What's agency life currently like in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan amid the pandemic? / Adobe Stock
With agencies around the world at different stages on the long return to the office, we look at what lessons have been learned by agencies in APAC – and considers how agencies in the west can take note.
Businesses across Asia Pacific are generally ahead of much of the rest of the world, with pndemic responses across the region faster and more decisive than in many countries in the west.
As such, agencies have already begun to return to studios and offices. Can companies elsewhere learn from the difficulties and successes these agencies have faced? We spoke to ad agencies in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia to find out.
Shiori Matsuyama is regional deputy head of people at AnyMind Group. He leads its HR efforts for Japan and the APAC region, and tells The Drum that the company made the shift to work-from-home despite the lack of a mandate from Japan's government. This was a change in style for Anymind’s client services personnel, with Japan being a face-to-face business style market.
“It meant that we needed to maximize virtual means to keep our team connected, and we have shifted our employee engagement activities to virtual means like our TGIF initiative (a monthly office-wide get together),” she explains.
“We have a program in Japan for fresh graduates that we have been running physically in our office for the past years. Because of the pandemic, we’ve shifted it into fully online, three-week training programmes, for fresh graduates joining us in Japan.”
She continues: “Additionally, we also hold virtual language exchange classes, with some of our engineers in our Japan office coming from countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. During these virtual classes, our non-Japanese members can learn Japanese, and our Japanese members can learn more English.”
Apart from work-from-home benefits like equipment, Anymind also uses a tool called Geppo to help the HR team better understand employee sentiment, including how they feel about their work, work relationship and motivations.
This is important, says, Matsuyama as traditionally, understanding how a person is faring at work is mostly done by observing their physical demeanour, but that is not possible today. With this, HR can have a better understanding of how employees are faring in a work-from-home environment.
“One of the things that we observed early-on is that companies in Japan took some time to adopt digital work practices like video calls and online collaboration software, but we have been using such tools since the business started, meaning our transition was very smooth,” she explains.
“With that said, companies in Japan are also adapting to remote working and it’s highly important to have a good understanding of the mental health of employees. Using tools that can help with this is crucial to ensuring a healthy workforce.”
For creative agency VCCP, the psychological health of its team became a priority over introducing new ways of working. Because employees were already used to conencting to clients, colleagues and suppliers virtually, given the regional and global nature of most of its work, tools such as Google Meets, Zoom, Teams, and Skype were already commonly widespread at the firm.
While Singapore suffered a tough lockdown from April to June 2020, the country has since eased lockdown restrictions. In line with Singapore government guidelines, working from home remains the default arrangement to minimise transmission risks. VCCP has split the agency into two teams and when necessary they are able to return to the office for business-critical meetings.
Joshua Robertson, chief marketing officer for APAC at VCCP, based in Singapore, says the agency surveyed the team to understand pain points for working remotely.
As a result, it created helpful guides for the staff on self-motivation, the importance and tactics to separate work from personal time, and dedicated sessions for all staff members to share their ways of coping through the pressures of Covid-19. Beyond that, VCCP created internal and external support networks where anyone could receive advice and support for their unique situations.
“We supercharged our fantastic online staff development platform called Thrive, which allowed the agency to continue to grow through learning and harness our potential. It has everything from the latest learnings on tech, software and platforms to communication, confidence and well-being (yoga classes included),” he explains.
“In Singapore, we complemented this with additional internal and external training on personality profiling, leadership, presentation skills, data analytics, and inspirations from global industry leaders.”
He adds: “Our events series, Curious, went online with a season of innovation talks exploring the latest social, digital and cultural trends. These events are open to our colleagues and clients.”
Having lived through SARS back in 2003, as news of Covid-19 started circulating in Hong Kong, the ForwardPMX team took immediate action in early January 2020 to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its staff.
Kristine Tang, the people director for APAC and Russia at ForwardPMX says the agency’s quick reaction and global connectivity with other offices allowed it to source face masks from Europe and distributed it to all APAC offices where supplies were limited.
ForwardPMX also implemented remote working and work-from-home arrangements for all staff and shared Covid-19 news across the region through internal communication channels.
“As the pandemic swept across the region, we recognized the need to permanently adapt our working arrangements to help all our staff adjust to changing conditions. We created a new section in our employee handbook on flexible working that included best practices for managers and employees on remote management, tips for parents working-from-home and how to make flexible working work for you,” she explains.
“In addition, promoting healthy habits became one of our top priorities. Thus, we introduced our weekly Wellness Wednesday Newsletter, featuring articles and videos that promote mental and physical health for all employees. We also actively encouraged participation on Health & Wellness Awareness days, such as Mental Health Week by providing access to webinars and other materials for staff.”
Tang says it is important to respect and understand the needs of staff, which is why employees are back in the office but ForwardPMX has flexible working in place so staff can choose to come to the office or WFH if they prefer.
“Although we’re all going through the same pandemic, each person’s experience could be very different. Keep an open mind to the challenges of your staff and give them the flexibility to adapt their own working habits to find what works best for their personal situation,” she adds.
Entropia Global was the first in its market to move to work-from-home, acting before the Malaysian government’s stay-at-home rules kicked in. One of the first measures the agency put in place was to strengthen its collections discipline, as well as cost control measures.
The agency instituted proportional pay cuts for mid and senior level people for between one and three months; that pay is now being returned. It also used an internal survey to help it get a good sense of how people saw things and how the agency could make the best of the lockdowns as a team.
Prashant Kumar, founder and senior partner at Entropia, says the measures have worked. The team has won 32 new clients in the last year, and managed to expand its market share. The good fortunet went a long way in helping alleviate the impact of budget cuts and spending holdbacks.
“We also hired a mental health consultant to advise people on issues they might be facing in these claustrophobic times. Virtual drinks, virtual lunches, show-face-on-video etc were introduced as essential measures to try to bridge the gap of human experiences,” he explains.
“Instead of a Christmas party, we sent delightful Christmas goody bags to everyone. Instead of monthly birthday celebrations, we sent birthday cakes to each birthday baby. The biggest challenge of the pandemic and WFH is how to maintain the culture - that soft subtle power that pervades an organisation and makes it different and better.”
At VaynerMedia in Sydney, the agency implemented screen-free hours, resetting how employees’ work and how they interact with each other and clients to protect personal time, as well as new initiatives like career and life coaching programmes.
In APAC, the agency has a spread of hubs across the region which has allowed it to be nimble in how it reacts to certain challenges, from delivering a production or how the agency works with its teams.
To remove physical and geographical challenges, VaynerMedia also leaned heavily into influencers and KOLs – who took on an elevated role in helping to connect its clients with their customers.
Amy Bradshaw, the business director at VaynerMedia Australia, says the agency wanted to help people find the best way of coping and tools to speak up when they need help. It also has an internal speaker series designed to provide some light-hearted relief during the middle of the day.
Above all else, she says it has been about listening to the agency’s teams, letting people be human and understanding that everyone is dealing with this pandemic in their own unique way and to just be there as a support.
“The pandemic has only reaffirmed our belief that both brands and agencies need to be nimble, agile and adaptive to keep pace with the changing landscape–whether that's in relation to the pandemic or the market in general. You need to be mentally and structurally ready to make quick decisions and pivot quickly,” Bradshaw explains.
“We've been able to do this due to our focus on digital and executing quality content at pace, instead of gearing everything towards large scale productions designed for TV, by integrating creative and media to ensure an iterative workflow and constant feedback loop so we can quickly adjust and change course based on market feedback and by leaning into e-commerce and DTC.”
She adds: “On a human level, we’ve learnt the importance of creating a safe space for our teams and that while every person’s situation is unique, all employees need flexibility and transparency. When all this is over, this is something we’ll carry through as a company.”
The country where Covid-19 first emerged, China is recovering at a quick pace. Amid the bounceback, sports agency Mailman Group continue to pitch and win new business.
Justin Tan, the managing director at Mailman China, says its team is already using its Covid-19 experience to inform client acquisition. “We have produced a post-Covid-19 playbook on opportunities for global sports post-Covid-19 in China,” he explains.
Tan says the agency's ability to do good business is due to the agency’s long-term relationships and goodwill with clients. In addition, the agency organises activities when possible to boost morale and maintain a strong sense of togetherness and teamwork among its teams.
“We have clear and regular communications from senior management, passed down through all levels of the organization; trust and open communications are key,“ he says.
“We remain optimistic about the future and continue to invest in areas where it makes sense.”
Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.