It wouldn't be wrong to state that Sunil John has changed the face of Public Relations (PR) in the UAE. Eighteen years ago, when he first arrived in this region, PR was just considered an add-on of advertising. But two decades on, the rules of the game have changed. The advice of PR professionals is being sought at the highest levels and as Sunil says, "we share the table with CEOs and Board of Directors". Sunil himself has played a large role in this change of perception and as the Chief Executive Officer of ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, he has been associated with the movers and shakers of the region. This year, Sunil has embarked on a new project – being on the Judges Panel of the Masala! Awards 2012. In a free-wheeling chat, the man who has helped in projecting the Dubai's modern face to the world, tells us all about his life and what has inspired him...
What are you looking forward to as a judge of the Masala! Awards this year?
The Masala! Awards are a celebration of human achievement – recognising notable actions by ordinary, not-so-ordinary and extraordinary individuals. Each of them inspires us through their commitment to work.
As a judge, I look forward to learning more about these individuals and understanding what motivates them.
What qualities are you looking for in a winner?
Passion and commitment are key qualities. I believe that the greatest achievements – be it the success of Apple or Dubai's ability to build Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building – are led by individuals who think beyond conventional norms and are passionately committed to their goals.
When you started out, how developed was the field of PR in this region?
Earlier, PR was always considered as the poor cousin of advertising. If we were invited to take part in a pitch, it was usually as a bit player; if we were lucky, we got a few minutes, at the tail end of the hour to explain what we do! But now our profession has come out of the shadows. Our counsel is sought at the highest levels. In March this year, we hosted the Public Relations World Congress for the first time in the Middle East. I was privileged to serve as the Chairman of the Organising Committee. By changing perceptions about the value of what we do, we have increased the value of this industry. Today, the overall value of the regional PR industry is about Dhs 1,836 million and might reach Dhs 3,670 million within a decade.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in taking ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller to the level it has reached?
The biggest challenge was to create an understanding of the true value of PR. Back in the day there were few multinational agencies operating here and their approach was pretty short-term. We tried to steer away from the traditional model and created a market that never existed. Our agency, with an Arabic name, ASDA'A (meaning echoes), invested time and resources in reaching out to clients including Governments, family businesses and institutions. Moreover, we invested in training and nurturing professionals. Today, we have a large regional clientele such as Emaar Properties, Etisalat, Emirates NBD etc.
What do you attribute the spectacular growth of ASDA'A to?
Well, our mindset and focus is on being close to our clients. We remain lean, mean and hungry – lean in optimising our resources, mean in our commitment to our ideals, and hungry for growth and development. Second, we are truly multicultural and we continuously evaluate and monitor social, cultural and economic trends and reflect that in our communication.
What are the qualities that an efficient PR professional must possess?
First and foremost, a PR professional must serve as a trusted advisor. He must possess deep knowledge about the client he serves. Being honest and transparent is also very important.
He should also develop and nurture relationships, based on dialogue and understanding.
What is the biggest challenge you faced while promoting a brand?
As part of our association with Emaar Properties, we managed the PR campaign for Emaar's flagship development, Burj Khalifa. Initially there was a lot of scepticism but we structured a campaign to ensure the final height would remain a secret until its opening! As it turned out, the inauguration was a huge piece of positive news for the world, which was reeling from the global financial crisis. It showed the ability of Dubai and Emaar to deliver amidst challenging conditions. We have been privileged to work with a visionary like Emaar's Chairman Mohamed Alabbar.
You are also a director of DAR Motion Pictures. Could you tell us more about it and your interest in movies?
I am associated with DAR Motion Pictures as a Non-Executive Director and serve in an advisory capacity. This three-year-old company seeks to break the traditional model of Bollywood film financing by creating a film fund, in which the public serves as shareholders. Thus individuals can be part of a fully accountable project and earn returns on investment. We want to serve as an independent platform that promotes true talent and are associated with directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali, Sudhir Mishra and Nikhil Advani, and have a pipeline of 19 films.
Are you a huge movie buff yourself?
I love both Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra's hits as well films of Govind Nihalani! Today, Bollywood is making some wonderful cinema and I'm impressed by actors like Aamir Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Farooque Shaikh and Rishi Kapoor. I also like Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone.
How do you find the time to indulge in your other interests?
Time is one commodity that always seems to be in short supply ! Whenever I have the chance, I catch a film. If I have a little more time, particularly when travelling, there is no better antidote to the daily rush than opening a good book.