Competing with the big boys in public relations

08 Aug 2023

From a two-person outfit, Redhill Communications has grown to have over 200 employees across offices in 20 countries.

When Jacob Puthenparambil setup Redhill Communications in 2014, he had a lofty goal: to build a global public relations (PR) agency that would rival big names such as Ogilvy and Edelman.

There were four to five global PR companies that dominated the market back then, and about two dozen small boutique Singapore firms,” he told The Business Times. “I felt there huge gap between the two”. As the leading incumbents tended to “automatically” sweep contracts from multinational corporations, local firms had fewer opportunities to win large contracts and were stuck with smaller clients, he added.

Almost a decade later, Redhill has become the first Singapore company to rank in an annual list of the world’s top PR firms. It came in 124th On PRovoke Media’s Global Top 250 PR Agency Ranking, released this May. From a two-person outfit, the company has grown to have over 200 employees across offices in 20 countries, and plans to try for an overseas listing next year.

Started from the bottom

When Puthenparambil founded Redhill with business partner Surekha Yadav, they began by pitching for global accounts that they clearly had “no chance Of winning” – and getting many rejections.¬† “We didn’t want to settle to be a boutique agency… we wanted to punch above our weight class right from the start, ” said Puthenparambil.

They finally found success by deciding to serve the fledgling venture capital (VC) scene: “I noticed that the VC industry in Asia, especially in Singapore, was just starting up, and no PR company was addressing the needs Of this industry.” Singapore VC firm Jungle Ventures, which launched with a S$10 million debut fund in 2012, became Redhill’s first client in 2014. Securing this contract was what “kept them alive”, quipped Puthenparambil.

As their pool of VC clients grew, many VC’s portfolio companies in turn sought out Redhill’s services. And as VC firms grew in size, they required additional services such as copywriting and events management, which gave the company more business.

Today, Redhill has 15 VC firms, private banks and funds on retainer contracts. Jungle Ventures, which now has over US$ I billion in assets under management, remains their longest-running client. But what Puthenpararmbil considers Redhill’s big break was handling the publicity and coordination of Dubai airline Emirates’ first flight to Phnom Penh in 2016.

“We put our heart and soul into it… We had eight news channels in Cambodia covering the landing Of Emirates’ first flight in Phnom Penh Live”

Following the flight, Redhill was awarded a six-figure annual contract to handle the airline’s Cambodia account. It managed to snag contracts for Emirate’s Japan and India accounts thereafter.

Growth through acquisitions

Beyond PR, Redhill has branched out to provide services such as strategic brand communications, digital marketing, book publishing and “creative solutions” ranging from design to video.

Outsourcing work to third-party agencies is a “common” practice for other PR firms, said¬† Puthenpararmbil – but Redhill not do so. “Information goes out when you outsource, and clients don’t like that. Outsourcing also limits your efficiency.”

Recent organic expansion moves include new offices in the UK and US in 2022. But the main driver of Redhill’s growth has been its acquisition strategy. Its first acquisition was made in order to enter Greater China – buying a 60 cent stake in Hong Kong-based Creative Consulting Group (CCG) for S$5 million in 2022.

“It’s not easy to grow organicalIy, especially overseas,” said Puthenparambil.

By gaining access to CCG’s clients, as well as new clients in Asia, Redhill recorded S$12.9 million in group revenue in the 12 months through end-September 2022, up from S$8.3 million in the year-ago period.

In the next three months alone, from October to December, it made another S$12.8 million in group revenue.

Separately, to strengthen its sustainability offerings, Redhill acquired 60 per cent Of Singapore creative agency Vision Strategy Storytelling for under S$1 million in September. The agency is known for its projects in the environmental, social, and governance space,

Redhill funded both acquisitions with a mix of cash and debt. Puthenparambil intends to buy out both firms fully in the next three to five years.

Powerful partnerships

Strategic partnerships have helped Redhill deepen its presence in markets where it already has offices. This year, it established two such partnerships with Japan-based creative agency Vivid Creations and Sri Lanka-based PR consultancy PR Wire.

“These partnerships are a pre-cursor to us growing our offices there” said Puthenparambil. “For instance, I could hire more people in Japan, but what happens if there is no demand tomorrow? I can’t just fire them.” Instead, if there is a temporary surge in demand, Redhill can tap their partner agencies for help.

With 2023 shaping up to be a “year of consolidation”, Puthenparambil sees this as an opportune time to grow Redhill’s market share outside Asia.

“We’re taking a more cautious approach in terms of organic growth. But where the economy is headed throws up a lot of opportunities for us to acquire,” he said. To fund further acquisitions and grow its presence in the US, the company plans to raise S$20 million through an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in early or mid-2024. It is in talks with investment banks, lawyers and audit firms for this.

Puthenparambil hopes to acquire at least five more profitable PR agencies in the next two years, and has already identified three targets.

“This is the one good chance we have of creating a global firm that is anchored in Singapore, and in the next coming decade and century.”

“We didn’t want to settle to be a boutique agency… we wanted to punch above our weight class right from the start .”

Jacob Puthenparambil,
founder and chief executive,
Redhill Communications