After acquiring three Asian PR firms in China, Singapore and India in recent years, WE Communications continues to grow its business in Asia-Pacific, expanding 15% regionally last year, led by its highest growth rate in Australia.
WE recently held its annual global leadership meeting in Singapore, where Campaign caught up with founder and CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin to discuss influences in the region and changes to the global business.
With your leadership team meeting here, what strengths do you look to Asia for, to reinforce your global network?
Without question, it’s where a lot of our action is. That’s why we’re here. My higher goal is to be sure that global does not just mean dots on a map but it means a global mindset that we bring to every single client. We start with that, but also with a strong local understanding and context. That of course is what Asia’s been able to bring us.
Many of the companies we deal with, the multinational companies, want to understand how to do business here. All our Asia teams here help us to understand the context and what inspires buying here. Certainly from a technological innovation standpoint is clearly leading in so many ways. So a lot of the work we do in digital leadership comes out of this region.
You had a leadership change with international president Alan VanderMolen leaving the agency and Kass Sells taking that role. Can we expect any new emphases in international ops with this change?
Alan was with us for three years and did precisely what we asked him to do, which was to set some fires in the right places around the globe. But it came to an inflection point where what we need, quite frankly, is to have our leaders unite in a way that seeks global clients and builds bridges and makes sure that everyone’s connected.
So what I need now is my president of North America, Dawn Beauparlant, to be joined at the hip with our president of international, Kass Sells. Kass ran North America, so my intent there was to be sure that I could get two people running the world, if you will, together, making sure they made joint decisions and saw eye-to-eye on values, people and investments.
I think what I need most now is to bring the collective power of all of our offices together to make sure that we’re collaborating.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the communications industry?
Understanding the power of communications when done well and moving people to true action through what we do every day. And understanding that businesses can be transformed when communications are done the right way: Transparent, authentic, well thought-out, integrated and coming from the heart and soul of a company. So it’s actually not a challenge, it’s our greatest opportunity.
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Do you think brands still recognise the value of PR?
I absolutely do. Clients are looking to know where to start. We say you should start at the start—which is ‘find your purpose’, find the thing you do the best and make sure you declare that internally to everybody and get the feedback from your employees to hear that it resonates, that they’re willing to step up to it. Then you go externally with it.
So I think PR is very well placed to be that team within the company that can say let’s start there and see what is the soul of the company.
With your ‘Brands in Motion’ research you’re fitting purpose together with brands. Asian brands have a reputation for being less brave in taking strong stances, do you find this?
Some of us might have believed that, but the data is telling us differently. [We just heard from] a company that want to step up and partner with an NGO to make some sort of a difference. So absolutely not. Countries in Asia are saying we can be part of these solutions to big world problems, in China, India, Singapore, Australia.
One of the things Brands in Motion taught us (and I think this is very evident in countries in Asia) is without a doubt, you first need to solve this idea of functionality for the consumer. But at the same time paired very robustly with that is the ethics of the company, how they bring things to market, how they behave, their responsibility and their purpose—what drives them. It differs a bit country by country, but still those must be paired together.
A deluge of data is changing the industry. You’ve also invested more in insight and analytics. What’s the biggest data challenge with clients—trust, measurement or something else?
I don't underestimate at all the significance and power of knowing pieces of data and large banks of data and making sure it comes from a very good set of sources. That said, what clients want to know (and they want to know it quickly) is “can you extrapolate for me the insight, because I just want to know what to do next. I just want to know where to take something as a result of that.” So I like to say, the biggest challenge, in a nutshell, is moving from big data to small data very quickly.
We see this now in every remit we receive, every RFP, every pitch we do. Yes, they want the data to be outlined so they can feel secure that you’ve done that homework and you’re very analytical in how you’re approaching it. But as soon as that’s finished, the next thing they want is: “But really tell me the insight and tell it to me now. Because I want the rest of what we talk about to be the ideas on how I can move people in a different direction."
We’ve seen negative headlines about social media companies this year. As views towards these platforms change, does it affect the way you use them?
I shouldn’t comment directly on Facebook. But what I do want to say is: “How much knowledge is too much knowledge?” The big tech companies need to realise (and many that we work with do) that regulation is incredibly important. Brad Smith, president of our client Microsoft, is calling for government regulation of facial recognition.
So does it change the communicator’s job? It absolutely does in terms of the way we build programs and how we counsel our clients. I think you’re going to see technology companies change many of their approaches in terms of how transparent they are, how they convince a user that they do really have the user and trust at the core of everything they do.
Some are doing it better right now than others. The genie’s not going back in the bag. We have what we have—so now what do we do with that? What do the strongest leaders in technology companies really wish to do and how can they create new relationships with their consumers?
Join us to discuss more issues in the communications industry at CampaignComms
CampaignComms is a one-day conference to explore hot topics and issues in the communications and PR industry in Asia. It will take place on June 12, 2019, in Hong Kong.