Amith Prabhu: The Rise of PR firms in India over the last two decades

24 Nov,2014

By Amith Prabhu


As we come to the end of the calendar year, it is important to note that this year several PR firms celebrated milestones. Some turned 25, some turned 20, some 15 and some 10. Here’s a quick round up of the history of Indian PR firms for the record.


Indian PR evolved in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Indian and international ad agencies opening a department to take care of media relations needs of clients. Most pioneers moved from other professionals like advertising and journalism to start PR firms. Some of the oldest PR firms are IPAN (27 years) 20 20 Media (25 years), Perfect Relations (22 years), Genesis (22 years), Sampark (20 years), Clea (19 years), MSL (15 years).


Roger Pereira started Roger Pereira Communications which was later renamed R&P Communications which Edelman went on to acquire. Dilip Cherian, then the Editor of Business India and Bobby Kewalramani started Perfect Relations in 1992.  That year Prema Sagar who was a printer and publisher (of tourist guides) started Genesis PR which is now known as Genesis Burson Marsteller. N S Rajan joined his wife Bela’s start-up after quitting his full time corporate communications job in 1994 to set up Sampark. Madan Bahal who was part of Adfactors Advertising started the PR division in 1997 and today is India’s biggest firm in revenues. Sunil Gautam moved on from Clea PR to set-up Hanmer & Partners in 1999.


Then a variety of professionals who either worked in these companies or elsewhere started their PR firms. Nandita Lakshmanan (The Practice) and Archana Jain (PR Pundit) left Genesis to start their firms which are still independent. Nikhil Khanna moved on Good Relations to be joined by Nitin Mantri (the first male employee at genesis) who moved back from Ketchum-Pleon, London to start Avian Media. Blue Lotus was started by Chandramouli after moving on from an Adfactors group company.


In 2001, Vaishnavi Corporate communications was started by Niira Radia, a publicist who knew her way around the media, government and corporate establishment. The firm wound up on its 10th birthday due to the involvement of its founder in India’s telecom scam. There was considerable damage done to the profession but thanks to the solid foundations of the other firms the community of professionals moved on from this incident.


Acquisitions have taken place in the last decade starting with Burson Marsteller acquiring Genesis, followed by MSLGROUP acquiring Hanmer & Partners and later 20:20 Media. This was followed by Edelman acquiring R&P Communications.Weber Shandwick taking over Corporate Voice, Hill & Knowlton taking IPAN into its fold, Golin taking charge of LINopinion and Ketchum making Sampark its own.


Several firms opened shop without acquisitions. These include: Fleishman Hillard, Ruder Finn, APCO Worldwide and very early in the game Text 100.


Getting the right work force has been a challenge. Companies with good HR practices have managed to battle this out better. More importantly, institutes offering a robust PR programme are far and dew. Genesis created an Associate Learning Programme in 2004 where they hire 10 to 15 young post-graduates every year from campuses and put them on a fast track which involves rigorous training and challenging assignments.


Some other firms have great in-house training initiatives including exchange programmes and internationals exposures. International firms have training programmes at a regional and global level where they make huge investments.


The need of the hour in India is an accreditation system that ensures quality talent remains a constant. Academia, corporates and consultancies need to work out a model to ensure there is parity in retainers paid, salaries offered and fees charged to ensure there is no anomaly in this area. Currently the better PR training institutes charge close to a million rupees for a two year programme, the starting annual salaries at PR firms are just 30% of this. How will students repay their education loans? They, then prefer to join a corporate organisation where the learning curve is different but salaries are better.


If Indian PR firms need to rise higher they need to be compensated better by the clients they work for. Meagre $3000 monthly retainers will not do any good. A standard needs to be created to prevent undercutting and ensure quality work comes out of a quality retainer. Firms need to showcase their work at international award shows, win them and command both respect and money they deserve.


The PR business in India is on the upswing and there is no looking back. The day is not far when the few Indian firms will acquire smaller international firms to expand their footprint. More importantly the number of Indians getting transferred abroad within organisations and the rise of expatriates working in the sub-continent speaks volumes of where we have reached in less than two decades


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