Despite yet another tough year, a handful of determined leaders in the region launched ambitious projects and independent outfits. The running theme of this year’s most promising start-ups is the sense of purpose and sustainability that underpin the work they set out to do.
Tarun Deo, former Southeast Asia managing director at Golin, gave up his fancy title to launch a start-up in the middle of a pandemic. While Deo might not be the only senior leader who made this bold decision, he is definitely in the rare category of start-up founders who are set to stay in the medium-term, thanks to an impressive SG$500k (US$372k) of early funding from external investors. The venture, despite being fresh, is valued at SG$3 million (US$2.2 million) and signed on Dole as its first client. To support the data and analytics capability of Progressive, Deo partnered with Denmark-based Kristian Hoareau Foged, founder and director of analytics & strategy at Simply Thought.
When AIA veteran Joanna Ong-Ash quit her longtime role as head of brand and corporate comms, her peers expected her to move to a company such as Manulife or Prudential. Instead, Ong-Ash went rogue by starting her own agency 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," Ong-Ash told PRWeek Asia early last year.
While not new, Think HQ is on the cusp of a more inclusive and equitable marketing movement in Australia. Founder Jen Sharpe is a leader who walks the talk with initiatives such as launching a full-service translation arm to represent non-English speakers in Australia. She also appointed a head of First Nations/Indigenous engagement and communication to ensure that her agency includes and engages the community in their campaigns. On top of that, the agency commissioned the industry’s first inclusion and diversity survey, of which the results are discussed here. In a landscape where purpose and profit exist in a confusing limbo, Sharpe is at the helm of one of the more exciting and genuine outfits behind the concept of actual purpose.
Last year, Edelman alumni Scott Thomson and Amy Watson joined forces to launch Forge Communications, a communications and reputation management consultancy to serve Australian clients. Thanks to both Thomson’s and Watson’s combined years of experience, the agency will focus on responsible business practices, and will sign up to the 1% for the Planet initiative while dedicating a minimum of one day per employee per quarter to volunteering in the community. "We're inspired by businesses that are stepping up to the plate and addressing the big issues of the day," said Watson.
Serina Tan is among the many leaders who departed their cushy big-network titles to reflect, recuperate, and replenish. The former Allison+Partners APAC MD found her calling in purpose and wellness communications, focussing on consultancy for senior executives. Based on positive psychology and mindfulness techniques, Tan's principles took shape when she picked up a book on the topic and learned to apply stress-combating techniques during Covid. When advising leaders, Tan is set to focus on topics such as leading with compassion and challenges that women leaders face, rather than merely prioritising performance-based marketing.
As the climate emergency rages on, Wilful is set to focus on tech innovation and sustainability. The agency was born in 2021 from the merging of Cherish and Gong Communications and operates internationally from its London HQ with partner networks across APAC, Europe, and Africa. Co-founder Narda Shirley said: “Organisations that are gearing up for the transition to a low-carbon future need a communications partner that can keep pace with the speed of change and the ability to react quickly to opportunities without compromising on the quality of the advice.” Key clients within the wider Wilful Group include Airtasker, Henkel, IFC, Lloyd’s, Old Mutual and Danone.