Productivity, scale, traditional client expectations top challenges for PR entrepreneurs in India

The current success of the Indian PR business and its double-digit growth figures lies in its entrepreneurs.  The early stalwarts of the PR business in India created space for the PR market and brought it through the heady decade following economic liberalisation. The growth through the 90s and early 2000s is what brought India to the attention of international PR firms.

Entrepreneurship and PR

Rishi Seth, Group CEO, 6 Degrees BCW says we are now at the third phase of PR entrepreneurship elaborating that, "The newest wave are successful professionals who are looking to turn entrepreneurs leveraging the experience that they have from leading or managing large firms."

Nandita Lakshmanan, The PRactice, believes the PR business gives you an innate edge as an entrepreneur. She says, "My early experiences with Genesis were entrepreneurial and I had the privilege of watching a world-class firm being built during its founding years, at close quarters, and I helped to set up the Bengaluru and Hyderabad office."

Lakshmanan also identifies a sense of building relationships as the core of public relations which also makes for a successful startup founder. She believes this is what helped her start a firm without an MBA and with no background of how to own or run a business.

Lakshmanan started The PRactice 20 years ago with Infosys as an early client

She clarifies that "By relationships, I don't mean great friendships and networks, though that matters. But to build professional relationships that enables a work culture that supports and encourages people. Also, when you have the opportunity to represent firms such as Infosys and see their knowledge processes, their people strategy, their focus on good governance, you can't help but imbibe that and introduce these best practices into your own firm. Not to do that would be a lost opportunity."

The current phase of PR firms 

Nitin Mantri, Group CEO of Avian WE believes India is still at a phase of PR entrepreneurship defined by the interplay of international and local firms on the back of the 2000s that saw global firms entering India's PR market.

Mantri, who co-founded Avian Media and merged it with WE India in March 2018, says, " Earlier you had sector-led specialisations, therefore you would see a firm concentrating on tech PR or health communications. But today, we are seeing more discipline or practice-led specialisations. The younger PR firms are more consulting or digital-led, that is a big difference now."

Kunal Kishore Sinha, founder and director at Value 360 Communications predicts other changes for the traditional PR firms. He says, "Media buying will become a norm."

Sinha adds that " As many smaller towns are becoming startup hubs - Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and Indore; for example, you will the emergence of strong regional PR firms."

Sinha also believes that "The scenario of Global PR firms acquiring Indian firms will change to Big Indian PR firms acquiring specialist and smaller Indian PR firms"

The grit and passion of Indian PR firms 

Prema Sagar, pioneering entrepreneur in the PR business

Prema Sagar, founder and CEO of Genesis BCW believes, "There are no shortcuts to success. Quick-fixes, undercutting price, gimmicks—all those may help you in the short run, but if you are building a business for the long term, you have to decide what you are going to stand for in terms of your value system. I have never compromised on ethics. And that has meant I have lost some business along the way. But clients, our people and the industry knows what we stand for."

Girish Balachandran, founder and managing partner at the two-year-old On Purpose, says as an entrepreneur he now understands the challenges better, "I admire the resilience, persistence and grit shown by so many before me – Nandita, Archana, Prema, Madan, Nikhil, Nitin and Kunal."

Adds Balachandran, "In my experience, it takes a ‘whole village’ for a PR start-up to succeed – starting with family support, well-wishing clients and ex-colleagues and a supportive industry ecosystem that celebrates entrepreneurship. I do feel we need to get better at also celebrating those who tried and didn’t succeed. We’ll be richer as an industry if we create an environment that welcomes those taking a risk to do something differently."

Even though the Indian market and outlook doesn't easily reward failure, the startup wave of the last decade has reduced the stigma of failing a fair amount.

Aakriti Bhargava - co-founder - BoringBrands and Wizikey says, "My co-founder Anshul and I are fascinated by the sheer scale of impact that right innovation can bring to our industry. Entrepreneurs are experimenting in verticals, service levels, tracking and measurement."

Bhargava believes the scope for disruptive entrepreneurship in PR is enormous, she explains, "Drawing a parallel with the digital Industry, there are at least 2 million business that use the digital medium to build their visibility whereas only 20,000 businesses use public relations actively. This means, barely 1% is leveraging digital media to build their credibility via PR. Now, this is an amazing opportunity for becoming the "Flipkart of the PR Industry" and building upon an AI/ML - Tech enabled approach for organising the otherwise fragmented industry."

Archana Jain, founder and managing director, PR Pundit, says, "The entrepreneurial spirit of a small to a mid-size organisation is unmatched. The entrepreneurial drive powers client programmes with passion. And you will agree that when people are genuinely passionate, they will be energized by any challenge that stands in their way."

Archana Jain set up PR Pundit 20 years ago, winning the Cannes Health & Wellness Bronze Lion for ITC Savlon in 2017

"Also, entrepreneurs are predisposed to a high tolerance for risk, therefore they do not hesitate in suggesting a bold strategy. In addition, they are optimistic and are always questioning how it can be done better. This becomes the organisation culture that catalyses success."

Xavier Prabhu, founder and CEO, PRHUB, believes that "Indian executives at MNC PR firms are highly qualified and do well but don’t have the same space and leeway an Indian entrepreneur has."

Prabhu adds, "Indian entrepreneurs are very good at offbeat tuning one needs to constantly engage in the Indian market to survive and thrive."

Challenges facing Indian entrepreneurship in PR

In this third wave of PR entrepreneurship, as Seth defines it, sees several challenges.

Lakshmanan says time spent on operational matters is the biggest challenge holding back entrepreneurs like her. She explains, " I would define this as a productivity challenge. Even if I am able to reduce 20% of my time spent on administration, human resource management and focus on driving the vision for the firm, it will reduce this “two-step forward, one step back” bottleneck. Besides, there are so many logistical challenges that need to be addressed, for example, poor infrastructure that makes us all spend unproductive hours on the road, or bandhs ( strikes) and weather conditions that force us to shut shop.”.

Prabhu feels the challenge for PR entrepreneurs lies in another direction, "Despite all the successes, PR entrepreneurs in India don’t collaborate or learn from each other as one is expected or needs to. From what I have seen in other markets, we are relatively more guarded, less open to trust and collaborate with another. While I understand this to an extent and know where it comes from, the positives of such close collaboration far outweigh the negatives. To me, this collaboration will be another clear sign of a maturing market."

Seth points to financial resources as the biggest challenge.

Balachandran agrees with this saying, "There are challenges – cash flow as a result of poor enforcement of payment terms, lack of early-stage investment opportunities for knowledge-based consulting services (that can’t necessarily automate and scale), but nothing insurmountable yet."

Udit Sagar Pathak

Udit Sagar Pathak, who set up Media Mantra 7 years ago, concurs saying, "If you are a small-scale entrepreneur who aims to transform the small-scale business into a huge organisation, then investment can be a challenge for you. Growing an organisation involves an enormous investment in money and time."

Having said that Pathak elaborates that, "An entrepreneur cannot focus solely on personal profit rather other aspects such as on-boarding genuine and quality talent, adopting cutting-edge technology and using human capital wisely are more important. The success of an entrepreneur lies in his combined effort to manage all these aspects which transform an ordinary person into a successful entrepreneur."

Rastogi has found a sports and luxury differentiation

Neha Mathur Rastogi, founder of sports and luxury communication firm Wordswork that just turned 10 advised against rushing to grow saying, " I  feel an early burnout comes about when one is in a rush to expand. The valuation takes time in our industry and piling up expenses leads to an unstable future for many self-started PR firms. The balance between passion for the profession and business-mindedness is also something not everyone can achieve easily,"

Sagar concludes saying, "As an industry, we should keep regulating ourselves from time to time to make sure that we grow, do good work, and continue rising up the value chain."

Client Expectations 

On Purpose has a purpose-led USP

One of the biggest growth challenges for PR entrepreneurs remains client expectations. Balachandran accepts that, "We’ve got our work cut out here. Clients are still talking in 20th-century terms of ‘PR’ and ‘digital’ and salami slicing budgets to fulfil these remits. The onus really lies on individual firms to educate clients on the importance of focussing on the idea and then deciding the appropriate mix of channels to take a message to the market, rather than the other way round."

Lakshmanan believes that the PR business has done a fine job of supporting those clients who are stuck in time and those who are more progressive. She says, "I have a lot of appreciation for our industry for that, we have been very patient.”

Archana Jain opinion is that while, "Talent is one reason that impedes growth, the other reason is that at the client end there is a limited appetite for taking bold risks. Clients more often than not, make a safe choice instead of backing an entrepreneurial venture."

Pathak agrees sharing that, "B2B clients are especially more driven by traditional PR, they emphasize more on being mentioned in printed stories."

At the end of the Seth points out that, " Satisfied clients are the best new business strategy that one can have. I think firms that offer relevant communication solutions with sound execution skills, will be successful. Mediocrity will be punished faster by the client."

Advise for new entrepreneurs in PR

Prabhu feels, "Don’t start if you are not bringing a new genuinely disruptive or unique value proposition or differentiation. The temptation is high once you establish a few relationships to be on one’s own but I don’t think sustenance and scaling up is going to be easy."

Balachandran focus is on the mental aspect of being a self-starter, sharing that, "The entrepreneur’s anti-fragility i.e. one’s ability to get stronger with each knock that doesn’t break you make the most difference in being successful."

    If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our weekly event and subscriber alerts.