In this interview, Flaherty speaks about his plans for the Indian market, his views on the rapidly growing social media space in India, challenges in getting the right value for the work, on managed 'likes' and conversations, and how he thinks CMOs should approach marketing. And much more. Edited excerpts:
It’s been about a year now since Ketchum Sampark was launched. How has been the progress so far?
I’m quite happy with the way things have turned up for us in the Indian market. I think we’ve produced some outstanding work in the past year and our clients are happy that we’ve added great value to their business. I’m happy with the team here. And I think there is long way to go.
The service that you offer in India is primarily integration of PR with Social?
That’s a fair assumption I would say. The intersection of PR with digital happens mostly in the social media side of the business. Though we do work around other aspects of digital media such as creating destinations, websites etc., our idea is to create content that is highly relevant in the social space. Are you reaching out to people in the right manner and at the right places? Are you engaging communities and individuals? I believe that within the digital framework, the greatest opportunity is on the social side.
Though it is fashionable to be in the social space for brands, the fact is that marketers are still confused as to how to measure this medium. Is it the number of likes that determines the performance or the quality of content? Or is it the kind of people you have in your community?
It’s a great question. Let me put it this way. Will she care and will she share? If she does, then my campaign is successful. I’m a great believer in this philosophy because a few clicks on Facebook do not define my relationship with the consumer. So 'likes' becomes a very shallow definition of a relationship. Do consumers share your content? Do they co-create content? Are they active in the social space connected to your brand on a regular basis? These are the things we look at while evaluating our performance in the social space.
What is your view on the whole issue of fake likes?
I think anything that is fake is wrong today. I’m thinking of writing a book called “End of Illusion” – an era of radical transparency. Everyone sees everything. The only way to build a sustainable brand is to be authentic. If you fake, you will be found out and it’s wrong.
But this is quite true and it’s become a part of the business. Facebook, quite understandably, has to take necessary steps.
There is a book called the Naked Corporation. It said that the best way to read out the fakers is – everyone sees everything. I don’t worry about that - we don‘t engage in that. Clients who do get themselves in trouble.
Have marketers in India understood this medium well?
Every market is going through a different adoption curve. And in India, it’s all happening very, very rapidly. The latest social media engagement study that we’ve completed, shows that you’re (India) compressing into a couple of years what has happened in other geographies over five to ten years. So the adoption cycle in the next two years is going to be remarkably fast and you’re ahead of some markets and behind some others.
What’s the reason behind this fast adoption of social media in India?
My guess is that marketers in India are experimenting far more with social media as against other countries. You see a sudden spike in the performance of some brands and after that high decibel period, the engagement levels are not as good. Our latest study, conducted from January to August says that the first quarter of the year sees engagement levels as high as 19 per cent and about one percent engagement in the following period of the campaign. In most cases, when you see a spike, it is invariably a celebrity engaging with fans, stars tweeting about the brand etc. That usually happens in the first month of the year. Rather what needs to be done is to create sustainable programme that’ll see consistent engagement levels throughout the year. This is part of the answer to your earlier question on what some brands fake… The best marketing we can do today is to find out what the big fan of the brand is enthusiastic about - and amplify that to other fans.
Going forward what are your plans for the Indian market?
We don’t think of India as a 'developing' market. We think it is the future market. So we are very serious about developing our practice here. I think we’re not trying to have probably (presence in) more cities at this point. We are in seven cities. One area where we’re focusing really hard is social media. So you can expect us to bring in at least 20 people in the next twelve to eighteen months; we’re looking at hiring people who are specialists in digital and social. So that is one area of investment and focus. What we will be also looking at is the sectors of the economy in which we see great potential. Particularly, in India, when you move from unorganised markets to organised markets - the unorganized food sector for example which is 90 percent of the total business. Now it’s moving towards food chains and stores, more towards organised infrastructure where people look to buy brands. We think that’s a segment which will outpace even the 5 percent GDP growth in India. Healthcare is another very important sector.
What is the contribution of the India business to the global network?
For confidentiality reasons, I can’t reveal the percentage. I would just say it’s a growing market and it will continue to do well in revenue to the global network.
Is India a bigger market for you than China?
We have 130 offices and affiliates in 60 countries around the world. Our India business is roughly the same size as our business in China. And we have very strong presence in all the BRIC nations. We’re among the leaders in all of these markets. We particularly feel very strongly about the business here because it has so many dimensions. We’re strong in brand marketing. We’re also very strong in what we call is issues marketing - marketing through the lens of issues.
Three years down the line what’s the kind of contribution you expect from India?
One thing I can tell you is that I’m thrilled to see the growth so far. Ketchum Sampark grew by more than 30 percent in 2011. So here we are in a global recession and we managed to put up growth which is in excess of 30 per cent.
We’re having a very strong growth this year. So India is one of the fastest growing countries in the network.
What is going to be Ketchum’s biggest challenge in its India business going forward?
Great question. (Long pause)
The biggest challenge is making sure that people know the value of the work we do. The Ketchum brand is still becoming known in this market. So associating Ketchum with Sampark is important. Raising the visibility of our brand is an important part of this. The work here is absolutely phenomenal. We’ve been reviewing work here and I think we’re producing some award winning work. We just need some more people to know about it.
Is that the reason you’re here – to review the work?
The primary reason to be here is to assess opportunities in this market. To work collaboratively, to take the right decisions. Part of that is listening. Looking at the work we’re doing, and as the new CEO of Ketchum, I want to make sure that I work with the Indian team quite a bit, understand the rest of the team, spend some time with them. We don’t have an announcement right now. But, in the future I’m sure we will have something