Not PR, strategic communications advistory!

28 Jun,2012

 

Michael J Berland

The communications space in India has been witnessing some high-decibel action in the recent past with players reporting above-average growth story and also with a host of players trying to break ground into India . At such times, it becomes challenging for a new entrant in the space to come up with innovative and unique ideas, while at the same time continue to charm clients with high-value solutions.

 

Making a mark since its planned entry a year ago; Penn Schoen Berland, which defines itself as a global research-based communication advisory, has been having an unstoppable and impressive run in India . Credit for its super showing goes to its MD & Chief Executive -South Asia, Ashwani Singla, a familiar name in the PR and Communications space. He is joined in his quest by an unflappable team from diverse fields – including its first employee Shefali Khanna, who is the Director-Marketing for PSB in India.

 

Ashwani Singla

On the sidelines of an internal meet to assess PSB’s preparedness to launch in Mumbai next month and also to chart out the road ahead, Michael J Berland, President of Penn Schoen Berland took some time off his busy schedule to converse with MxMIndia’s Johnson Napier.

 

He was joined by Ashwani Singla who was elated on the agency completing a gratifying year one of operations in India . Together they spelt out the reasons for the impressive growth story of PSB in India , on the USP that makes PSB a force to reckon with and what to expect from the agency in the next five years. Excerpts:

 

While you have a number of agencies today that operate as full-service PR offerings, what was the positioning that you intended for PSB while you were formulating a strategy for its launch in India ?

Ashwani: I would define PSB as a research-focussed strategic communications advisory that specialises in the area of politics, corporate and M&E. Under politics, we run campaigns for candidates – voter segmentation, messaging, and so on while for corporates, we do corporate imaging, corporate affairs and issues/crisis management, reputation monitoring etc. As for M&E, the focus is on movie marketing, movie positioning, and so on. So we are not a PR agency but a very niche communications advisory.

 

We are different in the sense that we look at research or what we call the science of persuasion to be the cornerstone for all advice that we give to companies or to political candidates or media and entertainment clients.

 

Did you use the global lineage of PSB to your advantage when you launched in India last year?

Ashwani: This is probably the first PSB international office that I would call a cold start office. It means that we didn’t start because there was a client that was migrating to a country and wanted support or because we had global alignments and needed to have presence in India… it was a very conscious decision taken by Michael Berland and the management team to launch in India. We started because we felt India was an important market and that there was an opportunity to be sought here, and to the credit of the company when I made a case here for the fact that this should be a full-service infrastructure, they readily agreed to my demand. It’s now a fully indigenous operation with global expertise and talent that has migrated from diverse fields.

 

Michael Berland: Coming from a core heritage where we have worked for clients like Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and others, we take the lessons from the campaign trail and apply it to corporate situations. When you look at a campaign, it’s about one candidate versus the other – it’s all head to head and in real time where decisions and actions have to be taken or you lose. That’s the same situation you get to see in marketing where you have to go head to head and it’s important to gain to that level of immediacy.

 

You have been in existence globally for over three decades, what took you so long to arrive in one of the most promising markets that the world is in awe of?

Michael: There are four countries in the world that are setting the global standard – BRIC countries. So it’s important to have a presence in these countries. The office in India opened about a year ago under the leadership of Ashwani Singla, and in that span they have had the fastest growth in any of the PSB markets across the world. So there’s not only an opportunity from the client perspective, but there is also an amazing group of talent that is here in India. Our goal was to build an India n office with India n talent in India and take the tools and techniques and help the companies (clients) that need them. Very often talent is brought in from outside and we knew that that model wouldn’t work here in India.

 

So many companies make a mistake of getting people from other countries to run an office in some other country. That’s not how we operate; we wanted to come in by buying a company and then trying to teach them. It has to be done through an organic route. We had our board meeting in Washington recently and it suffices to say that they were happy with the progress put up by India . The client roster includes the who’s who of the MNCs and other clients and we are operating at the highest level to help companies achieve their rightful place at the global stage.

 

Ashwani: Frankly, there is nobody we compete with, so the space that we operate in is completely blue. In my view, the level of sophistication that clients are demanding, which I call the new communication normal, where clients want work that is rich in insight, has to be of the highest quality. In fact, we had done a poll last year where we asked clients as to what has changed in your world and that is what they gave us as an answer – high level of sophistication. I am actually delighted that we are shaping up exactly as what our poll had showed us last year. We got a very good roster of clients in Mumbai and so we thought it was about time that we launch here.

 

Will Mumbai be the new hub for PSB as you seek to expand presence in India?

Ashwani: We would be launching our Mumbai office in July and also would be launching a Capital Market Communications vertical. The new vertical would be about hardcore investor relations, but there would be only an element of engagement with investing community. The goal will be to help companies find and discover their true value.

 

What is the growth that you managed to throw up in year one of your operations?

Ashwani: We have grown fantastically in the last one year. Since there was no benchmark, I would say we have grown by over 2,000 per cent. For us it’s not the numbers game; it’s the value game. What we do is at the boardroom level.

 

Michael: Also, the thing is that on a global level, we tend to focus on the Fortune 100 clients. Our goal is to not work for everyone, but it is to help provide high-value solutions to top clients.

 

How do you plan to do that?

Ashwani: There are three kinds of high-value problems that you tend to see from the clients’ end. One is negative reputation that is predominantly characterised by a lot of negative press. So we help understand the force of public opinion, we help understand how messaging must be done and what actions the companies need to take and communicate with their TG. The second problem is that of regulatory. If you look at the whole telecom scenario, natural resources etc, they are facing hurdles because of regulatory issues. We help manage and engage information-based advocacy. The third high-value problem that boardrooms have is lack of understanding of valuation or lack of understanding of the company’s inherent strengths and, therefore, an attack on the stock front, so how do we help CEOs and CFOs engage with those markets and manage the sentiment through rationale dialogue is what we specialise in. So that in a nutshell is the model that we work on.

 

We spent the whole of last year refining ourselves and our corporate offering and have completed that portfolio of services. That by itself is an achievement as we have been able to establish a full-fleet capability. It’s very easy to say that we offer every service but if you do not have the talent and the process excellence behind it, then you cannot deliver it. So we have started work on a few political clients right now. Due to certain constraints I wouldn’t be able to name them. As for M&E, it has been parked for now. We will take it up in 2014-15. This year we will do the Mumbai office and it will take us a while to get the office together. We will be building up our business step by step. I am committed with my team to see that in the next ten years PSB becomes one of the most renowned brands in strategic boardroom consulting.

 

With digital being highly sought after by clients for the purpose of communication, what is the plan that PSB has drawn up for this medium?

Ashwani: We implement at a strategic level so if there is a digital need because that’s the relevant touch point then we have digital partners for the same. We would be able to offer solutions ranging from Search Marketing to Search to everything…

 

Michael: In our line of business, you have to be communication agnostic so that you can use the best solution in the right circumstances. Having the flexibility to choose what is best for the client gives us the freedom to work with different mediums and agencies. Our business is not to advocate a certain solution; we look at each situation and decide what would be the best way to address the issue.

 

The communications space is grappling with its share of challenges as well. What are the some of the challenges that you have encountered in the past one year since you started?

Ashwani: The biggest challenge is the fact that we do not have a category; we are creating a category by ourselves. A lot of our work is about concept selling and the good news about that is that people get the concept, which I am pretty much surprised about. There are two or three things why we have been able to succeed despite the numerous challenges. The first is that we have a team that is very experienced and the best that you will find. The second thing is that working in a company like WPP they gave us complete freedom to do what we wanted to do. The third thing is that just the level of sophistication that we have been able to embed in our service – people have seen the difference in each and every proposal that we have sent. So that is what has been critical for us where we have been able to innovate something in the market and were able to move with speed. The challenge of creating a new category continues to remain but I think we are making a very good progress.

 

If you say you are the first in the category that you operate in, how would you be able to judge your performance when you have no competition around?

Ashwani: At the end of the day the respect the client gives you and the fact that he says you made a difference is the best assessment. I do not judge myself by competition, I judge myself by my stakeholders. If a client comes and tells you that you have done a fantastic job and are delivering the goods then that is the best thing to happen. I think we make a mistake by trying to drive our car by looking in the rearview mirror. We have to look through the front screen and drive and not worry what’s happening behind.

 

Is the slowing economy a concern for PSB – both in India and globally?

Ashwani: I am not worried about the slowing economy. I think the value proposition will have to be different. If we keep selling adverts or press articles then there is no value proposition but if you are able to help clients compete in a difficult economic environment and still win in the marketplace then there is no shortage of budgets for that.

 

Michael: Historically our business has weathered economic downturns quite well because high-value problems happen no matter what state the economy is in. Often, the CEOs are looking for creative solutions and innovation that will help drive growth and business in tough times.

 

What are the next emerging markets for PSB as you continue to expand your base across continents?

Michael: We are analysing China and a few other markets, but I think India is the model that we look forward to. As you go to other markets there is a much more heterogeneous divergent environment but when you talk about Asia there is not just one Asia, there are many Asias and each one has a unique culture and business environment. So I think for now our focus would be majorly around India.

 

What is the way forward for PSB in India?

Ashwani: We have a clear five-year agenda. This business is not built on a quarter to quarter or yearly basis. I think in five years we would have created a niche for ourselves and so far we have done well in whatever we have handled.

 

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