100 days to Tsunami

I woke up to front-page news that an average of two Malls are shutting shop every month in Mumbai in last one year. And that one of the leading commodity trading exchanges, backed by two of the biggest business houses of India, has decided to shut shop. It is the first Monday of a brand new year!

Throughout last few weeks, most commentators are unanimous on one thing; political stability would be the key to India’s economic future for next 4-5 years. In other words, everyone is shuddering on the thought of an unstable government emerging out of the next general elections. A dreadful thought that people of India give a fractured verdict where no political party (or a coalition) is able to form the government due to lack of clear majority. And then I counted the number of days left for such an eventuality.

It is exactly 100 days from today that the first voter casts his/her vote. Atleast this is what a section of media has begun to speculate.

It is indeed a big deal. These elections will be like no other in the past. Never before had so many events happened in a span of five years. Events that have shaken the very fabric of social justice, criminal jurisprudence, morality and value system of a country that boasts of over 5000 years of culture and heritage!

In exactly 100 days from today, Indians would have decided whether their economy takes a vertical take-off or falls off a very steep cliff.

It is abundantly clear that life in May 2014 would look radically different from what it looked in preceding months. It would be a phase of hyper-activity – either to save your skin or to match with breath-taking pace of opportunities. If the verdict does offer stability, and it really doesn’t matter which party wins, the flood gates are likely to be flung open.

Imagine a burgeoning economy that was throttled by over three years of policy paralysis, scams and political logjam. Laced with a legal framework that effectively prevents corruption and a political leadership that has the numbers to support some bold decisions, the Indian entrepreneur would dare to take that leap of faith. And the multinationals would hop in to a market that has the potential to consume all that they can make. Truly, it would be a year like no other.

But an election verdict that does not assure political stability can create exactly an opposite effect. A whole lot of Indian businesses are postponing their decisions on investments, project expansions, diversification plans, etc. and waiting for the election results. If no group is able to form the government, then the crisis of confidence will plunge to a unprecedented low. The only thing that every business decision maker would prefer is to wait. Endlessly.

For a PR professional, these are exciting times indeed. Exciting, only if your vision is sharper than that of your peers. Exciting, only if you are ready to adjust yourself to the direction of the wind. Time to be flexible, adaptable and fleet-footed. Time to practice exactly what we preach to our clients.

07. January 2014 by Sushil Bahal
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Finding the bottom of economic cycle. Are we there already?

India’s GDP growth rate slowed down to 5% in last financial year. The consumption story in cars, real estate, white goods continued to be dismal throughout last 14-15 months. A huge majority of clients in our advertising and PR businesses continued to witness severe pressure on their toplines as well as bottomlines. The scenario for small and marginal businesses has been particularly difficult. Managing profitability has been a single most important challenge for all those with little elbow- room to manoeuvre.

And then a friend, who is also a victim of this global economic downturn asked this question couple of days ago, ‘how much further down can we go from here?’. The question lingered on for rest of the weekend, till it rained late on Sunday evening. The smell of rainwater on parched soil brought in much needed positivity in the mindset. We may be already at the bottom of the economic cycle and the only way for the graph is to go up!

You do not need to be a seasoned economist or a master at crystal-ball gazing. The green shoots are visible if only we look around a little more positively.

Consider this. Even as Europe continues to be under pressure, key markets such as US, Japan, etc. are reasonably buoyant now. The Foreign Institutional Investors (FIIs) have pumped over $15 billion in Indian capital markets this year. The stock markets here are touching their all-time highs. Though not at their peak level, foreign investments in spaces such as manufacturing, retail, automobile continue to at decent pace.

Also, there are general elections due anytime in next one year. Surely, we can expect some big-ticket announcements on investments in infrastructure sector before the elections are announced. It is estimated that the process of elections alone would pump in over $10 billion into Indians’ pockets, thus revving up the consumption cycle.

And then it rained. The Met department got it right this time about onset of monsoons. India is expected to get a decent monsoon. If it does, it will boost up our agriculture output, helping India address one of her biggest challenges in recent years.

All signs that India will bat on her own pitch and would largely be insulated from global macro-economic factors. All signs that we are already at the bottom of the downtrend

Time to roll-up the sleeves and get on with it.

05. June 2013 by Sushil Bahal
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The IITian Banker

The news report  stated ‘On the first day of the campus recruitment season at the Indian Institute of Technology — Bombay (IIT-B), companies made 160 offers in total, surpassing last year’s tally of 140.’

The last line almost as an afterthought stated ‘Job profiles on offer include a mix of core engineering, consultancy, banking, work with NGOs or teaching.’

At a time when India needs “millions of engineers” and millions more of technically qualified workers and skilled professionals, why are engineers from the best engineering institutions in the country seeing it as a stepping stone to an IIM and then a financial  or management consulting career ?.

The best brains coming out coming from IIT’s are going abroad and doing brilliantly in cutting edge technology, or are joining the entrepreneur or management brigade.  The IIT entrepreneurs are not necessarily doing so in areas of engineering but as NGO’s and teaching.

IITs are famous for the quality of education and very negligible tuition fees.  With students coming from villages and small towns, for some the lure of big money, over passion for engineering adds pressure to students. While for some, the giving back to society would be a lesson they learned the hard way. While both aspects being commendable, there is something very fundamentally wrong in our education systems that we create engineering colleges of world class calibre and then lose students qualified from there to banking jobs.  To make it worst, the IIT’s seem to be proud of it, where as they should be doing a deep analysis and figure out ways of motivating their students to work in engineering industries in India.

The government and the engineering industries must evolve measures to make to it profitable and exciting for the students to work in their field of engineering in India.

26. December 2012 by Meera Tenguria
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The World Cities Culture Report 2012

The World Cities Culture Report 2012, a major global initiative on culture and the future of cities, set up by the Mayor of London examines the cultural offer of 12 of the world’s greatest cities.

The report uses the definition of UNESCO to define Culture

‘ Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.’
In India, Arts be it  music, design, theatre  or dance is so much a part of day to day life, that one wonders where the art ends and life begins. Festivities abound with all aspects of art, and culture by that definition changes from door to door in a housing complex.

Culture, as defined by the report, to see, observe and partake may not be an aspect of Mumbai life, but the frenzy of Ganpati dancing or Navratri dancing encompasses a way of living and of lifestyle bound to art and music.

The Bharatnatiam dance in one of the many South Indian temples in Mumbai may not compare to Broadway, but is it any less a representation of Performing Art.?

The first aspects of cultural vitality the report looked at were night clubs, discos and dance halls. Therein lays the problem. The culture of Mumbai will not be found in these places. A very small percentage of Mumbaikars would be seen there, and hence their small numbers.

The report cites Food as a central aspect of culture in the wider sense of the word. The world cities have strikingly large numbers of restaurants. Mumbai may not have its Michelin star hotels, but it’s Udipis, the Jain Chinese, Vada pav, pav bhaji, the American bhel, the iranan hotels with Bun Maska alongside Mexican, Thai, Italian; Chinese upscale restaurants represent a food culture that is uniquely Mumbai.

Mumbai’s culture is hard to discern for those looking at it from a western point of view. Its unique amalgamation is that of a culture moulded from across the country.

Perhaps Mumbai needs a PR program to define itself- as it explodes and changes – it needs to communicate – it needs to show the brilliant colours beneath the craters, and the filth- the colour and culture that Mumbaikars create themselves.

05. December 2012 by Sushil Bahal
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SMEs: Communicate

The first few IPOs listed on SME platform of the BSE has brought the spotlight back on India’s Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). With the policy makers very keen to create a mechanism to promote equity infusion into SMEs, the two leading stock exchanges have made serious effort to establish a viable window for encouraging more investments into this sector. Indeed, SEBI’s effort to balance the creation of higher interest in SME stocks with check on possible misuse of the system is honest to say the least. The players in the market may believe that Regulators insistence to make the Lead Manager responsible for market-making for the three years is a bit too stringent and may choke the very objective of encouraging SMEs to participate in the equity markets. Guess, SEBI’s better-safe-than-sorry approach has the best interests for SMEs in its heart.

In the last few years, technology has diminished the distance for a small enterprise to create newer markets or source the best inputs from anywhere across the globe. Just a cursory visit to any of the B2B portals is enough to realise that Internet have proven to be the biggest game-changer in addressing their marketing and sourcing challenges. Besides this, India’s large trade bodies are also assisting them in their effort to be more competitive by highlighting their cause at right forums. But this is perhaps the end of happy part of the SME story.

The small and medium scale businesses continue to wage a lone battle. The entrepreneur succeeds despite the system. Everyday, he needs to overcome a million challenges. Everyday, he thanks his stars for making him live for another day. While his customers goad him to sell his wares cheaper, the input costs are on an upward spiral forever. While he now has a better ability to attract customer from faraway markets, he is in constant competition with cheaper alternatives from manufacturers in China and other economies. His inability to attract good talent is the cause and effect of his small size. Then, there are officials in government who need to be managed to ensure smooth supply of services such as power, water, telephone, sanitation, insurance, exports, imports, etc. Every year, there are issues with environment control, labour welfare, income tax, sales tax, shop & establishment department, local municipal bodies, etc. Every year, he has to provide donations to local ganapati mandal, local navaratri associations for God and neighbours to protect him. It is almost an impossible situation to manage if there is an accident in his premises or a case of physical misconduct among his employees.  Truly, with his back always against the wall, he is successful only due to his sheer grit and determination.

He gets to think of his growth only after he has fixed such irritants everyday. Thanks to India’s macro-economic story, growth to a SME is not much of a serious challenge.

Among the antidotes, that a few SMEs have effectively against these challenges on their way to success, is better communications. A SME with a positive aura around its corporate brand creates  better acceptance across its current and future stakeholders. In an economy that is so vibrant with newer growth opportunities, it is natural that there would be many competitors for every stake. Whether it is seeking wider markets, better product pricing or finances for its growth, a better ‘known’ SME has a better chance to succeed.

In simple terms, everyone ‘googles’ about before meeting you as a possible vendor, customer, employer or a funding target. The Company website of a typical SME has nothing more than few lines about the Company. More often than not, the website leaves behind an impression of a corporate entity that has a presence on the Internet only because everyone else has it too. The website neither reflects it’s hunger to grow, nor does it convey a keen desire to build a relationship with those who visit it. The website hardly does anything more than a calling card or the signboard of a shop in your lane! A good website is a good beginning of a reputation building effort. But it is just a good beginning.

Just as any large corporate entity, a SME needs to be working on its reputation every day. From a little networking effort at your local trade body upto participation in a media discussion on critical issues that impact its business, every action that an entrepreneur takes adds to his business’ reputation. The relationships that an entrepreneur builds across its peers, trade bodies, media fraternity, investment bankers, future employees etc. go a long way in building a image about his business offering. These relationships help in projecting the enterprise as a strong advocate of any idea or product proposition. The more an SME communicates with its stakeholders, the more it is acknowledged on its experience in the domain. An active advocate with acknowledged experience has an enhanced credibility when it is considered for any future association.

Surely, it has never been easy to do all this. It does require a bit of training and a fair amount of commitment in time and effort. However small you start, the building blocks of corporate reputation would one day add up to be a unshakable monolith that is difficult to be ignored by anyone. The smallness in size may be its biggest handicap. But if an enterprise believes that it has something to offer that can make a difference, it will always find a platform to communicate its views. There is always a possibility to ‘publish’ what your business stands for its customers, shareholders and every other stakeholder.

Typically, the entrepreneur is so busy in fighting his daily battles that such actions always remain on the back burner. It is indeed difficult to convince a SME owner to invest time and effort on initiatives that would build his reputation. Often, the cause for rejection is a limited vision about taking the company to a next level. While the younger SME owners and those in new age businesses are showing some seriousness about their corporate reputation. The resistance is acute in traditional businesses or those who have been in business for a long time.

At a seminar on SMEs recently, some of the biggest names in corporate India emphasized that a stock exchange platform for SMEs is a great idea as it addresses their biggest challenge of growth financing. How true! The second biggest challenge, is to ensure that the SME gets a right valuation for his enterprise.
The valuation for any enterprise is a combination of its fundamentals and its reputation. Many successful companies have cared for their reputation when they were growing up. It would be interesting to know the valuation of Infosys without its strong reputation. Or compare Infosys with equally big businesses but having weaker reputations.

While a SME owner spends all its energy in building strong fundamentals, its reputation has largely been limited within its customers, bankers, vendors and employees. It’s time that SMEs widen their horizon and relate with others. Sound reputation may not be an elixir for all its problems, but it helps. Every effort in building a reputation pays in the long run. And if you believe that you are here for a long haul, then let your reputation also grow with you. Communicate.

07. November 2012 by Sushil Bahal
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Why must Indians celebrate their festivals

On the ninth day of Navaratri festival, I sent a sms to all my Bengali friends a ‘Shubho Navami’. My friend Bivash, who is a journalist in Shanghai, replied ‘Ah, that hurts…! But thank you for reminding me’. Bivash has been out of India for nearly two decades but tries to visit India as often as he can.

Cut to our office, in the same evening, we did our traditional worship (shastra puja) of the tools that are used in our daily work routine. What followed was a gorgeous display of ethnic Indian wear, dance and sheer camaraderie. Team Prana and Team Raka displayed vivid aspects of individual brilliance and team spirit.

Cut to the next afternoon, one of the most fabulous lunches of my life! My family and fellow members of our Rotary Club shared a Dussehra meal with kids at SUPPORT – an NGO that rehabilitates drug and sexually abused street children through an all-round intervention program of detox, education, civic sense etc. and strives to bring them back into the social mainstream.  Truly, an epic battle between the good and the evil where the good seems to be winning by its single-minded determination and community support!

Oh yes! Dussehra is just one of the unending list of festivals that we celebrate in India. Our festival season starts in August and continues till the year end. Infact, barring a lull between April and August, we continue to celebrate one festival or the other. Like brands, India’s festivals can be categorised as native but national, super-segmented, imported, et al. Of course, our independence day, republic day, birthday of Mahatma Gandhi add to our celebrations further.

So when do we get the time to work? We do find the time. Guess, the fact that we are the second fastest growing economy in the world consistently for a decade answers it better. We seem to have found a formula that allows us to celebrate our festivals and also work towards our economic growth simultaneously.
The rationale for why India must ‘celebrate’ her festivals lay in her complex socio-economic fabric. By nature, we are an emotions driven society. We are bound by our family, friends, relatives and neighbours. We need our religions. In metropolis like Mumbai, we also need people who hail from the similar region we belonged to originally. We like to express ourselves overtly. We like to argue. We are Indians!

Surely, these are generalisations. But amidst all the social, cultural, economic, religious and regional diversities, we cannot ignore these overriding characteristics of a typical Indian.

Festivals simplify the complexities of our society. Festivals give us a break from our routine challenges. Festivals help us to carry forward our socio-cultural traditions from one generation to another. Irrespective of religion, caste, creed, economic status, etc., everyone participates in a festival in his/her own way.
Surely, some of us do not like the way some others celebrate their festivals. Festivals do contribute to noise, air and water pollution. But to leave your town for a holiday during an important festival is almost like leaving India for a ‘better’ quality of life in some other country. By doing this the quality of one’s materialistic life may get better, but the collateral sacrifices are substantial.

For, it is during festivals that you manage to catch up with your friends, relatives and community in rather pleasant circumstances. It is during a festival that you come closer to your roots as well as to your community.

So celebrate festivals to ‘celebrate’ togetherness.

30. October 2012 by Sushil Bahal
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World of Indian Languages

The last two months have seen a flurry of interesting and at times contrary news of the world of Indian language.

Endangered Languages, a project launched last month by Google and the International Alliance for Linguistic Diversity lists 53 of 1,635, Indian languages under varying levels of threat. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lists 197 Indian languages on a scale of “vulnerable” to “extinct”.

Last month, Facebook announced the launch of the “Facebook for Every Phone” mobile application in seven local Indian languages — Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Bengali and Marathi, in addition to Hindi, which became available last year.

An article in Times of India Chennai talked about “Translated vernacular literature gaining popularity”.  The article quotes Mini Krishnan, editor-translations of Oxford University Press-India who has edited 73 translations because retrieving them is vital to reclaiming our identity. Indian publishers who had earlier ignored translations and regional language writers are waking up to their aesthetic and commercial potential.

Local languages have becoming increasingly important as can be seen in the plethora of regional media in print, TV and radio. According to Mrutyunjaya Kar, one of the moderators of the Odia Facebook group for Wikipedia and a prolific Wikipedia contributor, at present Wikipedia has contributors for 21 different local languages of India and interestingly, English has also been considered as a local language!

Languages have a unique perspective upon the world, a way of looking at the world that can be best explained only in the regional dialect.  An insight into the world of languages is becoming a challenge and opportunity to PR agencies.  This makes India, linguistically the most challenging markets in Asia, indeed the world.

According to a report by KPMG -FICCI,  in 2011, Regional television and print continued its strong growth trajectory owing to growth in incomes and consumption in the regional markets. National advertisers are looking at these markets as the next consumption hubs and the local advertisers are learning the benefits of marketing their products aggressively.

PR agencies do not give enough attention for content offerings in media targeted regions even with over a third of our over 400 channels in regional languages, somehow, communication professionals have not given this the attention it deserves.

17. September 2012 by Meera Tenguria
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