After 19 years of working in communications at Ogilvy and having observed the business closely, Meenakshi Bhalla was beginning to feel bored and there was a restlessness for new challenges and unchartered territories.
She got the opportunity for a fresh start when in April 2008 she met Meenakshi Madhvani, a media veteran formerly with Lowe, Carat, and Zee TV.
“We knew through experience how big commercial agencies engage with the development sector, do advertising to win awards and then forget about the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and their challenges completely. And we wanted to change that and truly deliver results and make progress happen for the NGOs through communication-driven strategies,” Bhalla told INSEAD Knowledge.
Madhvani then asked Bhalla if she would be willing “to traverse from big name-big job Ogilvy to a relatively unknown, unrewarding world called the social sector.”
By July 2008, they had teamed up and launched Spatial Access Communications (SAC) Consultancy.
The communications model
SAC’s ethos is about “creating an idea and shepherding it out, nurturing it to life through an integrated communications approach.”
“We launched our services with professionals who came from large communications agencies, and now the same expertise and skills are made available to non-profit organisations in a transparent and accountable manner, at costs which are unique and results which are measurable,” says Bhalla.
SAC’s chief executive Bhalla and Madhvani, its chairperson, believe this will help social enterprises get a larger footprint for themselves in awareness and driving change, while Indians become more sensitive to what must be done and what is being done beyond the cosmopolitan cities they live in, so that they volunteer and chip in to make a difference.
In order to connect with social enterprises, the team does cold calling or goes by referrals.
“In India, there are 1.75 million NGOs and growing every day,” says Bhalla. “We spend a lot of time sifting through them in order to spot the genuine ones before beginning the work that leads directly to communication efforts with the purpose of spreading the awareness net wider for the NGO to operate in a larger catchment area.”
Given the amount of sifting work they have done since inception, cold calling may not be necessary in the future.
Its team of account managers and planners then go into the field and live with the villagers, spending time with them in order to understand their goals and dreams. They allow time for this to “sink in” and plan strategies to help social enterprises improve their business plans and overcome their challenges – with or without a communications focus.
“Consulting pro-bono for NGOs goes beyond our assigned tasks – it’s our contribution to them,” says Bhalla. “With every media opportunity, we keep costs low and the accounting totally transparent. We are, after all, the antithesis of an advertising agency.”
SAC’s projects include Vanashakti, an NGO that is concerned about irregular distribution of forest land to builders and real estate developers by the government without keeping an eye on its impact on forests. It aims to keep in check flooding due to heavy rains.
SAC worked with these projects on a communication-led advocacy programme that pressured the Indian government to take another look at its land distribution strategy. “At first the government thought there was a massive uprising. But eventually they got the government to keep sanctuaries outside the purview of the Forest Rights act,” says Bhalla.
Another project just launched is ‘Laadli’ that is committed to correcting the gender skew in India where for every 1,000 males there are only 849 females, as well as to stopping the killing of female foetuses. SAC’s initiated both online and offline communications campaigns to get the message across to Indians.
“We worked on a complete story with instances from across the country to depict the horror of this crime and reached out to the upper classes to raise money to fund this campaign for Laadli. We have just launched the one-million-signature campaign and the initial results are heartwarming,” says Bhalla.
Changing the traditional mindset
SAC has been educating and training social entrepreneurs on the importance of professionalism to emulate the corporate world so that they can ‘speak’ to executives in a language that they understand.
For example, in their work with the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), which seeks to improve the lives of those living in areas where water is scarce, Bhalla and her team trained the staff to approach senior management of large corporations using simple but creative and interactive presentations, as vendors would do when marketing their products to corporate clients.
They are also passing on business acumen to social entrepreneurs. For example, they advocate that it is better to pay good money for prime time television and get the attention of decision makers, philanthropists and the general public than buy TV slots that not many people are watching.
“It is about using creativity and relevant ideas sprinkled with a generous dose of business acumen to move people’s hearts, minds and wallets” says Bhalla.
SAC is a for-profit organisation, with a mix of not-for-profit companies and corporates as clients. They charge the same low rate for corporations as they would for not-for-profit companies, and aim to deliver with the same commitment, transparency and accountability.
July 2009 saw their first breakeven month on an operating basis. They expect to recover the losses of the past year over the next 12 months and start making profits from then on.
In their team of 12, they ensure that there are no layers. “Everyone goes for market visits, maps strategies (and) insights … that’s the only way to stay true to reality,” says Bhalla. They farm out the collateral part of the business so that they can concentrate on their core business which is providing advice and strategic insight.
“This model seems to be helping us deliver results by connecting with society in a relevant manner to disseminate the multi-diverse societal issues plaguing our society, creating awareness and sensitising the masses to the cause, and influencing decision makers and philanthropists,” Bhalla adds.