'Innovation in PR industry is a must for growth and survival'

Xavier Prabhu, Founder & MD, PRHUB, talks about the changes in Indian PR landscapes in the past 3 decades for Independent and Indigenous PR firms in this edition of Rising India Series

e4m by Nafisa Shaheen
Published: Jun 17, 2021 9:03 AM  | 9 min read
Xavier Prabhu

The digital age has redrawn the boundaries of the PR landscape, expanding it beyond the traditional medium and hence, widening its audience base. The advent of digital platforms has blurred the boundaries between PR and other marketing techniques and is treading towards an integrated approach. Yet, its direct impact on its audience and the subtle nature of communication have enabled PR practitioners to continue distinguishing themselves from social media and marketing. 

So, continuing our celebration of recognising independent and indigenous PR agencies as part of the “Rising India Series”, today we talk about PRHUB, an Integrated Marketing Communication firm. Founded in 2002, PRHUB is an entrepreneurial venture by Xavier Prabhu, a communication professional with 25 years of experience in various facets of branding and communication. The firm has morphed from its initial years as a PR firm to being a pioneer in the space offering customized communication solutions. At the core of this vision is a team both mature and young with over 150+ human years of collective experience. With over 50+ professionals on the roll including, the firm's collaborative and passionate work culture, has helped them gain a 15-23% growth rate year on year. PRHUB has invested and continues to invest in building capabilities in-house in order to be able to deliver on the promise of truly specialized communication services across the spectrum which speaks highly of their excellent client relations. It has passionately partnered with more than 300 organisations across diverse verticals including MNCs, start-ups infrastructure, aerospace, and defence with an 85% client retention ratio. 

To get more insights regarding the firm, its strategies, understanding of the Indian PR landscape, expansion and more, e4m interacted with Xavier Prabhu, Founder & MD, PRHUB, in the latest edition of “Rising India Series”.

Edited Excerpts:-

How has the PR landscape changed in the last 3 decades for Independent and Indigenous PR firms?

We have been around for 2 decades and my own stint in PR has been for the last 25 years so let me share what has seen changing in that period. Surprisingly, in many areas feel many things have not changed for firms like PRHUB which are both indigenous and independent. But here are areas where have noticed major changes:

  1. Technology – If anyone told me we need to start investing in technology beyond the systems, mail client, anti-virus, and such stuff, would have laughed them off a decade ago, but not today. It is not just about platforms and tools. It is really about making the right technology decisions for your firm so it helps you to operate virtually, productively and securely.
  2. Talent – There has also been a visible shift in values and approaches to career growth. Earlier corporate communication roles were an evolutionary step you took after gaining enough experience. Now it is the defacto preference option for a lot of the talent coming out of the specialized PR/mass communication courses. Due to this and other reasons, it has become progressively more difficult to retain talent particularly at the entry to mid-levels over the last decade or so. This is especially acute in the three large PR markets in India – Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Expectations of employees have also changed significantly in this period making it quite competitive and attrition an ongoing occurrence. 
  3. Expertise/core skill - While we have been dabbling in things beyond media relations from day one due to our unique inception circumstances, most independent ones have seen have all been largely media relations focused till a few years back. And rightfully so as the majority of client demand and revenues were in that area as the Indian economy phenomenally grew through the 2000s till 2018. That of course has been changing and it will be in due credit to all the agency entrepreneurs that they have been adept and flexible.
  4. Competition – There have and there will always be clients who would make their own choices irrespective of what many of their peers would be doing. In the earlier days, a certain type of clients was largely the domain of the independent firms due to multiple factors (not just pricing). And there were clear pricing bands at play which allowed you to plan with a certain predictability. Have seen those Chinese walls go away in the past few years as every client is a target for every kind of PR firm except the really large ones (even among them there is a growing number of exceptions). So as an independent agency increasingly one competes not just with peer ones but also those across the spectrum – from the very large to the smaller boutiques, introducing a new level of complexity.
  5. Maturity - Playing a global role and being globally exposed for a long time, I feel that India is probably a decade behind the big, mature markets like the US. If you see those markets, independent & indigenous PR firms are thriving and continue to. In fact there is a lot of inorganic activity where one independent PR firm acquires another. And there are few large independent PR firms in each of its large markets (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.). In India, on the contrary, almost all (except for negligible) inorganic activity is by the global networks and the very large firms. To me, it’s a question of maturity and to see this changing.
  6. Risk-taking – have seen a flurry of new ventures (some funded) from independent PR firms in the last couple of years. While it's very interesting, it's laden with higher risk levels. Must share am also taking a leaf out of this trend. 

Beyond the change, it has been heartening to see that indigenous and independent PR firms are probably recognized and accepted better than when I started.

Innovation is the key, how the industry is evolving. How are PR agencies coping with it?

To me, frankly, innovation to PR firms is not a luxury or intention anymore - it’s a necessity like hunting is for lions. You don’t get your meal if you are not successful in your hunt that day. The landscape is changing so fast in so many different directions that innovation is a must not just for growth but even for survival. I do see PR firms increasingly fighting in different areas with social & digital marketing, advertising, and even with strategy consulting firms. That makes it more exciting but also really challenging. Speaking of us, we are accelerating the innovation inside our firm in that we are opening up multiple new fronts and revenue streams at the same time while continuing to build on the core expertise area and growing there. 

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

The answer depends entirely on the motive of the entrepreneur/partners at the helm in these independent and indigenous PR firms. If they are content with where they are (geographically, practice area wise or a certain vertical or type of clients) and having a loyal core team that reduces the dependence of mid and entry-level talent, probably there is no incentive or pressure on them. If you are not that, then it’s akin to being on a treadmill. You need to be constantly on the move, active, and pacing yourself right. Like I said earlier, the Indian PR market will evolve and inorganic activity will start to happen between indigenous and independent PR firms at some point in the near future, more than the exception it is today. And the inorganic activity driven by global networks will continue to happen alongside. To me, this is a clear sign of the evolution of the PR space in India. I also foresee the inorganic activity not being restricted to the PR space. There will be acquisitions of specialist firms by PR firms and vice versa. Again, this is a healthy trend and needs to be encouraged. 

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?

India in the next 10 years will no longer be an emerging economy in the strict sense and the PR space in India will logically grow multi-fold as its economy grows. There will be the emergence of a new breed of firms that are more cross-pollinated and in some sense boasting strong cultures that will not fit into any of the current buckets. They will wield significant influence, attract a certain set or type of clients and talent. Like the way, certain disruptive plays emerged in the advertising space. This probably could stem the corporate communication exodus the industry is facing right now since the culture and related value proposition of these firms cannot be matched or offered by any of the client firms unless they are similarly structured themselves. 

The second is a set of firms which are really good at collaboration. They strike partnerships, assemble a great cohort of skilled freelancers and manage this well. I am not talking about them being behind the scenes but actually front ending and taking decisions and driving client mandates. This is also an interesting trend which also is an offshoot of the current changes – be it WFH, many people wanting to control their time/priorities more, etc. 

At PRHUB, we are looking to try both of these approaches in a certain manner and will know in the next 2 years which way that will turn out for us. 

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

PR is a very nuanced space with a certain understanding, cultural ethos and network in that market being necessary pre-requisites even today. The organic route to expanding beyond India is a really long shot with low probability of success. Having said that, there is one area that may happen due to the current shift towards virtual and geographical boundaries blur and it is that agencies can service clients in multiple markets without having to be present in those markets. This will happen in niche areas or areas where there is clearly an India advantage.

Where do you see PRHUB in the next 5 years? 

I foresee PRHUB among the sought-after, truly integrated firms which deliver blended communication solutions A firm that evolves in new and different directions in line with the market but sticking to its core of being reliable and strategic reputation advisors to its clients.

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