In Conversation with N Ravi Shankar

Do we feel good about where we are in life? What if the grass truly is greener on the other side? That was the line of thought that was top-of-mind for N Ravi Shankar, CEO, Aim High Consulting when he switched from Advertising to the world of PR, early in his career.

With a career spanning over two decades, Ravi has steered many high profile brands to success such as – Flipkart, Ola, 3M, Helion Ventures, Lok Capital, EduSports, Azure Power amongst many other new-age and technology-enabled businesses. Managing PR for start-ups, over twelve years, his consulting firm has built a reputation of being the go-to PR consultancy for companies who are in the growth-stage. Most of Aim High Consulting’s clients are well-funded, technology-enabled start-ups and new-age businesses. Under Ravi’s leadership, Aim High Consulting has won several awards across PR, Advertising and Internal Communication practices.

An MBA, coupled with two PG Diplomas in Journalism and in Marketing, Ravi started his career at FCB-Ulka, Mumbai. He then went on to serve as Vice President – Strategy at Brand-comm, a leading Public Relations, Brand Consulting and Advertising organisation.

In a candid conversation with Shree Lahiri, he talks about his journey as an entrepreneur, his transition to PR, the challenges faced, the differentiation factor, his passion for public speaking, teaching, writing (which is “food” for his soul), and more….

RT: How has the journey of being an entrepreneur evolved since you started Aim High Consulting in 2007?

A lot has changed, but a lot has remained the same, in these twelve years. What has changed is that we do not need to introduce ourselves to our Target Audiences (Funded Start-ups in India), because our existing clients and VCs do that job for us. What has remained the same, is the start-up outlook that we have internalised at Aim High Consulting. Since we work mostly with start-ups and new-age businesses, there is a considerable rub-off in the way we conduct ourselves! We hustle like young entrepreneurs would, and keep reinventing and reinvigorating ourselves, with every new mandate.

RT: You spent the early part of your career in Advertising. How did the transition to Public Relations happen?

To be candid, the grass appeared greener on the other side! To be more candid, it has remained lush-green! I was working in a company that did both – Advertising and PR. When I looked at my colleagues who would pitch to media, and get them covered at no cost! As someone who wanted to be a journalist (while studying), I got excited about how I could marry my passion and profession! PR, to me, appeared a more natural fit than Advertising, because I could write, had the ability to comprehend businesses (thanks to my MBA) and I could pitch.

RT: How does Aim High Consulting operate differently in comparison to other firms?

We take the ‘Consulting’ in our name (Aim High Consulting), very seriously. We believe that PR is a cerebral business, much like all other Consulting businesses. A few things that sets us apart –

  • Focus: We are the go-to PR consultancy for start-ups, new-age and technology-enabled businesses in India. We identified that niche ten years ago, and stuck steadfastly to it. We have managed to work with either the number One or number Two company in practically every new-age business category. Over 200 categories and Six Unicorns, on full-fledged national mandates!
  • Long-term: We work only on long-term, retainer-fee based engagements, wherein, the minimum contract period is two years. We do not do projects or assignments that are short term in nature. This ensures that the teams are committed to clients, and get to engage deeply.
  • Reference Only: We don’t pitch. We do not have a BD team! We go-in only based on client / VC references. We have never pitched cold, in all our dozen years of existence.
  • Premium: Though we work with start-ups, there is no compromise in quality or pricing. Sometimes our fees could be 5-10 times that of some of our competition, depending on the mandate. We do not under-price to get more business, and work only on full-fledged national mandates. We hire good-quality people, do good work, and expected to get paid well. We also ensure that all our retainers are paid in advance, before the service is rendered.

RT: What prompted you and your partner to take up entrepreneurship and launch your own company?

I was part of a Brand Consulting company for seven years, where I rose from the ranks, to make a mark – with my teams and clients alike. This gave me the confidence that I can build a Communication Consulting practice that challenges the norms. My co-founder Gopinath (Gopi) and I are friends for over 25 years now. Gopi was already spearheading Aim High Learning (an enterprise that both of us had co-founded), in the space of Training, which was his area of specialisation then. We decided to start Aim High Consulting, in my area of expertise, and Gopi backed the idea. Little did he realise then, that, this would consume a bulk of his life!

To look at it another way, even today, we are professionals first and entrepreneurs later. We behave like we have been hired for the job, rather than as people who ‘own’ it!

RT: What are the challenges you face as an entrepreneur?

The initial challenges were to establish credentials, and to give a solid set of reasons for people and clients to work with Aim High Consulting. We surpassed the first challenge (of establishing credentials), with reasonable ease. However, people challenges continue to haunt us. Hundreds of hires, good-hires and mis-hires later, like every other player in the PR business, we also continue to struggle to get good people. PR, somehow, isn’t a preferred career choice for the brightest minds. Whilst there are good people in PR, we could do with many more like them.

RT: You seem to be passionate about writing. Besides being a popular columnist, you have published several articles in leading Kannada dailies. What inspires you to write?

I write a slice-of-life kind of column, where the inspiration comes from the world around me. I write about things that make me wonder! Wonder why, and wonder what next! In all the 700+ published pieces, I am proud to say that I have managed to stay away from Politics and ‘Business’. Writing is food for my soul, and I have tried to keep it completely separated, from the professional aspect of my life.

RT; You are also in the teaching arena, as a guest faculty at leading management and communication institutes. What is your opinion on the new generation who will be entering the work environment soon?

I am both fearful and hopeful. Fearful about how a generation that suffers from attention-deficit disorder brought about by the world of 140-character-limits and one-minute-videos will cope with the challenges of the world that demands longer attention spans. Hopeful, because, every generation gets smarter than its predecessors. They will devise a way to survive and excel in a world that rewards merit.

RT: You are active in the public speaking circuit, tell us about your most inspiring experience as a public speaker.

There are many, but personally, I was very excited when I was invited to speak at ‘Kannada Saahitya Sammelana’, the largest literary forum in Kannada. To be considered as an important voice in the Kannada literary world, even as I live an otherwise English-centric corporate life, is heart-warming as much as it is overwhelming.

As a communication professional, I also get invited to speak in entrepreneurial forums, which is highly satisfying, because that ratifies our image of being ‘Consultants’!

RT: How do you see the future of Public Relations evolving?

Mediums have changed, but the messaging style hasn’t changed much, in the last two decades. As the PR profession adapts to the smart-phone centric consumption of media, I foresee two prominent trends emerging – 1. Push towards persuasive content – the kind of messaging that will do more in a short time, on a single screen – be it in the form of concise-and-precise text or powerful video. 2. Evidence-based-PR (much like Evidence-based-medicine) – that will be conscientious, explicit, judicious and reasonable – since that is going to be imperative, in a world made transparent by the internet and social media.

RT: What is your advice for youngsters entering the PR space?

PR in today’s times, can be intellectually rewarding. Youngsters, if they join the right kind of PR consulting companies, will get to evangelize business propositions that haven’t been tried before. You can look forward to a new, cerebrally-stimulating challenge, every day! And yes, it can be financially rewarding too, once performance and commitment to profession are proven.

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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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