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PR Retainers, the flat cake that never rises: Intelliquo Integrated Communication's Sonali Sokhal

Sonali Sokhal: The 'Scope of Work' is an expanding universe

It’s 2024, global inflation is at 6.6%, still many points above pre-pandemic levels. Inflation in India is at 5.6%. Salary expectations in the country have risen by 10.4% on an average across multiple positions. Yet, PR retainers have been stagnant for many years, many times even falling below average!

It’s a malaise across the industry, which is faced by large agencies as well as smaller and even boutique firms. 

PR retainers for D2C brands can go as low as INR 25,000 a month, while larger national brands can get away with pushing for a national PR retainer for about INR 60k to 80k a month. Even larger brands, with deep pockets, can easily close retainers at amounts like INR 3,00,000/- to INR 5,00,000 a month. 

Yet, the average salary of a person working on even one such account can range from INR 40,000 to INR 75,000 a month. Add to this the new insistence on multiple coverage links and you can envision agencies opting for paid media and wire services adding further pressure on already beleaguered businesses.

What is the reason that PR Retainers have not been able to rise, despite most services getting higher and salaries rising exponentially? 

There are multiple reasons for this.

PR is losing credibility because the measurement analysis is skewed: In the pre-digital world, measuring media value by the Barcelona principles, and using AVE was a simple and straightforward process. Today, with the influx of digital media and online links, tracking page views, and impressions has become tedious and inaccurate. No publication releases accurate data on page views, and no third-party app, or media buying guide, can offer accurate assessments. This has led to the PR industry constantly fighting to establish value on deliveries.

The 'Scope of Work' is an expanding universe: Legal contracts and scope of work documents in India are jokes. Once the agency and the client are in a retainership agreement, it becomes a bit like a toxic marriage, where one person is forever giving in to incessant demands. The scope of work keeps increasing, while the retainer stays the same, thus making the profitability on the account even lower than before. Agencies often find themselves in sales and marketing functions while being paid a tiny retainership for PR.

Too many Fish in the Sea!: Competition is increasing as many disillusioned professionals are dropping out of larger agencies to strike out on their own. As margins decrease, smaller entities operating on tiny budgets and two or three-people teams can garner enough clients. This also leads to undercutting retainers, and therefore increasing competition for companies that might have larger overheads.

Media itself has lost its value: One of the main reasons PR is losing ground is not even related to the issues within the industry, but dependent on the fact that most PR activities in India are still driven by media relations and media coverage. As ‘earned’ media slots shrink, and print itself becomes an extinct beast, media has lost a lot of ground in terms of credibility. The space, especially in consumer media has been taken up by smart influencers, who know their value and are not giving away anything for free. This has created havoc with client budgets as they look around for the best options across social, digital and traditional platforms.

Marketing is a broken mirror: Marketers do not know where their audiences are anymore. Are they reading the luxury magazine? Are they watching reels of their favourite influencer? Are they reading posts on LinkedIn? Are they attending events? Where are they and what is the form of media they are consuming? Once upon a time, a single review on Friday by veteran food critic, the late Sabina Sehgal Saikia, would have people flocking to the restaurant, irrespective of the review tonality. In today’s time, even fifty influencers posting positive reviews may not get the same result. Despite the wealth of data and analysis, it has become even more difficult to trace the outcomes and values of campaigns.

Yet, PR is a function that is here to stay. Like it or hate it, companies will always need credible reputation management, even as social media trends ebb and flow. It is high time a universal metric of measurement, as well as a retainer fee structure, could be created for the industry. It’s high time, we got the full cake, baked with some icing and a cherry on top.

Sonali Sokhal is the founder, of Intelliquo Integrated Communication and co-founder, of PRPOI 

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