AgTalk | There is no short-cut to success: Avian Media's Nitin Mantri

Ever since it was established in 2004, Avian Media has come a long way. It is amongst the top 250 PR agencies in the world and the Holmes Report has called it as one of the fastest growing Public Relations consultancies. The important reasons for success are Avian’s focus on the key attributes of Innovation, Creativity and Fresh Thinking.

To know about the journey of Avian Media, its plans and the domestic PR industry scenario, Adgully recently spoke with Nitin Mantri, Chief Executive Officer and Business Partner, Avian Media. With over 16 years of experience in corporate and hi-tech PR, Mantri has steered Avian’s ship successfully – growing from one office to five offices in India, from 10 employees to 100 employees, from two verticals to various verticals like Corporate, Consumer, Digital, Public Affairs and Community Relations.   His prior experience has been with Pleon, part of Omnicom group where he handled key account like IBM, COLT Telecom, Nortel, Hughes Network Systems and Infosys. Before Pleon, Mantri worked with Microland and Genesis PR. He is a postgraduate in business administration.

Adgully: Can you share your thoughts on the growth and current status of the PR industry in India today?

Nitin Mantri: The public relations industry has been changing and slowly transforming over the past few years. Its scope is expanding beyond just media relations. The sluggish economic outlook may have dampened growth prospects in industries the world over, and India is no exception, though it is definitely stable. In India, the PR industry has been demonstrating a decent growth year-on-year. Though PR budgets are the first to be slashed in bad times, till now, clients have not taken such a step in India. The industry is becoming a critical partner to both Indian and foreign clients looking to enter the Asian market. With the line between PR, advertising and digital blurring by the day, PR has become that one industry that offers integrated, cost-effective communication plans to brands. The industry is making an effort to be viewed as a strategic partner to clients and hoping to finally come of age in India.

AG: With a lot of MNC agencies now present in India, what do you feel is the road ahead for Indian PR agencies and their prospects in a competitive scenario?

NM: Independents will continue to play an important and strategic role in the Industry as they have the world over. International agencies have brought a more theoretical, data and analysis-driven approach to PR, while independent Indian origin agencies are backed by their strong understanding of India’s socio-economic-politico culture and long experience of working with the Indian media. There are Indian agencies that have been taken over by their Western counterparts. But, there are a quite a few new age independent Indian agencies like ours which have not only survived the global meltdown but have also grown significantly. We have a fair understating of how PR capabilities have grown in the West and added to our Indian experience. Independents can be potent competition. I think once the dust settles down; the competition will be healthy and act as a growth catalyst for the industry. The presence of international bigwigs will mean that Indian agencies will have to raise their standards and give more strategic inputs to clients.

AG: What are the concerns for the PR Industry?

NM: My biggest concern is the technology innovates. Every day, there is a new gadget, new app, new trend, new online service and new product. Thus, newer tools emerge in social media every now and then. Today, social media is all pervasive and right now as I speak there is a scramble among PR agencies to put together a spectacular digital arm. This boom has revolutionized the way people communicate and changed the face of media relations. The audience is getting fragmented, meaning more stakeholders for different levels of engagements. Thus, agencies like ours will have to be on its toes and adapt to these changing demands. How well we adapt will hold the key to our survival.

Talent is another concern facing the industry for long. But, I think if we widen our search to include people from advertising and marketing sectors, this problem can be resolved. People from these industries are into communication and servicing. So, I see no reason why they cannot do PR.

AG: What according to you are the ingredients for success as a firm in the industry? How do you measure success?

NM: Every agency has its own template for success. Today, there is nothing right or wrong. At Avian, our pillars of success are our clients and employees. In all that we plan or launch either of one stakeholder is kept in mind. Our core purpose as an organization is to foster clients for life through Excellence in Advocacy. Does it mean it is just focused on clients? No not at all, how can we provide excellent advocacy if we do not invest in our employees. We have never lost sight of the fact that people are our lifeline and have a strong internal communication system in place. Be it training, growth or exposure we innovate and invest to make them true partners of our clients.    

AG: Where do we stand vis-a-vis PR agencies in the west?

NM: The PR industry in India is probably less mature than the Western Europe or US markets and therefore, has a great potential for growth. Asia is going to be the major growth driver for the PR industry globally because in markets like Europe the economy is not dynamic enough. Also, as the growth of the PR industry was reaching a plateau in the West and the growing digital scenario is making PR agencies transform into more integrated outfits though the core remains communications. The situation in India is different, with the industry witnessing stupendous growth, consolidation and globalization.

There is a major difference in the way Indian and international agencies work. Indian companies gauge their PR success based on the visibility the campaigns get in the media, while international PR agencies focus more on strategic business outcomes. In India, if the strategy does not convert into visibility then it does not make any sense to Indian clients. Again, retainer fees are too small as compared to their international payouts.

But, I think all that is changing. Brands are reassessing their relationship with PR agencies. PR needs to work on the strategic partner/advisor to brands equation.

AG: The issue of poor delivery versus promises is one main problems of the industry and clients have little faith/trust in PR companies. How do you feel this problem can be resolved?

NM: I think the PR industry lacks a voice and is badly in need of good PR for itself! It is still looked upon as a courier for press releases, which is sad. To some extent the industry is to be blamed for this. But, it is important for both the industry and clients to do a rethink.

It's easy to get lost in deliverables, but that inadvertently carries the risk of losing sight of the importance of engagement during a campaign. PR agencies should never over promise. When a client sends a request for an RFP, it is the agency’s chance to clearly explain what they can do, and exactly how they will do it. It is tempting when drafting a proposal to oversell your capabilities, or weave in other services you offer that have no relation to the RFP. It’s important not to fall into this trap. Let’s be realistic. Demands for a specified number of stories or presence of editors at events or shows on television may be fulfilled by the agency, but clients should also not lose sight of the fact that PR is the strategic management of issues and perception, with communications just a tactic. Engagement does not happen with the publication of a few stories in newspapers. It is our duty to make the client understand this critical aspect. The need for PR professionals to prove the value of their work and provide clients with a quantifiable ROI has never been greater.

If the PR industry has to solidify its place in the integrated marketing solutions space, obsolete metrics like fixed deliverables need to be abandoned and sophisticated campaign-based measurement tools adopted. The power to influence behavior is in the hands of the PR industry and, thus it is imperative that the tools of measurement shift from Investment to Involvement / Engagement.

AG: Can you tell us about Avian’s journey so far and the factors responsible for your success?

NM: It’s been a remarkable journey made possible by a group of hard-working, honest and creative people. We have come a long way in the past nine years. From a small independent PR firm with just one client and two employees in 2004, we are now among the top 250 PR agencies in the world. The Holmes Report called us “one of India’s fast-growing PR consultancies aiming to drive innovation in the country’s public relations industry”. Today, we have five offices, over 100 employees and a presence in 19 states via our affiliates. We have a healthy mix of international and Indian clients, broadly divided into Corporate, Services, Consumer and Telecom and Technology practices. We have recently won the Sabre Awards India, 2013, Gold in the crisis and issues management category. We were shortlisted by The Holmes Report as the Agency of the Year and were the youngest agency among all the other finalists. We were also the only Indian PR firm to be nominated by AMEC Awards for our campaign for South Africa Tourism (SAT). In 2012, we won a Bronze in the Independent Agency of the Year category of the 19th Campaign South-Asia Agency of the Year Awards 2012.

There are many reasons for our success. A very important one would be our focus on the key attributes of Innovation, Creativity and Fresh Thinking. The company has made the 3I’s – Insight, Idea and Impact – its life’s mission. We firmly believe that the values – Knowledge, Nimble, Ethical and Execute Perfection - embedded in the agency makes us what we are today in the market. Also, our constant effort to reinvent and add new services like Public Affairs (PA), digital and now social advisory has played an important role in our growth. We like to foster our clients for life. We are committed to our client's success and like to measure ours with their business growth.

We have never lost sight of the fact that people are our lifeline. We have put in place a strong internal communication system. We invest in learning programmes, both for soft skills and at leadership level. We initiated a learning programme, SEED, where fresh talent undergoes a one-year rigorous induction programme. Everyone likes to be appreciated for their good work. So, other than spot bonuses, we have our in-house award to recognize extraordinary client campaigns and various support functions. 

AG: Where is Avian Media placed today and what are your plans going forward? The newer areas that you are looking at?

NM: Avian Media is ranked among the top 250 PR agencies in the world. The company had grown rapidly and the time has come to fine tune our goal, make it bigger and more strategic to the business. We have a vision To Become India’s Most Trusted Advocacy Company by 2025. An important aspect of building and achieving our goal is to identify Avian’s core ideology and preserve that core. Thus, we outlined our core ideology - To Foster Clients For Life Through Excellence In Advocacy by continuing to follow our core values. We are looking at strengthening our relationship with existing clients by bringing them fresher prospective, innovation and more values.

We also have to ensure that talented people from different fields join Avian Media. We have set the ball rolling by hiring talented B-school graduates and then honing their skills through the SEED programme. We have invested in learning programmes for employees and company leaders alike. But like clients, employees should also be with us “For life”.

From a business perspective we would like to get stronger in the healthcare and BFSI segments and also further strengthen our digital offering.

AG: How has been the year 2013 so far given the tough economic scenario? And what about 2014?

NM: It’s been stable so far. The PR business has grown reasonably despite the gloomy economic situation. Budgets have not been slashed, though big projects / investments are on hold. I think 2014 will witness new communication and marketing trends. So, the PR industry will need to be ready to flow with the tide. Also, it’s time for the one big idea.

AG: Any major emerging trends in the next couple of years that you can visualize?

NM: Engagement has always been a key PR tool, but in the next couple of years the importance of dialogue will be paramount. I think social media will dominate the campaigns in coming times as it will be cost effective and at the same time it will allow dialogues with your audience. I see the overall creativity of agencies increasing. Innovation will be the buzzword, with new trends, ideas, and new-age products coming dominating the day. I also think the industry’s strategic value will finally be acknowledged.

AG: What advice will you give to youngsters planning to enter the profession?

NM: Read, read and read. There is no substitute to knowledge. There is no short-cut to success, so don’t hop from one job to another. Stick to one place for a few years, learn the ropes of the trade, gain knowledge of the profession and invest back to the industry.


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