Sophie Chen
Feb 5, 2013

PR PROFILE: AKA Asia shows girl power in the heart of competition

When ImpactAsia, an independent PR firm based in Hong Kong, was looking to open an office in Singapore at the end of 2008, Kate O’Shea and Amy Wright, who were both working at Grayling Singapore at that time, saw the opportunity.

O’Shea (left) and Wright
O’Shea (left) and Wright

They joined forces and set up the Singapore arm of ImpactAsia in January 2009, despite economic recession and others people’s doubts.

Wright and O’Shea started off by supporting the Hong Kong office, which mainly handled PR for travel and lifestyle brands, but soon they realised doing a small part of regional work wouldn’t help them to gain a foothold, and it wasn’t cost-efficient due to the poor economy.

“You need to make an impact on the ground to survive in Singapore,” says O’Shea.

So the two took ImpactAsia Singapore into a different field by taking regional and local business, which helped them build a strong network.

Later, they made their name by winning the account of Diageo against several network agencies.  

In 2011, when ImpactAsia was acquired by Cohn & Wolfe, a PR firm under WPP, the pair decided to buy out the Singapore arm and rebranded it as AKA Asia.

Wright says that working under an agency network’s umbrella was not in their best interest.

“Working in a listed company, there is no autonomy, even when you reach a senior level,” O’Shea agreed. “We wanted to be different, be what we were passionate about, and committed to what we really wanted to do.”

“We were also reassured by our clients’ loyalty, as well as the team’s support, which made us feel safe about going independent,” Wright adds.

AKA Asia's team has grown to 21 people from the original two in 2009. The fact it is an all-girl team, she says, is “accidental”.

The duo admit that finding great people has been the only challenge ever since they set up the office. “There was a short while after we went independent when we had to turn down some opportunities due to lack of talent,” Wright recalls.

“We hired five people at once in 2011, becoming a team of 15, which made a big impact on the company culture,” O’Shea says. “It usually takes three to six months for people here to feel the chemistry. We are open and honest. Transparency is what we have been building here.”

When speaking of finding talent, Wright says they look for people with the right experience, who are excited about what AKA does and are happy to contribute from day one.

“We also like people who are a little bit quirky, especially in a female-dominated environment,” she adds.

However, such a female team doesn’t stop some of prestigious male brands choosing AKA Asia, including Diageo, Johnnie Walker, Rolls-Royce and the Movember Singapore event. The F1 Circuit Lounge parties that AKA Asia hosted for Johnnie Walker last year brought them a SABRE award for ‘best experiential sponsorship campaign, Asia-Pacific’.

“We are a good arm of our clients,” O’Shea says. “It’s very important to have a good relationship with them; they appreciate our openness. They come to the agency looking for advice, but also hope you truly understand their business.”

Although it’s a small local agency, AKA Asia doesn’t go for pitches blindly. Most of the time, the agency was invited to a pitch as its previous good work spread by word of mouth.

O’Shea says they would choose business that the team is interested in and has experience with. “We are not being ‘arrogant’ or ‘picky’,” she explains. “We want to deliver quality work, so we choose the work we want to do.”

“That’s not saying you have to love the brand you work on, but you need to be interested in the work you are going to take on,” Wright adds.

A big change in the PR industry over the past few years is that everyone is going digital. However, they think this is not for AKA Asia.

“At AKA, we believe that great ideas are naturally social, and digital should run seamlessly throughout every campaign (where it ought to play a part),” O’Shea says. “At the end of the day, it is all communications and we don't believe siloing digital helps anyone.”

“Social media is an integrated part of our work for the client,” Wright agrees. “Everyone in the team should understand how social media works.”

This February, the agency is going to host Social Media Week (SMW) in Singapore for the second year, following last year’s success, which won them another SABRE Award for best campaign in Southeast Asia.

Wright reveals the event will bring a different range of topics, panel discussions and workshops this year, creating a stage for experts in this industry to compete and a platform for to share good work, as well as learn from each other.

“There is a lot of appetite for social media in Singapore,” O’Shea says. “For us to bring SMW here and get a panel of people together to really engage and create great content, it packs a punch. We have worked in big and small ways with the likes of Yahoo! Singapore, Nokia, Google and Facebook, to name a few, to bring the week's events to life.”

Apart from continuing to deliver quality work, the agency is also looking at whether or not the market value is adequate in the next three years. O’Shea says that before making a decision to tap into another market, they need to have good people on the ground and make sure it can financially stand for itself.

“We are being very logical in a market like Singapore,” she says. “We are growing organically, and want to maintain healthy, quality work in this competitive market.”

Meanwhile, staff retention is on the top of their agenda. “Retention is key to achieving sustained growth and delivering consistently high quality work,” O’Shea continues. “It also provides all-important stability for the team. This should be key to any agency.”

“Also, attitudes have changed in this industry,” Wright says. “People want to work in a more flexible way and locals are looking for more regional opportunities. We want to facilitate them and help them learn.”

They believe small things make a difference, such as their office dog, Molly, who brings joy to both the team and their clients.

“We encourage everyone in the team to open up and show people what they like to do,” O’Shea says. “With the help from an internal social committee, we hope to drive more engagement.”

“Naturally, PR isn't for everyone and over the past four years we have experienced a handful of people moving into different industries or away from agency life all together,” she continues. “We work hard to create and sustain an environment in which young and experienced talent can thrive, everyone having a voice is key to this. The agency doesn't belong to Amy and me. Everyone here has a part to play, for which they are rewarded.”

Speaking of AKA Asia’s culture, they describe it in one word—“empower” —meaning that everyone in the team is an individual and has an opinion.

“We occupy a different space to that of a traditional PR or a pure digital agency,” O’Shea says. “Our approach to briefs and the way we function as a business is very agile, which ensures we deliver tangible successes for our clients.”

“We work in an open and collaborative environment which quite often sees us conceptualising an idea, and then working with like-minded partners (that could include PR, digital or events agencies) to execute amazing work,” she continues.

“We are having fun along the way, and what we've achieved has been enjoyable and rewarding,” says Wright.

Related Articles

Just Published

4 hours ago

Dentsu ANZ restructures: CEOs Danny Bass and Steve ...

The restructured model will also see regional leaders Fiona Johnston and Kirsty Muddle assume new responsibilities.

5 hours ago

Should Gen Zs make financial trade-offs to navigate ...

This playful National Australia Bank (NAB) campaign by TBWA Melbourne suggests that Gen Z could improve their lot by making financial sacrifices.

5 hours ago

Amazon layoffs impact APAC adtech and media leaders

The job cuts are part of Amazon's plans to streamline its sales, marketing and global services division globally.