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In conversation with Johnson Napier of MxM India, Anthony Good and Deepak Kanulkar

If an agency has been around for almost a quarter of a century in India- and more than 40 years in existence globally - there must be something valuable about its offerings that may be setting it apart from its peers in the business. True to its objective, Good Relations India has been one such agency that has been the bedrock for clients who continue to flock to its doorstep for seeking solutions, however small or complex they may be.

As part of its continuing efforts to provide the best solutions to its clients, Good Relations has announced the rollout of its CSR initiative - CSR Advisory and CSR Audit, with which it hopes to redefine the way clients approach the function. With Anthony Good, Founder & Chairman, Good Relations and Deepak Kanulkar, CEO, India leading the drive, the company has an imperative plan up its sleeve as they take to the new terrain in India.

In conversation with Johnson Napier of MxM India, Anthony Good and Deepak Kanulkar delve deep into the need for such a service in India, analyse how the CSR marketplace is currently placed in India and predict what's in store for the agency in time to come. Excerpts:

The Good Relations Group boasts a legacy whose origins sprang at a time when the PR industry itself was in its infancy. What was the thought process you went through to come up with an agency that was much ahead of its time?
Anthony: We were one of the first public independent agencies to start here in India in 1988. Before that the agency took wings in the UK even before you were born. Our claim to fame was for two things: one was that we were the first to float in the London Stock Exchange, making us the only PR company at that time to do so. The reason we got there was because we were pioneers in extending the bricks of the PR service from pure Press Relations. I myself was a journalist and started at the lowest level but it's funny what you learn as a beginner and when it stands you in good stead. I then spent time doing PR for an airline group and that responsibility led on to a marketing role. When I left to start a PR agency, I realised at that stage that PR even then was moving away from press relations to a broader range of responsibilities. In fact, when we floated Good Relations in the UK we had seven operating subsidiaries. We were also the first agency to own a design firm and have an advertising arm - though not in the conventional sense. Unlike the way things were structured in those days, where many ad agencies owned PR subsidiaries our ad agency was designed to carry forward programmes which were PR programmed.

Having planted the seeds of ingenuity across several domains, how did your tryst with CSR come about? Also, when did India figure in the scheme of things for the Good Relations group?
Anthony: One of the domains that has always been high on our radar is the area of social responsibility. Let me illustrate with an example. You may have social issues relating to, for example, water pollution. Now you may need to use advertising as a tool to tell people what you are doing so that they get the message from more than one source. That led us to believe that the future of PR was combining a number of specialist areas so that for any given set of requirements of the clients you could bring together the specialists in those areas. But one may wonder why we didn't do that when we came to India ? The answer to that I'd say is: India wasn't ready for it at that point in time. It wasn't even that way when I originally started Good Relations. We didn't have seven specialist units then. PR wasn't ready, even we launched on the London Stock Exchange, but when we floated we had a range of offerings, which meant we could feel like specialists in each of those areas. Now you may say: aren't these things that companies can do for themselves?

Exactly. And, also you do have companies that have an in-house CSR facility...
Anthony: In fact there is a tendency with bigger companies to only do these sort of things (CSR) in-house. Even in a country like Britain, which is in no way near as hierarchal like India, and I say this with a bit of experience - this is my 371st visit to India - and I have learnt that Britain may be hierarchal, but India is the expert at that. If you are not at a decision-making level in an Indian company, you are unlikely to be able to convince the senior management that what you are saying is right. I think it is a dangerous thing to keep all these responsibilities in-house. If you are talking about basic press relations, a large retail store for example, will need to have in-house people who will know the ins and outs of merchandise, stores and management, but when it comes to rather broader issues not only do you need a greater breadth of experience but also you need the ability to say: Mr client, you are wrong!

When you come to Corporate Social Responsibility, often you will find companies who think that they know what they have to do and what not to do and actually reminding companies of their responsibilities in this area of the importance of developing a reputation into the community relaying a very important message that if you are not at a decision-making level then it may be just as difficult. What we are doing here is very much to duplicate what we did in Britain but also having regard to the particular need of this environment. One must realise that doing the right thing lasts a very long time but doing the wrong thing lasts even longer, maybe forever.

How would you differentiate CSR from Crisis Management, which is another important function that's receiving due attention by most agencies?
Anthony: The two, in a sense, go hand in hand. Being responsible and making companies aware of their need to be seen as part of the community in which they operate, establishing what the needs of the community are and being seen as a source of solutions looking at what they should be doing and what they should not be doing. I remember what someone told me during one of my trips to this country: nothing ever moves upwards in an Indian company. The best advice that one can give to companies looking to come to India is that bit of advice. We know of companies who have tried meeting company 'x' for years but nothing comes out of it as things only move downwards. That's why I feel it is important to have a consultancy relationship, because the top people do listen to consultants. There is a need for specialised professional advice but they are unlikely to think that it will come from within their own business.

Do you provide consultancy services to any other units of Good Relations across the world?
Anthony: You must know that Good Relations Group Plc, which we floated in the UK, was acquired by the Lowe Group which was also acquired by the Interpublic Group. And, you may know that there are two big communication companies in the US namely, Omnicom and Interpublic. The Good Relations agency was bought out by one of my friends and refloated as Chime Communications. So I am no longer part of that group, however, we had started GR in India when it was independent. My personal involvement as of now is only with Good Relations in India .

As you make a dash for floating CSR into India, what has been the attempt in finding out what is it that is desired from this unit in India?
Deepak: I have been on the client side of the business before I joined Good Relations in 2007 and what I have seen is that whenever it comes to CSR - especially at the ground level - clients start doing CSR initiatives as per the specifications provided by the local panchayats without even due diligence as to what is required in that particular area. This, I feel, is a huge gap. In the sense that the money is being spent but whether it is rightly spent is the question to be asked. In most cases, this used to be the actual ground situation where the money is spent because the sarpanch is saying so. What we plan to do is something different.

What is the difference you seek to bring with your offering?
Deepak: We would be offering two services: CSR Advisory and CSR Audit. Where CSR Advisory is concerned, when a company has to set up office in a certain location apart from other branches of engineering, what is also important is social engineering. Where is the location, what is the demographics, breakup of population and so on, it is important to have adequate knowledge of the entire social scenario. There is that gap which I have always seen. I've seen it rampantly. I have travelled a lot; I have travelled in interior places and I have seen ground realities. I have travelled to the village where UID card was launched...and I have seen people and I have seen the requirement, there is always a gap between what the company does - although they are spending on CSR -but whether it is effectively benefitting the community and the company nobody knows. So, I think our product which we are offering will bridge this gap. Each rupee has to be spent prudently and each rupee spent has to achieve its objective.

What about CSR Audit?
Deepak: The other product is CSR Audit. Now, normally companies do CSR directly or indirectly through the NGOs. The person who is sitting in the HQs is not getting a real picture of what is happening at the ground level. The NGOs are reporting that everything is happening properly; occasionally they send photographs of the activation programmes. But I think that like we have financial audits, there should be an audit from a third-party, not really the CSR company representative or the NGO local catalyst. It has to be done by independent body or agency which will actually go and see what is being implemented and report it back to the management. Normally, it doesn't get reported in the right frame or the right percentage to the management. I used to work with a couple of MNCs and one thing I have realized is that whenever there used to be someone visiting from, say, Singapore or Hong Kong, it always reminded me of my school inspection days. On that school inspection day, you'll have everything neat and tidy. Everything will be organised and in place. During inspections, things are taken care of, which isn't the case otherwise.

What is the connect you are trying to draw with CSR?
Deepak: With the above example, the bosses here are showing the super bosses from the APAC region only what they want to see. And if the company is going to have a certain strategy on the basis of what is shown to them then that strategy is definitely going to fail. Because you are not giving them the right picture or a full picture, or maybe both. So, I think for sustainable organizations, we have to look in the mirror and assess ourselves and project the right picture. For a management, be it any strategy, a right picture has to be given. And our products, both the services that we are offering, are actually kind of an outreach program which will give the right picture. And if CSR is about helping the communities around, we have to make sure that it is 'actually' helping the companies around. I remember some time back Rahul Gandhi had mentioned that out of Rs100 that is spent on social initiatives, only Rs5 reaches the poor while Rs95 is getting evaporated.

I think same could or would be happening in the corporate funding front for social products. And this needs to be arrested especially because CSR Bill has taken shape now; companies having a certain slab of turnover and profitability have to spend 2 per cent of that on CSR. I think this is a very big and good move and which is why we are getting into this. It's because CSR is going to be something which is not a feel-good kind of a thing but something which deals with corporate sustainability. It will be an integral operations issue, it will be related to the DNA of the organization and not something that I am doing because I am liking it or not liking it. This is very important and this is why we are coming up with the two offerings.

When do the two units flag off?
Deepak: Right now, as we speak. And the reason we are doing so is because we want this to reach out to the corporate audiences. And of course, this will be available at a cost because this is not a CSR that we are doing. We are doing it as a service which will be chargeable. But there is a proper framework that has been put in place. It is not that services are being launched for the sake of launching. They are being launched after understanding all that I discussed with you and also there is a framework of not only system in process but also of right people. So we have people who are part of NGOs, we have people from the public life - MPs and MLAs who have done a lot of good work at the ground level , we have people from academics who are into CSR... So it's not something we say that we know everything about it. No. We have taken partners in progress who are experts in the domain of social responsibility. This is broadly what it is.

Any other USP to expect from your CSR venture?
Deepak: In terms of specifics, each CSR mandate is going to be unique and the biggest thing which is going to happen is that in each CSR, it will be mandatory for each team to go on a ground visit. We are not going to teach or preach CSR by sitting in AC offices. We are going to roll our sleeves and go and hit the ground and do an audit. And when we are doing a third party audit, we are going to do it independently, so that we get an honest feedback from the beneficiaries. We are not going to go as a part of an NGO or a company because the opinions can be twisted. We are going to go there as independent people and get the real picture.

Not many PR agencies have a CSR Audit unit which in a sense makes you different from the lot...
Deepak: People have CSR advisory but I don't think they have Audit. For this, I have worked on grass root level. And CSR is not something which you can start or launch by sitting here in Mumbai. You have to have the experience of working in the interiors. I have travelled to tribal habitats where a concrete road ends 6kms away from the village. I don't need packaged water but can have water from the railway station because my system has become immune. So, it's about your ability to reach out to the grassroots and how many companies will be in the capacity to have this? None. We have in-house team members who have travelled inside-out across many states of India . You need that passion.

It's a product that we are offering but one needs to have that passion to have that sympathy and empathy to drive this as a product. We are not developing this as a profit making machine; it is because we feel that if India has to grow, Bharat has to grow. And if Bharat has to grow, we all need to take an inclusive approach. India cannot grow at the cost of Bharat. We are there as messengers of finding the truth at the grass level and getting it on discussion platforms. Until and unless we honestly get it out from Bharat, it will be difficult of India to manage Bharat and Bharat to be part of India . Although, we are a one country but there is a Bharat and an India . And through this product we are attempting to see that Bharat benefits from the money India makes from India and Bharat.

So for 2012, CSR is going to be a big thing for GRI.
Deepak: It is a good thing and we are looking at it in a way that a rupee saved is a rupee earned. So it is all about sustainability and it is all about going and ensuring that the rupee spent is spent on right cost.

How would you rate the growth of your agency in India thus far?
Deepak: This is my fifth year at GRI. I have seen the slowdown of 2008 and at that point I was very new in the company and I was promoted to head the company. We are in the business of relationships, although everyone wants to make money at the end of the day.

We did not lose a single client at that particular time which means we have a valuable service to offer. I still remember that there were some clients who were offered same services by competition at 35per cent of our fee. I got a call from a CEO of a company to know how the other company was offering same service at that fee. So I went and met him and quite a few others and told them how they are offering you can ask them, but why and what I am offering is because we are very prudent in terms of taking business. As a company policy we are not into rat race.

What is it you desire to see becoming of Good Relations in time to come?
Anthony: We are not in this business for the short term; we are here for the long haul. We have been around for almost 25 years so we must be doing something right. Our effort is to see that the relationship we share is a win-win for both the client and for ourselves. What we intend to do is have an annual fee review which is based on work done on our side and value delivered to our clients. And with inflation making a comeback here, we hope to have an inflation-proof fee which will see us giving the best value to our clients even in dire times. In every business there are two sets of people: those who are there for making a quick buck and those who are there for the long ride. And I can claim that we are very much here for the long run.

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