Atul Sharma is the Managing Director of Ruder Finn India. In his leadership, Ruder Finn’s presence in India has grown manifolds and established it as one of the fastest-growing mid-sized agencies in India. Ruder Finn’s recent acquisitions include Xiaomi, Vivo South Asia, Xiaomi, Bumble, Disney Hotstar, Pine Labs, Fiserv amongst others.
Atul is a 20-year communications veteran, specializing in corporate reputation management, brand building, media training, and agency operations including client acquisition, management, and team building. He’s valued for being a trusted advisor to clients across technology, telecom, venture capital, consulting, aviation, automobiles, retail, and consumer durables industries.
In today’s Leaderspeak Atul Sharma, Managing Director, Ruder Finn India speaks to us on his journey in the PR business, the growth of Ruder Finn, and paradigm changes being witnessed in the PR industry…
20+ years in the field of PR, how has the journey been and the challenges?
In the past 20 years, the business of communication in India has significantly evolved. When I started out, there was a clear focus on traditional media channels as the “preferred” platform of choice for storytelling. Over time, we have expanded that outreach to and through social platforms, blogs, and influencers, official social channels, apart from paid and owned mediums. The canvas for storytelling has extensively widened. Earlier, the world of comms was driven by relationships, a sense of touch, and feel. That has changed dramatically, since we are living in an over communicative world, we’re increasingly witnessing PR being driven by technology in a big way. Right from identifying platforms, stakeholders to churning out stories that are crafted to be customized for different mediums. Even driving engagements, conversations and measuring them is hugely backed by technology.
Today, in the world we live in, it’s practically impossible for professionals to function without leveraging technology. A simple case in point that highlights the difference is, 20 years back PR professionals would start their day at about 8:30amand would wrap it up by 6:30 pm since all newspapers went to bed by midnight. That’s not the case anymore; we’ve become a 24/7 industry and this has puta lot of pressure on professionals to be at their game, not only during the day, but through the week, month, and the rest of the year. That is one of the things that has changed and brought along with it, a new set of challenges. Despite its fair share of hurdles, the PR industry has been on a steady growth path and in the past few years, we’ve come up with a clear proposition for our clients and found a sweet spot, that’s led by the best of people, ideas, technology, and relationships. This amalgamation of the best concepts has differentiated us from our peers in the industry. Overall, I can most definitely say that the journey has been a rather fulfilling one.
Ruder Finn is now one of the leading PR agencies in India, how has the growth been?
At Ruder Finn, we have accomplished double-digit growth year on year despite the pandemic. We now have four strong practices across Technology, Consumer, Corporate Reputation and Policy, and Digital. It’s truly heartening that in the past two-and-a-half years we’ve grown from a team of 14 associates to 80 + across offices. For the team, their hard work has paid off, and I’m very excited about our growth trajectory.
The PR business has seen many paradigm shifts, how are you seeing the industry today?
As I mentioned earlier, the PR industry was largely about relationships and relied heavily on earned media. Today, I think we have diversified beyond that and are able to craft more facets to the art of storytelling. Given the ecosystem that we function in today, it’s not just about owned media but also about mastering the message. Whether it is about paid, earned, owned, or shared media; now the challenge is how one ensures that the storytelling is consistent across all these platforms and can engage with stakeholders, get their feedback – all while still building the narrative of one’s choice. This is a massive feat. Being a brand custodian is a weighty responsibility and we must ensure that the messaging is in consonance with the brand’s ethos and what they stand for. It’s certainly more challenging but also a much more fulfilling journey as compared to yesteryears.
Today the world is going digital with aggression, how is the PR industry coping with it?
The PR industry is working hand in hand with digital to make sure that we can leverage the best of technology to tell our stories. The business of communications has been open and adaptive to technological advancements more than any other marketing mix. And I say this with a lot of conviction because through digital, we’re not only putting the message or story out but also developing the narrative in conjunction with consumer feedback. In PR we have always—from its inception—built our campaigns with a third-party perspective. That third-party perspective needn’t just be that of journalists; it could be an influencer, a consumer with a social media account, or simply someone with a smartphone. Today we’re taking engagement with utmost seriousness. To tackle this, in addition to developing full-fledged digital wings, we’re also creating specialized firms with experts who are constantly innovating so that we can create a unique point of view for our customers.
The world is now operating in a new normal, as a PR professional how do you relook and re-define communication for their clients?
In the past year and a half, the world has changed in more ways than one. We are now living in a world that’s possible—as marketing pundits say –a digitally connected world. I concur with that sentiment. As we step into the new normal, some of the changes that have seeped into our lives are here to stay. With the pandemic, people have welcomed workable alternatives, which did away with the need to be physically present or travel to different cities to establish your presence or point of view in a room. This was replaced from the comfort of our homes through zoom/video conference. We have learned to adapt and embrace the new virtual world that the pandemic created for us. This will usher in newer technologies that ensure that you’re not only experiencing products but also consuming products manufactured in this digital environment. We are increasingly noticing significant changes in this space and many of our clients in the smartphone and entertainment industry are following suit. Even in the payments industry, we have seen our clients leverage these technologies to not only launch new products but also engage with various stakeholders throughout the pandemic. This is communications 2.0 and yes, I think it’s certainly being redefined as we speak.
Where do you see the agency 3 years from now and on a personal level where do you see yourself?
Three years from now, I’d be happy to see us still growing at the same intense pace that we have maintained over the past two-and-a-half years. I believe there’s a clear spot for us since we’re an agency that always going to leverage technology as a disruptive force in the world of communication. I don’t see that changing in the next three or even 10 years from now. I would want Ruder Finn to be an agency that not only has the best tech, consumer tech, corporate and digital mandates, but one that’s always been ahead of the game when it comes to brand solutions that help solve business problems for clients. We believe in leveraging technology to ensure that we deliver the best that the world of comms has to offer. Be it through voice today or predictive analytics tomorrow, or AI/ML in the near future. We intend to serve our clients with this level of radical transformation. As for my journey with Ruder Finn, I definitely picture myself rewriting and creating newer ways of communicating.
A mentor you want to mention? What specifically did you learn that has held you in good stead throughout?
My journey in the PR world would be incomplete without mentioning Nikhil Dey, Executive Director of Adfactors PR. A lifelong lesson that I learned from him was that change is the only constant. With the way our industry has evolved, how does one stay ahead of the knowledge curve? He taught me to value a team of motivated, passionate individuals and provide all the support necessary for them to function at their A-game and thrive. This advice has always helped me in good stead. Secondly, a lesson I learned that I continue to share with my team is, to invest in yourself and new skills, relationships, friends, people, and above all new learnings.
How do you de-stress yourself and go to activities over the weekend?
I’m not inherently a stressful person in the first place but I do strongly advocate maintaining a healthy balance between the mind and body. Whether it’s through reading, meditating, yoga, running, or gymming, I like to invest in a healthy balance between the mind, body, and soul. This also means that one needs to be happy and spread happiness. That’s largely how I destress myself.