[PR Channel] 2012 is about growth: Ameer Ismail

27 Jan,2012

It sometimes helps not pushing oneself too hard to prove one’s worth in the market. It is better if the industry itself does that for you and puts you on the pedestal where you deserve to be. It has been a similar experience for PR agency LinOpinion that has been doing brilliant work without creating much noise or fanfare about its work. Part of the reason for the agency’s good standing is the leadership team, and particularly a person who has been at the helm for a loyal 17 years.


In conversation with Johnson Napier of MxMIndia, Ameer Ismail, Executive Director, Lowe Lintas opens up about his successful tryst with the PR and communications space, how LinOpinion as an agency has managed to outperform its growth every year and his plans for the agency in 2012. Excerpts:


Q: It’s been a long run for you in the PR and communications space. How would you chart your personal journey thus far?

It has been quite a long journey for me. When I joined the profession it was in a nascent stage but that also threw up a lot of interesting opportunities for young and aggressive people like me. In effect, it has been a journey where I have never stopped learning and I have never looked back. In the process of working in the PR space, I have done a lot of work in the communications space as well. So I do not consider myself only a PR professional; I consider myself first a professional, second a communications professional and third, a PR professional within the communications space. So the journey has been a satisfying one, to say the least.


Also, it has enhanced my knowledge and skill-sets in certain areas – there’s management expertise, financial expertise, you have to be a motivator for your team, a seller, a marketer, a businessperson… all roles rolled into one. So it has been a journey of creation. This business did not exist around 20 years ago; even 10 years ago, it was not that developed. There were people who saw the potential and jumped into the business and started scaling up fast. That has not been our philosophy as an agency and it has never been my philosophy as well. We believe there is potential but we need to grow it in a certain space and we have been very successful in our own space and in our own way. We have built a very successful practice which today is one of the most successful marketing practices and continues to grow and outstrip everybody’s expectations.


Q: Your stint at LinOpinion is one of the longest ever seen. How has the agency evolved under your leadership?

LinOpinion has been a culmination of a dream. It has been a dream to have worked in a world-class institution that is respected for its values, work, ethics… this agency is bigger than just people. It was a dream to join the agency; more so, it was a dream to get an opportunity to be entrepreneurial within an agency system. When Prem Mehta hired me into the agency, I remember him telling me, “Listen, if you want to sell toothpaste and stuff like that then this is the wrong place for you, but if you want to create something out of ideas and build something really good and get exposed to all kinds of learnings in that journey then this is the space.” And the journey is by no means even close to getting boring or over.


Q: The communications landscape is seeing a constant evolution in the way it functions as an industry. How in your experience has it changed over the past five years to what it is today?

Not just five years, I see change in what we do five months from now and what we do five months from then. Though I would say that change is constantly happening in the way we think, the way we react, the way we structure, the way we benchmark and offer our services… The industry itself is in a phase of constant evolution itself. Anybody who tells you that we have got the systems and that these are the golden benchmarks is just bullshitting. At the end of the day, the PR agency business is constantly evolving itself across the globe. Every day is a day of learning for the PR industry. There are now centres and teams that are managing these kinds of developmental areas for us.


Q: Has 2012 begun with a bang for the agency?

Jan 2012 has been much more promising; we have shown good growth compared to January 2011. But there are signs that we may see less enthusiasm from clients where allocation of budgets towards PR is concerned. In terms of negotiations and new business, we actually get into high gear in the last quarter of the previous year. In that timeframe we talk to multiple clients across categories and segments and it is at that stage that you can actually gage the commitments that are happening for the new year. So we definitely see signs of a slight slowdown but I would say that in an evolving market and an evolving country, things are not going to slow down hugely.


Q: How would you rate the growth story for LinOpinion in 2011?

2011 has been a fantastic year for us because we did many things that stood out in the minds of our clients and the industry per se. We were even recognised for some of our achievements – we got recognised for several innovations that we brought to the table including Suzlon PR campaign for P.A.L.S where we worked in an integrated way with the entire group machinery and several other things. It was also a great year in terms of finance and business performance. We even bagged the best Marketing Services award within the group for business performance. So it was a fantastic year for us.


As for the wins, a few notable ones include Tourism Victoria, Times Television Network, Polaris…then there was a consolidation of all the Starwood businesses where we now handle all of their mandates. We also managed to win clients like DHI, Siemens, and several others. To sum it up, we have had at least 40-45 retainer businesses added on. We also consolidated our teams; we launched training programmes and many other initiatives that we set out to do last year. And this year will see further change and evolution – more of a recasting exercise from our end. As for our growth last year, it would suffice to say that it has been over industry standard. Now we have to temper that growth with reality, we have to temper that growth with manageability… so anything is possible in this space. The criteria is to see what the industry is doing, what we need to do and how we can manage it best and then decide on throwing up numbers. But the numbers we achieve are good, and we achieve it on profit margins that are on par with advertising businesses.


Q: How would you sum up your performance against other players from the industry?

The thing is that we don’t like to benchmark ourselves against anyone because this industry has seen crazy growth. So for instance, you predict a growth of 50 per cent or more the question is whether you can sustain that kind of growth or no? That’s because the basic and fundamental fuel to that growth is talent – there are not enough talented people out there who stick to jobs. I have spent 17 years in this agency, which is huge, but I too in the early part of my career wanted to keep on jumping for better opportunities. So Ii do not blame people who want to move but when you move at that early stage so often it doesn’t reflect well on your career prospects.


Having said that, we too have faced talent issues and we continue to do that. There is enough business out there but to get the right kind of people to service the needs is a tough thing. The other thing is when you get the talent in, you expect them to hone in skills much faster. We as an agency imbibe a lot of values and would never be found doing things that are unethical. We would rather give up a business but we won’t take the wrong path to appease a client. Our core competence is understanding where the brand needs to be and getting you there. And that can happen with sensible strategy and creative. The other challenge is in making the clients believe that there is a value in what you do more than what they are willing to pay for. There are still some clients who perceive PR to occupy the lower part of the communications chain; but that’s changing. While there are a few clients at the top who don’t mind paying a premium for your services, a majority of the clients in the middle of the pyramid still want to settle the deal for less. And with that kind of income you cannot deliver the quality of work that is desired. So people have to understand that the more you invest the better the returns.


Q: Domain wise, how have each of the units contributed to the growth of the agency?

We are not a lifestyle-only PR agency as some claim us to be. There are other domains that we cater to. We have a well-rounded portfolio; we have FMCG, brands, financial, power, etc. In fact we are not in the lifestyle space in a big way as before. May be we are not promoting ourselves well enough but that will change. We now offer well-rounded services across sectors. Where our thrust is concerned, one part of it will be in the area of where PR as an industry is headed towards – which, for us, would be helping clients around business issues. So we would be defining areas and how PR can fit in to help with those business issues for clients. The second is in the area of where media is headed. These two would be the main areas where our strategy for moving forward is concerned.


Q: How do you view digital as a practice for the industry today?

Digital is an extremely complex and badly understood medium, but is extremely powerful. I think the power of the medium is yet being defined. Even if you look at mobile you are looking at a completely different paradigm. It is so mind-boggling that even agency folks don’t have a command on it. The kind of communication that works on that space sometimes doesn’t work anywhere else. What is really interesting about this medium is the possibilities it offers. The dynamics of me sitting in India and doing a campaign for a client in Africa – why not? I can come out with a brilliant creative and I can tell you that the ability for our thinking as Indians is pretty damn good. We can be thrown into any situation and we can come out shining. That is the kind of innovation that works on the digital medium. I do foresee a future where a PR guy sitting here would be creating a campaign for a client in some other corner of the world. Creative is not the domain of just one or two people any more.


Q: What are your expectations from 2012?

We expect 2012 to be a great year again. We believe in being steady with everything that we do. As I said earlier, it would be a year where we would be recasting our offerings a bit. It would mean a couple of more interesting developments from our end. To put it mildly, it is going to be about growth for us in 2012.


Q: How would you react to claims of the industry being largely disorganised? What would you estimate the industry size to be?

According to my estimates, the industry size hovers around US 100-150 million dollars. There’s no way that Assocham’s figure of some billions is true at all. In terms of the industry being disorganised, I totally agree with that view. Do the senior PR industry folks even meet each other? We don’t. I am not interested in being in a coterie, to be part of something; I will run my business the way I want. Yes, there are common issues that would make sense for people to deal with commonly but we need to have the right forums to deal with it. When there is an appropriate forum, we will definitely be a part of it. I would be happy to be supporting a professional body which has teeth. But for that we all will have to get together and it is the agency heads that need to take that lead.


Q: Have you contemplated turning an entrepreneur or is this where you will continue to exist?

As of now, I am very happy being here in this agency. I have spent 17 years out here and that would make me a loyalist. The agency has given me the kind of growth that I require for my career. I sit at the top management today and have multiple responsibilities to look after. This is the thing I started with and I do want to see it go to great heights.


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