value is added only through a combination of quality and cost. Now if somebody comes and gives you great quality at a better price, wouldn’t you take it? So that is something big agencies have to think about.

 

Q: Given that consolidation is the order of the day, have you ever been approached for a takeover?

We were approached once by an Indian entity for a takeover but we didn’t really pursue it. Also, there was an agency from Singapore which had evinced interest as they wanted to enterIndia, but we declined. Our intention is clear: we want to grow only organically; we don’t want exponential growth. The reason being that we want to deliver on the quality front. Of course we do want to be profitable too. The key challenge is to get talent and groom them and get them to think long-term.

 

Q: Are you looking at expanding your expertise from the regular corporate and entertainment services that you offer?

There is a trend nowadays for agencies to offer multiple practices – finance, healthcare, pharma, etc but I just feel it becomes meaningless after a point. Because after all, why has a client hired you? Not because he wants domain specialization in his area, but because he wants his brand to be well communicated to the outside world. I think specialization in the PR firm has been taken too far but what happens is that it is being used as a tool of reassurance. The trend right now is that everyone is saying we are not generalists; neither I am saying be a generalist. I am saying be someone who can understand multiple industries, then only can you become senior in your approach and be valued for what you offer.

 

Q: Would you agree with the claims made by certain large players that smaller players are responsible for the unorganized state of the industry?

Let’s look at it the other way. Take some of the large agencies: are clients sticking to them? Some are, not all of them. There is currently a need in the market for high quality boutique players. And there are such players and they are attracting business. So it will always be a give-and-take affair. It wouldn’t be that the big will dominate and others will disappear; the market is large enough to support all of them. In fact, larger players should go ahead and leverage from these smaller players. What you may see is that larger agencies which are not able to offer personalized services to many clients will cooperate – not buyout – with the small and boutique players. It should be a collaborative model that will be a win-win for all.

What has worked for us is that we have always advised clients to be simple, authentic and clear in their communication. If any of these are missing then people pick it up, and it may be damaging in the long run.

 

Q: What are your views on digital, especially the use of social media in PR?

We integrate online very well. Social media is not rocket science; anybody can get the hang of it. People only overhype it. Because facial expression or tone of voice is not there in the social world, the written word needs to be very authentic. So our strategy around digital is not very different from normal communication. Maybe what has changed is that communication is now more interactive. And if you are authentic in your message then people will be willing to listen to you.

 

Q: Any other new client of Criesse that deserves a mention?

There is a new client that we have signed up with – Spool. It’s a Singapore-based  company that is coming in the global market with Indian content online. The idea is that today if you go on to the internet there is no one place where you can get the latest Indian movie. On this portal, viewers would get to view movies and even news and other such programmes from any corner of the world. Initially it would be a free model, then a subscription model or pay-per-view. They have signed on with some major movie and TV players for the deal. It would be launching end of this month.

 

Q: On a parting note, what can we expect from Criesse in 2012?

We are going to be involved with a couple of large pitches; on a growth basis we are looking at a 30 per cent increase depending on which pitches materialize for us. The challenge for us in 2012 would be to carry on with churning out good talent and take them higher so that they deliver greater value to brands on the whole. As for our foray into newer regions, we may look at expanding our offices in Delhi and Singapore, but that is over an 18-month period and not immediately.

 

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One response to “[PR Channel] We want to grow organically, not exponentially: Dennis Taraporewala”

  1. Peter says:

    Good article. Always interesting to hear what you’re up to.

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