Sandy Purewal: The work does the talking

The modest CEO of Octopus Group is occupying his restless mind by focusing on the tech agency's expansion. Sara Luker reports.

Sandy Purewal: 'I find it so frustrating that PR professionals don't value their work enough and do it for half the price of ad agencies'
Sandy Purewal: 'I find it so frustrating that PR professionals don't value their work enough and do it for half the price of ad agencies'

Sandy Purewal is resolutely focused on the future. He even proves a dab hand at fortune-telling - foreseeing advertising's triumph over PR at the Cannes Lions Festival three weeks before the event.

The Octopus Group CEO is quick to express his disappointment in PR's 'tired structures' and its 'lack of confidence' to charge higher fees.

'I find it so frustrating that PR professionals don't value their work enough and do it for half the price of ad agencies,' he says.

'It's ridiculous, shows a lack of ambition and belittles the industry. Where is the strategy and business thinking in doing work for no money? I could sell you a tenner for £9 every day of the week - that's easy, although it will lead to failure.'

Mirroring the verdict of the Cannes Lions judges, Purewal says PR agencies need to learn from their advertising counterparts. Planners, content creators, strategists and graphic designers all need a seat at the PR table, he argues.

For someone with such forthright opinions, Purewal has in the past been somewhat reticent in sharing them. This modesty has not stopped his agency gaining sixth place in the PRWeek tech league tables this week, with 30 per cent growth.

'Historically, we've always let the work do the talking,' he explains, noting that Octopus is still a relatively new kid on the block in large agency terms.

Purewal founded the agency in 2001 alongside ex-Bite Communications colleagues Jon Lonsdale (MD of Octopus Communications) and Billy Hamilton-Stent (MD of the group's research and marketing agency, Loudhouse).

The agency had a tough start to life.

Octopus launched just as the 9/11-fuelled global downturn was set to bite, and into an area in Windsor that was awash with tech agencies, including Harvard, CC Group and Brodeur.

'We went from turning business away to the phone not ringing for six months,' says Purewal.

The 42-year-old is clearly proud of what he and his growing number of staff have achieved during the past 11 years. While not entirely uncomfortable talking through his career, Purewal evidently prefers looking to the future. 'It wasn't until I started preparing for this that I looked back at what Octopus has achieved,' he says. 'It dawned on me that we've gone through three recessions and continued to grow.'

Purewal acknowledges that he was, perhaps, always destined to be in PR. He remembers how he held court with his storytelling among his mother's friends at the age of four.

But his path into the industry was typically convoluted. 'I wanted to be a graphic designer, but being the oldest child in an Asian family, I was told to get a proper professional qualification,' he says. So Purewal headed off to university to gain a first in electrical systems engineering, despite his admission that he was not able to even change a plug. Another hint he may have missed his true calling came when, after plugging a cable into somewhere it was not supposed to go, he was sent flying across the floor as the classroom plunged into darkness.

However, his degree also encompassed a marketing module, and Purewal was soon bitten by the PR bug. Three roles followed before he joined Bite Communications in 1997. 'It was such a great time,' he recalls. 'Everyone was so passionate and we all felt we could take on the world.'

But even 'taking on the world' has a shelf life - and Purewal left after only two years. 'I got bored,' he says. 'I get bored easily, which is why I have to keep pushing myself.'

He is naturally warm and affable company, while being surprisingly candid about any shortcomings he might have.

A self-confessed 'gobshite', Purewal admits he is 'frustrating' to work for.

Sam Hall, EMEA corporate comms director at Oracle and a former Octopus employee, is rather more generous about his erstwhile boss: 'Sandy works quicker than most, and once he has come up with an idea, he moves on to the next thing, making sure others around him can work out the details.'

His home life is no less frenetic, as Purewal admits to struggling to keep pace with his twin five-year-old girls. 'Everywhere you look, there are shoes,' he says. 'I need to build a shed - and it's only going to get worse as they get older.'

Purewal probably has enough on his mind already to ensure he does not get bored with Octopus. In 11 years, he has built one of the UK's biggest and best tech practices. Hopefully, the shed will be similarly impressive.

2001 Co-founder, Octopus Group
2000 Founder, Think Consultancy
1997 Account director, Bite Communications
1995 Account manager, Strategic Alliance International
1994 Account executive, Marketbroad
1993 Product manager, Kudos


What was your biggest career break?

The call that got this ball rolling - an old client saying: 'If you can put a team together, you can pitch.' Without this, Octopus may never have got off the ground.

Have you had a notable mentor?

My dad. Beyond that, I've been lucky to have had good advice from many people over the years, and prefer that to a classic mentor. I'm always open to ideas and thoughts, and it's something that keeps things interesting at Octopus. The people around me keep me focused and help the ideas I come up with develop into strategy and content.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Don't drive between the white lines; the ride is more fun if you dare to move outside them - and you'll get to wherever you want to go quicker.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Big opinions and drive - people with big gobs who can back it up. Someone who challenges the norm, but, more importantly, never stops challenging the norm. I also like people who never stay still - always looking to push themselves and those around them.

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