‘I left the corporate machinery to start my own agency’

Joanna Ong-Ash left her comms role at AIA after 10 years to escape the bureaucratic realities of corporations to begin to finally tell stories that align with her personal values.

‘I left the corporate machinery to start my own agency’

Working in a large corporate firm is great on paper, but head of brand and corporate comms at AIA Singapore Joanna Ong-Ash (pictured above) decided she had enough. After 10 years at the insurance giant, and a prior 15 years at financial institutions including Aviva Singapore, American Express, MasterCard, DBS Bank and United Overseas Bank, she finally bit the bullet to go indie.

"At the age of 51, I asked myself, where should I go next?" Ong-Ash told PRWeek. "A lot of people said 'How about Manulife?' Or Prudential? Some other people said 'How about a more sexy brand like Adidas?'"

But eventually, Ong-Ash landed on starting her own agency—Bravery Communications—to work for a broader spectrum of clients with the aim of telling bold stories or starting conversations most in Singapore would be afraid to such as mental and sexual health.

"I didn't want to be part of a corporate machinery, and I didn't want to work within an agency tied to an agency framework. So by creating my own, I have the flexibility of working within my own framework but with other agencies," said Ong-Ash.

Sometimes, agencies approach her on briefs where financial comms consultancy is required, and a joint pitch is done. "I get excited about this. When I'm working with others who have diverse viewpoints that makes my ideation process a bit more robust," she said.

There seems to be a pattern of corporate comms leaders who feel stifled with the bureaucracy and layers of approval, Ong-Ash said, which has led to more PR professionals seeking ways to work within their own framework and time.

One example is the development of Hong-Kong based marketing consultancy Neon Leaders founded by former global brand director at Mars Jennifer Woolford. Torn between desiring more work-life flexibility and the offer of an Asia role within Mars, Woolford chose to work independently and started Neon Leaders to bring together comms consultants from all sectors who were also seeking more flexibility outside of the corporate world. Incidentally, Ong-Ash currently sits as a consulting lead in Singapore for Neon Leaders.

"[Consultants in Neon Leaders] come from backgrounds like PepsiCo and Unilever, but they want to work flexibly without being tied to corporate machinery. So as a collective, we tap the expertise of the collective, and we deliver to the marketing transformation initiatives of a company in a more sustainable fashion," said Ong-Ash.

"Clients are are starting to move towards hiring open talent, because they get the benefit of the heads without the overheads. Some clients don't have the budget to hire extra staff for their teams. So they hire open talent like myself to be an extension of their team without the overhead infrastructure in the system."

When asked if she had advice for PR professionals who might be frustrated with the red tape and compliance within their corporate roles, Ong-Ash said that what's needed is bravery to be honest with themselves.

"Ask yourself if you're waking up every day and really enjoy doing what you're doing. Are you serving a purpose for your organisation in a way that you feel that your values are aligned with the organisation?," she said.

"Many times when I walk past Raffles Place, I see the grey faces of white-collar workers, and I realised that I was one of them. I was in an organisation that was so entrenched in the cause of making money that sometimes the values were not aligned with mine. To me, this is a dishonest way of working. The honest way, to me, was having the courage to actually walk that purpose."

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