By Jason Li, Telum Media
The past year in Hong Kong has been one to remember. According to PublicAffairsAsia’s 2020 State of the Industry Report
, political turmoil and the Sino-US trade war, coupled with the outbreak of COVID-19, hampered agency growth in Hong Kong, with many scaling back development plans and reducing headcounts. Even the biggest household names in the business have had to buckle down under the economic repercussions.
Managing an established agency during a crisis can be hard enough, let alone starting up a new outfit. However, four PR industry practitioners did exactly that, launching their respective agencies in Hong Kong over the past year.
Adam Harper, former Head of Communications for Greater China at HSBC, set up Ashbury Communications in January 2020 just as COVID-19 began hitting the headlines.
“There’s never a perfect time, but I haven’t regretted it for a second. Even when you’re not making money, you’re learning,” he told Telum recently.
“We went through a quiet spell in March and early April but have started gaining momentum again as Asia began to recover. I always told myself that if the business could survive this, then the idea behind it would have proven its value.”
Dominique Backhouse has also recently struck out on her own. In 2019, during the anti-government protests, Dominique launched Companion Communications. It was the lifestyle consultancy scene, or lack thereof, that she was concerned with, which ultimately spurred her to set up shop.
“After 14 years in the industry in Asia both agency-side and in-house, I knew there was a gap in the market for a bespoke consultancy to lifestyle brands - the kind of service you find in New York, London or Sydney.”
When COVID-19 came around it dealt a blow to the economy in Hong Kong, affecting everyone including the communications industry. Agencies had to carry out pay cuts, furlough schemes and staff reductions in response to declining revenues caused by the pandemic. One-man bands and new outfits have also been affected, forcing them to rework their business strategies.
Walter Cheung, Founder and Managing Director of Walter Cheung Communications, also launched in 2019. He utilised his decades-spanning track record as an award-wining journalist for the South China Morning Post
and Head of Communications and Corporate Sustainability at Hang Seng Bank for 25 years to notch up new clients and build good chemistry, maintaining business as usual for his new consultancy.
When the outbreak first started, Brian Yeung and Marina Watt, who co-founded content and events consultancy Brianstorm Content Solutions late last year, published e-books focused on parenting and education. They paired this with a set of affirmation cards for families available online and in book stores as a strategy to remain relevant.
“In the face of market disruption, we push ourselves to think outside the box. All these timely and relevant initiatives have been instrumental in raising our company’s profile,” Brian said.
In response to client and market demands, Adam has been focusing on sustainability, especially sustainable financing and environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment. “Sustainability in all its sense is already a key factor in determining companies’ access to capital, customers and talent. As all stakeholders place a greater emphasis on a company’s long-term purpose, articulating that is only going to become more important,” Adam said.
Recovery from COVID-19 in Hong Kong is underway, as epitomised by the government’s latest lifting of social distancing measures. This creates a window of opportunity for communications agencies. Walter and Adam both stress that companies, now more than ever, are looking for sound advice at the most senior level, and there is a great demand for agencies to work with top executives.
“COVID-19 in particular has increased the need for companies to re-examine their strategic positioning under much more complex situations and to produce content that demonstrates insights into how their world is changing," added Adam. "That’s clearly an opportunity for communications consultancies.”
Brian echoes that the protests and the pandemic, albeit their detrimental impacts, presented his consultancy occasion to reflect on their business model and resilience plan. “In a crisis, there’s an opportunity,” he emphasises. “It might sound cliché but it has its own truth. Creative responses to a new reality can turn challenges into opportunities, even though the process could be painful.”
In spite of COVID-19 postponing her plan to open a satellite office in Shanghai, Dominique also sees a silver lining for her business. "It is forcing larger companies to reassess their long-term relationships in Asia and evaluate their value for money. No one in lifestyle wants to hand over their tight budget to a faceless corporation or have to speak to a junior manager right now.”
The latter half of 2020 is a crucial time for PR agencies and more so for these new agencies. As Dominique puts it, “the next few months is going to be about survival, strategic positioning and authenticity - and only the best informed and the most strategic are going to be able to weather the storm.