In the early 90s’ as the Indian economy opened up, the Adfactors leadership came to an important realisation. That if they were to keep pace with the rising institutionalisation of the financial markets in India, the communication tools for their clients would have to evolve beyond their current offerings of financial advertising.
Therefore, born out of the need to respond to the new market challenges, Adfactors PR was launched in 1997. This year, the firm turned 20.
Says Madan Bahal, co-founder and managing director, Adfactors PR says, “On one hand, we had to evolve our offering, on the other hand we had the example of PR success stories with firms such as Clea, Perfect Relations, Genesis and Sampark PR. This inspired us to diversify into PR.”
From that moment in 1997, Adfactors PR is now India’s largest PR firm; Bahal says that they are nearly twice as large as the next biggest PR firm. How did this journey begin?
While Madan Bahal might be the more public face of Adfactors, the company rests on a partnership between Bahal and Rajesh Chaturvedi.
Says Bahal, “Rajesh is our mentor and role model. The word ‘relationship’ is the very foundation of public relations and Rajesh has an unparalleled bank of relationship capital that Adfactors PR and our clients benefit from. He is a hallmark of generosity, simplicity, honesty, and selflessness. To that extent, the firm’s culture is the long-shadow of Rajesh’s personality. Our partnership of 34 years has outlived any other partnership in the communications industry in India.”
Madan says emotionally that, “ We are brothers doing business. We have a certain outlook to life, we are generous to each other and tolerant of each other. So, we will do business together, till we can do no more.”
Together, the two partners, have developed a certain business philosophy and approach to life which Bahal describes as, “ Rooted in ancient Indian wisdom. Bahujan hitay, bahujan sukhaye, which means that our action should be for the good and happiness of all. Our actions should be consistent with the laws of nature; we, therefore, do not work for businesses engaged in meat-processing, alcohol, tobacco and gambling. We do business from an ethical high-ground and not merely comply with the laws of the land.”
Pivoting during the 2008 crisis
Bahal also says that their philosophy is to be ‘resilient’, an approach that was tested during the 2008 economic downturn.
Bahal shares that in 2008, 90% of their work was financial communication., “We were 11 years old and in one shot, 40% of our business vanished. This was happening to everyone in the financial system. We called an open house for all 300 of our employees and made a public commitment that not a single person would be retrenched or their salary reduced.”
At this point, Adfactors increased their exposure to other industry sectors and also made certain their support to existing clients was in keeping with the crisis at hand.
Says Bahal,” For 3 months, we maintained a PR team 24x7 for any crisis that a client might have to deal with. We also offered reduced fees and deferred payment terms to clients. We appreciated the adversity that they were dealing with. At the end of the day business must have a soul.”
Current growth and Challenges
Commenting on current PR trends and challenges, Bahal said that the role of PR is to solve the business problems of CEOs.
“We want to be useful to our clients on issues that give them sleepless nights. This, of course, is the strategic end of business, characterised by high stakes, urgency and uncertainty of outcomes.”
According to Bahal, the single biggest issue being faced by CEOs today is the speed and scale of disruption, “There is a demographic shift in society. Along with this has come a sweeping structural change in the media business, globalisation of markets and massive activism on all fronts.
Bahal adds that, “We also want to be the gold standard in earned influence at a time when large PR firms are moving to advertising and paid influence.”
Adfactors says it has consistently grown at an average of 16% CAGR over the last 20 years.
Bahal attributes this growth to a deep commitment to create value, “ First, for our own people and second, for our clients. You cannot achieve the second without ensuring the first!”
Bahal adds this attention to value helps them focus on client needs, “We are focused on incremental change every day to keep the evolutionary needle moving. One has to understand what your client needs and values the most. This value-delivery has to be consistent day after day, month after month, and year after year.“
The talent challenge
In order to create consistent value, talent is a crucial component. This is an issue that Adfactors, like the rest of the PR business struggles with.
Bahal admits, “ The real crisis is in the senior leadership, the best talent is going to corporate communications. I really hope there is a reverse flight of talent from corporate communications to consultancies.”
In order to do that, Bahal says, “ We must pay them competitively and try and attract those professionals who are bored with a corporate job. The consulting business has lost far too many good people to corporate communications and we want to provide growth, excitement and the fast pace of a PR firm to these professional.”
Madan Bahal says they have increased their training and education budget by a 1000 % in order to address the talent issue. He says that they are spending close to a million US dollars on various actives.
Says Bahal, “First, an aggressive learning and development programme across levels. For example, each year, we send over 20 senior account managers and account directors to ISB and at least six vice-presidents and directors to Harvard and IIM-A courses. This month, we will conclude an ambitious digital training programme that covered every single client-facing executive at Adfactors PR. So, we are a 100% digital literate agency.”
Adds Bahal, “Second, we recognise that the industry has become incestuous in hiring and the DNA pool has not evolved. We have successfully diversified our sources of recruitment.”
These plans says Bahal are a response to the fact that, “Succession is an issue at all practice levels. We need to ensure not only top leadership but a multiple wave of leaders for the next 20 years.
“I want Adfactors PR to remain very focused on the road ahead. The view ahead shows a mountainous roads, steep inclines and sharp curves, unfenced roads with deep valleys and high cliffs, and occasional potholes and boulders on the way. I want Adfactors PR to be alert and the car to be in good condition at all times to successfully navigate the road ahead… for the next 20 years.” Says Bahal on the path ahead.