Ameer Ismail’s illustrious career spans over two decades. He joined Lintas in 1996 with the responsibility of building the PR business – GolinOpinion, which today is a JV between MullenLowe Lintas Group (MLLG) and Golin. GolinOpinion is recognized as one of the leading players in the PR industry.
Recognizing the transformation of the PR industry, he was instrumental in structuring the JV with Golin in 2013. He now is also a member of Golin’s Global Leadership Group working with other MDs and senior leaders in the group to develop and implement global strategies and initiatives.
Ameer Ismail – President, GolinOpinion (MullenLowe Lintas Group) speaks to us on the changing scenario in the PR Industry in the New Normal were communication is seeing a tectonic shift.
It has been two decades for you in the PR industry, how has your journey been?
I have had an amazing journey of learning and growth along with the privilege of working with one of the most respected institutions in the industry for over two decades. The rich agency legacy of brand building has given me the chance to work with some of the best brands in the world.
The advantage of working in an environment of enablement has made me entrepreneurial within an agency ecosystem. For me personally, over the course of my journey, I have had so many diverse opportunities to lead different groups within the organization – from design to film marketing to events.
While I have been credited for building out a significant PR business and a respected brand for the group, I have seen the evolution of the overall communications industry which continues to play out today. My exposure to our global network of agencies and brands has added to the rich experience of an incredible career for which I am grateful.
When I started my career, the PR industry was in its infancy. Today it is a different world. I never stop being amazed at the professionalism and dedication of our young professionals. Their insights, their incisiveness and their creativity make me sure that we are doing something right and the future of this business is bright.
The PR business has seen many paradigm shifts, how are you seeing the industry today?
The PR industry has been evolving over the years and its significance has grown as has its scale. PR has a central role in management and the recognition of this dynamic has seen senior professionals getting a seat at board levels additionally recognizing the value of what we do, corporate communications functions have been strengthened in most future-facing organizations in India. A few paradigm changes I have seen are the move from the power of relationships to the power of storytelling. It is no longer just about understanding the brand or having strong media connections, important as they are. The high levels of chatter today demand communications that stand above the noise. Creative and strategic thinking, the boldness to explore new mediums, is what being recognized as key differentiators.
The other change I have seen is the move to “digital everything”. This has completely changed not just the communication landscape but even the talent requirements of agencies. As today’s preferred channel, it has created an ecosystem where conversations are ‘always-on’.
Finally, the power of managing influencers who can work to enhance impact and conversations around brands has become very important. To pair the right influencer with the right brand and messaging has become as much an art as it is a science but when done right, it has the power to give the brand an unfair share of attention.
What has been that one big challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?
The PR industry is the one industry where we deal with challenges on an almost daily basis. In that regard we are more or less inured and it is a way of life for us. Also, we are trained and have processes in place so in general crises do not phase us.
However, I do remember a challenging situation I faced once, when a retained client was less than honest with us with respect to their business practices and their expectations of PR during a crisis were bordering on unethical. At that time, it was a difficult decision as it had large financial implications but nevertheless, I decided to part ways with this client.
Today the world is going digital with aggression, how is the PR industry coping with it?
As I mentioned, the world has already gone digital. When you look at most brand communications in today’s world the need is for communication to be omni-channel. From a consumer perspective, it is no longer even about the second screen; they are simultaneously engaged with multiple screens. This has necessitated a rethink at an agency level about how we design communications and also the formats we use. In this regard, our global philosophy of hyper bundling and our diverse capabilities are a competitive advantage backed by deep bench strength in digital and planning can be a distinct advantage for clients and brands who work with us.
For PR, this always-on environment throws up a number of challenges but there are also opportunities to insert one’s brand messaging in the ongoing conversation. The very first step is to be forewarned. I firmly believe that crises these days do not knock but tweet! At GolinOpinion, we have an established structure that helps us be on top of any potential crisis before it even materializes. This begins with proactive social listening. We have a dedicated team that constantly monitors all social conversations, identifying possible crisis points as well as opportunities. This is critical to have a response strategy up and running as soon as possible. In today’s digital-first world, PR professionals cannot afford to ignore accurate data, which is critical to effective PR.
Now thanks to the COVID 19 we are seeing a new Normal, how will the PR industry re-look and re-define communication for their clients?
There will be a huge need for smart creative digital content for clients for the foreseeable future. Besides the disruption to services and sales, every company is now also having to manage other very important expectations such as the health and welfare of their employees, guidance to shareholders and making contributions to the society at large. In this challenging situation, how companies handle communication can go a long way in cementing their relationships with the key constituents to get their crucial support. Furthermore, brands, companies and leaders who make smart/wise decisions that are authentic, purpose-driven and action-oriented, will reap lasting benefits such as goodwill and brand affinity. PR will continue to play a huge role in both internal and external communications.
How did you think of this JV between ‘Golin and MullenLowe Lintas Group’ ?
At the time, over a decade ago, I believed that GolinOpinion (formerly LinOpinion) needed to have a best in class global agency partner with shared values and goals. We already were doing great work for great brands, but at that stage, I saw a new kind of agency evolve that would be more global in ways of working and this move would be integral to our future success. It did however, take a number of years of connecting with right people in the global IPG network and agency top management to make this vision a reality. Golin had a similar culture and an ambition to grow with us in India and we have had a wonderful journey so far.
Where do you see the agency 3 years from now and on a personal level where do you see yourself?
I see this agency become a far more significant brand within the group and the larger PR industry. My vision is not just to scale but to do work for clients that delivers measurable image or business impact. In this day, there is a direct correlation between the two.
Over the past few years, we have been building new competencies within the agency in response to the changing dynamics of the market and our audiences. We are unique among PR agencies in that we have a strong creative DNA thanks to our Lintas lineage. This is something we are looking to leverage more and more to create campaigns that go beyond the normal and give our clients the biggest bang for their buck. More and more, this symbiosis between the different arms – PR, creative, digital, planning, technology, etc. will decide between an agency’s success and failure and I feel that we are well-prepared to build on our experience and existing talent pool.
I also have groomed several managers who are today capable of leading the brand and I am confident it will remain strong and vibrant for the future. I believe that I have reached a point where my experience can add value at a strategic level, and I will be ready to move to any role or position where I can continue to help corporates and brands. The future for our business will be challenging and there will be a need for seasoned leaders who can effectively navigate difficult situations. Personally, I find challenges exciting and they motivate me to step up beyond the normal.
A mentor you want to mention? What specifically did you learn that has held you in good stead throughout?
I can mention a few leaders who have inspired me in very different ways. Prem Mehta was the first, a man of few words but deep knowledge and a vision to build a significant group business. He was the one who hired me into Lintas in 1996. The learning from him is to hire people who have capability and passion to build something and give them the space to do it.
In the PR world I deeply admire Fred Cook, a man who truly is a great leader and someone who has learned from a varied tapestry of experiences in his life. In fact he has written a book about his journey – Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO. I have learned from him the value of all experiences, good and bad that make you great. Never to stay quiet; one must always ask for what you want and need or else you won’t be heard and finally that culture can be curated but you have to practice it as a leader and really walk the talk.
How do you de-stress yourself?
I enjoy travelling to interesting destinations and have been lucky that I have been doing that all my life. Since my marriage, I have the added benefit of having my wife join me on my trips. I love food of different kinds and exploring the diversity of culture and cuisine is a passion. Finally, nothing makes for a better time spent than connecting with good friends and family. We are now doing this digitally, but it is still a pleasure. I find that I am connecting better than I ever did before, with family in different parts of the world and school friends on WhatsApp groups. It’s a small blessing of these times.
Your go-to activities on the weekend?
Movies on Netflix, a meal from a good restaurant, sleep and long walks