Ananya Saha
Feb 05, 2014

‘People will have to re-look at the rural opportunity’

Q&A with Ashwani Singla, MD & CEO, Asia, Penn Schoen Berland

‘People will have to re-look at the rural opportunity’

Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) - a ‘Global Research based Strategic Communication Advisory’ - established its South Asia office in NCR (Gurgaon) in 2011. PSB South Asia is led by Ashwani Singla, MD & CEO. Campaign India met with Singla recently at his Gurgaon office to know more on PSB’s expertise, growth areas, and future prospects. Edited excerpts:

How would you differentiate PSB from the agencies - PR or market research agencies and consulting agencies - who are integrating strategic planning into their service?

Ultimately, the role of all public relations is to influence behaviour, to augment or modify the behaviour, in a classical sense. Over the years, it has become the arbitrator of media. We are not that. We are a typically research-based strategic consulting firm. We help clients decode public opinion. Then we help them strategise shaping public opinion. In two principal ways, we are different from a bread-and-butter PR firm. One, we put research in the heart of everything we do. We have very sophisticated research machinery that works with us. It talks to stakeholders to understand where they are. In addition, we have fairly sophisticated instruments to decode how stakeholders of an organisation, or voters for a public candidate think, feel, know. We then create communication strategies that allow us to mould that opinion.

We compete with both PR and strategy consultants. We compete with research firms. We compete with advertising firms.

You spoke about communication strategies that help you mould opinion. What does this strategy involve?

It involves which segments you should go after. You should be able to understand stories, messages that make you more compelling and relevant than everybody else. We help brands do that. We help shape mediums or platforms that create both information source and influence source.

What kind of clientele does PSB have on board?

Well, we do not talk about clients. We have three broad practice areas. One is corporate, where we help companies look at the concept of 'reputation' at a corporate level. We get into areas of corporate affairs and corporate communication but with the science backing it. In that area, there are three basic concerns of a chief executive: reputation risk, how markets value the company, and regulatory concern. We address these three rings of concern in our corporate practice.

Then, we have political consulting. We help strategise political campaigns. And the third is the entertainment practice, where we help movies market themselves. Research forms the fundamental part for all of this.

I would never represent a client whose core is bad because you cannot whitewash a bad reputation. We are very selective about the work we do. We are a 30-odd-people strong, niche firm. I do not count the volume of my business. I do 10 assignments a year but our assignment size is several crore rupees.

Where would the next wave of growth for PSB come from?

We will look for inorganic opportunities. We are looking at Mumbai for growing our entertainment practice, to see if there are any suitable companies. We can acquire or form an alliance to build a practice around movie marketing, positioning. I am looking for research companies that work in content (television and movie content), and do predictive analytics for the box office. If we do that, it will make us a complete movie marketing firm around the world because then we will have anchors in Mumbai and we will have something in London, UK, and then in Hollywood. The three bridges will complete our entertainment practice.  I already have a substantive business in Mumbai.

In politics, we do work Asia, US, Europe, South East Asia, and we continue to do work in India.

In our corporate practice, we have done work for Indian as well as trans-national companies. It is a fairly vibrant portfolio that we have built in two and a half years.

Furthermore, we have got Sumantra Sen on board to lead our financial communications and capital market advisory committee to create stakeholder and shareholder interest. It maximises your long-term value and minimises reputation risk.

You also have a global lineage. How is PSB Asia’s contribution growing in the global revenue pie?

We are part of WPP. We have been in the business for 30 years. While we are connected, we are slightly different in terms of service offerings. We concentrate more on reputation than our offices in different markets. We have about 30 people here. We have six directors in the firm who work with me. When we have client engagement, we embed our people in client organisations. Since we are only two and a half years old, we are not even on the scale. What is important is that we have created a presence.

You launched when economy across markets was tough. Did it hamper your growth?

What it did was it gave me time to sell the concept. People had time to listen to my story.

What are the challenges that are you are facing currently?

The economic condition is a challenge because our consulting is not cheap. It is premium, but it is great value-for-money. I see that changing in times to come. Thankfully, because of our political work, it got balanced out.

The second most significant challenge is to develop that kind of talent we want. It has to be blended talent - someone who is comfortable with research, communication. To find a talent that is unique to our kind of service is hard, especially, the front line talent. The most important thing for us is to grow our talent, make investments in building their capabilities to make them consultants who are really good at research.

Today, we are at a proof-of-concept stage. While the initial response has been good from clients, I think there is still some time before we see this niche become a little bit bigger and more meaningful for clients.

The economic slowdown... it is just a matter of time before it starts looking up. But the talent and living to our niche is where we would have to get the work done.

Which trends do you see emerging in India in 2014 that can help the corporate world the most?

We are going to see, unless we get our political investment right, a lot of capital investment outside of India. I see companies being very cautious about investment in the country. It's also a reflection of current governance in the system that Indian corporates are looking at opportunities to invest outside of India and not within the country. I see this trend being reversed should a particular party come into power.

From a communication standpoint, one of the missed opportunities of our business is how we engage rural India. I see a huge opportunity in rural. Communication businesses will have to innovate significantly to tap into that. People will have to re-look at the rural opportunity. It continues to be a window of opportunity.

We will see a lot more social media. The way AAP has used mobile and social media is a lesson for marketers. Traditional media will continue to rule though I see a missed opportunity in mobile. We do not have mobile strategies when the mobile penetration in this country is about 85 per cent. There is opportunity in voice and content to engage people via mobile.

Campaign India