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The 2021 Asia-Pacific PR Consultancies of the Year are the result of an exhaustive research process involving more than 125 submissions and meetings with the best PR firms across the region.
Consultancy of the Year winners are announced and honoured at the 2021 Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards, which takes place virtually on 15 September. Analysis of all Finalists and Winners can be accessed via the navigation menu or below:
Despite the lower profile adopted by MSL in Asia, the firm’s Indian operation continues to serve as one of the network’s shining stars, with 450+ employees working across three brands: MSL’s full-service flagship offering, 20:20’s technology-focused unit, and PCA’s consumer tech and startup-oriented business. Amit Misra continues to lead what may be India’s biggest MNC PR firm, and has overseen particularly impressive expansion across integrated mandates, digital (now numbering 100 people) and public affairs, for a client base that broadly covers corporate reputation and consumer engagement.
There are hub offices in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, along with network operations in Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune and Kolkata, part of a 24-city network that is wholly owned.
After double-digit annual expansion between 2015 and 2019, there was little surprise that MSL endured a slowdown in 2020, with overall revenue down slightly. Yet, while integrated comms revenue, in particular, declined, the segment continues to account for 40% of overall earnings, and there was also healthy growth from digital/social and public affairs. New business highlights included Kia Motors, Royal Enfield, Dubai Tourism, Empire State Building, Radio Mirchi, Simba Beer, McDonald’s, BDR Pharma, World Vision and Bharti AXA, joining a client roster that features the Gates Foundation, Coca-Cola, Dell, Netflix, UPES, Lodha Developers, Panasonic, JICA, ABInbev, and Facebook.
Misra is supported by a stable leadership team that features 20:20 MD Viju George, strategy executive director Parveez Modak, client engagement head Schubert Fernandes, digital head Tushar Bajaj and PCA lead Vaishnavi Murali. MSL did not make any job or salary cuts, instead stepping up investment into an agency culture that is considerably more evolved than most. That proved critically important during the past 18 months, when MSL embarked on a massive employee support programme that included learning and development (accounting for 2.5% of annual turnover), mental wellness and physical health initiatives, and a continued commitment to a series of genuine D&I initiatives that aim to reflect the country’s diversity. Notably, employee engagement levels increased dramatically, attrition levels dropped, and third party client relationship scores improved. Meanwhile, 70% of MSL’s campus hires are now women — helping ensure 55% female representation among agency leadership.
Initiatives included regular reports and virtual events focused on the impact of Covid, while MSL’s internal wellness and cultural programmes also merit mention. Campaign work, meanwhile, reflects the firm’s transformation towards a much more integrated mindset, including #KeepGirlsInSchool for P&G Whisper; #644Messi for Budweiser; #HappyHomesIndia for Pepperfry; social change for Pratigya Healthcare; ‘experience the game and beyond’ for Tourism Australia; and, #KeepItReal for Pfizer.
— Arun Sudhaman
Long regarded as the best corporate and financial specialist in the market, Adfactors has diversified its offering in recent years, establishing itself as one of the premier creative agencies in the region as well as a strategic powerhouse. It is a leader in high-stakes, high-value communications, primarily in the financial realm but now also more broadly, with thriving consumer and digital practices too.
Headquartered in Mumbai, Adfactors has offices throughout India, giving it a genuinely national footprint, as well as a smaller presence in Sri Lanka. But it can boast global reach through its membership of the PROI partnership, and the specialist financial services network GFC/net.
In a year that the coronavirus ravaged India more than almost any other market, the ability of Adfactors to hold fee income steady at around $35 million (the 70th largest PR firm in the world and the eighth largest Asia-based agency) is quite an achievement and speaks to its ability to differentiate itself as a mission-critical partner to its clients. There was new business from the likes of Netflix, OLA, Embassy Group, Apollo Global Management, Merck Specialties, Actis, General Mills, HMD Nokia, and Sanofi but just as important to the firm’s success is the relationships it has developed with existing clients such as Tata Group, Mahindra Group, Godrej Group, Hinduja Group, Apollo Hospitals, State Bank of India, BSE (Bombay Stock Exchange), Citibank, ICICI Bank and more.
The Adfactors story is not just one of exceptional growth and surprising creativity—the firm is one of the best managed in Asia, with a particular focus on a formal professional development process that has been a key factor in helping it stay ahead of a whole host of trends, from digital and social media growth to the importance of purpose. The firm made an early pledge not to cut jobs early in the Covid crisis—it actually added 70 people to its headcount over the course of the year—and senior execs took pay cuts and freezes to ensure the team could stay together. New talent included Nikhil Dey, former vice-chair of Weber Shandwick, and Arun Kumar and Suman Layak, former senior editors of The Economic Times.
A great deal of energy over the past few years has been devoted to establishing Adfactors as a leading digital player, and the last year saw the launch of new digital products, including STORRM (Strategic Online Reputation Risk Mitigation, with a focus on combating fake news and other objectionable content) and CommNext (forward-looking tools and platforms) for clients. The work, meanwhile, continued to gain international recognition, with awards for campaigns such as #ItsJustAPeriod for J&J brand Stayfree and #ArtAcrossAge, which used fluid art to position, Fevicryl, an acrylic brand from chemical company Pidilite.
— Paul Holmes
After rising to become one of India’s top PR consultancies over the past 14 years, few were surprised to see Avian Media snapped up by WE Communications in early 2018 following a lengthy courtship. The zeal of owners Nikhil Khanna and Nitin Mantri instantly turned WE into a far more credible South Asian force, at the same time giving Avian the kind of global network it has long craved. Avian WE’s key sectors are consumer, development, healthcare and technology — supported by impressive credentials in social impact, content marketing, public affairs (via its 30-person Chase unit), crisis management and social/digital. Above all, the firm’s focus on keeping things simple, whether in terms of growth, values and communities, has underpinned Avian’s consistent progress.
There are more than 300 people across New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, and Pune, while Avian also operates a nationwide affiliate network.
Despite the pandemic, Avian’s revenues held steady at around US$7.7m, but were up 6.5% for the 2021 fiscal year, which runs through June. Helping to power that performance was a diversified mindset that had taken root long before the crisis — typified last year by a new insights and analytics unit that handles global (Intel, Capgemini, Aruba) as well as domestic clients, along with impressive returns from across Avian’s core offering of social impact, public policy and digital marketing. As a result, there was new business from the Rockefeller Foundation, Lego, EdelGive Foundation, Nathealth and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants along with policy assignments for Microsoft, LinkedIn, Truecaller and VMware, and increasing public health and healthtech work. The agency retained all of its key clients, including Samsung, Amazon, Sony Pictures Networks, Intuit, Reckitt, J&J, Deloitte and Pernod Ricard.
Mantri’s leadership team also features public policy EVP and Chase head Manash Neog, client centricity EVP Neha Mehrotra and growth EVP Girish Huria. And the group has ensured that Avian’s unique culture remains firmly intact, which was never more important than during the worst of the pandemic. There were no job or pay cuts, while the firm rolled out several initiatives focused on employee wellbeing and time off, acquired oxygen concentrators for at-risk staff, and supported free vaccinations for the industry at large. And, Avian is one of India’s highest-profile agency supporters of D&I and social impact initiatives, releasing a book that addresses unconscious bias relating to gender and sexuality, and working to alleviate the country’s blood shortage.
There has been a visible uplift in Avian’s commitment to thought leadership in recent years, demonstrated not only by the ‘Consciously Speaking’ book, but by numerous reports relating to Covid-19, including a YouGov partnership focusing on India’s development sector. The firm’s campaign work continues to reflect the benefits of this mindset, featuring award-winning efforts for Mastercard, Amazon, Reckitt, Absolut and PVR.
— Arun Sudhaman
Founder by former Ketchum and Avian executive Girish Balachandran in 2017, On Purpose is hardly India’s biggest firm, but it may be its most progressive — thanks to a keen focus on social change. That is reflected in the four portfolio areas that the firm maps against UN Sustainable Development goals, namely — climate action, public health, education and gender equality. That positioning has helped On Purpose attract a younger, more diverse, talent pool — along with a string of development clients that require communications support, content strategy, reputation management and stakeholder engagement.
On Purpose employs 30 people across is based in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai.
Despite an initial pandemic-induced dip, On Purpose recovered to post growth of 28% for its 2021 fiscal year, as social change and public health took centre-stage with India ravaged by Covid-19. Key development clients include USAID, UNDP, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, WWF and ADB, along with corporate players such as ReNew Power, Smart Power India, and Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, for whom On Purpose handles employer branding and CEO profiling. Other key clients include Breakthrough Trust (gender discrimination), Micelio (India’s only EV investment fund), and Max India’s Antara (senior care), while there was new business from Dasra, Vana, Unilever, BBC Media Action, EY, GloWorld and GIZ.
Balachandran’s leadership team also features Bangalore lead Shalini Gunashekar, while Trigya Singh came onboard to focus specifically on ESG. The firm stepped up a broad range of support initiatives to help its staff through the pandemic, including: specific medical insurance, giving up its Delhi/Bengaluru offices to fund work from home allowances, free mental health counselling, zero layoffs and pay cuts. The firm’s Purpose Project, meanwhile, invites social change organizations to apply for pro-bono consulting, while #OPDeliberates bring the team together to discuss socially relevant topics — resulting in a new D&I policy that impacts all aspects of the firm’s operations, including a gender pay audit.
On Purpose’s thought leadership reflect not only its progressive mentality, but also Balachandran’s international experience with Ketchum and WE, featuring a leadership series that included top-tier industry speakers from across the globe. The firm’s campaign work, unsurprisingly, benefits from these efforts, with highlights including Breakthrough Trust’s campaign to address gender violence in cinema, Micelio’s initiative to support clean mobility; and ReNew Power’s work to drive clean energy.
— Arun Sudhaman
Under CEO Valerie Pinto, Weber Shandwick has transformed its Indian operation to an impressive extent, moving from a traditional PR player towards a highly creative, integrated powerhouse that is responsible for some of the country’s most memorable campaigns.
Weber Shandwick operates offices in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru.
Despite the difficult economic environment, Weber Shandwick grew revenue 7% in 2020, with a further 10% expansion forecast for 2021. Digital, social impact, public affairs, crisis and data/analytics emerged as key drivers, with Weber Shandwick notably handling the country’s largest industrial crisis (a major gas leak) along with ESG positioning for Nestle, Bayer and Vedanta. There has also been specific growth in the startup sectors, across edtech, agritech and healthtech, along with impact investment an policy counsel for such clients as the Dell Foundation, Facebook, Amazon Prime, Snapchat, and OPPI. Weber Shandwick also has above-average government capabilities (Guidance Tamil Nadu, Women & Child Ministry, NSDC), adding to an existing client roster that features Larsen & Toubro, IIM, Tata Trusts, Discovery Communications, LinkedIn, Oyo, Sabic, Snap Group, Abbott, Ericsson, IBM, Merck for Mothers, Pernod Ricard, Toyota and Twitter.
While vice-chair Nikhil Dey departed, Pinto’s leadership team remains relatively stable, bolstered by the hire of operations director Kavitha Lakhani, and benefiting from specific appointments to lead creative, social impact, data analytics and media strategy functions. Cultural efforts, unsurprisingly, were dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the country, and included an employee assistance programme, care packages, a dedicated Covid taskforce, and vaccine rollouts for staff and families. There was a sustained focus on virtual community and learning and development, with the firm’s ‘Juice’ global initiative instrumental in helping Weber Shandwick reimagine the future of work. A new DE&I program has also launched in Asia-Pacific, which includes committees in each market and mandatory training for senior leadership.
A slew of intiatives, including the Creative Sandbox, Chai Talk, PR Garage and PR Pit Stop, helped keep clients engaged during difficult moments, and Weber Shandwick’s existing social impact focus helped it continue to produce some memorable campaigns. The firm’s ‘Not Alone’ partnership with Aspire for Her, for example, tackled domestic violence and supported women who had lost their livelihoods due to Covid, helping to create 60k jobs. In Dharavi, Weber Shandwick’s continued work for the Gates Foundation resulted in the successful ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ collaboration with local rappers, which ultimately enlisted Bollywood star support. And there were also notable initiatives for Hero Motor Corp, L&T, Vedanta and others.
— Arun Sudhaman
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