Convinced that he is a firm believer in the power of communication and storytelling, is Xavier Prabhu, Founder & Managing Director, PRHUB who says he is “keen on leaving the world a tiny bit better than when I came into it”. His experience spans across many high profile areas; most prominently he is an Entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, Brand Strategist, Writer and he opines that he is without doubt, an Optimist too.
Tracing his 25 years of experience in various facets of branding and communication, his track record highlights assisting organisations across sectors – to build credible and sustainable reputation and equity. His career began as a Senior Copywriter at National Advertising, and then he moved on to become Consultant at Corporate Voice Shandwick PR. Besides, he became Member – Board of Governors at ISB&M, and he was also Business Head, at ENACT (Social & Digital).
He has worn multiple hats – that of writer, editor, teacher, trainer, consultant and entrepreneur in his successful career span. In the education space, he has been a visiting faculty at many leading educational institutions in India. Xavier has had the opportunity to advice many startups on their branding and communication strategy and is currently writing a book on the same for start-ups and new ventures. He was also chosen by the Leadership Institute, US as an outstanding achiever from India.
In a conversation with Shree Lahiri, he discusses how he entered the world of PR, emerging trends today, how he turned entrepreneur, the importance of nurturing talent, the business leaders he admires, what he does in his leisure time and more…
RT: How did you get into Public Relations?
I remember when I had just completed 2 years as a copywriter in advertising and was working with a mid-sized player in Bangalore. It was getting a bit monotonous for me. I was not happy with the respect I got as a copy person, as the servicing guys were the ones calling the shots. And also the growth path in advertising was a long, winding one. Then luckily, it was my reading habit, cultivated since childhood that came in handy. I had read an article in Business India about a PR firm called Melcole, which had placed a case study on ONGC (their client), mentioning how PR as a field was coming up in India. So, I felt let me give it a try and reached out to Melcole. To my luck, or sheer coincidence, the MD of Melcole PR was in Bangalore at that time and we got to meet. And, I walked out with an offer to join them in a month. That is how a masters in Physics, with a specialisation in solid state Physics, who had published research on high temperature superconductors turned copywriter and then, got into PR. There has been no looking back since, and in few years I knew, this was ‘the one’ for me.
RT: What is the story behind starting your own firm?
Driven by the start-up wave in India around 1999 and triggered by a special project that I was doing at Weber Shandwick India (which was my last stint), I started an online PR marketplace-cum-portal in early 2000 called PRHUB. I knew nothing of the internet, technology and business. But, I did give it my best shot and it did not get anywhere, as no one was willing then to pay for services online, since the prevalent model was free. It went nowhere though I got acquisition offers, valuing the venture at some good numbers which largely existed on paper. For some reason, I stuck on and at a point, had to shut down, since I did not have the deep pockets personally to sustain it beyond a point.
It was then that one of the clients, whom I had worked for at Weber Shandwick, called and said he was keen to engage us for PR on retainer basis, as he found me to be a good PR professional. Around the same time, I got a call from a Singapore PR firm to support one of their clients in India, on a project basis and they were paying a handsome fee in US dollars! I took up both these offers and thus started my journey as a PR entrepreneur. If I look back, one thing was certain – I would have turned an entrepreneur, at some point in my life whichever way, but it being in PR was a coincidence.
RT: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being based in the smallest of the three metros?
Actually the question needs to be phrased differently. And, before I go further, wanted to share some data. For the last few years, I have been spending more time in Mumbai and Delhi than in Bangalore. And, we service long-term retainer clients out of 8 cities in India (Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Indore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kochi) with one or two more likely to be added shortly.
First, it being an advantage or disadvantage entirely depends on one’s ambition. If, as a firm one’s focus was on maintaining one’s unique culture and identity and working within your comfort levels then, being founded in Bangalore is neither an advantage or disadvantage. The question of disadvantage really comes into play, only when you aspire to grow larger and compete at that level. We were happy in our niche positioning, and we were growing along incrementally till that changed a few years back. Since then, we have turned it around and today, can safely say that we are as national as any firm can get, in terms of presence, delivery capabilities, associate network and the support systems in place. We can issue a press release on the same day in close to 40 centers successfully or effectively handle multiple press conferences on the same day in different cities of India.
We have social, influencer and content capabilities of significant depth built inside. So, we are well on our way to address the potential disadvantage of being HQed out of Bangalore.
Stepping out of PRHUB perspective, yes, Delhi and Mumbai, being the largest PR markets and already well penetrated by the larger ones, it becomes difficult to scale beyond a point without cracking those markets. And because these markets have entrenched players, it becomes that much more difficult. But my experience is that there are still gaps left and we are able to move the needle in the right direction. Both Delhi and Mumbai are one crore plus operations for us now individually, and profitable. Social and content will also head there soon. That changes the game as we have multiple profitable business units driving us forward, giving us enough room to invest for growth.
RT: What are the trends emerging in the PR business today?
The current state of PR is a transitional one before we see the radical change this business will go through, not of its choice but rather, pushed by larger market forces. It is not really about having social, content and influencer capability any more. It is not about having few integrated campaigns which run well and fetch awards, which are then showcased to give an impression all is well. It is really about whether you understand the new and the old, know how to use and leverage technology, but still retain the old-fashioned insight into what the public mood is, combined with the ability to build coalitions of disparate groups.
It is not easy and everyone is struggling including companies. But, it will be very exciting and challenging. And the challenge of automation will be upon us sooner. Our workforce does repetitive tasks with low efficiency, which will at some point go away and also the demand for those who have specialised expertise and can bring a certain perspective will leapfrog.
Fortunately, PR will have science coming in. Hopefully my background will prove to be an advantage in that phase for PRHUB.
RT: How do you identify and nurture talent in your organisation?
This has been a tough and ongoing challenge as it has been for everyone in this space. Even in recession, you will see PR executives moving firm to firm, with hikes. Also, unlike before where only the experienced got into corporate communication, even those in their early careers are keen to switch to the corporate side. Lastly, our profession is full of women and many of them go through their own challenges as they shoulder family responsibilities. The shrinking margins in the business, plus high attrition levels, make it difficult to invest extensively in training & development.
Our thinking has been to engage everyone but nurture select ones with the right attitude and culture fit. Also we (Sumathi my partner and myself) have been investing personal time in getting our next layer of leaders and managers right. Because most employees spend the largest part of their work time with them and whatever the top says, they know fully well that it is just once in a blue moon. We will be increasing our investments in learning
& development even more starting this year.
RT: What is the next milestone PRHUB plans to achieve in the coming years?
We wish to achieve scale in Mumbai and Delhi, without having to compromise. What I mean is that we could have grown in these markets, picking up any clients at any retainer, which would have placed us in the same bracket as the smaller ones that dot both these cities in hundreds. Instead, despite it being tougher, taking longer and higher investments, we have strived to ensure we compete at the right level. We get social and content to grow exponentially, so all our business units are at some scale and individually profitable. Then use that to invest back in technology, learning & development, etc. which then fuels further efficiency and growth.
And of course, acquisition/integration of the right kind of boutique firms particularly in Delhi and Mumbai. We are well on our way, and it is just a matter of 18-24 months from here.
RT: What is your advice for any youngster, who wants to be an entrepreneur and start a PR firm?
Please don’t get into it, unless you have a strong differentiation, deep pockets or a powerful mentor. The business is changing rapidly and beyond a point if you grow, you will face challenges similar to what the large ones face. If I start again now, i will definitely do it differently or not do it at all. But, if you get into it and are passionate about it, it will be a long haul. And profitability drops as you grow. You are much better off, being small if profitability and control are important.
RT: Who inspires you in the world of Public Relations?
Madan Bahal of Adfactors, Prema Sagar of Genesis, Rajan of Ketchum Sampark and the founding team of Value 360.
Madan for his relentlessness and single-minded focus on scaling. And then using the size gained, as an advantage to the hilt.
Rajan for sticking to his approach and still building one of the larger firms in the space. Besides, his generous support of SCoRe and thus, giving back.
Prema for how she built Genesis, plus also her investment and support (from behind) in multiple firms, each of which are doing well in their own way.
Founding team of Value360, for the way they leveraged and rode on the start-up wave including taking risks. Also, for how they balance both the large and small paying clients well, in the same portfolio.
RT: How do you spend your free time?
Is there one? Jokes apart, do a lot of speaking (one or more engagement every month – in educational institutions across India, at related business events, etc.). I try to read whenever I get time. Travelling has been an obsession – I want to go beyond the 28 countries, that I have done so far. I am a collector of multiple things – notes, coins, magazines and to some extent small artefacts from around the world. I have been writing a book for a couple of years now and am also working on a start-up. I am also socially active – on LinkedIn (A friend from the community tells me I am the most connected head of a PR firm in India here!), Facebook and a bit on twitter. Guess, that is a lot on the plate!