There are some companies that you admire because they got acquired and there are some that you admire because they have not been acquired and remained Founder – owned plus independent. My first tryst with this company took place in October 2003 when I secured an appointment with its founder as a post-graduate student who was trying to ensure my classmates and I got placed. This was a placement presentation at a tightly-knit office near Churchgate station in Mumbai. The man on the other side hardly spoke, mostly listened and said someone would get back. They ended up hiring three out of a batch of 25 and then for close to ten years our paths never crossed. I always heard of this company as a leader in the financial communications space and how it has managed IPOs.
Then, one morning in November 2012, I was at a PR conference in Miami and I saw the Founder in the hotel lobby, and we greeted each other. Our second meeting and one that happened after nine years of our first meeting. Over the last seven years we have had several meetings and in the next few paragraphs I will list down my observations of what I think went into this tiny firm, which was born on September 5th, 1997 to become India’s largest and the world’s 67th biggest firm in revenue. At $30 million+ it is larger than the second and third Indian firm put together. I spoke to over a dozen of its employees and clients in the last month to put this 1000-word essay together.
- Choose a market segment and find customers there – What it did differently early on was to choose untapped market segments and go after every possible customer in that category. This approach worked for it as a specialist in its initial years when most other firms tried to grow by being generalists. It has convinced clients over a period that it is best at delivering their unique needs.
- Gold standard in Media – It thrives on a concept called Relationship Capital, something it has nurtured with clients, employees and media. With media in the last twenty years it did two things. One, it hired several senior journalists who were strong on content creation and had powerful networks. Second, it built an internal orientation towards media centricity.
- Managing Client Conflict – If there is one firm that manages 20+ banks, multiple airlines, a variety of conglomerates, several pharma or energy companies it is this one. Its deep expertise has always been compelling to let decision makers in corporations to compare and weigh the benefits over conflict. If it hived off its financial portfolio at INR 100 crore+ revenue it would be India’s second largest firm.
- An Attitude to Achieve – I have seen this in the way the employees of the firm have looked at Awards in the last five years. They compete between themselves to send award winning work and the battle internally to win is fierce. Each SBU operates like a firm within the firm and has created a culture of hunger to win – both awards and clients.
- Deliberate Effort to Build Leadership – While the external world wonders about the succession plan, over a dozen hidden gems in their late 30s and early 40s have been hired and are being groomed to take over leadership positions in the future.
- Being part of every significant corporate event – An important aspect of its growth and stature has been the fact that it has been involved in every major corporate event in the last two decades. Especially in managing issues and crisis prone situations. The list is endless. They include boardroom battles, promoter conflicts, capital market transactions, litigations or crisis threatening reputation. There has been a consistent thread of offering senior counsel when the stakes and uncertainty were high and there was an urgency required in action. Be it Vodafone’s takeover of Hutch, Walmart’s takeover of Flipkart, the Cyrus Misty ouster at Tata sons, the Infosys boardroom issue or the feud between the promoters of Indigo Airlines the firm was at the forefront of offering strategic advice to one of the parties involved.
- Well thought through strategy of expansion – There are two pivots on which its next phase of evolution depends. First, that Consistent Growth is Dharma and second, in developing a Consultancy bench that is lacking at a wider level in the Indian reputation management space.
- Focus on Learning and Development – Whether it is the recent news of its partnership with Upgrad and MICA to offer all levels of client servicing staff the option of enrolling for a Post Graduate programme in digital Marketing to ride the wave that is about to engulf PR professionals or its investment in the past with Harvard Business School in India and ISB to offer emerging leaders management development programmes, it has been at the forefront of innovating and pioneering high end learning with huge budgets devoted for the same.
- Boosting employee morale – There are over 100 legendary stories of the various things the leadership does to ensure the staff are well taken care of. Some of them seem unbelievable but are true and proof of that lies in the fact that there are several who have been around from the founding days and are fiercely loyal. ‘Employees first’ first as a policy is visible in action
- Passion of Founders – Both the founders are in their early to mid-60s. However, their passion is relentless and both of them make between them an average of 2-3 day trips every week to Delhi or Bangalore to meet clients and encourage employees. I know of younger leaders in some firms who are in the C-suite who have not visited a Bangalore or Mumbai office for several months at a stretch.
I have written an entire piece about a firm without naming it. You would have guessed the name from the headline itself. Before we applaud India’s first firm that breached the $30 million or INR 200 crore mark in revenue here are couple of interesting titbits to take note of.
It’s Bangalore operations, if separated from the national operations would be on its own a Rs 35 crore enterprise in 2021 and by itself a Top 10 PR firm in the country.
That the growth of this firm has taken place despite a strong philosophy of do’s and don’ts – Through its history, the firm hasn’t worked for businesses engaged in tobacco, alcohol, meat processing, gambling among others as a matter of principle.
When the Founder of the world’s largest firm first met the Founder of this firm at a conference in Washington DC, he greeted him by saying you are the one who took away my biggest client in India earlier this year.
Well, this was not merely an ode to Adfactors PR but a piece of archival writing the record and for budding entrepreneurs to gain inspiration from and for leaders across industries to learn from.
May India see another five PR firms cross the $15 million (INR 100 crore mark) in the next couple of years. May there be another five that become $30 million (INR 200 crore) in the next five years.
Kudos to Rajesh Chaturvedi and Madan Bahal for building an iconic brand that remains the first port of call for who’s who of corporate India when there is a reputation risk to deal with.
This is the first part of a four-column series celebrating Indian firms of different sizes.