Singapore-based PR firm Redhill has crafted an effective reputation-management based protocol for the VC industry, distinguishing itself from more traditional communication firms that typically use tactical publicity-oriented approaches.
Public relations is often mistaken for publicity. It appears, on the surface, to involve the simple matters of press releases, party invitations and gimmicks. For Jacob Puthenparambil, Founder and CEO of Singapore-based PR agency Redhill, it’s one of the many misconceptions about the business he’s seeking to change.
“We believe PR is not about promotion but reputation,” said Jacob. He believes that distinctive view is starting to dawn on the venture capital and financial services industry – sectors that have been core areas of focus since Redhill’s inception.
When the agency launched in 2014, the first client it signed on was Jungle Ventures, a relationship that continues to date. As Jacob worked with the VC firm, he soon realised that the venture capital sector as a whole had long been under-served. The big marketing and advertising conglomerates and their PR arms preferred to work with seemingly more lucrative MNC clients.
Redhill doubled down on the VC sector, recognising the value the agency brought and the gap just waiting to be addressed. It was early to spot the innate potential that good PR can have on VCs as well as their portfolio firms. This was particularly true of firms that had previously not taken PR seriously, or were unable to afford the services of conventional agencies.
“When I worked with Kuldeep Singh Rajput of Biofourmis, his company was just in its angel round and he could only afford to pay us a couple of thousand dollars,” recalled Jacob. “Today – a few funding rounds later – his company is close to a billion dollars in valuation, and we’ve grown our team and expanded across markets as he has.”
Redhill’s work in the sector was soon recognised and the agency expanded its client portfolio in the VC space. This, according to Jacob, gave him and his team a deeper and more holistic understanding of the ecosystem and its stakeholders. “I believe it’s a combination of our depth in knowledge and relationships which gave us the edge,” said Jacob, “Additionally – and this has been true right from the start – we want to work on retainers or in rare cases, projects which turn into retainers. This lets us build for the long term, align ourselves with our clients’ business goals and lay a solid foundation for relationships based on trust.”
Currently, Redhill has over 15 clients in the VC and financial services space, including Vickers Venture Partners, Sistema Asia and VP Bank, among others. Yet, with the industry gaining significant clout in recent years, Jacob is certain that a lot of money is still being squandered on marketing strategies of dubious efficacy. He believes there is room for growth and value creation through PR for the sector.
A time of reckoning for VCs
A shakedown is imminent in the VC field. According to Jacob, “In Singapore, the modern VC era began in 2011 as the government was actively (and still is) supporting the sector. Typically, the average life of a VC firm is eight years, and many firms established in 2011 and 2012 are maturing this year. However, when the median return is about 68 per cent versus the S&P Index which has done more than 300 or 400 per cent, the question VCs are being asked is: what returns have you provided? For the VC industry, that serves as a great awakening.”
The days when VCs could get away claiming to be ‘founders supporting other founders’ are over. “Now, it’s not enough to just show internal rates of return – meaning the value of the paper that you hold – but also beer money (aka making massive gains from small bets). They must now also demonstrate and articulate the return for the limited partner (LP). That is going to be a critical factor for VCs to succeed,” added Jacob.
VC firms looking to raise, especially in a market where the economy is intrinsically tied to finance like Singapore, will have to prove to investors that they are not flashes in the pan. They will have to convince family offices and the holders of multi-generational wealth that a VC investment is inherently better than other options in an increasingly congested financial services ecosystem.
“Capital is getting impatient because there are not enough exits or IPOs. These issues need to be addressed but it cannot be done via an ad campaign. It can happen only by organically placing the right messages that answer the doubts and questions in a stakeholder’s mind, in a credible manner. That is where PR comes in,” said Jacob.
A bulwark against a perfect storm of negative publicity
Firms in the VC and financial space (banks generally being an exception) have often eschewed establishing a PR department or working with a communication partner, considering such efforts to be luxuries. Not hiring these services in the first place or discarding them after a few years is a decision often justified by firms who either do not get, or shy away, from media coverage.
However, as Jacob pointed out, “Sometimes, you enter the limelight not necessarily because of something you did or by choice, but due to ‘a perfect storm’. That’s why companies need PR people who have a constant finger on the pulse of the organisation, industry as well as the media-scape. All Redhill consultants embody this, regardless of the industry or sectors their clients are in.”
Asked for examples of difficult situations that were delicately handled, he said, “There are several and while it’s tempting to share, the very definition of ‘success’ in these situations relies on making sure our actions don’t get noticed or mentioned. For all good agencies, the end result is what matters most. Also, our client’s reputation is deeply personal; anything that we see as an attempt to cast a shadow on it, we react with all tools in our company’s locker. This is something we train and keep developing our skills for.”
Before founding Redhill, Jacob spent several years living and working in the Middle East. It was during these formative years that he embedded several Urdu words as values to guide himself – and others working in PR – to succeed. “No matter how much the world of PR and comms changes, the old-world values of one’s niyaat (‘intent’), your team’s wafadari (‘loyalty’) and the value of your zubaan (‘word’) still go a long way,” he said.
Moving founders away from narrative clichés
Even outside of crisis situations, Redhill tries to steer its clients away from using old narratives that only deliver diminishing returns. Instead of relying on clichéd rags-to-riches stories or unnecessary and time-consuming tokenism on social media, Jacob recommends that founders be sincere, transparent, and open about their ambitions.
He said, “Redhill’s job is to be a makeup artist. I can enhance what is there. We are not and don’t want to be a plastic surgeon creating false narratives. Generally, people with flaws are more likable, after all it is only human to be imperfect. It’s the genuine experiences and insights that make their stories more relatable.”
For Jacob, moving away from overused narrative styles and PR platitudes have also helped to add another differentiating factor for Redhill. “Had we stuck to industry norms, we would’ve been limited to being another boutique firm in a crowded space. We had to break the mould to disrupt the space, and to do that, we needed to set extremely high goals for ourselves. We wanted to be more than a PR provider; we wanted to be a trusted solutions provider for any reputational issues that our clients may face,” explained Jacob.
Keeping pace with the evolving business of journalism
The disruptions to traditional media have resulted in journalism – the business kind, in particular – splintering into small but nimble and influential titles. Unlike the media giants of old, these predominantly digital publications are now driven less by advertising and more by subscriptions.
This has a direct impact on PR strategies, making it even more necessary to have a communication partner who can convince the media that a firm has a story worth telling that’s interesting and credible. Jacob said, “PR is usually classified as a function under marketing but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. There’s a huge body underneath, that deals with reputational matters to ensure that everything works and sticks.”
Jacob attributes Redhill’s growth to word of mouth, rather than conventional business pitching. This approach has produced results, especially for clients like Vickers Venture Partners who traditionally opted to stay away from PR firms. Wei Luo, Director of the Chairman’s Office at Vickers Venture Partners, said, “As we climbed the ranks into the world’s top 10 most consistent fund managers, we realised that it’s essential to not only share our stories, but also those – if not especially – of our incredible portfolio companies. Working with Redhill has been a great learning experience, especially on how to engage the media and spread awareness of what we do.”
Although VCs remain a core part of Redhill’s client portfolio, the agency now also caters to a wide variety of business sectors, including entertainment technology. When Singapore-headquartered Bigo Technology was looking for a communication partner, it wanted a global PR firm with strong local roots – one that would mirror its own ‘glocal’ structure.
Marie Miller, Bigo’s Senior Manager of Global Markets said, “Before meeting Redhill, most agencies that approached us claimed they could help with our need for global media engagement. But they relied heavily on their own partner agencies. Redhill is different because it operates its own offices in each market where we required engagement. As a client, we really feel important; they understand our specific needs and we have unhindered access to their account directors, who have been heavily involved daily since the very beginning.”
She added that the agency is especially effective for a company like Bigo which relies heavily on technology. She said, “Redhill was able to support us by diving deep in the technological matters, in addition to tweaking messages around them that can be easily digested by the mainstream public.”
Building a PR ecosystem for an untapped sector
The first question a new VC client typically asks is about the potential for conflict of interest, given the number of firms from one sector at Redhill. Addressing these concerns, Jacob said, “I provide efficiency. It’s not a zero-sum game about one story a year, but rather an ongoing narrative. When it comes to the VC space, we engage with journalists eight or nine times a day, at least.”
Jacob also believes that working with multiple businesses in the same category can positively impact the ecosystem. “Why would I maintain a large, well trained team, with great relationships with journalists and family offices, to serve just a single client? That client will have to pay so much to make that relationship worthwhile. Through our way, everyone stands to gain,” he noted.
The strength in numbers approach has other benefits, as Jacob explained, “A journalist knows that they can build a strong industry story by working closely with us. Redhill’s different clients (from the same sector) offer different perspectives and add credibility to the discussion.”
Moving forward, Jacob plans to focus on areas such as government relations, public affairs and research. He sees those sectors as being able to help Redhill zero in on human functions, where margins are higher. This focus is part of a wider strategy for Redhill to achieve its current goal of generating inorganic growth.
“In 2019, we were the fastest growing agency outside of the US,” said Jacob. Over the next 18 months, he hopes to acquire two or three companies across Hong Kong, Jakarta and Australia. This will ensure a more geographically diverse service offering and further expand Redhill’s international footprint.
Redhill is fully setting its sights on global expansion, yet the heart of the agency’s operations remains in Singapore; for now and the foreseeable future. The firm has shifted to a larger headquarters and increased its staff headcount – a tribute to the fact that no matter how far Redhill spreads its wings, the Little Red Dot will always be where its story began.
Redhill is the networking partner for DealStreetAsia’s Asia PE-VC Summit. Please visit the Redhill website to learn more about the services offered by the agency.