[PR] We’re still a bunch of pimps: Vinod Nair, Clea

02 Apr,2012

There was a time when a client didn’t have to think twice when it came to selecting an agency of choice to handle their PR account as there was only a single name that was a dominant force then – Clea PR. That was about two decades ago. But much has changed since then and the PR industry has undergone a tectonic shift that has given rise to newer and challenging agencies offering a range of solutions. But even now Clea doesn’t hesitate to go on record saying that most of the CEOs of today have been former trainees of Clea. Such has been the inspiration that it has cast on the sector over a period of time.


But times have changed and after a brilliant run the agency has pulled back and is going slow with its run in India. But the differentiation still exists, as Vinod Nair, Chairman & Managing Director of the agency assures MxM India. In conversation with Johnson Napier of MxM India, Mr Nair opens up on the agency’s past, on the state of the industry today, on the issue of talent, on his new venture and forecasts his mantra for the future. Excerpts:


Q: Clea has had a spectacular past so to speak, but how would you sum up the agency’s standing in the marketplace today?

Clea PR started as a division of Clea Advertising and Marketing. Over a period of time we built it into one of the largest PR agencies in the space. In those days, even though there were many other PR agencies much older than us we were the ones that were responsible for bringing in a “planned approach” to the business. Also, we were the ones that started the concept of Brand PR in this country. We were handling some of the biggest brands at that time and slowly as the company grew bigger, I bought over the company from the promoters and moved out from the fold. We are into our 17th year right now. In due course of time, after having attained size and numbers I guess I lost interest and the business became a bit boring for me. So we decided to pull back and thereby cutback on our size and clients as a result of that.


Q: What were the factors the led you to pull back and move away from the authoritarian grip that you once commanded in the space?

I don’t think that PR has progressed the way I would have liked it to progress. As a tool being used by a marketer or as a corporate strategist, we are still media release peddlers. I call ourselves a bunch of “pimps” who are still calling up editors and pushing for a press release or some interview to be featured. Also the fact is that Clea was also the place that every single person who is heading a PR agency today has been a former trainee. What was happening was that the knowledge that one had, which was the USP of a planned approach of how to do brand PR etc – once these guys started going out they started doing it on their own accord. What I observe from the client’s end is that when it comes to paying a PR agency everybody starts shitting bricks. I stopped working for a paltry Rs 50-60,000 a month almost a decade ago and today, you still have big agencies who continue to charge that rate. Also, what has been happening is that anybody who realizes that he is good in this space, they venture out and start their own business. So one witnessed a sudden burgeoning of 1-man, 2-man PR agencies in a short period of time. At last count, there are more than 2000 PR agencies existing in India today. This sudden mushrooming of agencies has led to undercutting of rates between agencies.


Q: While such is the commotion that exists in the marketplace, what is the equation that Clea shares with its clients?

With Clea, you’ll see that the average age of my client is minimum eight years. Some have been around for even a longer time. So we have clients to whom we have been delivering quality services day in and out. Therefore we have never felt the need to go out and compromise retainer fees with clients etc. In fact I must be one of the few agencies that actually reject business. Also, we were amongst the first that actually started telling clients to pay us for taking part in a pitch and also insisted on asking for a retainer budget that matched our expectations. What was happening is that despite all the efforts that were being put in all it boiled down to was what was the rate that was going to be charged. That was one of the reasons that I cut down on chasing clients aggressively.


Today the effort that we are putting in is by providing value-added services to our clients. Today we handle over 100 brands and for most of them we are part of the marketing planning team. So before a marketing plan is in place and a company finalises it, we are consulted for it. There are many other innovations that we do too, but that doesn’t mean that we ignore traditional media; we also do that and it will continue to remain integral in our plans.


Q: As an agency, how are you scattered throughout important markets across India and which are the disciplines that are in hot pursuit by you?

Our key branches are spread across six cities and for the rest we use stringer networks. The other advantage that we have is that we have 30-odd branches around the country where we have our own people. So they are involved in a more personal way than most other agencies do. Today, 90 per cent of our clients are brands. One of the trends that has caught the fancy of clients is e-tailing. We’ve bagged four new e-tailing clients recently and I think that is going to be the game-changer as far as PR is concerned. While there are many clients who already offer this service, the difference can come in the marketing and positioning strategy.


Q: While e-tailing is a burgeoning trend what do you gather from the impact that digital is casting on the medium of PR?

Around five years back when digital hadn’t become as big, I had started Clea Digital that was based out of the US. We were able to offer our clients facebook and twitter strategies even before it was known here. But I think that digital is a big bubble. Let me tell you why. If you see today, there are two professionals with whom you can never argue: doctor and lawyer. That is because you are scared of them. And when you are afraid of something you are willing to pay anything. And so, social media is just a hype today. Nobody understands the medium; suddenly a viral becomes a hit and everybody wants to imitate that instantly – that is not possible. I genuinely believe that the medium is just hype and I do not think it is delivering the kind of value that it should. Today I could easily get about 10 clients who could pay me loads of money to do nothing except set up a fan page, do some mobile blogging, do tweets, some youtube and that’s it. That’s not what it is really about; it’s got to do more about analytics etc.


Q: Tell us a bit about your new venture Talentube?

Talentube.com is going to be India’s largest community of talent. So whether you are a singer or an actor or a dancer or a lyricist etc you become a part of the community. On the other end, I have tied up with some of the biggest directors in Bollywood like Sudhir Mishra, Mahesh Manjrekar etc and then we will produce movies. We will be employing talent only from this community. We’ve already got $12 million funding for the first two years. The project will be officially flagged off in the first or second week of April.


Q: What according to you is the solution for the rising attrition rate that currently confronts the medium of PR?

Talent is one area that I consider Clea to be heads and shoulders above everybody else simply because we have never poached anybody from any other PR agency ever. Whereas every single employee from Clea has been poached by other agencies. Therefore I keep making this statement that 9 out of 10 CEOs of PR agencies today have been trainees from Clea PR and almost all of them have come from non-communication backgrounds. Clea has seen attrition that you cannot even imagine. That’s because the training programme by Clea is considered the best in the industry. Since our inception, more than 3000 people have gone through then annals of Clea and most of them are leaders in the industry today. So Clea has always seen attrition and today if I require say 10 people I hire 25 people because I know half of them will quit because they won’t be able to handle pressure and some even may be useless. So I know that by the time the churn happens, I am still left with around 8-10 and these will be effective for me. At Clea, there has never been a botheration at the top level; they have been with me for a very long time. It is only at the mid and entry level that we face attrition issues.


Q: To what do you attribute the highly disorganised state of the industry?

I keep saying that if you pay peanuts you will get monkeys and the other thing is that the client deserves what they are asking for. But if you decide to go to a one-man army because they are charging some 10 per cent lesser than the others then why do you expect to get miracles from them. It is actually the fault of the bigger agencies because they haven’t been able to address this issue. In fact every industry across the world goes through a consolidation phase but PR industry has never seen that happen. I’ve never seen bigger agencies buy out smaller agencies like the other sectors. When it comes to selling they quote over-the-moon rates; each one of us is aggressive, over-confident, self-assured and egoistic people.


Q: What is the growth that you are looking at as you move forward?

My growth every year is only going to be between 18-20 percent. I want to beat inflation. That’s been my growth for the past seven years. At the earlier stages we were growing over 100 percent and above but after I pulled back every year it’s going to be nothing more than 18-20 percent.


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