When Sunil G John, an Indian origin professional in Dubai recently decided to exit one of the Middle East’s top Advertising and PR companies ASDA’A -BCW, which he founded two decades ago, it did not create much ripple back in India, like NRI success stories from the West do.
Voted amongst the top 100 influential persons of the Gulf nations, Sunil John is credited with building a strong Public Relations and Advertising presence in the region. His brainchild, the annual ‘Arab Youth Survey’, now in its 15th edition, is considered a landmark contribution, providing insights into the aspirations and thinking of the youth in the region.
An astute leader, an entrepreneur and an expert communicator, the suave President (MENA) of ASDA’A -BCW sold his stake in the company which is part of the WPP Group of UK in October. Sunil John, who is in his early 60s will move on from the present role to a new innings in 2024. His interests extend to investing and producing films and communications consultancy. Sunil intends to make Dubai his home but will spend time in New York and Mumbai to pursue his future.
“After Sunil John, the PR industry will never be the same,’ headlined a news story in the arabian business.com. For those in the media industry, it is John’s personal touch that will be missed most. “You better ask Sunil’ is a phrase I have heard all too often from the likes of Akshaya Geoup founder, Mohammad Alshaya, GMG Deputy Chairman, Mohammad A Baker and GEMS founder Sunny Varkey wrote Anil Bhoyrul in the news report.
The US & IT, a success obsession
A plausible reason for the development not catching attention back in India is the dominant wave of NRI success stories, emanating invariably from the US, UK or Europe. They revolve around Indian origin persons shining in the IT, Technology, Healthcare, Banking and Financial Services sectors. There are very few from elsewhere.
Interestingly, pre-2000 and more precisely, pre-economic reforms of 1991, Indian media focussed considerably on the Middle East. The states in the region like the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai and Sharjah in particular attracted Indian labour to professionals in some sectors who contributed in the growth of the region.
The contributions of Indian origin persons in the Middle East are mostly in the infrastructure, traditional business and labour, with the remittances by them back to India continuing to be high over the decades.
From Hyderabad to Dubai
Sunil John did his college years from the Railway Junior College and Sardar Patel, Hyderabad. However, he was drawn to Journalism and joined the Osmania University, Department of Mass Communications and Journalism in 1981-82. A fiercely competitive student, he joined the Deccan Chronicle as a reporter immediately after the course. In a short stint, he made an impression in doing investigative stories for the popular daily.
But, Sunil’s calling was Public Relations. He qualified for a PRO post in the South Central Railways. Not excited, he moved on to the Indian Oil Corporation qualifying in an all India competition. However, the public sector giant too did not offer enough challenge so he transited to the private sector Thermax based in Pune. During his stint there, Sunil got an opportunity to shift to Dubai and search for greener pastures.
There was no looking back. Though, the initial years were grind, Sunil adapted to the business and media environment in the region well, understood the nuances and took a deep plunge into the world of PR. Sunil John boldly turned an entrepreneur in the PR industry in 2000 by starting ASDA’A. Eight years later, impressed by his professionalism and growth, the British multinational advertising group WPP, offered and acquired a majority stake in the firm.
During the past 25 years, Sunil John and his team at ASDA’A BCW shaped the company into the top echelons bagging global clients, advising governments and setting standards in public relations. One of its high points came in 2010 when it became part of the team which launched the tallest tower in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Two years earlier in 2008, Sunil John was instrumental in launching ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey, a unique initiative and the largest, annual exercise of its kind of the Middle East region’s largest demographic. It has emerged as one of the most widely cited pieces of public opinion research on the region by media and policymakers worldwide.
Under Sunil John’s leadership ASDA’A-BCW expanded to 8 wholly owned offices and 7 Associates spanning 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). He also heads all the three wholly owned subsidiaries—GCI Health Middle East, a specialist healthcare consultancy, Proof Communications, a digital and design firm, and PSB Insights ME which offers research-based consultancy.
His contributions have earned Sunil John recognitions both from the profession and beyond. In mid 2021, he was nominated as an Advisory Board Member of the Dubai International Chamber, a newly formed entity to strengthen Dubai’s status as a global trade hub. In May 2020, he was named the Best PR Professional in the Middle East by PRWeek Global Awards.
A professional high point came in 2014 when Sunil John became the first PR professional in the Middle East to receive the Outstanding Individual achievement SABRE Award (EMEA) from PRovoke. He was also honoured the Chairman’s Award at the Middle East PR Awards (MEPRA) in November 2016. The Agency was also named “PR Agency of the Year – Middle East and Africa 2019”at the International Business Awards by Stevie Awards and a ‘Grand Stevie’ for ranking third among the ‘Top 10 Honoured Organizations’ globally.
To Hyderabad, meeting alumni
In September 2018, a small group of alumni of the Osmania University-Namburi Poorna Chandrasekhar, Prem Aman, Me and Vinod Pavarala met Sunil John on his visit to Hyderabad. As we traversed our life journeys in the media field since our Journalism College days an interesting facet of Sunil John came through.
His interests in the creative arts took him to films and to took him to Mumbai and New York. One of the films of which he was a co-producer, The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan in 2013 won wide recognition from critics and audiences. The film produced by DAR Motion Pictures has Arun Rangachari a Dubai based CEO of DAR Capital Group and Sunil John as a Partner and Director. The company has since produced a dozen movies.
We all left with fond memories of the meeting. Sunil John reminisced “Memories are special. As L.P. Hartley says: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’”
Once, Sunil John leaves ASDA’A-BCW as President (MENA), he will be beginning a fresh innings in the media and creative arts in early 2024.