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Picture Perfect

Whether holding forth on corporate corruption or agency rivals, India's Dilip Cherian has carved out a crucial role in the country's media landscape.

Holmes Report

As founding partner of India’s Perfect Relations, Dilip Cherian heads a 20-year-old firm that has grown to become one of the largest and oldest independent players in the country’s fast-moving public relations market.

Yet Cherian cannot be defined by his pioneering agency role alone. In Delhi, the former journalist is a well-known figure in the corridors of influence, sitting at the nexus of of media, politics and industry.

In this guise, Cherian has become something of a personality, styling himself as an ‘image management guru’ and maintaing a high media profile. One that is helped, no doubt, by a prolific, entertaining Twitter account and a naturally garrulous disposition.

Cherian begins his Holmes Report interview by recounting a meeting with another trade journalist from Hong Kong several years ago. It is a lively tale, delivered in a typically shrewd manner, and ends with the reminder that “there are only 18m people in Delhi and we know most of them.”

It is also an apt starting point, because Cherian is often recognised as someone who understands the value of connections better than most. Unsurprisingly, he is keen to play down his personal network’s contribution to Perfect’s success, instead extolling the long-term tenure of Perfect’s senior leadership team, and the importance of independence.

If nothing else, though, Cherian’s incisive understanding of political risk, particularly in light of the recent rise of civil society activism in India, sheds plenty of light on looming problems for corporates. That and other issues, including the relevance of neurology and cardiology to the PR business, were discussed during an animated interview, interrupted only by Cherian’s seemingly visceral attachment to his cellphone.

How important is being well connected for your business?

I have a guiding rule on this. When I interview people I ask them why do you want to do PR. Usually as a company, we try to have a fairly healthy number of people who are in the company who haven’t been in the industry before.

If people say they like working with people - I will, eight times out of 10, reject that person. That’s not the reason to be in PR. You’ve got to be good with people. But it’s a hard business. It requires skills, analysis, long hours - very often, the last thing you get to do is meet people. 

But for your own role, how important is it to be as well-connected as you are?

As a company we are a little above 20-years-old. For the last 10 years, I have carefully ringfenced myself into doing a role which is truly like an internal mentor. I spend most of my time - four appointments out of five - inside the company. Therefore, the role of who I know is minisicule today in the company. At least eight out of 10 clients I would never have met before. [My connections] are there as a safety valve.

Surely it must provide clients with some level of confidence?

It provides clients with confidence because they know people that I know. Most of them have to have comfort with the functioning team. That is part of institution-building. The partners don’t have their name on the firm, which is by design. We believe we are creating a strong organisational structure, which has a merry band of anarchic CEOs that rule their empires.

Perfect is 20 years old. During that time, what are the major changes you’ve seen in Indian PR?

The biggest change has been the sizeable entry of the global people. They have come in and mostly acquired Indian agencies. Now the pattern has stabilized. That’s been a major change.

Has it been a good thing for the industry?

It’s allowed the industry to up its level of exposure to more systems-oriented working. Less gladiator-style. It’s allowed the industry to benchmark functional skillsets at various levels. It’s also allowed Indian clients to get a sense of what’s on offer in the so-called best-in-class global players. So when they do a pitch after using a global agency, they know what’s the best on offer that they can get from a global agency. It’s helped the bigger and better ones to move up the value chain.

It doesn’t appear to have slowed your growth.

We are a bit more flexible than global companies which have certain parameters. We have a flexible approach in terms of who we throw at a problem - who we empower to sort out a problem. Over there it’s - you’re at this fee level so you’re entitled to this. We might have a small client that gets face time with Bobby [Kewalramani, Perfect co-founder]. That allows us to retain growth, which is always based on your ability to market yourself to different parts of the market.

Surely you’ve considered selling?

We’re approached quite often. We have taken a view that we don’t intend to sell. Because we believe that the best is yet to come. That’s usually a good reason. We figured out that both Bobby and I would make poor employees today. We don’t think we’d survive the lock-in period. Accountants’ offers don’t interest us.

Do you think too many independent Indian firms have sold?

I think so. It’s a matter of concern when any industry begins to depopulate itself from homegrown native-owned corporations. That’s a sign of lack of confidence on the side of entrepreneurs that get into the business.

Perfect is described as a image consultancy. Can you please explain what that means?

It was a concept we created when we started. We wanted to eventually create an agency which would be consulted by the CXO office. We didn’t want to be relegated to any other function. It’s got to be at a level where it’s part of the management tools. So it’s not a functional tool, but it’s part of broader management tools. The coinage of the word was made by me.

But image is superficial. Isn’t that a risk?

At that time it wasn’t. Secondly, we stuck to it because we believe all words go though cycles of connotations, and, because we believe in longer-term thinking, we didn’t worry about it.

Last year, India’s largest PR firm shut down. What were the lessons for the industry as a whole?

The way that firm had defined its business model didn’t impinge on us. They were perhaps in the cardiology business and we considered ourselves to be in the neurology business. The tools, places and skills we worked with were different. You could make a lot more money if you ran your business in the cardiology space. But you make more effort and be more cutting-edge in the neurology space.

That analogy presupposes that both practices were equally sustainable.

You could do a reasonable cardiology business if you didn’t insist on a heart transplant every time. It’s not sustainable if you go for a heart transplant every time.

Do you think the market is better off without Vaishnavi?

The great thing about the Indian market is it has to do with the way we are as a country. We can absorb a lot. People come, people go. This is a market that rolls with the punches. I don’t think it would have mattered if it had stayed on - it would have resulted in some me-too players. The market has space for that kind of a cardiology practice. We figured we are not good at that so we didn’t get into that space.

The allegations concerning Vaishnavi, did they not concern you as a the head of another major local firm?

It took a little time, especially for the independent players, to be able to shake off the mud that was all around. This is both a market that does not forget and that does not forgive. It remembers who’s done what, and if you’ve not done that, for a while it may seem you are tarred with the same brush but, after a while, people forget.

Looking at your blog and tweets, you don’t sugarcoat things but you are quite upbeat about the situation in India. How difficult a balancing act is that?

The upbeat is a reflection of my good serene, Christian upbringing. Having been brought up in a strict Syrian Orhtodox upbringing, one always looks for hope. The reality comes from my enormous proximity to all the power centres. Whether parties in the ruling coalition or the parties in the opposing coalition, I have very good friends, long family relationships and I’m very connected to the regional satraps.

I am constantly buffeted by the pessimism that nothing is happening, and then you travel to Ahmedabad and you pick up a nuance of what’s happening there, you go to Kolkata and find that there are things working.

I have a privileged access into the politics of things. Secondly, I have a long history of writing personally on the bureaucracy - I get insights from people who are the managers of the system. The third lot of people I am very closely linked with is are industrialists, because of my 15 years reporting for Business India. And my personal network goes beyond these three to include academics.

So, I am entitled to hover between irrational exuberance and measured pessimism. Because I usually know. And 90 percent has got nothing to do with my work.

The rising movement against corruption. How big of a risk is it to corporate in India?

The government may try to water it down by trying to include corporates within a new law on corruption. It’s no longer an issue of the giver and taker both being to blame, it’s the issue of the extractor versus the ‘extractee’. Very often the ‘extractee’ is a hapless victim. And the victim can be found more easily, and punished more easily, but I believe they are not to blame. It’s a huge issue and it will cause enormous problems for corporates.

Are corporates alive to this looming problem?

I’m afraid they are not. They all spend their time worrying about functional hindrances rather than fundamental tectonic shifts. Corporates need to be more sensitive to when the ground under their feet is shifting.

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India Dilip Cherian
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