Telum Talks To… Matthew Zeng, Managing Director, DSTNCT

Telum Talks To… Matthew Zeng, Managing Director, DSTNCT

Telum caught up with Matthew Zeng, Managing Director of DSTNCT, who recently made it to the “Forbes 30 under 30” 2022 list. He shared with us the drive behind his business and what brands need to know about the next wave of consumers.

Congratulations on Forbes 30 Under 30. What’s next for you?
Thank you! I must say everything’s been a whirlwind. I tried to take it in for a day or two, and then I got back to what was at hand. In those couple of days that I tried to relish the moment, I reflected on how far we’ve come and also what lies ahead. Every goal that I’ve set from the day I started was with the 30-year-old milestone in mind, so it’s quite refreshing that now I have to renew these goals that I’ve come to know so well.

For DSTNCT, as an agency - we aim to continue to do what we do best, creating purposeful and effective work for both government agencies and everyday brands. We want to be able to fly the local flag high and show that Singapore is by all means capable of creating work we can be proud of.

We are also looking to venture into our own consumer brands, under the DSTNCT Ad-Ventures umbrella. We currently already have something brewing, so we are stoked to announce it when the time comes.

For myself, personal growth should never stop. How one can ensure growth continues is to always put themselves in uncharted territories, in situations where they have to constantly problem-solve. And that’s what I plan to do.

You co-founded DSTNCT at the age of 22; what was the drive behind that?
When I was working in China, I saw first hand how resourcefulness, hard work and obsession can get you places. Everything else can be learnt along the way. And that was where I realised that as long as I put in the time, I could be anyone I wanted to be.

I’ve always wanted to start my own thing, to make a difference in my own way. And I’ve always been passionate about advertising and comms. However, there are a ton of legacy issues and industry norms that didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to start an agency that could plug that gap. The final nail on the coffin was when I was reading Paul Arden’s “Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite”. There are so many lines that I could relate to but the one that pushed me to action was “It’s better to regret what you’ve done than what you haven’t.” And the rest is history.

DSTNCT profiles itself as an agency for the next gen. What should brands know about the next wave of consumers?
Every generation is defined by the youth of that era, as they are always at the forefront of change. Even our parents were young once, and they defined their era.

Youths express themselves differently from the generation before, are the first to try everything and set the trends of that period. They dictate cultural relevance and indicate what the future might look like. That’s why we always look at the next generation.

Today, the younger ones grew up with social media and global exposure at their fingertips. Behavioural habits are changing faster with each new technological entrant. They also have a lot more choices and alternatives at their disposal - so we can’t blame them for being fickle. The brands that can meet them where they are at, emotionally, psychologically and mentally, would find themselves ahead.

That’s why it’s so important not to be caught in an echo chamber. To stay relevant, you have to expose yourself to what they’re thinking and not impose your thinking / stereotypes of them in what you do.

Tell us some of the challenges you encountered when you first started DSTNCT.
Passion is not enough to run a business. You have to do a lot of things that you’re not passionate about, and you have to like it. Business operations, finance planning, talent acquisition and retention, the list goes on.

We had to learn the hard way early on in our journey. Our finance manager, whom we trusted, embezzled a huge sum of money over a period of time and even took from our employees’ CPF. We were subsequently ordered to go to court for a CPF charge. When we informed the Court of our plight, the Judge concluded that it was really our problem, which is true. It’s our problem, and we needed to know our numbers. From then on, we set our hearts on ensuring that we run a seamless and irreproachable operation and that something like this should never happen again. We are also thankful that she has since been apprehended and sentenced.

Any advice for anyone who wants to start venturing into PR / comms?
Ask yourself what is it about PR / comms you’re interested in. A lot of people go in for the wrong reasons, but if you are someone who loves to break down complex briefs and problems into simple solutions and unambiguous comms - then you’re most definitely on the right track.

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