Few would expect a public relations agency to run on the business model of a law firm, but that is the unusual route founder Cho Pei Lin has charted for her company Asia PR Werkz.
And it is a route that has turned out well for the firm, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, making it one of the oldest home-grown PR firms.
Much like in a law firm, Asia PR Werkz operates largely based on a shareholder agreement that allows individuals to join the agency as directors and take up shares in the company.
These directors – the PR equivalent of law firm partners – develop their own clientele and lead their own teams, although they share premises, resources and networks.
The aim, says managing director Ms Cho, 38, is to help ensure that the business is able to carry on and flourish in the long run.
The firm has more than 30 staff, led by five directors, and counts among its biggest clients organisations such as Nestle Singapore, AXA Singapore, Taiwan Tourism Bureau and Singapore government agencies. It raked in over $4 million in revenue last year.
“I’ve always been very intrigued by law firms like Drew & Napier and Allen & Gledhill – their founding partners are no longer around, yet lawyers still want to join the company, and the brand still continues to grow,” Ms Cho told The Straits Times in a recent interview.
“I wanted our company to be able to do the same. Because for many PR firms, longevity is a problem. There are about 150 PR agencies here. But how many – and let’s not talk about the international brands – are actually able to survive and grow?”
Ms Cho says Asia PR Werkz’s corporate structure is built on a two-pronged strategy: to allow the directors to take ownership of their work, and to allow diversity across portfolios in the company, as the directors each focus on different areas of work.
“Working with a PR agency is really quite similar to law. Clients come to you when you’re able to give good strategic advice or consultancy services. So it’s important that our corporate structure is able to draw people who are here to stay and lead the business forward,” she noted.
Ms Cho, who graduated from the National University of Singapore with a law degree in 2001, gave up her two-year-old job as a lawyer at Harry Elias Partnership – which she enjoyed, despite the extensive working hours – to start her own business in 2003.
“The turning point for me came when my mother presented me with an ultimatum of sorts. I was to go for a family holiday as promised – because I had been working non-stop, which left me hardly any time to spend with my family and friends – or to not go home at all,” she recalled with a laugh.
Driven in part by a desire to become her own boss, Ms Cho took her mother’s terms and, together with her good friend Julie Chiang, who is also a director at Asia PR Werkz, took out $20,000 in savings to set up PR Werkz.
A year later, PR Werkz merged with Asia PR.comz, a technology-focused PR company that was set up in 1996 by another friend, to become today’s Asia PR Werkz. Hence it marks its 20th anniversary this year.
Ms Cho then spent three months learning about corporate structures and contracts from senior partners at law firms, auditors and board directors, before sitting down to draw up the shareholder contract.
“The journey really wasn’t easy. At the beginning, we weren’t getting paid, we couldn’t even afford to buy a photocopier. We really had to build up our brand name from scratch,” said Ms Cho.
Using her legal background, Ms Cho made her foray into litigation PR, or the management of communication processes during the course of an ongoing lawsuit or legal dispute.
She is known in the industry today as one of the first people to introduce litigation PR to Singapore.
Ms Cho’s vision is for more and younger directors to take the baton and continue to grow the company.
To stay ahead of the game, for instance, Asia PR Werkz last year brought in a new director, Ms Sharon Koh, 38, to head digital and social media projects amid growing demand for such services.
Ms Cho also hopes the firm will be able to inspire more PR practitioners here, like it did for one of its directors, Ms Lim Wee Ling.
Ms Lim, 38, a former civil servant, admits she used to be sceptical about spending money on engaging PR agencies, “when it seemed like whatever they did, we could do ourselves too”.
But a curiosity to see how PR really works, coupled with a desire to try working in the private sector, led her to join Asia PR Werkz as a consultant in 2006 – a move that changed her mind about the profession. In 2010, Ms Lim was promoted to associate director, and then to director a year later.
“At the end of the day, I realised that mediocre agencies do exist. You can get by by just taking a brief from a client and doing whatever they tell you to do,” she noted.
“But you can also take the lead. You can come up with ideas, challenge your clients, change their minds, or suggest things they have never thought about. Being able to do this makes all the difference, and it has also helped me see the depth that goes into PR work.”
Ms Cho added: “There will come a time when I will retire… Whatever it is that I’ll be doing, the hope is that Asia PR Werkz can continue, and there will be more people who will help bring the business to even greater heights.”
This article was first published on September 26, 2016.
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