Enjoying the perks of being in ‘pole position’

Asda’a boss Sunil John has built a PR empire from humble beginnings but he tells Richard Abbott that PR remains undersold.

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By  Richard Abbott Published  October 23, 2005

Enjoying the perks of being in ‘pole position’|~|John,-Sunil200.jpg|~|John... ‘The measure of success is the ability to roll out a programme in a dozen markets at 48 hours’ notice’|~|“I’ll tell you the five-minute story of my life, but it will probably only take five seconds,” says Sunil John, managing director of PR agency Asda’a. It is a modest opener, but it might have had a ring of truth to it had his career in the Middle East started differently. After arriving in Dubai in 1994 from his native India, he was so shocked at the poor standards of PR that he considered heading straight back. “There was hardly a PR industry to speak of when I arrived — no more than 25 people in the entire industry,” he says. “I was probably the first Indian PR professional. It was a very Anglo-Saxon industry.” But he persevered and now he runs one of the Middle East’s largest agencies, with 170 employees across the region and more than 100 clients. Asda’a is part of the powerful THG group run by Joseph Ghossoub and is affiliated to the global Edelman network. His arrival in the Middle East in 1994 was preceded by a spell in newspaper journalism. “I had noble intentions but I got into a bit of trouble,” he says. “There were a couple of defamation cases. I was cleared both times though. “I miss the high of journalism and I found it very difficult to leave it behind. You can make a real difference in how governments and organisations are seen by society. But I wanted to look at the other side.” After two years in his first Middle East job — at Intermarkets — John was poached by Bates PanGulf to set up a PR division. Three years later, he departed as vice-president of a profitable PR business, something he still recalls with pride. But he has mixed feelings about advertising agencies that have PR arms. “Ad agencies will always look at PR as an afterthought, a bolt on to give lip-service to the notion of total communications,” he says. “Under the shackles of an advertising master, no PR brand can flourish. They need to get the master’s blinkers off.” In 2000, he moved back to Intermarkets, which had recently been acquired by THG, to relaunch the PR division as Asda’a. The agency’s name translates as ‘echoes’ in Arabic, to demonstrate how a message is echoed around the marketplace. He says the logo, an empty speech bubble (created by sister agency Team Y&R) refers to the constant quest for creativity. On day one, Asda’a had 15 employees and eight clients, making it about fifth in the PR pecking order. Five years later, with a truly regional network in place, John — who owns a third of the business — confidently claims to have “established pole position” with a client portfolio including Emaar, Etisalat and Enoc. And business is booming. From January to August 2005, he says the agency has added US$3 million in new business. The tie-up with global PR giant Edelman last year has enabled Asda’a to implement international campaigns for clients such as Emaar and Dubai International Financial Centre. “The measure of success is the ability to roll out a programme in a dozen markets at 48 hours’ notice,” he says. “The fact that we can manage a global programme out of Dubai has been a big plus. “When you are a leader you need to do benchmark work because a lot of people are watching what you do.” But despite the growth of his own company, John feels the PR industry at large is underselling itself. “The PR industry is not realising its own potential,” he says. “There is too much focus on poor media relations.” He believes there is a risk of PR becoming commoditised if too many companies focus on the “bread and butter” model of sending copious press releases out to keep clients happy. “The numbers game doesn’t take the industry anywhere,” he says. “There is no great value in crafting a news release and putting it out on the wires. Okay, it’s part of the mix but the PR industry has got to open its eyes.” He stops short of saying there are too many PR businesses in Dubai, but says: “Anyone can start a PR agency. You just need an internet link and a PC.” John believes PR companies should be challenging management consultancies for a client’s budget. “You have to sit down and look at the client’s business and then tell them how you will add value to it,” he says. “If a CEO sees value in talking to a PR agency and we can make a difference to his business then we can say we have achieved something.” He blames a lack of passion for some of the PR that is being churned out by some corners of the industry. “You have got to be passionate about your business, otherwise you do lukewarm work that doesn’t touch you, certainly doesn’t touch the client, and hardly reaches the consumer.” John says he instills passion into his workforce by insisting that staff have fun while they wok, enjoying what he calls the “Asda’a perk”. It sounds like embarrassing corporate management speak, but John explains: “Our people are eminently poachable, so we create a certain type of ambience here, a fun feeling that gets people to give off their best. This is the Asda’a perk — what you get from being part of this brand. “It is so important, yet it is missing in so many organisations I know.” Sunil John is clearly totally immersed in his company’s brand. Even when we have concluded the interview, he insists on showing his company’s credentials, a Powerpoint show where the emphasis is very much on the qualities of the directors that run the business. But he is aware that his agency attracts cynics. “People have a love/hate relationship with me.” he says. “It’s because you can’t ignore me. I don’t mince my words.” By now he is eulogising. “We believe in people being ambitious, aggressive and sharp,” he says. “We believe in getting raw people with no experience — what I call a ‘deep bench’ — and creating a learning environment within the agency.” To this end, he is encouraging young Arabs to join his agency to cultivate the skills that they need to become PR practitioners. And with a little sprinkling of his Asda’a perk, the hope is that they will be enjoying much more than just five minutes of fame.||**||

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