Sunil John :‘Everybody is battling to take that lead role'
Posted on September 14, 2017

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

“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.

“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 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.

“Many firms are stuck in old traditional ways of doing business. Many still haven’t woken up fully to the changing market scenario and the fact that digital is going to eat everyone.”

“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 programmes,” says John. “They are large, multi-million 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 Burson-Marsteller’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 Burson-Marsteller 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.”