Redhill founder: ‘If you’re paying people for coverage, you shouldn’t be in PR’

In the next of Mumbrella Asia's series on Singapore’s independent agency scene, Redhill Communications co-founder Jacob Puthenparambil talks to Eleanor Dickinson about social influencers, getting in The Holmes Report and why PRs are like lawyers

Redhill Communications was officially founded three years ago today by two former hacks-turned-PR professionals who felt it was the right time to bring something gritty to Singapore’s communications scene.

Having recently left Havas, Indian-born Jacob Puthenparambil teamed up with Singaporean ex-CNA reporter Surekha Yadav to form what would become Redhill.

Starting without a name and just a handful of clients – Jungle Ventures, GT and Haagen Dazs –, the agency has now grown to encompass 26 people across 11 markets in Asia, including Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

The agency also recently opened two offices in the United States, and has now opened up shop in Germany. In this Q&A, Puthenparambil, discusses how – and why – the agency has got to this point.

You and Surekha had pretty successful careers in both journalism and PR. What was it that made you want to take the plunge and go completely independent here in Singapore?

“I fundamentally believe the quality of PR work in any market is linked to the quality of journalism. Journalists are like judges; PRs are like lawyers. We have have to plead our clients cases; we can’t pay them and we can’t influence them in any other manner. We just have to find the truthful standing out point – or spin.

“So in markets like the UK, India and Europe, the more titles that carry gravitas, the more you are able to swing public mood. But then now if you look at the market here, you get influencers trying to fake spray paint a mobile phone company [Circles.Life], and it doesn’t create any kind of real story.

“Part of the reason we started Redhill is because now people are focusing on coverage as a commodity to a point that sponsored content is harming the industry. You know the impact will not be felt because people will just see it as an advertorial. Whereas getting your car in a magazine like Top Gear, which will says it’s shit if it is, has real value and that’s the sort of space we’re trying to get in –  journalists whose views people take seriously.”

A lot of your clients seem to be venture capitalists, such as REAPRA and VentureCraft. Why did you choose to get into that space?

“At the time, venture capital was a relatively new industry. It was seen as a celebrity status, but we know the pain of the industry – they have to raise a lot of funds; they have to pick and choose from loads of these start-ups. They need to be successful and they need to show they have been in order to raise their next funds. And because the entry barrier is low – there are a lot of rich people in Asia – they need to stand out. Our first client was Jungle Ventures: for our first campaign with them we made an effort to pick the right titles and we proved to them coverage doesn’t just have to be about numbers.”

So how do you measure a campaign’s success without just going by the advertising dollar spent?

“We run all our campaigns like political campaigns. When we get our clients into a corner, we go all out. And there are many ways to measure success; there are research firms that will monitor the success of a product that we have done a campaign on. If it’s an airline client, we know by ticket sales. With VCs, it’s how soon they have raised their next fund. There are still clients that want to put a dollar to coverage – and we do that – but that’s not a science, it’s an industry comfort. That’s not where the real value is, and clients largely know that.”

You’ve expanded pretty rapidly in three years – 11 countries in Asia alone. How did you manage to grow so quick and do you have further expansion plans?

“It’s been a great journey so far. This time three years ago we didn’t even have a name. We’ve grown significantly. We keep the team very lean: we start with one local person in each market and grow from there – I don’t just send my cousin from Kochi over. And we couldn’t have grown this fast without the VC clients or if we just had traditional finance clients. They need to grow, and they need communication support, even in website design and protecting their Wikipedia pages. We’re now looking at Japan and Australia next. 

“We have now also started the process for our first acquisition. We’re hoping to buy an agency in India. It’s still early stages, but it’s a nice agency. We’ve so far not taken any debt and we’re profitable – both Surekha and I don’t believe in debt. And a lot of me know I would not be here without Surekha; she sobers me. She’s the number one at Redhill. I’m just number two.”

Like Surekha, you were previously a journalist in Dubai. Was it easy for you to make that transition into PR?

“I had a dilemma, as any journalist going into PR, of whether I wanted to stop being the judge and go back to being the lawyer, and having to plead cases. You go from being an investigator to being a defender. You stop asking what’s wrong with this company, why are they doing this to what’s the story we want to tell and what else do we want to protect.

“But you have to remember, a judge is only as good as the arguments he hears. So I started seeing what I’m doing as helping businesses, who are not bad, but the way they’ve shaped up – they have to protect themselves. There are risks and weaknesses, so you have to play up to their strengths.”

Earlier this year, you wrote for Mumbrella Asia that you thought journalism was becoming extinct. What’s led you to form that view? Do you find it problematic when publishers like e27.co choose to call their editorial teams ‘content specialists’.

“As a PR firm, we have no interest in working with content creators. Journalism is a calling and people are putting trust in you to study something and make a judgement. But if it’s someone who is getting money from a company to write five articles saying how awesome something is. Will anyone read that? No of course not. So we do try to stay regularly in touch with these journalists. But yet so many people equate PR with just sending out a press release: that’s about five per cent of what we do. A huge chunk of PR is just being a good strategic advisor and managing how a brand is perceived in the market.”

The Redhill Singapore team. Puthenparambil, back. Yadhav, second left

Also influencer marketing, despite being outside the realm of earned media, has become a big component in PR agencies. What’s your view on that?

“I think they are just a flash in the pan. I remember when they first came along and they were bloggers, but do you see many of them now. They went to Facebook, to Instagram, to SnapChat – and then that didn’t go so well. An influencer has a shelf life; you may be cool now, but what about in five years? It can be good as a short-term channel, but gimmickry will only get you so far. If you pay for people for coverage on their social media platforms, you shouldn’t be in the PR business. We made it very clear we will not pay anyone, but we try and find things that they want to be seen with. We do have a club of influencers and we send them products to review, but we don’t ask them what to type.”

Moving on, as an independent agency, is there a lot of pressure on you to have an exit plan and if so what do you have in mind?

“So Surekha and I set up Redhill in part because we read The Holmes Report and there was not one agency in South East Asia on their top 100. There was one from China. I think in the next two years there will be a few. But we thought, why is that? Why are so many foreign agencies dominating the market? So that’s what we wanted to do: we wanted to become a global agency from South East Asia. Do we want to sell to a network? No. We would rather acquire or merge with someone of a similar size than be acquired – maybe in India or Australia.”

Do you have an idea of where you want to be this time in another three years? Do you think you’ll eventually get in the Holmes Report?

“We’re aiming to get into the report by next year. This time in three years though, I want to see more people in the company taking more leadership roles. If you see me in the same role, despite the size of the company, personally I would consider it a failure. It would be a success for me to have more people running the business. The success of being a successful parent is to raise your babies well and not let them be childish for too long. How well our staff step up and how well we build their confidence is what is important.”


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