Ashwani Singla, Penn Schoen Berland : PR agencies do not understand how research can benefit their campaigns

Ashwani Singla, CEO, Asia at Penn Schoen Berland

After serving at the helm of Genesis Burson-Marsteller for almost a decade and a half, Ashwani Singla now serves as the MD & Chief Executive of Penn Schoen Berland, a market researchpolitical polling and strategic consulting firm, which is part of the WPP Group.

Singla is an active proponent for the increased use of research in communications consultancy, and his own beliefs in the “Science of Persuasion” can serve as a road map for the future of research-based communications strategy.

During our exclusive interview, Singla opens up about the importance of research, how to tackle the talent problem, and why the PR industry missed the social media boat.

Q. Do you think PR agencies and corporate communicators undervalue the importance of research?

That would be the understatement of the year. I don’t think they undervalue research, I think they do not understand research. I haven’t seen many corporate communicators or PR professionals who can wrap their arms around research, and I am not talking about the understanding of stakeholders. They do not understand how that research can benefit their campaigns.

It is a very important part of any communication professional’s profession to understand what makes people tick, and the only way to do that is looking at research seriously.

Q. Many prefer to classify communications consulting as an art, sometimes dismissively so. Could you elaborate on what you mean by the Science of Persuasion?

One must go back to the roots of public relations, and read the work of the founding fathers of the profession. They were all behavioral scientists. If the goal of PR is to influence behavior in an ethical manner, then how can that influence be just art without understanding the science of how to shift behavior?

The dialogue starts with, “what is in the center?” If the center is human behavior, which is driven by their own perception, basically it means winning their heart and mind. If one has to win over both heart and mind, how can one call it only art? It is a combination of the art and science of persuasion. While the element of creativity is well understood by this profession, the same is not true for science. Penn Schoen Berland stands for the use and application of that science to create levers of influence.

Q. Do you that this is one of the reasons that other industries don’t place enough value on PR?

Any professional service is a triangle. As a buyer of professional service, as a customer, one looks for a combination of three things – expertise, experience and creativity.  Depending on what is in ample value in this combination, one can determine the value. 

For example, when a customer buys McKinsey & Company, they buy a huge amount of expertise, a little value of experience and a dollop of creativity. Whereas, if a customer is hiring a CA firm, they are hiring a huge amount of experience and expertise, but very little creativity. When a customer hires an advertising agency, they hope to buy a huge amount of creativity and experience, and a dollop of expertise.

Unfortunately, when someone buys PR, they buy 80-90% experience, 5-8% creativity and maybe 1-2% of expertise. One can calculate why there is no creation of value.

Science can increase the role of expertise, and one can see the change in equation of value. If one buys a huge amount of expertise, they buy an equal measure of creativity and I don’t care as much about the experience. One still want the experience but that half measure is alright, so long as they are experts at their job and can showcase their creativity. The value equation is going to change.

It is not just about the art or the science; it is about a well balanced combination of using the science as the foundation and then applying creativity to then influence a campaign.

Q. A PR agency job is often seen as a temporary stepping stone for a corporate communications role. Do you think this way of thinking has an adverse effect on the industry’s already limited talent pool?

Talent is a war that one has to fight almost every day. A very learned man and close friend once told me to look for people who love to be in the consulting space, because the consulting space is very unique in terms of its variety and unpredictably. One has to look for people who thrive in that environment. Part of it is to look for a cultural alignment between the consulting space and talent that is looking for some kind of remuneration.

In order to change the equation, one needs to look for cultural alignment. I have also mentioned earlier that it is a vicious cycle – corporates pay more than agencies and therefore people get drawn towards corporates after gaining some experience in agencies. This goes on. Agencies complain that they have invested time and effort in training the employees, and eventually they go away.

However, someone has to break the chain. If one starts to relook at their compensation strategy, change the way they attract and retain talent, perhaps they have a greater chance of success at breaking the vicious cycle of people leaving the organization. Employees may go to a better job, but they want it because they are probably getting Rs. 5000 more. And maybe that is their perception of a more lucrative and comfortable job, but no job is comfortable today, unfortunately. Or fortunately, it depends on each person’s perception.

At PSB, we’ve tried to keep the hierarchies very flat and tight. We hire from different talent pools – conventional and unconventional. We hire from top campuses in the country – IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Lucknow, Singapore Management University, Asian Institute of Management, Manila etc. We have got talent from all over the place and we pay them fairly well, because we don’t have different layers and hierarchies. It is an experiment in its early days, but I haven’t seen anyone in my team say “I’m underpaid; therefore let me go find a corporate job.” And frankly we’re young, and the jury is still out there to tell whether it will work out or not.

But having run Genesis for 15 years, I don’t see why this should not succeed. Simply because we have to take the first step of breaking this chain of under compensating our talent, or hiring different talent. The program which I launched at Genesis several years ago is still considered one of the best breeding grounds for solid talent in the PR industry. It is like that because I made that investment of building people. And those are still the most loyal people to the firm, whether they are working in the firm or not is a life cycle, but they continue to be most important, because if they go to a corporate, they’ll become a client. And because they are smart, they’ll do smarter things and benefit the company eventually.  It is about changing the dynamics of the industry over a period of time.

Somebody has to break the cycle of retainers too. Clients say “Show me the value, I will pay you.” Agencies say “Pay me, I will show you the value”. The Client is obviously in a stronger position to negotiate. So if the consulting companies are confident that they can deliver value, then they should take the plunge and say “I will show you the value.”  It is only a matter of 6 months, or a year, maximum two. If one truly thinks they can create value, then they should start increment cycles with smaller clients. And it is a fly wing, anyone can start it, but someone has to break it.

A client won’t say “Here is the cheque, now I’m waiting for you to show some value.” We have to demonstrate the value first, and value is defined by the client. Compensation will come eventually. One of our surveys says that clients are willing to pay premium for good advice. Many CFOs and CMOs participated in that survey from agencies and corporate houses and all of them share this opinion.

Q. Do you see Indian PR firms’ social media capabilities growing? What needs to change in this regard?

PR has lost the plot. PR has been doing media relations, now PR is doing blogger relations, what has changed? A journalist is still a journalist, only the medium for which they are writing has changed.

When one says online reputation management, they essentially mean blogger relations because people in to marketing are doing marketing; someone else is doing social media, someone from the tech team is regulating the search optimization, etc.

They do stuff like putting some press releases on the web, writing the company blog, etc. The core competence is the same, except the platforms of medium have changed. People have done PR with print journalists, then television journalists and now web journalists. They have lost it because PR firms were tentative in creating core competence. In some cases, network owned PR firms lost the plot not because they wanted to lose it, but because they thought of putting this under media buying. They chose media buying because this was all about search and placements, and social stuff went under advertising. Media investment companies have the reigns of the digital world. PR has lost the plot.

One has to specialize in creating core capability, and its best done early in the game. I don’t think PR has done that still. The game is won by media investment companies that are buying large amounts. If the business is about reach, then for example FMCG companies will want to talk to either a media Investment Company like GroupM or something like Blogworks or Brandcurry etc. to handle content, social media, create apps etc.

Only some PR companies foray into space of social media. There can be exceptions, but this is true for the majority of the industry. Some PR firms can also handle social media quite well, but they are few. I expected the internet to be the right medium for the PR industry to take center stage but it didn’t happen in building capabilities. And now it is too late.

Q. What are a few things you would like to change in terms of how PR agencies operate?

The fundamental shift has to come in talent. If one is to look at PRCAI, which I co-founded, one of the more significant roles PRCAI could have played was unleashing a talent upgrading program.  But all PRCAI does now is a couple of conferences a year.

We haven’t truly shifted the needle in terms of upgrading talent. Unless we shift talent, and start to look at capability building in a different way, how will we do different things? It is not possible because the services are driven by people. If PR wants to take the center stage, and then build digital capabilities, the employers shouldn’t hire 18-19 year old children and let them do Facebook and Twitter updates. They should have someone do it who has the capability to develop an integrated digital strategy, which cuts to the heart of one’s business.

A lot of investment needs to be made in generating insights which go into effective messaging, better engagement with the stakeholders and impact how success is measured. Such investment is lacking. If there is a sophisticated client, there might be some research. But I have seen enough research in the past few years to learn that most companies have consumer focused research but they don’t research well for multi stakeholders. And this is exactly PSB’s niche – bringing multi stakeholder insights to improve engagement strategy and messaging with respective constituencies.

Building talent and capability is also a very important part. One has to look at talent according to the requirements. PR has been late for social media, but the category of CSR is still open.

Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management

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