“We want to be the comms equivalent of DBS or Singapore Airlines”

Redhill's CEO explains how the firm soared to become one of the fastest-growing agencies in APAC and has remained profitable since day one.

Jacob Puthenparambil
Jacob Puthenparambil

With just US$2,000 as seed capital and two staff on-board in 2014, Singapore agency Redhill has since set off on a meteoric rise in APAC, making it one of the region's fastest-growing agencies. According to PRWeek's Top Consultancies 2020, the agency recorded a 56 per cent spike in revenue last year.

CEO and co-founder Jacob Puthenparambil speaks with PRWeek Asia about his secret sauce, or rather the ingredients that make up the sauce. The first, he says, is making clients feel like the agency is part of their in-house team rather than an external vendor. The nurturing of this relationship is key to sustaining long-term accounts.

And speaking of long-term accounts, Redhill steers away from project work for the same reason.

"At the start, we used to think, 'Who would want to come to an agency with just two people in a hole in a wall?'" said Puthenparambil. "But we stood our ground. That meant we could invest more time with clients; our teams were not in a rush; we were not pressured to get coverage; and we devoted much more time to building meaningful relationships with media and stakeholders."

Another 'secret' of Puthenparambil's is the moving away from traditional measurement models where earned coverage takes centrestage.

"From the start, we were going to measure based on clients' business success," he said. "If a client is up for a fund, we would want to be able to prove the second round of funding or the third and so on. If it's a startup, how is the fundraising process going and how is customer traction doing?"

Many agencies wash their hands of this stuff, Puthenparambil continued. "They say 'Oh, I got two or three coverage pieces here and there' and they think the work is done. There are so many media outlets right now and anybody can set them up. And a lot of content can now be shared on WhatsApp or Telegram or different user groups and boards. So you really can't measure it like that anymore."

Clients have told the Redhill team that the agency stands out because of the willingness of its people to "get their hands dirty". Where other agencies may stick to easy-to-present or more conventional measurement methods or worry about "pissing off a journalist", Puthenparambil said that he isn't one to adopt those frameworks.

When it comes to hiring, most of Redhill's staff have been plucked from university and subsequently trained. According to Puthenparambil, it's not a "perfect scenario", as many situations are open to trial and error. But he sticks by it because the most important quality in his books is loyalty.

"The most important element when I'm hiring is trust and loyalty, because you can hire someone who's competent, but if their work ethic sucks, there's no point going forward," he said.

He added that diverse backgrounds including law and accountancy are encouraged, and are a boon in consultancy and strategy work for clients across various industries.

A shift in the journalism ecosystem

Puthenparambil is passionate about the way journalism and media-PR dynamics are changing, causing Redhill's operation to nimbly shift alongside.

One example of that is his emphasis on crisis management and reputation. "This area is fairly new to this region. This is because the nature of journalism is shifting towards subscription-based models and journalists are beginning to write more critical stories. In the past, they couldn't because they were dependent on advertising and relationships," he said.

"Back in the day, they wouldn't want to piss anyone off so they would just run fluff stories. And clients would understand that. Why would they need to pay an agency when they could pay publishers directly to write a nice advertorial piece?"

Puthenparambil is of the belief is that good PR agencies can only grow and thrive if a good journalism ecosystem exists in the first place.

He said: "I compare it to the judicial system. So if you have great honest judges, the law industry will flourish, because every lawyer will get a chance to make their argument. When the system is corrupt, what's the point of lawyers?"

Regional and global expansion

Redhill may have Singaporean roots, but a rapid expansion into the region and beyond is rarely seen for such a young agency. Within just six years of operations, the agency planted its flag in 16 markets in total, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, India and Sri Lanka. It recently debuted an office in Berlin and is quickly gaining ground in San Francisco and London.

"I will say that we go wherever opportunity takes us. We got into Japan because of one client who was happy with our work. We got up to San Francisco because we have six or seven VC clients there," said Puthenparambil.

"We want to be the comms equivalent of DBS or Singapore Airlines. We want to be recognised globally as a Singaporean comms company."

The only caveat to this swift expansion is operating without debt. "We just need to be at least making a certain amount of profit, and that's never going to be on the order organically," he said. "So we started [the business] with US$2,000 but we've been profitable since day one. We don't ever want to be in the situation where we are funding growth out of debt. All our bills are paid."

Even a pandemic doesn't seem to ruffle Puthenparambil. While some clients in the lifestyle and travel space have put work on hold, work has actually increased on other fronts and the agency is still hiring.

Because larger agencies have been suffering and have had to make cuts, Redhill has been getting CVs from laid off employees, as well as enquiries from clients who might be looking to make budget cuts at larger agencies. This, according to Puthenparambil, is opening up a few doors for Redhill.

"The pandemic has also shown a level of maturity among many of our clients. I had thought initially that this was going to be bad for us but many of our clients have kept their budgets. They figured that in times like this, they need street fighters."

He added that other agencies—including larger networks—that depend on one or two anchor clients may experience a setback during a time like this.

"We've spread out our client base so no one client is bigger than eight or 10 per cent of our income," he said. "So, business wise, there's no slowdown for us."

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