"We are not old school!" said Elan Shou, managing director greater China from Ruder Finn Asia.
Along with Jean-Michel Dumont, chairman, Asia, Shou was in Hong Kong to help announce the opening of the agency’s new Thunder office in the city. RF Thunder is the agency’s sister company, which established offices in Shanghai and Guangzhou before opening in Hong Kong.
Also present at an exclusive introduction to PRWeek Asia were Anne Geronimi, newly appointed as General Manager for Ruder Finn Hong Kong, and Emily Situ, who will be heading operations as general manager at the new RF Thunder office. Charles Lankester, SVP reputation management, who also recently joined Ruder Finn via its acquisition of reputation management consultancy SharpeLankester, rounded out the executive team on hand.
Shou’s exclamation came out of a conversation about the agency and its goals. She highlighted that the idea of old media and new media is itself an outdated notion, and the group of executives agreed the bulk of media, from any school, comes to consumers through mobile devices. Integration was the theme they highlighted, and that makes digital a big focus for the firm.
Flexibility was the term Shou used to describe the offering from RF Thunder, explaining that, "In today’s world you begin to see a lot of things mixed up," referring to the blurring lines between marketing and PR. "So we’re trying to mix up too."
Some of the ways the agency is getting into the mix is via outreach efforts on WeChat, which the firm recently did for Blancpain, the Swiss watch brand, in China. CRM is another area that might not sound like PR but is part of the practice in China. Plus, the company counts RFI Studio as its major digital asset. In 2013 Ruder Finn Asia incorporated the full-service digital agency into its offerings to service the region’s growing social-media demands. Thunder can also access those resources as needed.
"Five or six years ago," said Geronimi, "the question was ‘if’ we would do something online; now it’s about ‘how’".
Ruder Finn acquired Thunder in 2011, bringing it into the fold mainly as a conflict agency. But Dumont said "it’s growing at is own path and has a lot of organic growth." The firm concentrates on fashion, lifestyle, luxury, travel and healthcare communications. Key clients include Club Monaco, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, LVMH Perfumes & Cosmetics and Moet Hennessey.
Luxury is a big part of the practice, though Dumont stressed that about half of the firm’s business still comes from healthcare. Moreover, even with the highly publicised crackdown on luxury giving among China’s government officials, demand in the region remains high, he said. Research Ruder Finn released in December shows spending expectations for luxury items among China and Hong Kong consumers remain largely stable overall from a year ago. However, there is a shift as self indulgence trumps gifting and travel takes up a greater share of disposable budget. More consumers show a preference to spend on goods and services for themselves and their families, according to the agency’s research.
"The ultimate luxury for Chinese people now is travel," said Geronimi, who is relocating from Shanghai to lead Ruder Finn’s Hong Kong office. Her new role will be to drive business growth and expand Ruder Finn’s luxury portfolio across Asia-Pacific.
Dumont explained that six years ago the agency had already done research that showed the need for luxury brands to go online. At that time, he said, there was considerable resistance to the idea from clients. But in 2015, everyone recognizes the need for a full digital presence. "We were the first ones to tell luxury companies you need to be there," he said.
But it can still be a challenge for Asia based agencies to capture some of that business Geronimi pointed out, because of the way brands structure their digital strategy internally. There's still a tendency to silo and direct it from head offices in the US or Europe.
But part of the message, Lankester said, that brands need to hear is that "your reputation is being shaped by others" online and on social channels. While much of that might be global, there’s clearly a local element, which is why firms like Ruder Finn and Thunder open new offices in different cities.
"Everything today is being integrated one way or the other," said Dumont in closing. "Clients are expecting us to find solutions; and a lot of work they are asking us to do, whether it’s corporate comms, or a product launch, or whatever, is engagement." And that’s what the PR industry, he insisted, has specialized in all along. That there is new media and old media is less of a concern. The goal is simply to help brands navigate all the media in whatever form it might take. So no matter the tools, old school or new school, the bottom line is still results.