Corporate communications for financial services firms in Asia is an increasingly important discipline, particularly in the centres of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai. A combination of deepening financial markets and rising pools of savings continue to create and attract companies that require professional support. There’s also a steady stream of transactions. The industry, which has long championed the value of experienced consultants with strong media contacts who deliver considered counsel, is now facing its biggest challenges in Asia: innovation and creativity.
Asia has no shortage of communication consultancies for financial services. This includes agencies providing corporate communications for financial services on a retained or project basis and those focused on transactions, such as IPOs and M&A. There are plenty of hybrids as well, trying their luck at both deals and ongoing support. There are agencies with a global footprint, those just focused on Asia and single market consultancies too. There are also several strong financial practices within full service, global agencies. You name it, Asia has it. The market is competitive and probably crowded.
The combination of high competition, and perhaps the wrong strategy, also means many are not seeing strong revenue growth. Several financial communication firms operating in the region are publically traded or part of a listed parent. A review of earnings will show the extent of fee and margin pressure. Conversations with prospective clients, staff from other agencies and headhunters will also indicate the health of the industry. In Asia, one of the world’s fastest growing regions, many communication agencies with a financial focus appear to be lagging the growth of the communication industry in this region.
There are several likely reasons behind the problem. The first is that fee income from supporting the needs of companies during transactions is inconsistent. Local agencies, in markets such as Hong Kong, dominate IPOs with the pricing reflective of the competition. This counts for any investor relations work too. Fees for M&A, litigation communication and special situations are typically paid only if it’s a complex deal. Global agencies, who are well known for deals and financial communication in home markets, have learned to adapt in Asia and not rely on capital markets activity as a key revenue source.
Many financial communication firms are also supporting financial services firms on a retained basis, aside from chasing deals. It’s logical as they likely have the industry knowledge and expertise. The challenge with this approach has been consistency of service. When transactions are on, the risk is that the retained clients may be impacted as resources are pulled to support lucrative work. Staff retention is another issue.
However, the biggest single issue for the industry in Asia is that financial services and professional services clients globally, in our experience, are increasingly requiring innovation and creativity in their approach to communication. This applies to both retail and institutional financial clients. There are simply more ways to engage, inform, influence, monitor and measure, especially in Asia where markets are fragmented and information is increasingly consumed away from traditional print or broadcast. Clients need content creation, content marketing, innovative graphics, dynamic videos, blogs and chat room management.
The immediate challenge for traditional financial communication consultancies is that they may not be able to deliver all the solutions that clients require. While there will never be a replacement for sound counsel and a conservative approach to communication, clients are demanding a greater number of solutions from the one agency. It’s also an awfully transparent discipline too. If a consultancy ever pitches or preaches about the merits of digital and social media, simply check that firm’s Asia Twitter feed, LinkedIn account or similar, to see how they are using digital and social tools to engage and build a brand.
Another real issue is attracting and retaining the right staff. Executives today entering the communication industry naturally want to gain a broad range of industry experience. Agencies that are adapting to change and innovating with communication solutions will be able to attract and retain talent for longer. Agencies today also need fresh skills and perspectives. Talent that once well-suited a career in financial communication may be flawed for the needs of tomorrow.
The main competitive threat for financial communication firms in Asia is coming from two areas. The first is full service, global agencies. While many actually lack strong financial practices, they can deliver solutions that financial clients increasingly need: digital and social media, content creation and marketing.
The other competitive threat is from independent agencies, who are not bound by a conservative culture or rigid structure. This is already happening. The value proposition of independent agencies who can demonstrate industry expertise and creativity, with stable teams, will only continue to grow. A flat organizational structure, where all views have a forum to be heard, also helps. The best ideas today tend to come from the bottom up, not always the top down.
The outlook for financial communication companies in Asia is actually not that bleak. They will not implode. It won’t be anything that dynamic or exciting. Instead, they will plod along as others increasingly eat into revenues. What looks like a competitive market for communication consultancies with a financial focus in Asia may soon not be as crowded as it once appeared.