Regulation of mRNA translation is a major control point for gene expression and is critical for life. Of central importance is the complex between cap-bound eukaryotic initiation factor 4E (eIF4E), eIF4G, and poly(A) tail-binding protein (PABP) that circularizes mRNAs, promoting translation and stability. This complex is often targeted to regulate overall translation rates, and also by mRNA-specific translational repressors. However, the mechanisms of mRNA-specific translational activation by RNA-binding proteins remain poorly understood. Here, we address this deficit, focusing on a herpes simplex virus-1 protein, ICP27. We reveal a direct interaction with PABP that is sufficient to promote PABP recruitment and necessary for ICP27-mediated activation. PABP binds several translation factors but is primarily considered to activate translation initiation as part of the PABP–eIF4G–eIF4E complex that stimulates the initial cap-binding step. Importantly, we find that ICP27-PABP forms a complex with, and requires the activity of, eIF4G. Surprisingly, ICP27–PABP–eIF4G complexes act independently of the effects of PABP-eIF4G on cap binding to promote small ribosomal subunit recruitment. Moreover, we find that a cellular mRNA-specific regulator, Deleted in Azoospermia-like (Dazl), also employs the PABP–eIF4G interaction in a similar manner. We propose a mechanism whereby diverse RNA-binding proteins directly recruit PABP, in a non–poly(A) tail-dependent manner, to stimulate the small subunit recruitment step. This strategy may be particularly relevant to biological conditions associated with hypoadenylated mRNAs (e.g., germ cells/neurons) and/or limiting cytoplasmic PABP (e.g., viral infection, cell stress). This mechanism adds significant insight into our knowledge of mRNA-specific translational activation and the function of the PABP–eIF4G complex in translation initiation.