In Conversation with Atul Sharma

What is the magic needed to unlock the future? It’s technology without a doubt, feels Atul Sharma, Managing Director of Ruder Finn India as he says that at the heart of his firm is a strong Technology Practice, which sharpens their growth trajectory. He strongly believes that Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are the future of communications.

Currently at Ruder Finn, Atul is responsible for overall management and operations. Prior to joining Ruder Finn, he was the Chief Operating Officer at Genesis Burson-Marsteller (now Genesis-BCW).

A communications veteran for two decades, he is valued for being a trusted advisor to clients across technology, telecom, venture capital, consulting, aviation, automobiles, retail and consumer durables industries. Having counselled diverse businesses, both Indian and multinational, on corporate and brand reputation programmes, his expertise includes storytelling for start-ups, advocacy programmes, CEO positioning, messaging, issues and crisis management, digital, media relations and integrated campaigns.

Atul also holds the office of Vice President, Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI).

In a conversation with Shree Lahiri, he speaks passionately about his contributions to the business, how new technology will spell out the future, evolving client needs, the challenges that leadership faces in PR, the sunrise sectors that will embrace PR, some words of wisdom for the new generation and more…

RT: You had spent close to 15 years at Genesis BCW. What were your major contributions to the firm and its clients?

AS: I had a great innings at Genesis BCW and made a lot of friends who are more like family to me. The organisation provided me ample learning opportunities as I rose to the level of Chief Operating Officer, over a span of 14 years. It imbibed great values like meritocracy, integrity and team spirit which I value the most as a professional. Above all, it taught entrepreneurship to professionals, which was definitely way ahead of its times. A big thank you to Prema Sagar for the amazing culture, great work, learnings, parties and fun.

Amongst my major contributions, I can happily say that I worked towards building technology as the largest and most profitable practice at Genesis BCW and built a world-class team with strong values along the journey. I was fortunate to mentor and work with high-growth verticals, which included the Newsroom, the Digital Studio and Step Up. In my last role as COO, I not only worked with clients across the spectrum, from technology, telecom, start-ups, digital, corporate, finance to sports but also worked with teams to win big and interesting new business mandates. I have learnt an incredible lot and will always be proud to have worked at Genesis BCW.

RT: What attracted you Ruder Finn after a long stint with a large firm?

AS: Ruder Finn has a strong story, the brand is fiercely independent and is home to some of the greatest campaigns in the history of public relations. Ruder Finn is also one of the largest independent communications firms in the world, with a strong market presence across the US, Europe and China, India not being a part of the mix, was an opportunity as well as a challenge, that got me hooked.

There was clear opportunity to strengthen the brand reputation and ethos in India and bring alive the true global values and stupendous body of work along the way. It provided me the platform to build a dynamic, agile and future-ready organisation which clients are looking for. That, along with a culture that fosters meritocracy, creativity, integrity and team spirit.

From a size perspective, we are in an ideal position. We are building the firm aligned to our client needs on one side and our people aspirations on the other. With my experience, I can confidently say that we have the energy, passion and spirit of a growing firm, as well as the experience, diversity and culture of a global organisation. We have just the right ingredients in-house powering our growth and are at the ‘Just Right’ size to be able to offer a definitive and undivided focus to our clients.

RT: What have been your achievements at Ruder Finn India after taking the reins earlier this year?

AS: It has been an interesting and fulfilling journey so far. Recently, I completed a year at Ruder Finn and in this short span, we have managed to build a fantastic team. Having started out with 14 people, today we’ve expanded to a strength of 50 associates – all with a common purpose, goal and above all, a common vision.

Additionally, we have won over ten businesses in the past twelve months, which defines our growth trajectory and the pace at which we are poised to operate. We had a strong Technology Practice at Ruder Finn, and in the last one year we have been able to build a strong Consumer Connect Practice. We are also invested in building an influencer, digital and social vertical under the aegis of Ruder Finn Interactive, a subsidiary of Ruder Finn Worldwide, which is a global success story.

RT: You began your career, working with Corporate Voice | Weber Shandwick and Clea Public Relations. How did you get into Public Relations? 

AS: I was introduced to the world of public relations by Nikhil Dey, (Currently Vice Chair, Weber Shandwick India) who was then the branch head at Clea Public Relations. I met him at my alma mater, Delhi University wherein we had an interesting conversation and then joined Clea. He has been a great mentor throughout my journey. Post Clea, I joined Corporate Voice, Weber Shandwick. It was my first stint with the technology sector and got me really hooked. Working with Atul Ahluwalia and Pradeep Wadhwa was a great learning experience.

RT: How are client needs different today compared to when you started 20 years ago?

AS: Twenty years ago, we had a 12-hour working day which has monstrously transformed into a 24-hour gruelling cycle. That, perhaps, is the biggest change in the world of public relations – we are always on. We’ve become more agile, fast, efficient and responsive. The speed and the response time to what happens around is down to almost zero and the media of communications have multiplied significantly. Years ago, we were dealing with a limited number of media publications. Today, the media world has proliferated beyond print, TV, radio and online. We have new-age influencers, bloggers on even newer platforms like TikTok and Helo, which have added to the complexity.

RT: What is your perspective on new technologies like AI and ML, and what does it mean for the future of communications?

AS: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are the future of communications. With the kind of complexities that the business is in for, one can only manage so much manually. At the cost of sounding cautionary, I believe the ride ahead is going to get far more complex than it is right now. New technology is going to be the future, not only to monitor and keep a tab on what’s happening, but also on how to best tackle an imminent crisis.

We will need to automate every possible process along the way, if we want to stay responsive to our clients as well as the media fraternity. Infact, at Ruder Finn we believe and live the philosophy that technology is disrupting communication. We are the first public relations firm to be certified by Amazon for Alexa Skills, we have proprietary tools like Beacon, Sonar and Riskstat that help in leveraging AI and ML and we have acquired technology firms like RLA Collective and SPI Global to stay ahead of the times.

RT: What are the sunrise sectors that will embrace Public Relations in the coming years? 

AS: Sports, start-ups, health are going to be the sunrise sectors in the coming years. I also believe stories about technology and on technology will never go out of fashion. I hope public relations gets to play a stronger role in the start-up sector than what we do currently, as I see India churning out way more start-ups in the future. The rising dispensable incomes, non-cliched aspirations and dreams and focus on fitness, will also see the world of sports evolving. We now see, newer games including basketball, kabaddi, tennis, football, badminton, table tennis, boxing taking centre stage.

Our changing diet and lifestyles, the rising epidemics of diabetes and cardio diseases also pave the way for interesting and creative storytelling by companies that will build or are already building a business around wellness, I see a lot of potential in this sector as well.

RT: What are the challenges that leadership at PR consulting firms face today? 

AS: The lack of talent is one of the biggest challenges that PR firms face today. Coupled by shrinking retainers and increasing compensation cost, we are not able to attract and retain the best of talent. If we need to stay ahead of the curve, we should be able to upsell our services, make it insight and advisory led, which can lift the bar, and keep the new generation enthused, engaged and hopeful about the sector. I also feel that adoption of technology is not as fast as it should be. Our allied sectors like advertising, is leveraging new technologies like AI, ML, AR, VR to tell stories in an interesting fashion.

RT: What do you do in your leisure time? 

AS: I am into fitness for body as well as mind. I invest my time in pursuing running, trekking, cycling, power lifting for the body and indulge in fun family time, meditation, reading and introspecting to keep my grey cells alive and kicking.

RT: What is your advice for youngsters getting into the PR profession?

AS: Stay hungry, stay relevant, stay in touch with the times. If you want to contribute to this profession, if you want to change this profession for good, adapt to newer technologies. Experiment with ideas driven by technology and how they can be used to change this profession. Stay in tune with new-age platforms and technologies as they will direct you towards emerging stories. Keep an eye out for developing trends and how you can work towards bringing them alive for your clients in more ways than one. Lastly, sharpen your ETQ (Emotional and Technology Quotient) because the way things are progressing, we will need more teamwork and collaboration apart from talking to machines. Sharpen your ETQ because the next leader of the PR world is going to be one of you. The better you can communicate with machines as well as humans, the better you will be equipped to be a successful new-age leader.

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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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