Meet the Pitchfork Partners

Meet the Pitchfork PartnersThe announcement last November surprised many as Jaideep Shergill had a successful four-year run as CEO of the MSLGroup. He chose to leave the Pubicis Groupe to join former boss and mentor Sunil Gautam, the chartered accountant-turned-communications professional who founded Clear Advertising and PR and later Hanmer & Partners which eventually morphed into MSL India. SG, as he is known in the PR fraternity, was Chairman Emeritus of the MSLGroup. Effective January 1, Shergill and SG have set up Pitchfork Partners, a specialised consultancy which will handhold corporate and start-ups in their marketing service activities. In an interview with Pradyuman Maheshwari, the duo share their vision and why firms like Pitchfork will thrive in the ecosystem.

Fifteen years back, you chose Hanmer & Partners as the name of your agency. Now, Pitchfork Partners. Sunil, what’s with you and your out-of-this-world names. Why Pitchfork?

Jaideep Shergill (JS):  Let me take this one. It’s what the devil uses. It’s his weapon of choice. We were looking for a mischievous, mysterious and magical name. Something that’s out of the ordinary. There are a lot of firms that do communication, creative, PR, bounce house birthday party digital, but all of them are very tactical and are not really putting their money where their mouth is. After running companies for many years, we’re fairly convinced there’s a vacuum out there. When we were thinking of a name, we wanted to think of something more irreverent. The devil stands for that. Pitchfork is his weapon of choice…

So in what way does the name convey what you’re going to be doing?

JS: Yes, it’s more than a name. The Trident, Pitchfork, is like the Trishul. In our scheme of things, there are three verticals.

You were having a decent time, Sunil, near-retired, you could’ve invested here and there, played golf. Why get into an all-new activity with all the struggles?

Sunil Gautam (SG): Yes, I was having a great time, but I want to have a better time. There’s lots to do, a lot of fun. I enjoy working, it’s my passion, it’s great to team up with Jaideep, we know each other for 18- odd years now.

When did you decide to start Pitchfork? Is there an appetite for a business like this?

SG: We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years but were in no hurry. With markets opening up, we feel the time is right. We hope there is an appetite for business like this. Our initial response has been very encouraging so far.

Will you charge a retainer fee or…

JS: Retainers and projects. Some long-term programmes where the client will work with us for six months or a year. If it’s a project, we’ll bill them as per our hours. We’ll have billable hours like a McKinsey. We’ll have hourly models.

Will people agree to this? They agree to a McKinsey because they expect them to re-engineer their operations and offer high-end consultancy.

JS: But we have had hourly systems in MSL historically anyway. We had a large number of clients who pay us a flat retainer fee. But even today, a large no. of clients also pay MSL by the hour. It’s not like that model doesn’t exist. It’s not new, but, yes, it’s not yet at a McKinsey level.

Jaideep, you helmed MSL independently for four years and seemed to be on a high. So why give that all up?

JS: Three or four reasons. Having been in the mainstream business for a long time, I’ve been through and seen a lot of change. The company we were a part of got acquired, we acquired other companies, I’ve seen the transition from traditional PR to modern communication. I honestly wanted to do something different. There was a wide space there. That’s what Sunil and I were looking at. It’s in three areas. Strategy consulting, because we want to move up the value chain, the second area is aggregation and disintermediary. We won’t work in the traditional PR alone. Given our wide-ranging experience in communications, we’ll be like a business or marketing or brand consultant to a company. That’s the wide space I saw.

When you were with the MSL group, you had the opportunity to steer the company to do some of these things, right?

JS: Yes, we did! 96% of our business was traditional. In the last four years, we moved it more significantly than any PR firm. Today 55% of MSL revenue is traditional and 45% is non-traditional. From 5% to 45% which comes from research and insight, creative, content, digital. It’s happening. Where Sunil and I see the gap is when we come in to the equation, we come in as people who can implement, execute stuff. The clients have decided what they want. We come in at a late stage, sometimes even after the ad agencies are brought in. We come in as the last mile. We want to change perceptions. We want to move up the value chain. We want to offer a service that can work directly with the top management, can be more strategic and can work with a complete backward and forward option. Literally from when the client is looking for a marketing director or a CMO or a Corp Comm Head, we want to come in even at that early stage, help the company through that evolution. That’s what we can’t do within a structured environment. You need to be out there on your own and at the end of the day our value is what he has and what I have. It’s two people bringing their collective wisdom, experience. We will give it a shot, this model hasn’t been tried before.

Were you happy with the way traditional PR agencies have had to change course over the years? 

JS: They can certainly do better. They can do it faster. Speed is of the essence. When we’re together we’re more nimble because there’s just two of us. When you’re in a big institution, everything moves slowly. We want things to move fast.

All going digital?

JS: Of course! That’s the reality of life. If they don’t, they’ll die.

You mentioned when an organisation is too big, you’re unable to do things. But the whole objective of setting up a new organisation would be to grow that big and do various things.

SG: The whole idea is very few people who’ll be advising CxOs, the top levels, in terms of strategy. When it comes to implementation, may be we’ll outsource it. When you have to involve yourself at top levels to think strategy, you need to really give a lot of time. This is something you don’t want to delegate, which has been happening across agencies. We’ll be a very lean and mean set-up. At the peak, we may have not more than 10 people. Whoever worked with us will be a partner, will be handpicked, will deal with top level clients in terms of giving them strategic advice. We don’t want it to be large because we don’t want to implement things. We’ll get it done for clients, we’ll oversee it, under our advice and guidance.

Wouldn’t that limit your scope in any way?

SG: Not really, what we’re here to do is enjoy ourselves. Work closely with fewer clients but give a lot of quality time and thinking for them. Clients are willing to pay top dollar for this.

Sunil, you’ve been part of the PR business since the time of the IPO boom. Unfortunately, clients do not use the services of PR consultants effectively unless there’s a crisis or a new development. They’re not really partners in their progress.

SG: I don’ think PR agencies have really worked themselves to reach that level. That’s my opinion. I don’t think they’ve worked that hard to reach that level in terms of rubbing shoulders with CxOs to give that kind of advice. There are various reasons for that. But there are clients who are willing, who want, who recognise there is this gap and some of them are already talking to us.

But isn’t all the PR advice they seek is getting the news out (or not out) the next day?

JS: To begin with, we won’t just advise our clients on PR. That’s most important. We’ll be their communications and marketing advisors. It goes much beyond. It’s giving them a path on their communication needs. Advertising, digital, PR, events… whatever they need.

Both of you known essentially as PR professionals. Do you think you can break that barrier and look at clients – blue chip clients – for their entire marketing services activities?

JS: Absolutely! There’s no reason, why not? The walls have fallen any way. What’s the difference between the digital work an ad agency or a PR agency does? Everyone is doing everything. Even though we come from a more PR or communications background, there’s enough that we have to be able to guide somebody in the right direction. We’re not the people going to be sitting and writing the copy anyway. So, if a client has a creative requirement, we will find him the best creative talent.

Tell us more about the start-up part of your business?

JS: Yes, we will look at tech, digital, PR companies who’ve reached a strength of 20 to 30 people and they don’t know how to grow. Creative, digital companies now want to go to the next level. We’ll come in and guide them through the whole growth process, take them to the point where they can either get acquired or sell out or scale up and then we’ll buy into them early as early adoptors or seed fund kind of structuring. We don’t want to be private equity. We want to be mentors.

If any of your MSL clients come in, would you entertain them?

JS: We’d still want them to work with MSL. But if they are looking for something specific which we are doing, why not? You should also know we’re very transparent with Pubicis about what we’re doing. We also offer a complementary service which is also the reason why our relations with the group is as good as they are.

So will Publicis be your first preference for your clients?

JS: We’re more than happy to go with anyone. While we’re agnostic, we’ll look at Publicis as the first call. If we find a solution within, why go out? There are certain skillsets it may have not have like market research, for instance.

Sunil, do you see the communications business headed this way with senior professionals like yourself setting up personalised consulting services?

SG: I’m very confident the world will move that way. Clients today do not get time from senior guys who can think on their behalf.

Do you have any targets on what you want to achieve in your business in the first year?

JS: Not in terms of a number. As Sunil said, we’re in it to have some fun! The third pillar that we have will require us to give a lot of time for mentorship. We’ll be mentoring young professionals who want to grow. All that doesn’t have a revenue stream. There will be a long gestation period. As an example, if we’re advising a startup PR firm, we won’t actually get anything out of it for the next 5-10 years till it grows. We’re not setting business targets but goals we want to meet as individuals and getting to that self actualization place in life where we’re having fun, we’re working and are able to add some value to the people we work with.

Would you at any point think of getting an investor on board? Maybe after 4-5 years?

SG: It’s too early to say. This is just our first month.