Sunny, with a chance of real growth: A prognosis for PR in 2021

Guest Column: Atul Ahluwalia, Founding Partner, First Partners, outlines four key trends for the PR and communications industry in 2021

e4m by Atul Ahluwalia
Published: Feb 9, 2021 8:46 AM  | 5 min read
Atul Ahluwalia

India, like most of the world, faced the worst of the COVID-19 over 2020 and is now one of the few nations exhibiting a rapid recovery and emergence from this debilitating period of crisis and disruption. With our economy facing global headwinds as early as by the end of 2019, the pandemic deepened the challenges and forever transformed the way we live and work. One thing is certain now, things are not going to be the same again. Ever. For businesses, the aim ought to be out-maneuvering uncertainty and diffidence. Be it in manufacturing, or services, airlines, infrastructure, or finance, in India we are welcoming the push for much-touted ‘V-shaped’ recovery. Coming on the back of accelerating digital transformation, establishing agile operations, it may not be too over-optimistic to claim that after the dark days of last year, things are bound to get better now.

Already we can see encouraging signs that the media industry is poised for a cautious healthy recovery, and, in the same vein the communications sector should also get a leg up. In this context, it is most instructive to note that of all catalysts of growth and change, digital is now going to be accelerated as a result of companies needing to go online or from the dynamics of working from home. In fact, it is the digital DNA that will become a major performance gap between the leaders in technology adoption and the laggards. Also, the fact that many companies truly prioritize their employees' well-being, particularly in the emergent WFH scenario, and are ready and willing to act on that value, a significant shift in doing business is inevitable. With these new behaviours, organizations now have an opportunity to accelerate the pivot to digital, establish variable cost structures, and thereby grow faster than even before. Contextually then, to my mind, the four key trends for the PR and communications industry in 2021 could be summarized as under:

Trend1: Onset of the age of the hybrid model: Agencies will accept and work on the new post-pandemic normal of having both physical and digital presence. With this, one hopes to see a further, accelerated use of technologies for virtual meetings and digital work processes. For businesses in our industry, this immediately translates into efficiencies of both operations and cost. Less real estate and rental costs outflow, better geographical reach, and optimized client-agency servicing systems will positively impact bottom lines. Clearly, the changes ushered in by the lockdown adversity are likely to remain. 

Trend 2: Richness of talent and quality outreach: With a proliferation of digital ways of working, agencies will witness a major reduction in the number of their physical offices. As a consequence, talent will become independent of location and could be source-able from across the country, and verticals. The diversity of locations added to the variety of talent base, for instance, a unique story-telling competence in regional languages, will add a definite heft to agencies that are looking at diversification and deepening of their offerings to the new, post-COVID market.

Trend 3: Strengthening of the integrated-model agencies: This is certainly not a new business model as far as communication businesses go, with vanishing of boundaries, both of talent and of location coupled with a demand for functional diversity and the need for viable growth, more and more integrated communications agencies should emerge. These will seek to offer a highly focused suite of services ranging from marketing, advocacy, design, and, of course, digital. In any case, media, the traditional stronghold, and mainstay of agencies will at best constitute 50 percent of their service mix.

Trend 4: National narrative: One pervasive ethos that is sure to emerge and become stronger in the coming days is that of nationalism. Increasingly, it will be seen that most communications will be developed and designed keeping a strong India focus in mind. From B2B or even B2C or C2C, pride in India and the echo of that intangible yet hugely evocative ‘Indian-ness’, businesses and transactional dialogues shall be done with this nation focus at heart. This will be reflected both by Indian companies as well as MNCs. This is because most experts now strongly believe that India is the land of opportunities in the emergent global world order, the nation first and always theme should prevail across communication themes.

India today is proudly on the track to self-reliance and growth. Being vocal for local underlies the pervasive spirit of Aatmanirbhar Bharat. With the help of technology, India can accelerate digital transformation across sectors and become truly competitive globally. For independent and home-grown agencies, this ability to integrate and simultaneously differentiate will set them apart from the rest. While today we may have begun to emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, tomorrow companies will need to consider anew the way we design, communicate, build, and run the experiences that we as an industry need and want in the coming months and years. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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