APAC Top Consultancies 2021: The command of the independents

Emma Smith, Sandpiper Communications
Emma Smith, Sandpiper Communications

In 2020, more than ever, it’s clear that independent mid-sized agencies are holding their own against the big guns, according to PRWeek's APAC Top Consultancies rankings. Last year, at the onset of the pandemic, we spoke to indie agency leaders across the region about the uptick of work due to better agility and adaptability as a result of fewer stakeholders and layers of approval. It appears that this theory has held on throughout the year.

Sandpiper Communications, for instance, recorded the region’s biggest growth spurt at a whopping 47 per cent, owing in part to its 139 per cent jump in its healthcare business and 48 per cent increase in revenue in corporate and financial work.  

Emma Smith, CEO of Sandpiper, told PRWeek Asia that its proposition of “high-quality, senior and specialist advice” backed by data and insights has been especially valued by clients in the past year. “With no silos and a single global P&L, our clients also appreciate the flexibility this provides to access our talent from across different markets and specialisms,” Smith added.

On top of that, Smith attributes staff wellbeing and flexible working to be a huge factor in business growth. “Our company culture, with its flat structure, collaborative teamwork, flexible working, and nimble and flexible approach for clients was definitely a factor. We did not have any pay cuts of layoffs, rather we gave promotions, pay rises, and bonuses throughout the year,” she said. This, which led to its success, gave the agency an opportunity to be brave by way of opening new markets as it did in China.

“Clients are increasingly looking to deal with specialists who are experts in their respective industry or expertise, as well as greater flexibility, and I believe smaller and mid-sized agencies have the edge in these areas, if they can offer strategic advice and flawless implementation and that is what we offer,” said Smith. “We work mainly on regional briefs and accounts and we have invested a lot of money in new admin and ops systems. This, coupled with our flexible way of working, meant that we were able to quickly switch to remote working with no disruption.”  

Critical Path, which demonstrated 46 per cent growth, saw a significant uptick in demand for crisis comms, research and big data, stakeholder comms, issues management, and business continuity counselling—the latter of which the agency specialises in. Sectors that marked increases for the agency were tech, fintech, and public sector work.

“Governments always have significant budgets, especially during situations involving public​ healthcare, safety and national​ security—all of which were issues during the pandemic,” Adrian Lee, managing director and chief client officer at Critical Path, told PRWeek Asia.

The agency also expanded its agency offerings in 2019, opening up a new practice group as well as a new business unit.​ The new practice group focusses on servicing high-potential start-ups and the business unit offers custom research and data to supplement its main communications business, as well as serve as a standalone revenue generator.​ ​

“Smaller, private and independent agencies do hold the advantage over the larger agencies when it comes to large scale and massive changes to our industry. And that’s because we can be more agile with regards to making the necessary organisational adjustments to quickly adapt to the changing industry environment​,” said Lee.

He used S4 Capital as an example of a network that used acquisitions, investments and new content streams as a strategy, which paid dividends for the group last year. “Meanwhile, Publicis and WPP successfully carried out significant organisational transformations to help their groups be more ‘relevant’.​ Omnicom was the least successful group as they were not able to pivot their business,” Lee added.

Creative Crest, which has a big presence in India, reported a steady 12 per cent increase in growth, and attributes its success to the quick pivot to online and remote working.

“Luckily, the team has experience of working remotely, especially for global clients and it was not so difficult for them to work remotely,” Kapil Rampal, CEO of Creative Crest told PRWeek Asia. “The team transformed all offline activities to online in almost no time.” 

It didn’t hurt that the agency holds a diverse portfolio of clients, including those that experienced growth last year such as OTT, ecommerce, healthcare, wellness, fitness, and commodities. 

It did, however, record a 23 per cent loss in regional staff count. “We tried to retain all employees during the initial part of the pandemic by supporting them in every way that we could. However, a few employees wanted to spend more times with their families and we offered them consulting positions that did not need their full-time contribution,” said Rampal. 

Interestingly, 80 per cent of Creative Crest’s board are made up of women, an above-average statistic in the region and one that Rampal factors into the company’s success. He said: “In almost every way women are superior to men, especially in PR business. Women have a natural flair for communication, strategy, multitasking and an endless zeal for excellence.”

Mutant Communications, Redhill, SPAG Group, Vero and ERA Myanmar round up the category of mid-sized agencies that recorded healthy spikes in the past year.  

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