Asia Head: Tim Sutton, Asia-Pacific Chairman
Asia Offices: 18 wholly owned
Asia Revenue: Undisclosed; R3 estimate US$98 million
Asia Headcount: Undisclosed
Weber Shandwick’s revenue in Asia expanded nearly 26% this year, according to Tim Sutton, chairman of Asia-Pacific, who sees this as a highly significant development as it narrows the gap between main competitors Ogilvy and Edelman.
Sutton credits the company’s rapid growth in the past two to three years to gaining a bigger share of Asia’s market. The firm has seen Asia revenue triple since 2009, and Sutton says he is confident it will have quadrupled that figure by the end of the current year.
"Traditional PR is still important to us," Sutton says. "Three-and-a-half years ago we saw the writing on the wall: how the business is changing, the whole transformation of social media and engagement and the growth of content publishing—website, videos, app development. Now all our clients are engaging with the opportunity and challenge of publishing material themselves. We saw this opportunity quite a long time ago and we probably scaled up for it in terms of staff quite a lot quicker than everyone else."
That strategic investment in digital engagement three years ago is what Sutton sees as vital the agency being ahead of the curve today. Weber Shandwick now employs over 100 people in Asia who focus purely on digital strategy and production in five studios across the region, namely in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Japan.
"We now have a lot of people who are very capable game writers, programmers, 3D designers," Sutton says. "They are very different people than we would have employed two to three years ago."
The agency saw a rise in the number of home-grown Asian clients in 2014, adding Temasek Holdings, Tokyo 2020 and the SEA Games to its portfolio. "A few years ago, accounts would have been from American-located clients. Now we have fast-growing clients who are indigenous to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, India," says Sutton. "These clients are growing very rapidly because they are becoming more confident, some of them have global aspirations, or outside their own country."
Part of this success may come from the agency’s ability to manage business on an international level. With 18 offices in 12 Asian countries, Weber Shandwick makes sure to cultivate and drive clients across all different markets. The agency manages brands such as MasterCard and General Motors in 20 to 30 Asia markets, which allows for a systematic way to drive business—whether it’s out of Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai or Sydney. Sutton notes that last year, in particular, the number of cross-market engagement rose dramatically, with international client assignments in multiple markets at 78 compared to 44 in 2013.
At the same time, running multi-market programs can also lead to challenges.
"You can’t just impose one pattern from upon high because it doesn’t work that way," he says. "You need to balance the clients’ wish for a clear coherent brand identity and knowing that some of the markets we are in are very, very different." Another challenge within Asia is defining a region that is so large geographically and diverse politically. "We have to ask the question, what do Japan, India and Australia have in common? How do we make sense of it for clients and for ourselves?"
Talent retention is another issue the APAC chairman highlights, something the entire PR supply chain faces as a result of a rapidly expanding industry.
"The demand for people who are good and experienced is tight, so the pressure of getting and keeping people is relentless. It affects all of us, including our clients and competitors," says Sutton. "We like to think we are making progress. Retention numbers are way better than they were four to five years ago." One way to find talent, he advises, is to hire more unconventionally, and recruit from more expert areas beyond communications, such as from health or technology firms.
In line with constantly evolving work in digital, this year Weber Shandwick launched the second version of its software, Firebell, which allows clients to simulate a social media crisis through attacks on platforms such as Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. "It’s very good experience because once you’ve been through that, and you are faced with a crisis, you are a lot more prepared and ‘battle-hardened’ about what needs to be done," says Sutton. He is committed to developing the agency’s social media offerings, leveraging on an early start a few years back. He stresses engagement, not delivery, is key to communications today and that potential clients have to understand that this is a double-edged sword. "It gives them the opportunity to put out their own positive messages, but at the same time, companies will always be a little more vulnerable and open to criticism as a result."
Looking ahead, Weber Shandwick hopes to leverage on a key new opportunity to engage with different sectors of a client’s budget, such as marketing and sales and other brand measurements.
"There are many opportunities for this industry for those who can address this need," explains Sutton. "We want to progress rapidly to engage with these marketing communications challenges as well as the traditional avenues that we always have."