Pitch Per­fect

She’s spent 20 years in an in­dus­try that ev­ery­one loves to hate. Nan­dita Lak­sh­manan, CEO, talks about what makes The PRac­tice thrive.

India Today - - COVER STORY - By OLINA BANERJI

“Pub­lic re­la­tions isn’t about peo­ple at all. It’s al­ways more a mat­ter of trust, less an equa­tion of power,” says Nan­dita Lak­sh­manan, co- founder and CEO of The PRac­tice PR firm. She’s sit­ting in her firm’s of­fice in the Cap­i­tal, shel­tered from the heavy heat of June, where once, years ago, she used to be a typ­i­cal “south Delhi girl”. It’s the only la­bel she as­cribes to her­self dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion. “The in­dus­try has let the world paint a con­ve­nient car­i­ca­ture of what a PR per­son should be. We don’t do enough good PR for our­selves,” she laughs. The PRac­tice was re­cently the first In­dian PR agency to make the short­list for the Cannes Lions award in the In­te­grated Com­mu­ni­ca­tions led by PR cat­e­gory. Lak­shm­nan is noth­ing short of elated. “For us it was the cat­e­gory we were nom­i­nated in that was spe­cial. It’s closely tied to our be­lief that pub­lic re­la­tions must be at the heart of ev­ery cam­paign strat­egy,” she says.

At 42 Lak­sh­manan is a vet­eran of a nascent in­dus­try. Pre- lib­er­al­i­sa­tion, PR firms were un­heard of. It was only when the econ­omy opened up that the in­dus­try was able to fa­mil­iarise it­self with in­ter­na­tional stan­dards of im­age build­ing. A news­reader on All In­dia Ra­dio in 1993, Lak­sh­manan was in­stantly at­tracted to this bur­geon­ing of the In­dian con­scious­ness. “It in­cluded a mix of field work, jour­nal­ism and a desk job. It seemed like the most ex­cit­ing thing to do,” she says of a ca­reer that be­gan with the PR gi­ant Ge­n­e­sis, a month af­ter she’d com­pleted her Masters from Delhi Univer­sity. As the econ­omy opened up, so did the global am­bi­tions of cor­po­ra­tions, and cre­at­ing a solid com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture be­came es­sen­tial to stave off the me­dia ca­coph­ony. Ris­ing above all that noise has been the defin­ing fac­tor of Lak­sh­manan’s 20- year- old ca­reer. She be­gan humbly, with her first client be­ing Delhi’s premier cul­tural hub, In­dia Habi­tat Cen­tre. Lak­sh­manan grew along with the PR in­dus­try in In­dia and shaped her own per­cep­tion of what good PR prac­tice re­ally is . “It’s not just about han­dling me­dia re­la­tions. The me­dia is a very crit­i­cal tool but its still the means, not the end,” she says. Lak­sh­manan’s team mem­bers at The PRac­tice learn this mantra early and in­stead fo­cus on a more in­te­grated form of PR, which goes be­yond draft­ing a great press re­lease or check­ing off boxes. “PR is not mar­ket­ing,” she says with­out minc­ing words, “Mar­ket­ing is an ex­ter­nal func­tion. Good PR should be part of a com­pany’s DNA. It’s very much an in­ter­nal cor­po­rate func­tion.”

Al­ways dressed in her trade­mark silk saris, Lak­sh­manan doesn’t be­tray any sign of be­ing a power bro­ker. Her style is ef­fort­less and ca­sual, and noth­ing about her seems overt. “I don’t net­work too much,” she claims, “and we never make cold calls to clients.” It’s a work ethic she’s stuck with from the time she was a ju­nior ac­count ex­ec­u­tive with Ge­n­e­sis and was sent to rep­re­sent the firm in Ban­ga­lore. “We’d just won the Sun Mi­crosys­tems ac­count to launch them in In­dia. I was the face of the com­pany there and helped set up the Hy­der­abad of­fice. I’d meet clients, party the night away and still be able to catch early morn­ing flights. It was the high of be­ing in my 20s,” she smiles. Lak­sh­manan built Ge­n­e­sis in the south, ac­quir­ing clients like In­tel, Volvo and Dig­i­tal, be­fore she de­cided, in 1999, to take a dif­fer­ent route. She’s

ret­i­cent about men­tion­ing what made her break away from her men­tors at Ge­n­e­sis. “I think the firm out­grew me. They were look­ing to ex­pand. My endgame was not profit, it was con­sol­i­da­tion,” she says.

Ge­n­e­sis how­ever was only the first rung of the lad­der. In­un­dated with calls from her for­mer clients, Lak­sh­manan wanted to jump back into the fray as soon as pos­si­ble. “I al­ready had two clients be­fore I started The PRac­tice. My busi­ness hit the ground run­ning,” she adds. With a team of three women, Lak­sh­manan re­lied com­pletely on word- of­mouth for the firm to grow, gun­ning for star­tups that were eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing Ban­ga­lore, even though the big money lay in the dot­com bub­ble, fu­elled by gen­er­ous ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists.

“But there was noth­ing sus­tain­able in their busi­ness plans,” ex­plains Lak­sh­manan. The PRac­tice chose to go with smaller play­ers in­stead, and pro­vided coun­sel to prod­uct de­vel­op­ers who they thought were cre­at­ing tech­nol­ogy for the main­stream. Ac­cord­ing to Lak­sh­manan, the turn­around time for an idea was much quicker with a start- up and they were more open to adopt­ing “al­ter­na­tive” PR prac­tices. The main­stay of this strat­egy was al­ways growth through re­ten­tion. Al­most at a hun­dred em­ploy­ees now, the firm still puts more fo­cus on re­tain­ing old busi­nesses than join­ing the rat race to win new ones.

Lak­sh­manan’s big ticket came in 2000 when her firm won IT gi­ant In­fosys over in a 30 minute pitch. “We had gone in think­ing that we had noth­ing to lose. We were only nine months old at the time,” she says. Not only did the firm win the con­tract, they’ve re­tained In­fosys as a client through 12 years, and built a com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel for the com­pany. “There was no struc­ture to the mes­sages be­ing sent out. Ev­ery­one knew who they were, but no one knew what they did,” she says. As In­fosys ex­panded out­side of Ban­ga­lore in 2004, The PRac­tice sen­si­tised them to be­com­ing a na­tional icon, in­ter­act­ing with the me­dia and even man­aged the cycli­cal process of suc­ces­sions for the firm. “Peo­ple needed to know about their knowl­edge man­age­ment frame­works, their qual­i­tysys­tems and more­over, their in­her­ent good­ness as a com­pany,” says Lak­sh­manan about her favourite client. The af­fec­tion is mu­tual. “Nan­dita is a rare leader who brings laser fo­cus to cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion, qual­ity and speed of re­ac­tion which are ex­tremely im­por­tant for a suc­cess­ful PR com­pany,” says for­mer In­fosys chief Narayan Murthy.

Lak­sh­manan cuts a very dif­fer­ent fig­ure from the usual ball bust­ing, ag­gres­sive pub­li­cist. For those who re­late PR with me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion, her strat­egy is a wel­come change. The con­niv­ing ge­nius of a Peter Man­del­son or the shrewd­ness of a Pat Kings­ley are miss­ing. When the in­evitable ques­tion about Ni­ira Ra­dia, for­mer com­peti­tor and owner of the now de­funct Vais­hanavi Com­mu­ni­ca­tions comes up, Lak­sh­manan pauses for a long mo­ment

be­fore an­swer­ing. “I wouldn’t even call that PR,” she says fi­nally, “and I wouldn’t call her a PR pro­fes­sional. I’d say that she owned a PR firm, whose mem­bers prob­a­bly didn’t know what was re­ally go­ing on.” Lak­sh­manan here is re­fer­ring to Ra­dia’s lob­by­ing with top jour­nal­ists and politi­cians to en­sure that DMK’s A Raja got a min­is­te­rial birth in the UPA Gov­ern­ment. Raja would go onto or­ches­trate one of the big­gest eco­nomic scams of the decade— the al­lot­ment of 2G spec­trum where the loss to the ex­che­quer is an es­ti­mated Rs 30,000 crore. “That was deal mak­ing, pure and sim­ple. Con­trary to what the world thinks, Ra­dia’s scam ac­tu­ally helped us bust a few myths about the in­dus­try. It dif­fer­en­ti­ated good PR prac­tice from deal mak­ing,” she says.

What wor­ries Lak­sh­manan to­day, more than com­peti­tors like the am­bi­tious Ra­dia, is that there are no black and white rules when it comes to deal­ing with the me­dia. “When I talk about influence, it’s a strat­egy of en­gag­ing with peo­ple to make them look at my point of view, to con­sider both sides of the story and not just the one with the higher deci­bel level,” she adds.

She put this strat­egy to good use when han­dling the Ban­ga­lore In­ter­na­tional Air­port ac­count. The project was be­ing chal­lenged by cor­po­rate stal­warts turned ac­tivists. “The au­thor­i­ties had left a lot of gaps in their com­mu­ni­ca­tions to the me­dia. This vac­uum was be­ing filled by the op­po­si­tion. We ad­vised them to di­rect me­dia at­ten­tion to­wards the facts of the project, in­stead of go­ing into de­nial mode,” she says. Fenc­ing or block­ing in­forma-

‘‘ Even af­ter 20 years I don’t feel jaded by the in­dus­try. I want to keep push­ing new bound­aries ev­ery­day. PR is about facts. A good PR cam­paign draws the line be­tween what’s true and what’s just gim­mick.‘‘

tion, es­pe­cially in the age of Twit­ter and Face­book would be fool­hardy, and it’s a bit­ter pill that Lak­sh­manan has had to swal­low. “I can’t stop any­one from writ­ing a story. The most I can do is build enough trust so that our ver­sion is given just as much cred­i­bil­ity.”

To­day, the game­plan in­stead is to build sus­tain­able, long term re­la­tion­ships with clients. “For me growth with­out con­sol­i­da­tion is chaos. As I add new ver­ti­cals to the com­pany, I spend sleep­less nights won­der­ing if we are putting in enough man­power and re­sources,” she says. Lak­sh­manan speaks of a bad patch in be­tween when the firm be­gan los­ing busi­ness.“It’s be­cause we’d started pitch­ing for ev­ery­thing. We had to in­tro­spect,” she says. Her firm has also en­joyed a debt- free growth tra­jec­tory, en­sur­ing that the busi­ness grows or­gan­i­cally. “Be­ing debt free is some­thing I learnt from my fa­ther- in- law. I fol­low the mid­dle class prin­ci­ples of al­ways liv­ing within my means,” says Lak­sh­manan. Never in the red, the firm has re­cently added a con­sumer ver­ti­cal in ad­di­tion to its tech­nol­ogy and health­care port­fo­lio. “We held out on the con­sumer sec­tor for years since we felt we didn’t have the ex­per­tise to do it. We didn’t want to be a gen­er­al­ist firm,” she adds.

She may love to sink her teeth into ev­ery new ac­count, but a lead­er­ship role is what takes up most of her time. “Nan­dita knows how to build strong teams and sur­rounds her­self with skills that com­ple­ment as well as align with hers,” says men­tor Joan Am­ble, an ex- banker who con­nected with Lak­sh­manan through the US State Depart­ment’s Global Men­tor­ing Pro­gramme and struck up a friend­ship.

“I’m not a worka­holic and I’m able to switch off from work eas­ily. I also en­joy watch­ing movies on my own as I like the soli­tude,” says Lak­sh­manan. While jug­gling a ca­reer and a new born a few years ago may have been a chal­lenge, it helps that her hus­band Sha­ran and she en­joy a mar­riage of equals. These days, she in­dulges her son Arya­man’s craze for su­per­hero movies. Their re­cent favourite was The Amaz­ing Spi­der­man.

Ever the strate­gist, Lak­sh­manan is now con­cen­trat­ing on the fourth, and most promis­ing ver­ti­cal for the firm— so­cial in­no­va­tion. “It’s where the fu­ture of In­dia lies. Be­yond the met­ros, in smaller towns and cities is where in­no­va­tion is born,” she signs off.

SANDESH RAVIKU­MAR/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

Team Leader: At The PRac­tice head­quar­ters in Ban­ga­lore

Fam­ily Ties: With son Arya­man

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