Shawn Lim
Feb 21, 2023

Redhill CEO on finding the balance between PR and marketing

Jacob Puthenparambil also discusses the growth of the agency and the use of AI tools which has become a trend.

Redhill CEO on finding the balance between PR and marketing

Redhill, a Singapore-based PR agency, has grown quickly in the last couple of years and takes pride in being a Singapore-born company that has successfully expanded its operations globally.

The agency, founded by Jacob Puthenparambil in 2014 with a meagre investment of S$2,000 and only two staff members, now boasts a global presence across 20 countries and 21 cities, with over 200 employees.

Redhill experienced rapid growth through a series of acquisitions. For example, it acquired VS Story, a B Corp-certified media production firm emphasising sustainable solutions, and Hong Kong-based Creative Consulting Group (CCG) to bolster the agency's presence in Hong Kong and the Greater China region.

While it has expanded its offerings, marketing remains essential for some of the agency's practice areas, particularly consumer goods and restaurants, Puthenparambil tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. In those cases, the agency must work with existing marketing efforts.

However, many of Redhill's corporate and finance clients operate in B2B, where marketing only sometimes translates into satisfaction.

"In those cases, our focus is more on reputational analysis and management and issues management to ensure we take advantage of all opportunities and are aware of general market conversations. We also handle crises, which is a massive part of our work," says Puthenparambil.

"Rather than focusing on marketing, we concentrate on litigation PR, public affairs, public policy, and government relations, which offer more growth opportunities for us."

From the start, Redhill's only Northstar has been business success, explains Puthenparambil.

As a startup, the agency is not concerned about click-through rates or website views but whether a client can secure their next round of funding and if their business's value has increased.

"We take a holistic view of the situation and do everything required to achieve that objective. At any given time, we're typically handling one or two crises and must ensure that they're resolved in our client's favour," says Puthenparambil.

"We will do whatever it takes, including speaking to journalists to change the angle of a story or stop it altogether through persuasion. Our work is becoming increasingly crucial as journalism changes, with more titles being subscription-driven and media facing pressure to produce content readers value. We must ensure that our clients' perspectives are seen when readers go deeper into a story."

Puthenparambil attributes his success to Sunil John, his mentor who previously headed ASDA, an agency that WPP later acquired and transformed into Burson Marsteller, which was subsequently renamed BCW.

"He started with just three people in a single room but now has a team of around 400 people and is one of the biggest names in the business. The main lesson he taught me was to focus on client success above all else," explains Puthenparambil.

"I have never told a client that something is outside the scope of our work, as our focus is always on ensuring our clients succeed. We do not aim for the bare minimum and simply keep a contract going by doing just two or three things; we always strive to do that little bit extra for our clients, as it can make a huge difference in their market share."

Finding the balance between PR and marketing

As PR is essentially reputation insurance, Puthenparambil points out one can do everything right in marketing, but something can go wrong and destroy almost everything. He compares PR to a safety net that ensures one can keep their eyes open.

He distinguishes between marketing and PR by explaining that while marketing involves allocating a specific budget for a campaign and proceeding with it, PR takes a comprehensive approach by considering the bigger picture of the company's goals and analysing the actions of its competitors.

"You must do more than just marketing and remember about PR. The biggest misconception in our part of the world is that we think PR is just media relations. Media relations are just the tip of the iceberg of PR. Many people think that PR is just press releases, but who publishes press releases nowadays? Even if it's a newspaper, they will want to call you up and do a story," explains Puthenparambil.

"Because if you publish the same thing as anyone else, your readers or subscribers won't pay for it. Readers also want that extra edge. So when you have a PR agency, you're paying for that relationship where you can get that extra edge."

Using data and technology in PR

If most of the work involves writing press releases and emails with those releases, then anyone can do it, says Puthenparambil.

"That has never been the bulk of our work. When I started in the industry, we used to send out faxes and pictures by courier, and they would do all these things to get it to the monthly publications covering it. Speed has improved, and efficiencies have improved. That has also meant that we can do more or less likely for errors and things," explains Puthenparambil.

"But clients are not hiring you to send out press releases faster. Clients are hiring you to write something with inherent news value that benefits the publication's readers. That is just the media relations side. Most importantly, we must also focus on its impact on the client's reputation and communication. So there is a term called meta-communication, which is nonverbal and non-textual communication."

Even though AI has become the latest buzzword with the emergence of ChatGPT, Puthenparambil says looking at a brand or person to get a sense of what's coming out remains priceless.

He is adamant that AI cannot replace creativity and problem-solving. For example, he says AI will not understand a client's appetite for pain, like how much of a reputational hit they can take before they can bounce.

"I have clients who don't care about social media; you can write whatever you want about them; they don't care because their clients don't care. So it's a matter of where you want to play. Regarding monitoring, technology has helped share information, get in touch with people, and collaborate. Still, the core creativity and problem-solving are what AI can't replace. Essentially, we are a relationship agency," says Puthenparambil.

"Tomorrow, if I have to call up a journalist and say, "Look, man, you're working on the story, but here are some facts," you're going to trust or not trust me, not based on any AI. You'll just say, "Okay, that guy, I've met him twice in eight years. Maybe I'll listen to him for five minutes." There is a lot beyond that, which is the secret sauce of our industry."

Attracting and retaining talent

Puthenparambil states he has a very unpopular opinion when asked how Redhill is looking for talent.

He says social media has spoiled many people after seeing it with his teenage daughter and how it influences her.

"There are no shortcuts to hard work. We produce around 20,000 graduates (in Singapore) a year. And if you're going to listen to your TikTok career advisor and say, "I want this, I want that, I'm not going to work like this, I'm going to work remotely," that's not going to happen," explains Puthenparambil.

"Much of the content is made in the US or Western Europe. However, in the first three years of your career out of university in Singapore, you have to work hard because it's like the start of a swimming or 100 meters race; you're racing with your peers. Plus, you have people who graduated a year before, and there are another 20,000 people about to land up."

He adds:" So, you must work hard to stand out. You are not going to do that by trying to fight imaginary enemies. There is a sense of entitlement with the younger generation, and they just get more frustrated if they don't reach anywhere by a specific time frame.

Puthenparambil highlights the critical thing is that stress will always be there, and it is a part of life. There is no finishing line.

He recalls that when he first started Redhill, his wife told him to get a job if he could not pay the house rent after six months. After nine years, Puthenparambil says the stress level has not decreased, and he feels fortunate that many young people have joined the agency.

Puthenparambil claims Redhill has a challenging corporate culture, which makes it difficult for new employees to fit in. However, he explains the agency's primary focus is on meeting the needs of its clients, and they consistently strive to go above and beyond to exceed expectations.

Without this approach, he stressed, the company would not have grown $8 million to $26 million in revenue in just one year. In addition, Puthenparambil has a realistic approach to hiring, recognising that not everyone is suited for the agency's culture, and many may leave after a short period.

However, he notes some loyal employees have been with the company for six or seven years and have grown alongside it.

"People who started as account managers are now MDs. You will only get that if you need an environment like that. So, I don't think there's any shortage of talent. We need guys and girls looking for an opportunity to excel and make a name for themselves. And out of 20,000, maybe 200 of them," explains Puthenparambil.

"The challenge is finding those 200 and convincing them not to join MFA, DBS, or OCBC but to come with us. That's my biggest challenge. I'll be amazed if there are people here (in the agency) who have studied communications. There are a few who have studied economics, psychology, and finance. We were industrial engineers, so that is what we need."


Campaign Asia

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