The best is yet to come for Indian PR agencies: Ashwani Singla, Astrum

Singla, Founding Managing Partner of Astrum, notes that India will see opportunities for greater collaboration through pooling of skills and resources in the PR space

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Updated: Jun 22, 2021 1:53 PM
rising india

The key to thriving in a crisis is flexibility and willingness to adapt and innovate. This has become the winning mix for indigenous and independent PR firms in India, in the wake of the pandemic.

In today's “Rising India Series”, we feature Astrum, which is India’s first science-based specialist Reputation Management advisory.

A data-driven advisory, with emphasis on harnessing the power of analytics to generate the insights needed to effectively engage stakeholders, Astrum has been profitable since its inception in 2015 and have been growing steadily over the last six years at a CAGR of over 30%.

Singla believes in raising the bar of professionalism and quality of public relations practice in the country. Working on an “asset-light talent heavy” business model, the PR firm has a physical office in Gurugram and is represented across all major metros and reaches over 61 cities and towns in India via its exclusive affiliates.

With specializations in Reputation Management, Corporate Affairs, Crisis & Issues Communication and Election Campaign Strategy, Astrum serves a diverse set of clients squarely focused on working with C Suite Executives and Heads of Governments and as their strategic partner.

Founding Managing Partner Ashwani Singla believes in combining science with creativity to develop persuasive communication that shapes public opinion ethically.  In today's edition of e4m's 'Rising India' series, Singla shares his thoughts about the changes in the PR industry, the future of Astrum and more.

Edited Excerpts:-

How has the PR landscape changed in the last 3 decades for independent and indigenous PR firms?

According to me, predominantly three shifts have occurred over the last three decades, the third more recent than the first two.

It’s no longer a level playing field. The investment by WPP into Genesis PR, under my tutelage, was the first major investment by an international major into an independent public relations firm and was followed by several such investments in local firms. The first generation of independents like Genesis, Roger Pareira, 20:20, amongst others is no longer independent.

The industry has grown from ‘homegrown players only’ to an array of international firms competing for clients and talent. This is a challenge for indigenous firms as international names are natural magnets for clients and talent.

There's a rise in independent networks. In an “always-on” digital world, borders do not exist, crisis is a norm and policy shaped by geopolitics more than ever before. Clients often need global reach to orchestrate a response to their challenges;  talent definitely needs access to evolving know-how to stay relevant. Global firms have a natural advantage and this led to the rise of independent like-minded regional and global networks to level the field.

Global networks boast of a ‘one-stop solution’ or ‘integrated communication’ to sell to clients a bouquet of services pointing to the synergy till the internal compulsions led to its downfall and hence rose the specialist. A unique value driver for both clients and talent. 

As India’s first science-based specialist reputation advisory to CXOs and political leaders, Astrum falls in the third category of the third wave of independents.

Innovation is the key. How is the industry evolving and how are PR agencies coping?

Innovation is more a mindset than an issue of access to know-how or capital. Hence, independents and global majors are travelling in the same boat here.

As long as the public industry leadership reads the changing expectations of the clients and invests in developing necessary know-how and attract talent equipped to operate in a multi-disciplinary world, innovation will be a natural outcome.

For example, investment in anthropology, ethnography, sociology to understand public opinion was at the heart of the practice of the founding fathers of public relations but was lost over the years.

We at Astrum, recognised the importance of evidence-based programming and persuasive messaging based on deep insights of stakeholder mindsets and hence our investment in multi-disciplinary skills, talent diversity and sharp focus on ‘research-based consulting’ is at the heart of our success. The lesson for me is that innovation is not always fashionable but a revival to move the needle forward.

In the last decades, we have witnessed major acquisitions and mergers between Indian and global agencies. How hard is it to stay Independent and expand?

If a founder wants to remain independent they can. As I have demonstrated, there are business models that can allow for independents to compete vigorously with global majors. What is needed is an ‘institutional mindset’ or a vision or a desire to build an institution with embedded values. This allows for talent to expand horizons, investments in know-how development and creating a lasting governance framework.

What is your view on the next 10 years of India as a global leader and an emerging market? How do you see the growth and engagement for the agencies?

I think the best is yet to come. India will continue to rise and as it maintains a steady growth trajectory, you will see opportunities for greater collaboration through pooling of skills and resources. This will be both local and as well as global.

Some of the agencies have expanded and have offices globally. Do you see Indian agencies going abroad and acquiring local agencies?

Clients take their consultancies to new markets and as Indian companies establish a strong presence in overseas markets, their agencies/advisories will follow. Acquisition is a route to establish a presence in a market. Currency and price will determine the success of overseas markets. Over the next decade, we will certainly see some overseas M&A activity. 

Where do you see Astrum in the next 5 years? 

Being a focused science based reputation advisory, we are only driven by one agenda, i.e., to put science at the heart of our work and drive the convergence of science and creativity. When I commenced this journey 2 out of 5 clients adopted this approach and today 4 out of 5 clients ask for our approach. So, we remain focused on choosing the right briefs to help our clients solve their high-value problems.

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