In Conversation with Jaideep Shergill

When you ‘click’ with someone, you feel a connection, which automatically extends to all areas. That was exactly what Jaideep Shergill, Founding Partner at Pitchfork Partners felt when he met senior PR veteran Sunil Gautam. Then his journey took off on the unbeaten track.

This strategic communications veteran & multi-market expert actually co-founded Pitchfork Partners Strategic Consulting LLP (a strategy consultancy, specialising in corporate and business issues that need holistic solutions) on New Year’s day, 2015. Previously, he was CEO of MSLGROUP India (now known as MSL India), and under his leadership, MSL saw phenomenal growth in terms of revenue and market penetration, through strategic mergers & acquisitions, including a huge push on the digital side.

Before setting up Pitchfork Partners, Jaideep was based out of Singapore. At the same time, he was a key member of the Asia leadership team of MSL and was also on the India board for Publicis Groupe. He was one of the founding members of Hanmer & Partners, which became one of India’s largest PR firms and then, via an acquisition, an integral part of the Publicis Groupe.

In the early part of his career, Jaideep worked as Principal Consultant at Clea Public Relations and also did a stint with Pritish Nandy Communications and even a bank, purely due to the fact that he was trained to work in International business and banking!

With over 23 years of rich experience across the banking, media, PR and communications, brand and marketing functions across diverse markets and roles, he is recognised as a thought leader in the Indian subcontinent, and has represented the marketing and PR sectors, in many forums both in India and abroad, including the World Economic Forum, East Asia in Jakarta in 2011.

In a conversation with Shree Lahiri, catch Jaideep talking extensively about his exciting journey, the growth of PR consulting, the disruption happening in PR, working with Sunil Gautam, some secret mantras for success and more…

RT: Tell us about the early phase of your journey into PR.

JS: I started in the banking industry but soon realised that my heart lies elsewhere. So, I tried to find openings in the media and communication space. I got a break at Pritish Nandy Communications and then moved to India’s (then) largest independent PR firm, Clea PR, where I met Sunil Gautam. Once Sunil decided to leave Clea to found Hanmer & Partners, I quickly followed. We clicked instantly and I came on board at the fledgling public relations consultancy.

Since then, it’s been a joyful roller-coaster ride. The consultancy grew into India’s finest and was eventually acquired by Publicis Groupe under the MSLGROUP umbrella. That was part of the wave of consolidation within the Indian PR business and also the catalyst for its greatest phase of evolution. The consultancy led the evolution from media relations to integrated communication.

I was part of all this and saw it up close. It’s been an immensely fulfilling journey, more so since we launched Pitchfork Partners on January 1, 2015.

RT: What differentiates Pitchfork Partners from other firms?

JS: Our observation was that within very large networks the offering tends to get commoditised and the crucial strategic input that clients truly seek is elusive. We wanted to bridge that gap. That’s why we set up a consultancy, manned by very senior and diversely talented talent, that focuses on the strategic aspect of communication.

RT: Share your thoughts on the growth of PR consulting in India as we see it today?

JS: The agency model does not allow for the true strategic input that clients need in these times. Communication firms need to be real partners, aiding the achievement of business objectives, rather than tactical associates. Therefore, the strategy consulting model is the logical next step.

Our experience bears this out. We started off with a handful of consultants but tasted success immediately. In less than five years, the team expanded to nearly 50 and recently the Holmes Report named us the second-fastest growing firm in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.

We have been asked to consult across leading B2B and B2C firms and take on specialised work like political campaigns, company purposing exercises and employer branding too.

RT: Your entire career has been linked to Sunil Gautam. What is it like working with him?

JS: Well, a large chunk of my career if not all of it has been with Sunil. We are both different personalities and that’s why we have been able to stay together as long as we have. Most importantly, we trust each other unconditionally and that is the cornerstone of any relationship be it personal or professional.

RT: There are three forks of Pitchfork: mischievous, magical and mysterious. Tell us more about how these pan out at work.

JS: We try to live up to our values every day – we see ourselves as builders and protectors of reputations, but that does not mean we are a staid, grim, boring organisation. We make sure our workplace and our interactions with our clients are vibrant, insightful and valuable. We ensure this through a range of activities – from regular trainings to putting out thought leadership.

RT: Where do you see Pitchfork Partners three years from now?

JS: We would have evolved further and added new skills, especially the next level of digital. Our team will have grown along with our client roster. Critically, we are institutionalising highly-efficient processes for account management, consulting, pitching and even skill development.

RT: What were some of the things that you did differently at Hanmer & Partners which later on became MSL India?

JS: We took pride in leading evolution in the PR profession. We were the first to spot the opportunity in offering an integrated service. Accordingly, we were among the first to invest in a digital division as well as creative division. These were followed by content and research divisions. These grew to service not just Indian clients but international ones too. We were also the first to institutionalise continuous learning, setting aside a percentage of our revenues for that. In fact, what we did with both Hanmer & Partners and then MSLGROUP India has made it the success story it is today.

RT: Today, we see disruption happening amidst change in the business sector. What do you think is the future of Public Relations?

JS: I have described most of it above. I’d add that this is a time of opportunity for the profession. No one is better placed to take advantage of it than our business. If we don’t seize it now, perhaps we would have missed the boat.

RT: How has the partnership with Archer Freres Communications evolved?

JS: Archer Freres is now fully integrated into the Pitchfork family. We operate as a single team out of a single office. Archer Freres gave us the critical execution skills that we needed to add to our very strong consulting offering.

RT: What do you enjoy doing in your leisure time?

JS: I am an avid movie buff. I am also a keen on several forms of music which I also collect albums of along with a large collection of books in the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres. My book and album collection is now into tens of thousands. I am also a keen follower of pop culture especially around the above-mentioned genres.

RT: What are three secret mantras that you would like to share with the new generation of PR professionals?

  • Never take your eye off the client’s business objective. That will give you clarity about your communication strategy and rollout.
  • Never stop learning. The profession is evolving rapidly; if you stop learning, you will become redundant very soon.
  • Don’t forget to have fun on the job.
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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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