It’s been two years since Sunil Gautam and Jaideep Shergill set up their strategic consulting service, Pitchfork Partners Strategic Consulting LLP. IMPACT catches up with the two to talk about their journey so far
By Simran Sabherwal
In 2015, PR gurus Sunil Gautam and Jaideep Shergill came together to co-found Pitchfork Partners Strategic Consulting LLP. Two years later, the two – whose association goes back over a couple of decades – say that their conviction has paid off. With the marketing and communication landscape witnessing a sea change in recent times and stakeholders’ needs changing, Shergill says the time is ripe for a strategic consulting service that focuses on communication needs. Elaborating on the positioning of Pitchfork Partners, Shergill says, “While agencies are good with execution, they are light on strategy. In addition, agencies work in silos and don’t offer a seamless solution. More importantly, they are very driven on the whole retainer agreement format and not on specific project. Our vision was to build a full service strategy consulting firm and we do everything – PR, digital, marketing, research, creative to content.” At a time when independent agencies are looking to merge with the big guns, Pitchfork Partners is betting on the boutique model. Says Gautam, “The advantage of working with boutique firms, like ours, is that while we work with a few companies, we work in a wider spectrum and our engagement is much deeper. We work with only seven to eight clients but we do a lot more work with these clients than we would with 50 to 60 clients.”
Pitchfork Partners sees itself as a ‘navigator’ which offers services under six umbrellas – Business Strategy, Corporate Communications, Brand Strategy, Internal Communications Strategy, CSR and Cause Marketing and High Level Talent Search. The company has also worked on crisis management, policy and regulatory affairs, financial communications and investor relations, purposing and visioning, brand audits, brand creation and brand configuration, stakeholder audits, etc. during its journey so far.
Talking of fulfilling the need-gap that exists in the communication space, Gautam says, “There are many critical functions that PR/ad agencies are not fulfilling. In addition, there are specific areas – like planning workshops, messaging workshops, organizing idea workshops, brand planning workshops, which isn’t being done a lot. Typical agencies don’t do it because it’s just one day’s work but we’ve made that into a specialized area.”
Pitchfork Partners’ latest ‘skillset’ is its M&A and consulting arm that advises companies in the media and advertising sector. Shergill explains, “We help companies with their M&A strategies and even in their restructuring processes.” The company also acts as a facilitator and helps clients in hiring top talent in the marketing and communication space. It also aids corporates zero down and finalize their partner agencies across the media spectrum.
MAKING IT GLOCAL
In its two years of operations, Pitchfork Partners has not only worked with MNCs but also Indian companies looking to go to the next level and expand internationally. One such example is pharma giant, Glenmark Pharmaceuticals, which draws a considerable part of its revenue from the international markets, but is not well branded in these areas. Pitchfork Partners is helping create a global communication strategy for the pharma giant. Similarly for Lodha Group, Pitchfork Partners has created a go-to market strategy for its foray in international markets and is handling the real estate developer’s entire communication and planning. On the other hand, for Eureka Forbes the objective was to streamline their communication across all platforms. Its present clientele includes Shree Cement, Aditya Birla Financial Services, eBay, ICICI Securities, India Value Fund, Mogae, Laqshya Media Group amongst others. The company has also handled assignments for Hindustan Unilever, Hindustan Petroleum, Suzlon, Conde Nast, Housing, and Arré.
Interestingly, in all cases, Pitchfork Partners, which positions itself as being partner and channel-agnostic, works with their clients’ various agencies on record. “We are complementary to the agencies, we are not competing with agencies but work with the client’s agencies. That’s one thing everyone needs to understand. We come one level above an agency, a complementary service, a strategy service, more as an inside consultant than an outside partner. That’s where the hand holding comes in, and that’s why the function is more strategic,” says Shergill. Gautam reiterates, “The beauty of our model is the ability to stay independent and agnostic, so that we can work with any agency that a client wishes us to.” Pitchfork Partners has also established a global network of partnerships with “evolved agencies” that provide independent strategic communications advice. It has struck up alliances with Baldwin Boyle Shand, Innate Motion, Maverick (Indonesia and Southeast Asia), Amplifi, Symbol Strategic Communications, Portland, Freuds, Heritage House Reputation Architects, Red Consultancy, Vagabond and Clai. Through this alliance Pitchfork Partners’ Indian clients work with the partners in the international markets and vice-versa.
SMALL TEAM, BIG IMPACT
Based out of Mumbai, Pitchfork Partners has a small set-up of around 18 people, with the average experience being 15-18 years, drawn from across the media fraternity and specializing in key functions of marketing, branding, digital, communication, PR, investor relations, content, media etc. With no hierarchy structure in place, everyone gets a share of the profit at the end of the day. Prominent partners include marketing and branding veteran and former chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi India, V Shanta Kumar, Former Vice-President – Content & Insights at MSLGroup India Ashraf Engineer and Pankaj Desai, former head of MSLGroup Creative+.
Though the firm has a limited client base, it maintains a ratio of 50:50 between retainer work and projects. Says Gautam, “As our team is very small, we don’t have more than five to six retainers and a few projects at the same time. It’s harder to sustain more than that. That’s the beauty of our business, the quality versus the quantity.”
STRATEGY IS THE KEY
While the start has been promising, the challenge remains that the industry has still not understood what “strategic” means. According to Shergill, “The market still doesn’t understand the strategic functions well enough. We are still trying to educate the market.” Shergill and Gautam are now banking on showcasing their work with case studies to educate clients for the opportunity and a need for this service. On his part, Gautam says, “In the last two years we have built up a good body of work and now our body of work will speak for us.”
The company is now gearing up for its second phase of growth and expansion with the focus being in terms of quality of work rather than expansion in terms of size and headcount. Says Gautam, “For us, small is good. The idea of remaining small and doing better work is more important for us.” Maintaining the essence of a boutique agency, Shergill acknowledges that their model is “not necessarily a scalable model” and while they would look at adding on people, it’s more likely the agency would not have more than 50 people on its rolls.
However, being small can also bring big benefits, particularly with high calibre professionals in the team. Says Shergill, “If you look at our size, we are far more profitable. Our average revenue per client is much higher and our per-consultant revenue is far healthier. Our core consultant revenue would be at least two to three times more than any agency out there.” Talking about growth, Gautam says, “We were profitable in the first year itself. This year we will definitely be growing that by at least 25%.”
Another reason for revenue growth is the fact that Pitchfork Partners does not enter any pitches. Shergill says, “We don’t get into competitive pitches. That’s why our revenues are higher. We only work with referrals and word of mouth. By not pitching, we don’t get pigeon-holed as an agency.”
Looking ahead, Pitchfork Partners is betting big on CSR communication, internal communication, employee engagement, employer branding, content management and content creation, particularly in the context of thought leadership – all areas which are still under-serviced.
Summing it up, Shergill says, “We are committed to this model and will continue to make this work. We just want people to give us a hearing. We want some level of maturity to come into our industry, whether it’s on the agency side or on the client side.” On his part, Gautam says, “People need to understand that there is a value for strategic counsel and that strategic counsel costs more.”