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How W is opening up new markets with its expansion in Asia

22 October 2015

In August, W opened a Singapore office with an aim to help its European and US clients establish their brands in the Southeast Asian market. Two months on, Gorkana catches up with MD Annabel Fox to find out why the agency decided to head east, how Singapore is surpassing Hong Kong as the home of comms in the region, which social platforms make the biggest impact, and what other PR agencies need to consider before flinging open their doors on foreign shores.

How W is opening up new markets with its expansion in Asia

Firstly tell us a bit about the new office...

It is W’s first outpost in Asia. We were getting more and more enquiries from clients about our capabilities in the region, and, with me being in Singapore, as well as knowing the agency inside out having been a founding W employee back in 2009, it seemed like the perfect time to do it.

Why is Singapore such a PR hot spot at the moment?

Singapore is booming. Many multi-national businesses are expanding in the region, including Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, so there is a need for strong comms support to help build brands locally and across Southeast Asia. Singapore is the ideal hub in the APAC region as it is English speaking and has excellent infrastructure.

Also, until recently, Hong Kong was leading the field in the comms industry, but it has always had a corporate and banking focus. Singapore is now enjoying a cultural explosion, with cutting-edge café and restaurant concepts opening as well as hip hotels, boutique shopping, galleries and music festivals alongside an ever-growing tech scene, so naturally there is a need for PR to match these demands. Agencies like W, which combine market-leading creativity with a strong business focus, have a huge amount to offer this market.

What should agencies think about before flinging open their doors on foreign shores?

It is essential that you have someone on the ground that knows the market, strong partners that you can work with and ideally, founding clients.

We opened our doors last month and are in a fantastic position, with clients including MEATliquor SINgapore, the burger restaurant we helped grow into a £25m business in the UK, AppNexus, the Microsoft-backed ad tech pioneer, and award-winning global entertainment brand Attica.

We are currently working on amplifying MEATliquor’s exposure post launch and building a large partner and talent programme. For AppNexus we are developing several pieces to further establish the global tech firm at the forefront of programmatic advertising in the APAC region. This is in addition to a lot of exciting new business pitches.

What qualities do you need to build an overseas office?

Experience of the market. I've been in Singapore for nearly two years and have learned a lot about consumer habits, local trends and how people consume media. It has also given me on-the-ground experience of the culture; Singapore is a multi-cultural society with a large foreign-working population, so understanding the subtle differences between target groups is vital.

And, as in any country, there are restrictions to what you can and can’t do when promoting products, so knowledge of the local laws and customs is crucial. It goes without saying that starting any new company requires hard work and dedication, but overseas in particular, you need to ensure you have a strong existing network and a great team to help you drive the business forward.

Will you be trying to replicate the W Comms ethos in Singapore?

Absolutely. We’re hoping to emulate the huge success we have had in the UK, and will be focusing on our key pillars of expertise and connectivity across food & drink, media and entertainment. The W business is built around the philosophy of ‘creative commerce’.

Rather than just generating exposure, an in-depth understanding of our clients’ business challenges is at the heart of everything we do, enabling us to create and implement amazing ideas that drive real business value. I think this approach is unique in Singapore, which puts us in a very strong position here.

What are the big differences between doing PR in the UK and Singapore?

The media landscape is very different; there are some fantastic versions of international magazines and local print publications, TV and radio stations, but digital content and social media are far more prevalent - as is communicating your brand or message through word of mouth opportunities. So working with the right partners can be very powerful. Even the use of social media differs.

Twitter hasn't made as much of an impact as Facebook or Instagram here, and, of course, there are the Asian social media platforms like Japan’s ‘Line', which is already huge in Indonesia and Thailand and is starting to take off here.

Also this is the world of mobile content. There is Wi-Fi on all of the MRT (underground train system), so most people consume their information this way - particularly on the way to and from work. Also WhatsApp is a main form of communication here, which definitely helps filter out the deluge of emails that come into your inbox.

On a basic level, Singapore, and Asia in general, has a much more personal approach to business and journalists are happy to meet for a coffee (of which there are many fantastic cafés!), and this, of course, makes a big difference for building relationships.

What do you think each market can learn from the other?

As media has evolved, so has the skill set required to operate in it. Markets like London have seen the PR industry develop to be able to offer expertise across many touch-points, particularly content creation, and places like Singapore are now beginning to catch up - this is especially important in a region where people have a less traditional way of consuming media.

With Singapore having fewer media outlets (due to its size as well as its nature), PRs and marketeers are very good at reaching people through other avenues. So partnership marketing is popular here, with brands engaging consumers by creating campaigns with desirable partners.

What about cultural differences – anything you’ve had to find out the hard way?

Singapore, despite having a strong identity, is very multi-cultural, and being a major international city is also very cosmopolitan, so it isn’t as different as other Asian cities may be.

I haven’t made any massive faux pas, but in general everyone is much more polite in Asia, so meeting etiquette can certainly be different to that in the UK - especially if you are the loud type! The other thing you will first notice is business cards are king. Go into a meeting without one and you may get a surprised look.

And finally, at the start of your career you managed PR for Craig David and the Vengaboys – any stories you’d care to share?

Ah that takes me back. One of the first Vengaboys stories I placed was for an article in Top of the Pops magazine, which included a link to their fan page. Unfortunately, Dutch-based Vengaboys had a bit more of an adult following there than in the UK, so the magazine received a number of complaints from angry parents whose children were diverted to some rather unsuitable content in Amsterdam! Good lesson early on for triple-checking everything before it goes to print.

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