Lessons from 30 years of cross-market communications in Asia

BCW India’s leaders share what they have learned in 30 years of marketing and communications.

L-R: Prema Sagar & Deepshikha Dharmaraj

When you have seen an industry like marketing and communications through three decades, across a region as diverse as Asia, it is difficult to capture those experiences and lessons in a few words. That said, there are some timeless takeaways that can help us learn from the past so that we can better navigate the future.

A nuanced approach

Put in the time and effort to understand the market landscape and the people with whom you wish to engage. Do not cut corners. One lesson from our 30 years of experience founding and growing a PR agency doing business in all corners of Asia is that a nuanced approach for each market has never been more essential than it is today. Truly effective communications and marketing considers how each country differs in terms of consumer behaviour, governance and regulatory make-up, cultural indicators, market dynamics, media, and other factors. In heterogenous markets like India and Malaysia, the landscape is particularly complex. Go beneath the surface—beyond country market reports—to really grasp what moves people in these countries.

Hub and spoke

Take a full view of all the markets relevant to your business. There have been many clients over the years with whom we have had a multi-market mandate and for those we typically take a hub-and-spoke model, where the overall messaging and narrative are done at the hub level and the execution happens at the market level. That works well for large markets like China and India, but this is not always the case for younger and emerging markets. Make the effort to bring them up to speed with the more mature markets, especially when it involves sophisticated communications programmes. Train the communications or marketing team in campaign planning, media train the client, engage any other such skill enhancement interventions required. Strong local teams, whom you invest in and grow, can help you not just understand the market but also your better understand your clients and their needs. 

Enduring partnerships

The value of building partnerships cannot be overstated. Extend your reach however you can. For those in agencies, invest time in getting to know the people who make up your subsidiaries, affiliates and partners, and for those in-house, connect with as much of your company’s ecosystem as you can. Work to forge a well-established network and deep understanding of your business and you will be better prepared to face whatever challenges come your way. Over 30 years, we have relied on many such partnerships and continue to do so. In fact, many of those early partnerships turned into invaluable mentor-mentee relationships that have lasted the course of our careers to-date and inspired us to pass on our knowledge to those following in our career footsteps. If you do not have at least one valuable mentor in your life, find one.

Consistency and accountability

Be consistent in the quality of the communications or marketing you produce, the speed at which you produce it, how you turn up in the workplace, and how you treat others. Hold yourself accountable for meeting the standards you have set for yourself. It takes effort but it will ensure you exude dependability and trust. In the same way that clients or customers should have a fair idea of what to expect from an agency or consumer brand, no matter which market they are in, your key stakeholders should feel the same when interacting with your personal brand. If you are not sure how others see you, be brave and ask.

Respect above all

The beauty of working across a region is that people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and cultures come together. Diversity breeds creativity, especially in Asia. However, in an increasingly divisive world, it is easy to offend and alienate people inadvertently, regardless of whether they are clients, customers or colleagues. While conversations around larger issues of race, gender and sexual orientation have become mainstream, there is still much progress to be made. Missteps as an organisation or as an individual, whether internal or external, can have long term financial and reputational consequences. Equip yourself with the knowledge and skills needed to identify, address, and reduce unintended bias; promote inclusion; and look for guidelines to help recalibrate internal processes where necessary. Ensure diversity, equity and inclusion are priorities for all by promoting open-mindedness, empathy, and mutual respect as the base from which all conversations start.

When we look back at our 30-year journey in PR, so much has happened—the advent of the internet, digital and social media, and of course, the biggest disruptor of them all, the pandemic. What has not changed, however, is the continued need for clarity, creativity and compassion in communications.

By Prema Sagar, founding chairperson, and Deepshikha Dharmaraj, CEO, BCW India Group. Viewpoints is an article series contributed by members of PRHK, Hong Kong’s PR and communications association.

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