[PR Channel] Our approach has been very focused & niche: Veena Gidwani

13 Feb,2012

It’s been a fulfilling and boisterous ride, to say the least, for one of the most prominent names in the domain of PR – Madison PR. Having made a modest start about a decade ago, the agency today has a roster of clients that most would die to have a hold on. Not to forget the healthy growth numbers that the agency has been posting year-on-year, which have been in double digits for long. None of this would have been possible without the guidance and leadership capabilities displayed by the face of the agency – Veena Gidwani.


Having been involved with the agency since its inception, Gidwani today is singularly responsible for the peak status that it has attained over the years. In conversation with Johnson Napier of MxMIndia, Veena Gidwani discusses her foray into the space; shares her secret to bagging top-notch clients and has a word of advice to the industry so as to get it to be in a more orderly state in the future. Excerpts:


Your career spans an illustrious three decades, straddling the domains of advertising and marketing. Though your love for the medium is known, what is it about Public Relations that made you take up the profession as a career path?

My foray into Public Relations happened in 1995. At that point in time, I was employed with the Tatas for their design and creative services company when I was advised by a friend to head a joint venture in the PR and investor relations space. That was when I set up Prima Communications – the corporate image building venture that I was instrumental in setting up and was responsible for delivering growth for the unit.


During that phase, it was observed that a lot of Indian companies were not communicating effectively with their stake-holders. There was a need felt for them to have a professional service which understands how to communicate and how to do it on a sustained basis. So I was involved with that for some time till 2000 when Sam Balsara (CMD, Madison World) offered me a role at Madison PR and that’s how my journey began over here.


It’s been 12 years now for me atMadisonand we have grown from a small and limited team to a team that is very cohesive and spread out across four cities. Today we service clients across industry verticals – we focus largely around clients in lifestyle, FMCG, food and also other verticals like consumer durables, financial, hospitality, healthcare and so on. This has enabled the team to have a lot more exposure and experience in handling all kinds of situations and industry and client needs.


How has Madison PR delivered on the growth front in 2011? How has the start been in 2012?

We have had a good start in 2012. Most clients have outlined plans for good growth and plans for having new products being launched and so on. Though, of course, in the last quarter some clients have been a little careful in terms of committing a budget, preferring to play a wait-and-watch game. But as the year has begun, the start has been positive so far.


As for 2011, the year was good for us; we have witnessed double-digit growth. All our offices have added businesses. In Mumbai we added Godrej Tyson and Godrej Locks; inDelhiwe added JK Cement and Ricoh andApolloHospitalsinBangalore… so there have been additions and growth in all offices.


While on 2011, I would like to share an important thing that happened to me which was my travel to Cannes. Being on the jury, it gave me an opportunity to see PR campaigns from across the world that were submitted. I’d like to add that a lot of good work also happens inIndiabut unfortunately not too much of it is entered. It was a great experience to interact with many agency heads from across the globe and I think that some of the issue that all of us are battling are almost the same across the world. Also, the other interesting thing out there was that there was not a single category that did not have digital as an entry. So it was a great learning experience at Cannes.


Your client roster boasts an impressive line-up including the likes of P&G, Parle Agro, Britannia, etc. What is it about Madison PR that gets such top marketers to cling on for a long time?

As an agency, our philosophy has been to work with a limited number of clients but work very closely with them. That’s because PR is such a business that you need to have close interaction with your clients. Unlike advertising, where you create a plan and that plan holds still for the next three months or so, PR is a very dynamic medium- the plan keeps on changing. We may have developed a strategy for this month but if some development happens then we need to incorporate such changes. Also, most often the Marketing people at the client’s end are so busy with their everyday goals, meetings that they do not have the time to share with the media when they have some important developments. As we believe in the proactive approach of being in regular touch with the clients, it becomes easier for us to strategise and execute ideas for them. So that’s one area that we are constantly looking to delight clients in.


The other important thing is that we believe we have to be creative in our approach. The media landscape today is so competitive that everyone wants a slice of the information that is going out. So how do you stand out and make your communication interesting? You need to be creative in your approach; you need to customise the content to suit the medium. So that’s another value-addition that we offer to our clients.


How would you rate Madison PR on the parameter of client retention?

We’ve had clients who have been with us for several years, like P&G, which is our oldest client and continues to work with us. Having said that, we do have clients who work with us for a year or two, and that happens because if the companies are small or privately held and if they feel that do not have much to communicate then they break away from the association. But I can say with certainty that we command a high loyalty rate amongst our clients.


How do you review your practices each year so as to stay ahead of the curve on a consistent basis?

We do not work having a delineated or watertight practice. For example, you may have a group that may be working for two separate practices but what we try to do is analyse what are the trends, in which direction is the industry progressing and what is it that we can provide that nobody else is providing and do that more efficiently.


What is the shift you observe in the way PR as an industry functions today to what it did, say, about a decade ago?

A decade ago, PR largely meant media exposure and media relations, whereas today it is more holistic communications counsel with specialized services like influencer marketing, word of mouth, events, research and overall strategic planning and execution. Also if you observe, there has been a significant shift in the way the professionally managed clients avail the services of PR agencies. They understand the value of a big and creative idea and they support it. They are willing to give it all the support that it needs in terms of implementation and cost. At the same time they expect us to deliver good outcome and results out of the exercise. However there are several organisations which are not that clued in on the value or merit that PR brings to the table. They fail to look at PR as an area that needs sustained investment or something that needs an ongoing boardroom thought.


But I would say that there has been a major shift and most professionally managed companies are realising the value of PR. In fact, PR is becoming an integral component of their media plan and very often many of clients invite us to the pitch alongside the other disciplines. We are briefed at the same time as the others so that we can think creatively and come up with ideas and have a concerted and synergised plan for that particular initiative.


Where do you see Madison PR placed in the PR pecking order amongst its contemporaries?

We wouldn’t want to rate ourselves amongst the other players based on our size; we are not a big agency. We are a relatively small agency but as I said our approach is very focussed and niche; we want to work with a very limited number of clients and work in a manner where we come up with innovative ideas to build brands.


What are some of the challenges facing the PR industry in India?

Talent has been one of the biggest problems facing us and the industry as a whole. Especially the senior staff – it is extremely difficult to find a good fit. One of the biggest problems that we face is that most people want to move on to the corporate side of the business.


Though I must say that there is a lot of excitement when you work on the agency side of the business as you get to work with multiple brands, you get to see what the other groups are doing on other brands, you get to work with new brands as well as old and reputed brands or somebody who wants to deal with a crisis situation, and so on. There are many such situations that take place here and therefore I would say that the PR agency life is very vibrant.


Also, it is essential that agencies impart training to its workforce. We do provide in-house as well as external training and workshops for our staff. It goes a long way in preparing them to face the challenges that the business demands.


Any other challenges apart from talent?

The other big challenge facing the industry is the way clients want to remunerate agencies. With so many players out there offering their services, people are willing to undercut price for the same. PR, as such, is a very qualitative service; you cannot exactly say that someone has quoted me this rate and why are you quoting me something else? One must understand that there are various elements to this service. Over here, one idea or not missing an opportunity can make a huge difference to a campaign. So proactiveness from the agency and the way they deal with you, all add up to the sum total of value or service that the agency is giving to you. So two agencies of the same size may be offering the same service at varying rates and it is up to the client to take a call on who is the right partner.


The other element here is that it is a very people-intensive business. Because, besides people and the intellect what else are you really using? So an agency’s idea, people skills and your interaction with people are the key skills that one uses. Also, people costs are going up and clients have to realise that to get good service you have to pay good money – which some clients do. But by and large, most people think that they can negotiate fees and make us work for less and this perception needs to be changed.


You’ve been involved with PRCAI and have served as president in the past. How do you see the association casting an impact on the industry in a large way?

I really do not know what is going on over there now but I guess as an industry we need to come together and do more. If everybody gets together we can hope for a smooth running of the industry. We are operating at several levels. At one level we have internationally-affiliated global agencies, then you have the Indian independent agencies, then you have agencies likeMadison, which are part of agency network, you have individually-owned agencies, smaller agencies, etc so the canvas is very vast. This makes it difficult to have standardised norms and practices that each one may follow.


Have you been approached by an international agency for a joint venture?

As and when there is some venture to look up to we would consider it but we are happy being as we are right now.


What is the road ahead for Madison PR in 2012?

For us to put up a good growth, churn out good campaigns and help clients to get better market shares and enhance the equity of his brands with consumers and stakeholders. Also, we see big opportunities in lifestyle, personal consumption, retail and healthcare sectors with many new entrants and aggressive expansion plans of existing players.


For us, digital is now becoming important and more and more brands are now going online to communicate with consumers but I think that in 2012 there will be a lot of activity around this arena.


Finally, will Madison PR be the place you retire at or will you contemplate another career opportunity in the future?

I haven’t thought about leaving this place; it has been an interesting and exciting journey over here. There are always newer things that come up and one thinks of it but it’s been very exciting and I am looking forward to more excitement in the time to come.


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