Hill+Knowlton Strategies Asia: Agency Business Report 2015

Hill+Knowlton Strategies says it has done well this year, especially in China where it celebrated 30 years of operations. In particular, the agency reports Asia-Pacific had the strongest growth, outperforming all other regions for its 2014 business.

Vivian Lines
Vivian Lines

Asia Head: Vivian Lines, Global Vice Chairman and Chairman of Asia Pacific
Ownership: WPP
Asia Offices: 17
Asia Revenue: Undisclosed; R3 estimate US$46 million
Asia Headcount: Undisclosed

Hill+Knowlton Strategies says it has done well this year, especially in China where it celebrated 30 years of operations. In particular, the agency reports Asia-Pacific had the strongest growth, outperforming all other regions for its 2014 business.

At the same time, there were markets such as Australia and Japan where Vivian Lines, global vice-chairman and Asia-Pacific chairman, says growth was less robust. He puts this down to an issue with talent. "In our business," Lines says, "you either don’t have the right people in place, or you don’t have sufficient clients, or enough, or the right, people to pitch clients. This year we’ve put in place solutions to help with these issues."

One such move was placing John Morgan in Japan, where he handles broader responsibilities in Asia including China. The company also completed acquisition of Rice5, a digital agency with offices in Hong Kong and Mainland China that brings clients Ray-Ban and Lee Jeans into the agency fold.

Client-wise, the agency netted some big wins, including Microsoft in China and Chinese electronics and mobile phone maker OPPO. Also in Asia it won the Vistara account, a new Indian airline that is a joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines. On top of that, the agency expanded its healthcare practice offerings with international drug maker Mundipharma as a client.

Public Affairs is also an important part of the agency’s Asian offering and it has been working closely with ASEAN to craft the organization’s masterplan for communications ahead of its 50th anniversary in two years.

"ASEAN is a unique grouping of 10 states and most importantly they will be launching an economic community between them by the end of this year," says Lines. "They recognize that they have to put a communications plan in place—including digital, social and traditional—to tie everything together. It’s complicated because there are 10 different governments, all at different stages of advancement; so you have developing ones like Mynamar, middle ground like Indonesia, which also has the consumer and population base, and then advanced markets like Singapore."

Disruption to traditional ways of communicating will be one of the industry’s greatest challenges, according to Lines. "If you look at it, there are certain things that are clearly happening. Snapchat, Wechat—things which have come up in the past five years, compared to the traditional like Facebook and Twitter, which have been around for 10 years—are changing the way we communicate and this will influence our clients," he says.

Data is another new influencer that could become a driving source of innovation for clients. While it may take some time to understand how to use the data, and to visualise the opportunities it offers, he believes that once agencies can access data from various departments, be they marketing or sales and beyond, the information could prove really useful.

Content and the issue of trust is another rising client concern, and Lines notes that there is a lack of trust between customers and companies. To illustrate this point he contrasts the way Malaysian Airlines and AirAsia handled their respective crashes. His agency doesn’t represent either brand but he still brought these up as case-study examples of building trust versus losing it. The consensus in the press is AirAsia did a much better job of addressing a similar, mysterious crisis as Maylasia Airlines—though AsiaAir did have the advantage having learned from the widely criticized failings in the handling of the earlier event.

And Lines goes on to speak more generally, saying that as consumers "we would trust our friends and what we read online rather than what a company tells us". "That’s why the communication conversation has switched and why content is so important. To be able to influence people and be positive about a brand is a lot harder than it used to be," he says.

To that end, Hill & Knowlton Strategies is looking to further develop its Group SJR, an agency it acquired a few years back through WPP. Focused on content creation, Group SJR’s offerings range from multimedia to traditional media.

Talent-wise, Lines says he has a huge respect for his agency’s in-market talent and believes it is important to secure and retain local teams in order to truly understand a market.

"We try to move people in the region but we have very, very few Westerners. Generally in our market places we recruit locally or within the company. We have a local person heading up our teams in Thailand, India, Singapore, Hong Kong." Strong senior talent who understand the market is, in his opinion, the agency’s best connection to the market and he has much confidence in the agency’s local offices. "I believe there is a lot of local talent. And if you can keep the talent in senior levels, then that really helps your business."

At the same time, the agency, like much of the industry, is not immune to movement at lower levels. Lines attributes that to generational differences as much as competition. "It’s the nature of the millennial generation. They have a willingness to move between jobs more than previous generations. Also they have a willingness to stop and say, ‘Well I want to do something else, and then I’ll come back.’ This is quite different from Gen Y, Gen X, baby boomers, etc. And I guess all companies have to adapt to that.

"I am more concerned when senior-level talent moves than with the junior [ones] because there is a broader impact on the business in that way."

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