Csaba Csetényi: I don’t scare easily

June 24, 2017

Photo: Dániel Kovalovszky

Translation of Ágnes Lampé’s interview with Hungarian media mogul Csaba Csetényi appearing in the June 22, 2017 edition of Hungarian print weekly 168 óra under the title “Getting at Rogán – Csaba Csetényi – I don’t scare easily.”

Csaba Csetényi, known to the public as the neighbour of Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office Antal Rogán, has been winning one state advertising contract after another for years, and the government counts his firm as its number one agency. It handled the advertising for the “forced settlement”referendum and anti-migrant campaign, government reforms, the expansion of the Paks nuclear plant, and the sale of government bonds, among other things. It looked like he would win 2017’s 25 billion-forint “gigatender” for government communications, but in the end his company took only two of 18 contracts, worth 0.7% of the budget, amid competition from another two other firms with close ties to the government. The word is that he may have fallen from grace because he was late with his payments, but he says he was being used to send a message to Antal Rogán.

Were you scared?

No I wasn’t. It was more a case of me wondering what this could all be about. Maybe someone wanted to send a message this way.

What?

I can’t decipher it. But I don’t scare easily, and I’ve seen a lot. If someone has a problem with me, let them call.

So what is the message?

I really don’t know.

Up until now, you have appeared in the press as a businessman with close ties to Fidesz in a privileged position with regards public procurements, as well as the neighbour of Antal Rogán. The description “fallen from grace” is quite new.

I have been in the market for 20 years. As this was never an issue earlier on, I can only assume that this story is not about me.

Then who?

They are only using me to get at minister Rogán.

Who wants to get at him?

His political enemies.

Who are they?

I couldn’t say.

Why  are they attacking?

It’s part of a political power struggle. They are only using me, that is they call me Rogán’s neighbour, and don’t call him my neighbour.

Did you miss out on the 25 billion-forint state tender so Rogán’s enemies in the government could give him a good kicking?

No. We lost the tenders because our competitors put in a better bid. I never believed that my address card would be more famous than me. Obviously, it gets on my nerves, since who lives next door to me shouldn’t have such an impact on my life.

Why shouldn’t it? Your commissions came from your friend and neighbour, the Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office. You are there where strategic decisions are made, and you are involved in their implementation.

That is only true of the commissions that we won. Personal connections play no part in these decisions.

In the first round of the tender, your company only won two of 18 commissions, worth 0.7% of the 24.76 billion funding framework. Meanwhile, Trinity Kft – a firm owned by Tibor Kuna, who enjoys good relations with Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szíjjártó and Minister of National Development Miklós Seszták – won 10.3 billion, and the firm you used to work for, Gyula Balásy’s New Land Media Kft, got 14 billion. Are they taking your place?

We’ve lost a few tenders over recent months, this is quite natural. What we haven’t lost is the quality of our work.

What did Rogán say had happened?

He cannot give me any information, since I’m taking part in the tender. There are strict rules about disclosing data.

If you bump into each other at home, it’s only natural that you would ask.

There’s been no such occasion.

I have heard that this was a warning because of arguments over settling accounts. Press reports suggest you were late with or missed making payments to pro-government media that are partly funded through state advertising contracts, and several media chiefs complained. The complaints reached as high as Prime Minister Orbán himself.

I ask myself if I have any problems with my accounts, but this is a pointless question. I have never owed anybody anything.

And yet lots of people in the market are complaining.

It is difficult running an agency. In most cases we are paying with other people’s money, so when buying advertising space, we cannot pay a given publication until we have received the money.

If it is not because of late payment, then what?

The price was decisive. The others bid lower.

Was price never an issue for you before?

Our competitors have discovered a new pricing policy, so we have lost a good few tenders in the past three months. However, we have not allowed our standards to slip.

So is the price the issue now, or are they punishing Rogán?

How could these two things be linked? They are using his being a neighbour and the imagined connections behind that to attack the minister through the media. What does this have to do with our success?

Because until now you have been controlling huge sums of money. Two firms, Network 360 Kft and Affiliate Network Kft, had a combined revenue totalling 5.3 billion forints in 2015. The revenue of the former rose from 589 million in 2014 to 4.6 billion, an eightfold increase, while that of the latter increased by a factor of 158, from 4.69 million to 741.9 million forints.

I had a good year.

Since 2014, you have won state contracts worth 23.7 billion forints (USD 88 million-tran.).

Much of this was for buying media space, which distorts the revenue figures. Only 15% of the total stayed with us, and we had to cover all expenses with it.

It’s still a tidy sum.

I’m a businessman, I get up in the morning and go to work to make money. I tell you, I’ve been working in this sector for 20 years, and you can see that we have grown nicely and steadily.

One could rather say exponentially. Of the 5.1 billion forints worth of public procurements that you have won since 2010, you received 3.1 billion in 2015.

We have been applying for tenders for 14 years. It took a decade to build up a company group with sufficiently high turnover for us to be invited to bid at all. But why are we talking only about figures?

Because they are huge. Only last year you took a 700 million forint (USD 2.6 million) dividend from your company.

I have been a businessman for 32 years. I have always argued with colleagues who graduated in economics because I believe you have to take money out of a company or it will be spent. Although 700 million is a big number, ten million is also a lot. This 700 million hasn’t changed the way I live.

Really?

I only live two corners away from where I grew up as a kid. I drive an 18-year-old BMW. I’ve been working with my business partner for 20 years, and with my mother – who runs our cigar shop – for 32 years. My life is stable. Last year was just another year like any other.

I have heard it said that you withdrew this huge sum because you know you have fallen from grace, and this is how you are closing things down.

That is nonsense. I’ll still be here in twenty years’ time. Of course there are some serious discussions going on in the company, and the pricing strategy clearly needs to be changed.

How much did your competitors undercut you by?

Not much. The bid in the last round was in a three or four thousand row Excel table, so it’s difficult to compare the prices. There was no big difference in the final result. But I would rather talk about what we do, how good our campaigns are, and whether we used public funds efficiently.

Is it possible to communicate effectively with such a sum?

If you have to ask that, you don’t understand the business. If one took the time to look at the results of what we did, they would see how effectively we work.

Do you rate it as effective when the referendum on the [EU refugee] quota, which you handled for 17 billion forints, turned out to be invalid. Orbán’s people were supposedly not satisfied with the campaign.

The validity was a function of complex political factors, and it cannot be put down simply to the advertising. For me, it was a great result that 2.5 million people went to vote. Who voted “yes” and who voted “no” is not my business, I’m not a politician.

The government was the client, and clearly they judged the success in terms of the validity.

The client gave us the task of making sure the campaign reached as many people as possible regarding this momentous question that would define our lives for decades.

What feedback did you get after the campaign?

That we had reached the expected number.

What was that number?

I don’t know. It was defined by a plan based on demographics, age groups, and regions.

Why did you not advertise in media owned by Lajos Simicska?

We only make recommendations about the advertising, it is for the client to decide.

Did you recommend Simicska’s media outlets?

I’m not the media buyer, it is always my colleagues who draw up the plans.

Did you not even see the plan?

I don’t remember, I see lots of plans.

Would you have recommended these media outlets?

I don’t know. If the question had arisen, I would have asked the colleague dealing with media buying to look at the figures. I am the owner of the company.

What do you think of the boycott, anyway?

A person only really knows his own opinion when he tells it to other people. That is why I am on the side of discussion and dialogue. But politics is a strange arena, especially at election time, when everyone is thinking only about how to win.

The boycott has been in place since “G-Day” in February 2015, and there was no campaign at the time.

It is for politicians to comment on this.

Since G-Day, Simicska’s media have carried no state advertising, and their revenue has plummeted.

A client wants to address a part of the public where his message has a good chance of being heard. There is no point in advertising where it will fall on deaf ears. Everyone reads and listens in their own bubble, being widely read is a thing of the past. People only do it now if they want to raise their blood pressure.

Simicska’s media used to have a right-wing audience. There could still be many among them.

I’m not sure about that. You’d have to conduct research into how his viewer and readership profile has changed.

That means that your not advertising in Simicska’s media wasn’t based on research data?

There’s not much point in a fast-food restaurant advertising in an organic food magazine.

And yet you did contact 168 Óra. Even I was surprised.

I will talk to anyone. Not just because I’m dealing with public money, but because for me it is natural that I should respond if someone asks me something.

Why don’t you recommend the same to members of Fidesz and the government?

A politician has entirely different aims. I notice it is not easy for journalists either – most of the articles about me appear without me having been asked.

They say you negotiate regularly with Árpád Habony.

I don’t negotiate with him. We meet now and then.

 Then you really could advise him on occasion that the Fidesz party and government potentates should talk to the press.

We usually meet on social occasions, where there is no shop talk.

Then not during social events, but at professional gatherings.

We do not meet with him, but with delegates from the prime minister’s cabinet office, their colleagues meet my colleagues.

Why do you think the prime minister and all other Fidesz government leaders have cut Habony off?

They’ve cut him off? I hadn’t heard. You would have to ask them – I don’t know what the connection is between them.

Would you be upset if I said I didn’t believe you?

No. But you’ll have to ask them about it.

According to the latest report from Freedom House, Hungary is among the countries where press freedom has deteriorated the most in the past year. A similar process is playing out in Venezuela, Turkey and Poland.

Hungary has freedom of the press. Full stop. I don’t know the numbers, but at times like this I always think of Churchill’s classic line: “I only trust those statistics that I faked myself”. And anyway, I don’t know what scale you can use to measure press freedom. How many articles appear that are critical of the government? A lot. Unfortunately the media no longer tries to inform; it has become a policy maker. 168 Óra is read by blinkered left-wingers who will never understand me, or blinkered right-wingers who read it to fix their low blood pressure. Everyone is in their own bubble.

Do you agree with the messages that the government is communicating, for example with the referendum against the refugee quota?

As a private person, yes, broadly speaking. As an agency this is not the point: we just carry out commissions.

What is your opinion of Finkelstein’s communication strategy based on manufacturing enemies?

Parties communicate as though there were nobody in the centre. Everyone talks only to their own voters, and the important thing is to be able to mobilise them. But this isn’t unique to Fidesz, I’ve seen it in the opposition, too. There are very few organisations whose members debate, which have a programme, and where there are values and opposing values.

We know that before Fidesz rolls out a political message, it tests the text in focus groups to see whether it works.

All professional parties work in this way.

We never used to have the world “migrant”, now it is a regular part of the public discourse.

Politics is the most creative of industries. It is terribly difficult to convince people that you will do what you say you will. Moreover, this needs to be done in the shortest possible format, with a single sentence, phrase or word. Churchill also said “I’ve not had the time to prepare a speech, so I’m going to talk for a long time”. Politics is an art that not many people can do.

Is “CEU” not a word that the government pushed too far?

No one seriously believes that anyone would be able to obstruct George Soros with such a bureaucratic, paper shuffling move, do they?

The setting up of an American campus which the law stipulates is a basic requirement if the CEU is to continue functioning is mere paper shuffling?

Absolutely. Soros’s secretary could sort it out in 12 minutes if she wanted to. This affair is about something else entirely.

What?

If we look back in a year’s time, it will be clear what the real aim was. I’m just watching. What is for sure is that George Soros cannot be stopped by bureaucratic means. Let’s wait and see how it ends.