Asia Head: Jon Higgins, Senior Partner and CEO, International
Asia Offices: Wholly owned/Partner: 20
Asia Revenue: Undisclosed, estimate US$15 million
Asia Headcount: Undisclosed, estimate 75
While the Ketchum agency, as part of publicly held Omnicom, doesn’t disclose revenue numbers, Jon Higgins, the firm’s senior partner and CEO, international, did speak to PRWeek about global numbers. "Ketchum had a terrific year in 2014, we exceeded our revenue and profit plans," he says. "We had a terrific effort in attracting new clients and were able to grow our existing business very well, breaking through the US$500 million mark, which is an all-time high for us."
Higgins is equally confident about the regional contribution of APAC. "As a region we continue to build from strength to strength. India’s performance was tremendous, fueled by digital, social, content development," he says. "They had terrific retention, 98 per cent of their clients stayed with them."
Korea was another success story for the agency where the instant messaging app LINE is a major client, for which the agency coordinates efforts across more than over 10 countries. Account wins in Korea in 2014 included the Almond Breeze Milk brand and Mercedes Benz.
Higgins also says that the agency has been "really proud of the work" Yonnie Woo, Korea MD, has accomplished in the country. "In just our first year she took a business that was not growing and put it on a very steep growth trajectory, brought in an entire new management team, added new clients. Growing very quickly," he says. "It is a public company so can’t give you any figures. The fact that Ketchum is a new brand to that market with a new leader, speaks volumes about what we see in the market there."
India was another bright area. The agency cites Skoda Auto, MICA, Axis AMC, Star Union Daichi, SKS trust, Bharat Forge, Deepak Fertilizer, Mahan Coal, Aditya Birla Corporate, Max Life (Digital), and Axis Bank (Digital) all as wins in the country for 2014. Vikram Hospitals and Milestone Capital, however, were lost accounts.
As with all PR companies in Asia, China naturally plays a big role in the company’s regional business. Key wins for the agency in 2014 include business with Emirates in China; Italian apparel brand Yoox and Hershey’s. Kohler, the high-end plumbing fixtures brand that has been building its business in China for more than a decade is also now a Ketchum client in the market. Asset management firm Schroders goes down as a loss in the region (Hong Kong).
And Higgins is enthusiastic still about China overall, saying "Clearly this is a market that has fully embraced—if not leading—the digital transformation," he says.
Still, in China as well as other markets, Higgins tells a narrative that matches many agencies. Talent is still a major issue, acting as both the source and obstacle for success. "What we are seeing in Korea, China, India and Singapore are challenges in terms of talent. The client needs are there but we are constrained by a shortage of qualified talent. That is common to all of our business."
Some of the solution he finds is in training. "We are spending quite a lot of time and our own money in developing the digital and social offer. We have an internal program here that we’ve made mandatory for the entire staff worldwide. Aimed at really honing the expertise and skills to leap into the digital and social world. It's a broad trend that’s going to be with us for a while."
In China he highlights a program the agency has put in place with Tsinghua University in Beijing. "An accreditation program, put a bit of training back into the market place; look at bringing new and qualified market into the business. [It’s] an example of identifying the shortage of talent and doing something about it in terms of recruiting and development."
One of the most noteworthy events the agency was involved with in 2014 was supporting Malaysia Airlines in the aftermath and opening stages of the search and recovery of flight MH370. "We have to acknowledge the work we have done for Malaysia Airlines," Higgins says of the Singapore office. "We stand very proud of that work and [the airline’s] work."
Before the twin disasters put a dent in the state-owned airliner’s reputation, Ketchum says Malaysia Airlines was already in transformation mode. But as MH370’s disappearance remains an unsolved mystery, the toll on company’s reputation may continue to be a drag—and the press has not been kind to the public handling of the situation.
But the unfortunate circumstances of one client is not the main worry for Ketchum. Across the APAC region the agency faces a competitive environment, which Ketchum itself characterizes as a cost-centric market with an increasing number of players and strong local PR firms in each country. And beyond that, as the whole industry has learned, it also has to compete more openly against creative and digital agencies, which is one of the commitments Higgins stresses for 2015.
"I think we’re always looking at refining the offer and innovation. [Adding a] chief innovation officer, for example, it’s less about what’s new as opposed to really deepening our commitment to these businesses, which we have bought into Ketchum."
In a nutshell Higgins says 2015 in Asia will be about "Doubling down to remain at the head of the digital transformation; best talent coming into the business; developing the offer from within as opportunities."