Jaideep Shergill shares lessons from a 15-year journey

At the close of 2014, my journey as India CEO for MSLGROUP also came to an end. As I was serving out my last few days, I was often asked to shed light on how our business has evolved and what we should expect in the future.

Jaideep Shergill was until recently India CEO for MSLGROUP
Jaideep Shergill was until recently India CEO for MSLGROUP

PR in India used to be, in essence, media relations. While this didn’t change much for a while, the past five years have transformed the industry. The game changed with breath-taking speed—we are now firmly in the age of holistic strategic communication, better known as integrated communication.

This has been the strongest trend I have observed. It’s been life-altering and it happened because the world changed. Most notably: we have evolved from analogue beings to digital ones, and news cycles have become 24x7.

Life for communication professionals will never be the same.

In a nationwide survey of senior PR professionals that MSLGROUP conducted last year, it became clear that agencies that did not invest in integrated capabilities would fall by the wayside. Working digital into our DNA and solving the talent crisis also emerged as significant priorities. My first-hand experience concurs with those findings.

Over the past few years, clients have demanded holistic solutions to meet the dynamic needs of the market. Solutions included crisis communication, content, research, public affairs, event strategy and management, brand campaigns and digital communications, in addition to media relations. Our fastest growth is coming from these services. Clients are increasingly changing the nature of their engagement with our industry. They no longer want a specialised agency, but a partner who understands them and delivers business goals. This is especially true of multinational corporations, but also increasingly of Indian ones.

It pleased me to no end that the PR industry responded strongly. Investments and training became priorities, and the diverse talent needed was acquired. Today, no leading Indian agency employs the traditional model; all are integrated communication specialists.

And several other strong themes are still emerging.

  1. More change is coming: We need to be prepared for the next wave of disruption. Just as social media changed our world overnight, there will be other technologies that do the same. We need to spot them early and adapt.
  2. Budgets are not a given: The economic downturn forced many corporations to slash communication budgets. Many switched from retainers to project work. However, there is always money to be made by the innovative and those that can deliver results. For instance, one of the world’s leading technology companies did not have us as their agency but hired us because we have a full-fledged research offering. We researched advertising models across eight Asian countries for it – a large project with significant income.
  3. Select industries represent major opportunity: I believe healthcare and corporate social responsibility are the ones to watch out for. According to rating agency Fitch, India’s healthcare sector is estimated to reach $100 billion (Rs 6 lakh crore) this year, growing 20% year-on-year. By 2020, the industry could touch $280 billion (Rs 16.8 lakh crore) on the back of increasing demand. Indeed, India’s healthcare corporations are some of our biggest clients, demanding a wide range of services – from public affairs to crisis communication.
  4. Consolidation: We haven’t seen the last of the acquisitions in India. There are good agencies with strong client rosters that are looking for partnerships with global networks. These networks, in turn, recognise that India is one of their biggest opportunities and are on the lookout for agencies that can be folded into their operations.

More generic, but still important, lessons from 15 years in the industry include:

  • People come first. I could never have succeeded if not for the employees of the agency.
  • What makes for a good leader? You can’t be one unless people follow you. But they won’t unless they believe in you. It’s important to stand up for them, and give them the space and support they need.
  • Have a vision for yourself and write it down. Make sure you look at it from time to time and affect the course corrections needed.
  • Motivation comes from within. The late Mark Mascarenhas—the founder of WorldTel who revolutionised sports marketing and broadcasting in India—was fond of saying, "There’s only one way to stay ahead – stay ahead." I believe in that credo.

This, in a nutshell, is what I learned. The journey was fascinating and it changed me forever. Change—it seems as I embark on a fresh voyage and as a new year begins—is in.

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