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Reputation Today in conversation with Ameer Ismail


When asked ‘What makes you tick?’ Ameer Ismail, President, GolinOpinion was firm in his answer – “I think it’s resilience and commitment.” For people in the business, at an earlier stage, it was passion and learning; as you go along, it is invaluable learning that keeps you going, he noted.

With a career spanning over two decades, Ameer joined Lintas in 1996 and was responsible for building the PR business almost from scratch. After clocking significant contribution, he took on the role of President, GolinOpinion in 2016. A member of Golin’s Global Leadership Group, he is involved in developing and implementing global strategies and initiatives. Instrumental in structuring the JV with Golin, today GolinOpinion, (a JV between MullenLowe Lintas Group (MLLG) and Golin) is recognised as one of the leaders in the PR business.

An alumnus of Jai Hind College, Mumbai and Hamline University, Ameer currently serves on the advisory board of several management forums. Closely associated with a number of award platforms including SABRE and GoaFest, he has worked with the Centre of Change Management in successful seminars like International Brand Summit and The Asia Pacific HR Conference. He was also awarded the CMO Asia Award for Outstanding Contribution to Corporate Communications in Singapore in 2011.

Revealing that businesses will face a tectonic change, and will have to manoeuvre through shifting sands, in a one-on-one discussion with Shree Lahiri, he waxes eloquent on the changes fueling the evolution of PR, new talent entering the business and more…

RT: It’s been a long haul for you in the PR and communications space. How would you describe your professional journey?

I started my PR career in the year 1993 in Good Relations. It was a much simpler time and the PR business was in its nascent stage of evolution, as was I. I was so keen to learn and hungry to grow professionally, I recollect that I voluntarily took up every opportunity and challenge and made sure I attended every client meeting and engagement. I quickly built my confidence to move forward and take newer responsibilities and I made some successful and rapid moves. Nothing was too great a challenge and I managed to always over-deliver. In parallel, I was slowly building my reputation as a good professional. I moved with some colleagues to set up the PR business for Enterprise Advertising and then to head Profile, Trikaya Grey. Both moves garnered some success and attention. My media contacts also noticed my sharp movements and there were some that covered my career. It was in 1996 that I got a call from Prem Mehta of Lintas and I quickly decided to join the firm, and the rest, as they say, is history. It has been a most memorable and satisfying journey of building out very successful PR business and recognised PR brand for the Mullen Lowe Lintas Group – GolinOpinion. What is also gratifying is that I had managed to navigate patiently several management teams in India and globally to ultimately structure a JV with Golin, one of the world’s best. The enormous benefit to teams that followed was global learnings and best practices.

RT: How has Public Relations evolved over the years?

I will highlight three main developments that I believe are the changes fuelling the evolution of PR. The first is that with social media becoming ubiquitous, it has become very important for brands to always be on their toes; the next crisis is just one tweet away! This, combined with the importance of reputation and its direct impact on the value of the organisation, means that PR has now taken centre stage. Events like the Nestle crisis have further fuelled this.

Secondly, what used to be seen as an insignificant part of the communications services offerings where advertising firms traditionally ruled, has changed dramatically. There is a vast canvas of opportunity and significant revenue in the PR business and suddenly it is gaining relevance and respect. In fact, many consultancies have built allied services, including paid media, creative, digital, social media and event management to fuel growth and achieve larger scale, faster. Lastly, new technologies like AI, data analysis, etc. will completely change the dynamics of the business and how PR consulting firms operate.

RT: What is the role that PR plays in branding today?

Today’s consumer can very quickly sense which brands are credible and authentic. With platforms like social media, the spread of information has sped up manifold and become more democratic than ever before. In this scenario, a decisive and well-planned communication strategy is the cornerstone of any brand strategy. To stay relevant today, you need a fearless approach to storytelling that goes beyond the traditional. Look at any example; whether it is of a private individual like a political leader or a corporate, there is a realisation that the process of brand building is always on. If you take a look at Donald Trump, the PR machinery played such an integral role in his election. Similarly, a brand like Patanjali has been able to compete with behemoths like HUL because of how effectively the company and its promoters could shape public opinion in their favour.

RT: Where do you see Public Relations evolving into five years from now?

The need for a strategic approach towards communication has become urgent. However, this can only be realised with the right data and analytical tools. By building predictive analysis capabilities through AI and data mining, I see PR strategy moving from intuition-based to insights-driven. This will only make media responses more effective. For example, influencer marketing is usually carried out in a piece-meal fashion. With the aid of technology, we could see this change for the better.

However, the core of any successful strategy, which is designing impactful, creative communication, will remain paramount, though communication is set to become more visual. This will necessitate PR firms to rethink what they consider essential talent. I think we are going to see data, video & creative content specialists who are comfortable in an analytics-driven world and have a knack for engaging and creative storytelling be in high demand in the PR firm of the future.

RT: How does Golin bring together Explorers, Creators, Connectors and Catalysts to drive a campaign?

At GolinOpinion planning is at the core of everything we do. The G4 model is about moving from a generic approach to creating communities of specialists who will help bring positive change for clients. So, you have the Explorers who use a range of tools to deliver insights and help generate the communications strategy. This is then picked up by the Creators and Connectors who bring these ideas to life while engaging with audiences across all forms of media, while the Catalysts are responsible for championing campaigns by interfacing with clients and helping them achieve the desired results.

What is interesting about this model is that it dovetails into the MullenLowe philosophy of hyper-bundling. So, we are perfectly positioned to give our clients seamless, impactful communications solutions across platforms by doing away with silos and leveraging the rich & diverse talent and knowledge pool we have.

RT: What according to you are the attributes that new talent coming into the profession need to possess?

The dramatic shifts being seen in the communications landscape have created the need for talent that is digitally savvy and not averse to a data-driven approach. What we need more than anything are people with a professional mindset, who are not scared of adapting to changing circumstances. From a talent perspective, being passionate about storytelling is a must because this is at the core of everything great communications is about. The ability to think beyond the norm will be of great assistance as we navigate the tumultuous period the business is facing. I think another important factor is that most people these days seem to shy away from making longer-term commitments in their careers. If they are looking to make a noticeable impact, then this attitude will only get in the way of them realising their dreams.

RT: You have had one of the longest stints at one organisation that has lasted over two decades. How did that come about?

I have been lucky to have joined an institution like Lintas, which is, in many ways, an institution of learning. I have managed to get a chance to be an entrepreneur in my career and have been given the opportunity to do so because I have understood how to navigate and deliver. The other thing is passion – I have never let that diminish and this is fuelled by constant learning; it is something you are exposed to every day with management team members, colleagues, clients, etc. This is my secret sauce, my joy of having a long and successful tenure.

RT: New technologies like AI are creating waves today. What is your perspective on what it means for the future of communications?

I believe that big data and AI will have a huge role to play in how communication strategies are formulated in the future. One of the major impacts that I foresee AI having is in helping PR professionals better understand content consumption traits and readership behaviour. This is going to be vital as we continue moving from a “hunch-based” style of working to insight-driven approach. By combining insights received through big data, processing them through smarter AI and then crafting communications based on these insights, what you get is a communication that is near real-time and more finely targeted to each consumer set.

RT: What do you do in your leisure time?

I have a few passions that include travel and food. My wife and I love to explore destinations for what they truly offer. To do that we visit different parts of the world and ensure that we experience something local, meet people, walk around, explore local restaurants and cuisine and ensure we get a flavour of the culture. Sometimes, simple things you see can give you a better understanding of the place you visit.

RT: What is your advice to youngsters, who are looking to make the move to leadership positions in PR firms?

Be confident, not arrogant. Careers are not built in a day or even a few years, so stick to an organisation for many years and the learning you will receive will be invaluable. Understand your strengths and weaknesses and learn from other colleagues; everyone will have some skills and ways of working that will be of value. Be bold, ask for more challenges, even the next responsibility, but do so only after you have excelled in your current role. Be focused on the destination and have audacious dreams.

The interview was originally published in Reputation Today.