How to scale your independent PR firm: From Madan Bahal, co-founder of Adfactors - India's largest PR agency

Welcome to the PRmoment Podcast.

On the show today we're talking to Madan Bahal, co-founder of India's largest PR firm. Madan and I are going to talk about how, as an independent firm, Adfactors has grown from being one of a pack of highly regarded PR agencies in India - to becoming the biggest PR firm in India, frankly by a long, long way.

It's a story that any independent PR firm founder or CEO should hear because while it's become an inspirational story, it's also a story of hard work and risk but ultimately reward.

Many of our listeners of this podcast are from the UK and the US and may be less familiar with the story of Adfactors. For context, it is, by miles, India's biggest PR firm. Adfactors has a fee income of about $50 million. Their nearest rival is less than half of that size and all the big US firms have a presence in India, including Edelman, BCW and Weber.

So, to give it a UK equivalent, the largest independent British-owned firm in the UK is Freuds. It would be like Freud's being more than twice the size of Edelman in London.

So Adfactors is a quite remarkable story and today its co-founder Madan Bahal is on the show to give his insight to independent PR firm owners everywhere on how to scale their business and take on and win against the group-owned firms.

2022 marks 25 years since Adfactors PR was founded.

For background, PRmoment has a thriving community in India so the growth of Adfactors is one we've witnessed over the last 10 years or so.

Here is a summary of what Madan and PRmoment founder Ben Smith discussed:

3 mins Madan, with 25 years of hindsight, reflects on how Adfactors has progressed and his recent induction into the Page Hall of Fame

“History only has so much relevance… I always drive with my eyes on the road ahead.”

“The scale of complexity we are seeing makes me feel worried… the scale of disruption and the scale of complexity we are seeing (means) that the world will expect public (deeper) relations counsel… I don’t think public relations firms by and large are evolving quickly enough to be able to deal with the same level of complexity in terms of its counsel”

5.30 mins Madan talks us through how Adfactors went from an $18m firm in 2015 to a $50m+ firm in 2022.

“How do you keep investing in remaining relevant over time? How do you invest in your leadership? Adfactors has remained true to the craft and value proposition of public relations … our value proposition is earned influence.”

9 mins As the owner of arguable the world's most successful independent PR firm - what is Madan’s advice for his independent agency peers?

“Today independence is a strategic advantage - the network firms have lost their flexibility and adaptability. If someone buys a laptop in India the CFO has to do the clearance!”

“The important thing is to run your business as if you are never going to sell it!”

“Democratise power, responsibility and problem solving to the smallest possible level - so you are eliminated from the burden of carrying it all on your shoulders”

12 mins Madan reveals when he was close to selling Adfactors.

“We came reasonably close to selling - one was a large network another was a private equity firm.”

13 mins Madan talks us through the challenges of recruiting senior talent in India - and the solutions Adfactors has implemented.

“Your people can grow only when the firm grows”

17.30 mins Madan talks us through his training priorities currently and what is Adfactor’s training budget per head.

“The paradigm of influence has changed”

21 mins Madan talks about his partnership with his co-founder Rajesh Chaturvedi. They have worked together for 25 years. What makes a successful business partnership?

“Take the business out of it and be a human being first, generosity of an unlimited kind…you're willing to forgive each other and play to each other's strengths and cover the other person's weakness. That generosity is very important.

“We have a clear belief that we will retire together. It is not conditional, it is not short-term.”

“It is a relationship of blind trust and confidence. I put his interests before mine and he puts my interests before his”

“Our offices are next door to each other…and we live in the same apartment block!”

24 mins What is Adfactor’s involvement with the training start-up, Upgrad?

27 mins Before COVID, the Indian PR industry was growing at a rate of 12 to 15% per annum. What is Madan’s take on how the industry will grow in 2023 and beyond?

“Professional services sectors tend to grow at twice the rate of GDP”

29 mins Madan talks about PR’s over servicing problem and his approach to solving this challenge.

31 mins Madan tells us the value of an average retainer in India in dollars.

“Underspending is the best way of overspending…the market is the best teacher - when they (clients) realise the value of reputation.”

“Today strategy changes every 3/6 months for businesses, this needs to be explained to stakeholders…this requires a lot of public relation work.”

“I don't think public relations has ever been in a better position, in terms of the opportunity”

36 mins How does Madan see the future direction of Adfactors in terms of practice mix?

“Any practice that can support a $1m revenue is good to move into”

37 mins What's Madan’s take on the emergence of successful mid-sized firms, not just in India but globally - is the old order changing?

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