Telum caught up with Joseph Tang, who founded Taiwan-based consultancy Vocal Middle Communications Consultants after several years as a headhunter. He gives an overview on the PR landscape in Taiwan and how Taiwanese brands can enter the Mainland China market.Founding Vocal Middle was your first dip into the communications industry. What inspired you to launch a PR agency?
It began with why I decided to start something on my own. I was planning to pursue a PhD programme when I got married in 2009. I had to give that up because we had two lovely baby girls in three years, so it was not wise to take our small family to the wild west for adventures. Thus the crazy little idea was seeded back then.
Why PR? In the very beginning I had no clue what topic I was going to devote myself to, but I wanted to be in the people business - professional service, advisory business, consulting services etc. So I asked myself what options did I have? There were way too many. Then I decided to leverage my job as a headhunter to "interview" those executives in said industries, hoping their wisdoms and visions would clear my head. I also worked in the tech sector for 12 years, so I was looking for a route that would combine tech trends and the people business. Hence a vivid blueprint came out, and after a year of investigation, I chose PR because:
- it's an underdog and is totally underestimated
- it's a very interesting industry like no other
- it's at the centre of business intelligence among both enterprises and markets. Nobody else can access all the data and information if we do it right
So here we are.
What did you learn from your role as a headhunter that you use to run your agency?
Generally speaking, companies in the US, Europe and Japan put a stronger emphasis on organisational design and development. However, companies in Asia almost only focus on products and services, turning themselves into "tools", so most of the time they can only compete in relationships and price wars.
This awkward situation is more obvious in professional services nowadays, where most firms barely have a clear image of how to attract businesses. What do the markets, clients and candidates know about them? Only the names of their CEOs, clients and nothing else. This gradually limits their bargaining power and company size. It also results in a lack of motivation to invent and to improve, which is what the future needs, as they spend 90 per cent of their time on what they currently possess. The scariest thing is that as this continues, these businesses will become less attractive, and fewer young talents will join them, stopping the firms from growing and evolving with new ideas and conflicts.
This is wrong
In response, when running Vocal Middle, we put equal resources and focus simultaneously from the very beginning on three elements: "organisation", "service" and "market". We built an organic organisation that allowed us to acquire talents and raise them in our system.
What are a few interesting things you can share about the PR industry in Taiwan that people might not be aware of?
Multinational PR agencies have basically given up on the Taiwan market, and their regional headquarters only give their Taiwan branches very limited authority. The latter cannot change the status quo and rely mostly on the “milk” from their “mothers”. This is sad but very common over the past 20 years. The industry needs more flexibility but is controlled by costs, and talents are used as tools or functional players; so when employees get older and approach their 40s, they are less valuable to their headquarters.
Most leaders in the Greater China region are so-called technical leaders but not people leaders - they can be very outstanding account directors, marketing heads, but they are seldom developed into true leaders, i.e. inspirators that lead people beyond their own expectations, and they put an emphasis on managing "things” only. This common practice exposes this big weakness especially in a huge crisis such as this pandemic, because they are trained to manage a specific business and not deal with uncertainty and vagueness. Thus, offices are shut down, people are laid off, businesses are gone and clients have no professional services to turn to.How can Taiwanese brands effectively position themselves to consumers in Mainland China?
In the past, the Taiwan market acted as a stepping stone for other markets to enter Mainland China. Its relevance grew smaller in the past 20 years but right now Taiwan has regained this status. Taiwan has a unique culture, in which it's a hybrid of Chinese, American, Japanese, Europeans, Southeast Asians and Koreans, so there are no “pure Taiwanese” brands but only hybrid ones. If brands can absorb the bright sides from so many cultures, it will find its way in the giant Mainland China market.
Secondly, no one will deny that Taiwan may lose its position when Mainland China becomes more "capitalised". However, as the saying "every cloud has a silver lining" goes, this "Chinese-style capitalism or socialism" gives us a great opportunity. For a great number of Taiwanese aged 35 to 50, they are matured, well-educated, open-minded and are very good at integration. These groups of people are also the ones that actually own the power and resources to make an impact in both the private and public sectors. Mainland China has the market and population, while the Taiwanese has the capabilities to add values. Taiwanese brands may never take a lead in Mainland China, but this is not their aim - they are the pioneer in certain areas and act as a boost for growing segments. Can you share with us any upcoming plans you have with Vocal Middle?
Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we are now specifically focusing on three directions:
- Equipping the organisation with data with the help of BI and AI to increase our efficiency
- Equipping our current services with technologies
- Equipping the markets with international landscapes and business models