Reputation Today traces the early beginnings of the PR business and hones in on the pioneers of the business in India: M L Kaul, Founder, Director, MelCole PR; Sunil Gautam, Ex-Chairman and Founder, Hanmer MSL & currently Co-Founder Pitchfork Partners; Roger Pereira, Founder Roger Pereira Communications Pvt Ltd and currently Director, Turning Point Brand Consulting, Pereira Communications and India Partner of Chartwell Partners, UK; Shiv Reddy, original Founder of Corporate Voice; Sunil Agarwal, Founder, 20:20 MEDIA and Rajiv Desai, Chairman and CEO, Comma Consulting.
What does it take to make a legend? An all-consuming passion? A brilliant idea or dream? A great team’s support? Perhaps, it is all of those things put together. But most importantly, what it takes, is belief. A belief that makes you fight for the chosen purpose. It is really amazing how many large companies have such humble stories of starting up with nothing more than a founder’s dream.
We capture messages and insights of some founders in the PR business, who definitely qualify to be legends of our times, as they share their journey and the secrets of their success stories. Undoubtedly, it’s a proud roster of respected leaders, whose work has strengthened the public relations practice in our country.
The great Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde said that “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” Our early founders are people who spread their influence on others, wherever they went, under any circumstances. Read the stories of these pioneers, who not only made a mark in their lives, but created history and they continue to inspire us even today!
The early beginnings: Understanding the reason for starting PR firms
The inspiration that drove these success stories are many. M L Kaul, founder of MelCole PR recalls that he was heading the PR division of a major Indian public sector and realised that much of what he was doing was probably the first of its kind in India. In those days PR in corporate parlance was passed off as liaison work and did not enjoy the credibility it does today.
Sometimes your calling in life can hit you by a twist of fate. Like it did for Roger Pereira, Chairman & MD of the firm he created – Roger Pereira Communications Pvt Ltd. It was by “pure accident”, he said. Starting his career in advertising, he was appointed the CEO of the ad agency he had joined, at age 32. Probably, the youngest at the time. “My 25 years in advertising were a dream run. I enjoyed every minute of it. I had a wonderful team – we were a family”, he recalls. They did some path-breaking work that picked up awards across the country and from South & Southeast Asia. But during his last four years, he was suddenly confronted with unfortunate challenges that made it impossible for him to continue (if he wished to keep his value-system intact). Finally, he decided to quit. He was relieved after almost a year, but there were a series of conditions imposed – one of them being that he did not continue in advertising! As the story goes, he took that sportingly. Several offers poured in from International Development Agencies, which he started accepting. At first, it was fun working with international teams, but he soon got bored. “I was spending 85% of my time writing reports that no one read!” he felt.
Opportunity struck when he was invited for coffee by the legendary JRD Tata, in Mumbai. It was in connection with a ‘Status of Women’ TV Serial that he was planning. “He immediately recalled the ads I helped create for Air India whilst I was at JWT and for Centaur Hotel whilst I was at Shilpi!” he exclaimed. While the business icon was surprised he had moved away from advertising, as Pereira shared his “sob story”, it was he who suggested Public Relations! He immediately recalled the faith the late Mrs Gandhi had in PR during the 1965 war and during the National Food Crisis that followed. In fact, she invited the erstwhile PR guru – Prasanto Sanyal, all the way from Kolkata, to mentor him during his volunteering stint with the I & B Ministry in New Delhi!
For Sunil Gautam, who calls himself a “serial entrepreneur and strategic communications veteran” – the connect with PR existed from the beginning. The first agency, which he co-founded in 1985 was Clea Advertising, and then set up Clea PR in 1995. Hanmer & Partners (full service firm including PR) was founded in 1999 and then Pitchfork Partners (Strategy Consulting with PR being a part of it) in 2015 and then the acquisition and rebranding of a PR firm, Archer Frères Communications, which is now part of the Pitchfork family. Presenting the reasons behind his moves, he stated that all the firms he had founded/co-founded, were launched at a specific time when the market was changing. The mid to late-90s was a time when the economy had just opened up and it was a whole new world for PR as a discipline. On the other hand, the reason for co-founding a Strategy firm (Pitchfork) several years later, was due to the changing need in the communications landscape, which involved moving from silos to a seamless approach and from commoditised services to strategic services.
Putting forth his story plain and simple, was Sunil Agarwal, founder, 20:20 MEDIA. He shares that his job and management background helped in putting together an organisation in which PR professionals could create a business and they did an outstanding job of it. “I quit when I had no value to add apart from wanting to engrave my name on the door,” summarises Sunil Agarwal. Now we can spot his cartoons in Times of India (which he co-creates with Ajit Ninan), which are a telling comment on the evolving times today.
A pioneer in the communications profession, Rajiv Desai, Chairman and CEO, Comma Consulting, established India’s first PR consulting firm, IPAN, in December 1987 when he relocated to Delhi after having spent the best part of the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. In 2005, he set up Comma Consulting to address the emergent field of communications management. Another point to note is that in the 17 years that he steered IPAN, he played a key role in promoting many prominent brands.
Another early founder in Public Relations is Shiv Reddy, who was associated with Corporate Voice, which was set up in the mid-1980’s as a PR advisory firm initially to engage internal audiences of business corporations before evolving into a full-service PR firm. “Cliched as it sounds, the audiences and constituencies to address now, honestly are widespread, universal,” was his observation.
Change is the only constant
The business of PR has grown and evolved with the times. It was interesting to catch their take on the current scenario. The business has evolved dramatically. From a sleepy, side-line activity it has assumed crucial importance and one that can make or break a company – was M L Kaul’s observation. Initially, when he started, the progression was very slow, and they moved to associations that had issues with policy, to burgeoning sectors such as IT which had new found importance and success and thereafter, about a decade later, “PR has finally become an equal partner in the boardrooms in India”, states M L Kaul.
“Well, skilled professionals are required, even more so than earlier. That’s what I see from the super success of former colleagues,” said Sunil Agarwal. “It all seems like a see-saw from where I see things. There are very few firms who have been able to break away and differentiate themselves,” disclosed Sunil Gautam. The bulk of the PR business today is owned by global conglomerates who seek to enforce homogeneity, says Rajiv Desai, “PR is about news and homogeneity is the antithesis of news. We can only hope that some of the sharp independent firms making waves today will survive and thrive.”
Every coin has a reverse side. That’s what Roger Pereira pointed out. Unfortunately, it’s too tactical, he said. And this is simply because creative people choose advertising over PR — just like it was when he entered the business in 1987, which was what “disillusioned the legendary JRD Tata”.
The approach they took to exit
Some founders had to take the route of selling out. Pereira was nearing 70 and had dreams that he had been nurturing for several years. “Dreams for my city, my community, my country. My partners had other ideas. There was a lot of heartburn”, he admitted. He had built a firm which had the most enviable roster of clients. There were, as they say, irreconcilable differences. So, they decided to part, and he sold out.
Hanmer & Partners was amongst the first group of PR firms to be acquired in India, observed Sunil Gautam. At the time, they believed that it was important to have a long-term approach to the business and had great chemistry with MSL (Publicis Groupe) and had been their affiliates for several years. “By 2007, Hanmer & Partners had reached a significant size and we needed to ensure long term security for our staff, irrespective of whether I was there or not! And to ensure this permanency, the best approach was to have our firm acquired. The proof is in the pudding even now, several years later,” he commented.
Envisaging the future of Indian PR
Expressing Hope, Sunil Gautam states that there is the ray of sunshine over the horizon.
“The future of Indian PR will be phenomenal, with the advent of digital communications,” Roger Pereira expressed. But, he had a doubt – do our practitioners have the creativity and vision to exploit it? Digital communications today is so much like what advertising was 75 years ago – so uncreative! And that’s where the opportunity is! Both, for Advertising and PR!
The business is indeed tracking huge growth patterns. This is what M L Kaul had in mind, when he said, “More and better, is how I see this business growing”. More new consultancies will come up, multinationals will want an imprint in India, “professionalisation and specialisation” will increase, competitive strategies and state-of-the-art technology will determine who thrives and who dissipates.
But looking through the tunnel vision, M L Kaul expressed a word of caution, “Most importantly, I expect a shake-out that will happen under the current stressed economy here in India and, as it always does, the stronger ones will survive and the rest will either merge or exit”. What PR in India needs, is a standardisation of services and a basic un-breachable levy system so that there is no undercutting. PR cannot be brought under the category of a commodity and so the trend of picking up consultancies that charge lower is a self-destructive trend. Hopefully, the firms will themselves sort this out by establishing best practices benchmarks for the business.
The world loves PR. That’s what Sunil Agarwal had to say on the future of PR – “As an observer of online behaviour, looks like every individual loves PR and is his own PR manager! Career PR professionals should turn that into a business. Some with individuals and others with small, medium, large organisations”
Sharing client stories
Sharing some interesting client stories was M L Kaul who recalls two major incidents – One is the ONGC Bombay High blowout, which in many ways was a cardinal factor in him starting out on his own. It was a major public disaster, but we were able to not only defend ourselves, but also convert the incident to an illustration of the resilience of the company. The result was that the oil major was congratulated by the Government on its handling of the business, he explains.
The other was more an incidence of securing for the then-nascent IT industry its rightful place as a stand-alone sector, with special needs and future potential. We were able to work with the IT association to press for recognition of the sector, within the government. The result was that IT boomed after the exemptions offered to it during the formative years, says M L Kaul.
Recalling a case about the Cement Marketing Association led by the late J R Birla and Ramesh Verma, Roger Pereira shares – The Union Budget had proposed a crippling increase in duties on the cement industry. Interestingly, I used newspaper advertising to present our case! Mr Birla did question: “You are using advertising for what you advised is essentially a PR issue? Anyway, you are the expert!” I had no choice because of the shortage of time. The principal point is that we were successful! According to me, it’s never a case of advertising versus PR. The advantage of PR is that it can employ any tool of communication so long as it is the most cost efficient and successful!
Remembering his past, Sunil Gautam states, what’s been really interesting is how many of the smaller companies I started working with 30+ years ago, have gone onto conquer the world and in some cases, emerge as best-in-class companies in their respective spaces. There is nothing better than seeing your clients’ success and even if a very small part of it is because of the work I did for them over the years, I believe I have done my job!
Rajeev Desai recalls a story about how hard it was in 1980s India to explain the concept of PR consulting. In one exchange with a public-sector executive he cited examples from his work in the US. Just when I thought I may have succeeded in getting through to him, he nodded as if to signal an end to the meeting and asked: “So of which company you want to be PRO?”
These inspiring stories show how passion and purpose are keys to success. The legacies that these legends pass surely reveal – they had an idea, they believed in it and most importantly, they started!
These are the legends who created companies that hundreds of professionals work at and we can call them legends 1.0.
The next set of legends emerged in the mid to late 90s and they are still at the helm of the firms they founded though 10 out of 12 of them have sold out, they continue leading from the front. They are indeed in the league and we acknowledge them as stalwarts who made an impression on staff and clients alike.