Su­nil John: ‘Ev­ery­body is bat­tling to take that lead role’

Su­nil John, the founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Asda’a Bur­son-marsteller, be­lieves PR has a golden op­por­tu­nity to be leader of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­tor

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“The over­all com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­dus­try is at a very defin­ing mo­ment,” says Su­nil John, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Asda’a Bur­son-marsteller. “And PR has an op­por­tu­nity to take the lead.”

It’s been two years since we last spoke and the de­vel­op­ments im­pact­ing the public re­la­tions in­dus­try have in­ten­si­fied. Clients are cut­ting spend, the me­dia land­scape has dra­mat­i­cally changed, and the crit­i­cal­ity of dig­i­tal is such that even con­sul­tan­cies such as Ac­cen­ture are eat­ing into the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­tor.

“Ev­ery­body is bat­tling to take that lead role and the bat­tle on the dig­i­tal front is where the real win­ners and losers will come,” says John. “Me­dia, ad­ver­tis­ing, PR, a whole range of dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines are play­ing within that. And that’s what the crunch bat­tle is. Who’s going to come out of it on top.

“And some­times I feel the lead­er­ship in PR, both at the global level and at the re­gional level, doesn’t mea­sure up fully. The win­ners will be the ones that will re­ally be pi­o­neers, that will re­ally be the risk tak­ers, and I don’t see that. That’s where the PR sec­tor re­ally needs to pull up its socks. It needs to be able to look at op­por­tu­ni­ties where it has a nat­u­ral abil­ity to lead, but it has to bring in the kind of high level peo­ple nec­es­sary to be able to do that.

“It’s not that PR agen­cies should be ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies, there is a place for ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies, a place for me­dia, a place for each of the dis­ci­plines, but the fu­ture is for the pi­o­neers, the thinkers, the risk tak­ers. And if PR can bring those kinds of lead­ers [onboard] I think they will win this bat­tle for sure.” Why aren’t such lead­ers al­ready onboard? “Many firms are stuck in old tra­di­tional ways of do­ing busi­ness,” replies John. “Many still haven’t wo­ken up fully to the chang­ing mar­ket sce­nario and the fact that dig­i­tal is going to eat ev­ery­one.”

PR as a dis­ci­pline, how­ever, is well po­si­tioned to take that lead com­mu­ni­ca­tions role, be­lieves John, un­der whose Asda’a Bur­son-marsteller lead­er­ship also falls global mar­ket re­search firm Penn Schoen Ber­land (PSB) and in­te­grated com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency Proof. PR sits at the top ta­ble with chief ex­ec­u­tives and boards of direc­tors and, in WPP’S case at least, is fre­quently lead­ing on in­te­grated, net­work-wide of­fer­ings.

“The game chang­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are the ones where clients want us to look at global Septem­ber 2017 pro­grammes,” says John. “They are large, mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar con­tracts. We haven’t an­nounced it as yet, but we re­cently won the ADNOC busi­ness in Abu Dhabi. Af­ter ARAMCO, that’s the largest oil com­pany in the re­gion and they are going through a ma­jor trans­for­ma­tion and we have sec­onded nine peo­ple into the ADNOC of­fice.

“Com­pa­nies talk to us about the larger pic­ture and they ask us to lead on trans­for­ma­tion. Take the ex­am­ple of ADNOC. We are work­ing there right in the heart of it, work­ing with the top man­age­ment, seed­ing what is a ma­jor trans­for­ma­tion of a com­pany with over 50,000 em­ploy­ees. Bring­ing to­gether 18 dif­fer­ent sub­sidiaries as one com­pany and one voice… That’s why our ta­lent needs have changed dra­mat­i­cally over the last three to five years. We’re look­ing at high level con­sul­tants who can deal with boards of com­pa­nies, with min­is­ters, with CEOS on larger big pic­ture re­quire­ments.”

More and more of Asda’a Bur­son­marsteller’s work is for govern­ments, es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to mea­sur­ing per­cep­tion of coun­try brands or a coun­try’s lead­er­ship across in­ter­na­tional mar­kets. Such work has helped the agency sus­tain year-on-year growth, with 2017 shap­ing up to be its best ever year, with 20 per cent growth fore­cast, says John.

“When you look at that commercial suc­cess ver­sus the fairly de­press­ing over­all mar­ket sit­u­a­tion in the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­tor, I feel very bullish about the PR sec­tor,” says John, who launched Asda’a in 2000 as an in­de­pen­dent agency. “Es­pe­cially com­pa­nies that have in­vested over the last 10 to 15 years in build­ing a good strong re­gional net­work, on build­ing ta­lent, on build­ing a struc­ture that is client fo­cussed and able to de­liver. I think those are the com­pa­nies that will win big in the com­ing years.

“We run a tight ship. We are prof­itable, our mar­gins are healthy, and we run a good shop. But we have chal­lenges. We have chal­lenges on ta­lent, we have chal­lenges on how do we price our prod­uct. The pric­ing is­sue is still a very big is­sue. And then the po­si­tion­ing of PR within the com­mu­ni­ca­tion mix. Are we a leader or a fol­lower, and I would like to be seen as the former.”

Glob­ally, growth slowed for WPP’S PR and public af­fairs arm in the sec­ond quar­ter of the year, with the hold­ing group re­vis­ing its fore­cast for the full year down fol­low­ing “pres­sure on client spend­ing”.

Nev­er­the­less, John wants Asda’a Bur­son­marsteller to be gen­er­at­ing fee rev­enues of $50 mil­lion by 2021, a year later than he had pre­vi­ously hoped for.

“Asda’a has been my pas­sion project for the last 16 to 17 years,” he says. “And for me growth and build­ing brands con­tin­ues to be a chal­lenge. The chal­lenge is still fresh ev­ery sin­gle day. The job is not done com­pletely. There is still the last mile to go and I want to be able to get Asda’a to that $50 mil­lion mark. And then prob­a­bly I’ll walk away into the sun­set,” he adds with a laugh. “That drives me.”

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