Jaideep Shergill, CEO, MSLGROUP India: Calling 20 Agencies for a Pitch is a Waste of Time


Jaideep Shergill, CEO, MSLGROUP India

In an exclusive interview with Image Management, Jaideep Shergill, CEO,  MSLGROUP India, discusses the need for PR agencies and clients to mature for the evolution of pitching process, how to go about re-branding,  and his learnings from his company’s annual PR industry reports.

Q.  Talent continues to be a big challenge for the industry. A lot of the problem lies in external factors, but how much blame would you put on the PR industry itself for not effectively training, rewarding, and retaining talent?

Historically, agencies have always blamed the environment, and not themselves. Both are to blame.

The industry has some environmental issues. People don’t want to come and work with PR firms because the general perception about PR industry is very low. While it’s changing, the kinds of students from communication programs or mass communication programs are not necessarily coming into the industry because it is their preference. It is because they don’t have another option. When I go to speak at and universities, I find students are doing it just because they have anything else to do. This is not a good trend.

A lot of professions, over the years have lost their charm but I think PR never had that charm, that’s another challenge from the environment. Advertising is now going through a bad time, but until 10 years ago, advertising was a very sought after profession. Even at IIM or any leading business school, students were ready to join an ad agency. PR had its appeal, people thought it was all about going to events but that’s not true.

Internally, I think the agencies are falling short on various things. Lot of people can’t hold back talent because they don’t have ample learning, strong incentive bonus programs and people development programs, which basically mean training and growth. Everything is based on your salary. Often, new agencies come and change the bar when on salaries. They pay three times, four times their salary to get employees to come and work for them.  It is incorrect to set wrong expectations.

Another problem is that people are not given holistic work. To ensure that, we give people work across sectors and don’t restrict their to work to technology, consumer, healthcare etc.

The bigger challenge is the fact that attrition rates continue to be very high. There are very few agencies that can claim to have less than 30% attrition, which, is also not great. An ideal attrition should be between 10- 15%. But probably, there is no agency in India which is at that percentage. The best ones are at around 25% or 30%. The rest are at around 45%. Even the best in our industry is not ideal. Therefore, even though we are at 25%, it doesn’t make us the best.

 Q. In my conversation with other CEOs, I discovered that most PR agencies in India have training budgets which are less than 1% of their revenue…

There are probably 2-3 PR agencies whose training budget is in the range of 5-10% of their revenue. Others budget is 1% – 0.5% – those are abysmal numbers. If one is earning Rs 50 crores and spending only 50 lakhs a year on training, they won’t get any ROI. Such budget doesn’t allow international training programs. There are 2-3 agencies including ours that are spending in the range of Rs. 4-6 crores on training. I’ve learnt that other agencies, including those that employ more than 100 people, are spending Rs. 50 lakhs or less during an entire year.

Q. How do you think the new business pitching process needs to evolve? What would you like to see change in the way corporates approach it?

Both clients and agencies need to mature. Several clients pitch just for the sake of doing it. The idea of calling 20 agencies for a pitch is stupid. They don’t believe in short listing, they call everyone to submit it and it results in waste of time.

Clients are very unclear about budgets and investments when they male an RFP call. We recently got a RFP call from one of the biggest global brands, which is now in India. They sent RFP which said “we want you to do 200 press releases and 50 events in a year”. It is impossible. It means one press release every 2 days or one release every 1.5 days if you remove the weekends. Later, I learned that RFP was made by a procurement and purchasing guy who doesn’t understand PR. The biggest challenge I see in the client process is RFPs being made by procurement and purchasing people instead of communication or PR professionals.

The clients give very little time to pitch. Their usual statement is “we have only one week to finalize the agency.” After the pitch is over and they have to revert, they disappear. 50% of all RFPs are open and never get closed. The process needs to be more transparent, clients need to be very clear on their scope, budget and they need to get procurement and purchase guys out of the equation.

What needs to change from the agencies’ side are the lies. The biggest lie I see is that agencies go and show clients they don’t work with anymore. If one isn’t working with a client, they shouldn’t show it.  Sometimes when I go for pitches and show my clients, they say “the three who came before you also showed the same client”. I tell them to call the company and find out who they are working with. I’m sure the other agency has also worked with them, but not anymore. Since I am working with them currently, I’m the man who should qualify.

People lie about their credentials, clients, the number of employees and offices they have. I don’t blame the clients; I personally think the problem lies on both ends. With every pitch presentation, I add a slide wherein I mention the clients I am working with currently and the clients I have worked with in the past. Clients should also cross check reference, like while hiring an employee. Mostly, the clients write an email asking for 3 clients we can talk to, obviously one will name the three clients with whom they are on friendly terms. During pitches, agencies don’t want to do the homework either. Even clients want readymade references; some clients don’t even want references.These checks should be done properly. Ideally, one should speak with 5 people from media, 5 clients and 5 employees.

Q. If you were Rahul Gandhi’s PR manager for the day, what advice would you give him?

He definitely needs good PR. My personal view is that politicians are the best PR people in the world, which is why they are politicians. They don’t have ego, can survive anything and manage the most negative questions without getting angry or embarrassed. If one compares Rahul Gandhi with Narendra Modi as a PR person, one realizes how bad he is. Rahul Gandhi needs to learn to be a good orator, how to speak and engage an audience be a public person.

Q. Could you comment on your recent rebranding process? What kind of challenges have you encountered and what opportunities does it provide?

Since it has been a long process, we’ve have well prepared. It has taken us several years to rebrand, we started with a company called Hanmer MSL, and then became MSL India. On the other side we, started with a company called 20:20 media which later became 20:20 MSL. We had a digital company called 20:20 social which has now become MSL group social hive.  We are far more consistent now, in terms of branding because we have started using Hanmer group umbrella brand and the MSL brand more in our communication internally and externally. It will take some time, because a lot of clients in India still know 20:20 and Hanmer, the old Indian brandings. We have taken 5 years to rebrand ourselves, and we have done it in stages, from Brand A to Brand B to Brand C, we didn’t go from brand A to Brand C.

We operate separately but it does add to our synergies because we have a common game plan and common style of doing things. Our approach is well aligned, thus while we are different, we are working together.

Q. Your annual PR report is widely read and appreciated, but it does tend to attract some criticism as well. Most of this criticism, which came in previous years from bodies such as the PRCAI, focuses on your estimates of the industry’s size and the potential conflict of interest caused by the fact that you are a leading agency in the country. How do you address this criticism?

As far as the first edition was concerned, certain improvements needed to be made. We had given revenues of agencies and frankly, we could have easily said that we are number one, but we didn’t do that. All the critiques said we are doing it for our own interest, but if that was the case, I would have put myself on top. Estimates are estimates, they can’t be accurate. If people want it to be accurate, they should share their numbers, but they don’t.

Having said that, the learning from the first edition was that we shouldn’t put revenues because it embarrasses people. Several people called me and they were happy, but they won’t tell you that. They will only tell you the negative parts.

The second learning was that we need to hire a research company to outsource the finding. The minute a report comes out with an agency name on it, for instance, if a report comes out with Edelman or Burson Marsteller on it, we’ll say the same things said about us. I don’t blame anyone for the criticism.

Our two strong learnings have been that we shouldn’t put revenues and embarrass people and secondly, we shouldn’t put anything that is our opinion, it should be third party opinion. For the second edition, which we launched couple of weeks ago, we did both the things we didn’t do for the first edition. We didn’t put any revenues and the data in it was not entirely ours. It was from a research firm that we hired. The research firm went out and audited clients, corporate communication and PR professionals. Whatever their results, we put it in the report.  The second report was entirely third party. All we did was writing it, put it in our brand doc, and just packaged it. The first edition got a lot more criticism than the second one. My personal view is that if there are other people who want to do it, they should. More and more people should come up with feedback, In fact the PRCAI should themselves do it. It takes time and intelligence and money, three things that they don’t have, or they have but they don’t want to do it. There are a lot of topics that need to be addressed, someone can do it around talent, and someone can do it around agency client relationships. One can pick up a specific area and highlight that, or do a general report and highlight one or two topics.

Q. What would you describe as the aim of producing the report?

It is to educate and make a point that the PR and communication industry is important. We want people including clients and agencies to use this knowledge to their advantage. People have reports on advertising, digital, e commerce, but no one does reports on PR. Somebody had to do it, and now that we have done it twice, it is definitely going to be an annual phenomenon, maybe even bi – annual. We are even considering doing it twice a year now; because some things are changing so quickly that we may want to update certain sections.


Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management

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