All eyes on 2021: How Malaysia agency heads are laying the groundwork early

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the plans of agency heads, who all started this year with optimism. That said, they did not let it hinder their operations and made sure to evolve and adapt. R3's whitepaper titled "Marketing Continuity Assessments" said going into 2021, the growing emphasis on digital capabilities is apparent for agencies. The adoption of digital platforms by consumers globally during enforced social distancing is testament that the future is online, on mobile and virtual.

The whitepaper also cited a 2020 survey by the ANA and R3, which said 84% of senior marketers believe that future brand growth will be tied to marketing innovation and technology, and this translates as a greater need for agency partners to be able to think strategically and creatively across digital platforms. While it might seem too early to be planning for 2021, agency heads in Malaysia have already gotten the ball rolling. Those who A+M spoke to cited areas such as upskilling employees, remaining nimble, talent and being an entrepreneurial workspace as some of the ways they are preparing their agencies for the next year. Find out what they said:

Nicky Lim, CEO, Dentsu Aegis Network Malaysia

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Our organisation has proven far more nimble than we assumed, and in 2021 we will continue to explore dynamic new models of growth now that the future of work is here. Not limited by design constraints, like headcount or real estate, we plan to accelerate digital and eCommerce solutions to make sure our clients succeed in this trust economy.

Sustainable growth will be prioritised not just at a board level but within our ecosystem of stakeholders and partners.

Instead of just “keeping up” as the economy recovers, we will relentlessly upgrade our clients’ ability to turn actionable insights into key marketing breakthroughs that generate lasting profits.

Ashvin Anamalai, chief strategist, Be Strategic

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Key account wins and key hires prior and during the MCO period allowed us to hustle through the pandemic. This period also allowed us to launch new services, which has helped serve both our clients and us well. We will strive to continue this momentum into the new year to help our clients recover and grow through a smooth digital transition for their marketing activities; we head into 2021 with a very positive outlook led by a digital-first approach.

In a general crisis situation across the board, adaptability and evolution has been our proactive plan to adjust to a shifted landscape.

It is important that we remain fluid to build resilience and stay ready to reshape in this post-crisis world. Our diverse range of services, paired with grit and determination shown by our team has inspired an air of belief that we are able to adapt and reinvent ourselves for future challenges.

Lim Sue-Anne, MD, Clear Kuala Lumpur

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My plan for 2021 is to have a healthy business.  We want to grow without lifting our foot from fundamentals. Contrary to an era of supersonic growth, we prefer to be agile and steady instead. There could be a possibility of a second wave and MCO kicks in again. We have learnt business continuity despite the lockdown, so things will run albeit at a slower pace.  The second scenario is where there is a vaccine but needs time for it to be proven, which provides optimism into the market. Therefore growth is expected to be a little faster. Both scenarios impact the economy.  

My advice to businesses is, start doing scenario planning today to be prepared for any possible obstacles or hidden opportunities.

We aim to help business leaders to reset and revitalise their vision.  We want to instil cautious optimism in them to keep the business moving.  Some of the best innovation came from a time of distress. ECommerce and digitalisation in China today would not have the same scale if it was not for SARS.

Tania Tai, MD, DIA Brand Consultants

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Enter the novel economy, 2021 will never be the same. What the crisis has done: shake up serious tropes in the business context, and taught brands to adapt quickly in a moving world. As we navigate where the next normal is going to be, this is a rare opportunity for us to defy the odds and chart new brand territories. Here, we have the perfect storm to help our clients review brand impact, reframe brand strategy and regrow brand strength.

While it took a crisis to throw the balance of work and life off-kilter, we believe that the future belongs to the brave.

In truth, dire constraints will be the mother of invention. That’s why we foresee businesses fortifying their pivot playbooks, so that they will be able to emerge stronger when they reach a better landing point post-pandemic. In moments like this, the opportunity lens will be our best point of view.

Mazuin Zin, MD, Edelman Malaysia

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We believe that the road to recovery in the new normal will actually serve as a runway for most businesses to take off in 2021. And it begins now. This pandemic has reoriented our focus on building organisational immunity and resilience by first focusing on employees. Over the past three months it has become apparent just how important it is to be  constantly investing in the mental, emotional and psychological well being of our talent.

We are focused on empowering and motivating our people through a rigorous upskilling program that goes way beyond conventional industry training programs.

In terms of client offerings, we are preparing to roll out a number of firsts for the Malaysian market including, trust building and trust management solutions, enterprise and executive branding, employee engagement platforms, a peer-to-peer marketing suite, digital crisis preparedness, collaborative journalism, and data and analytics-based content creation. Our primary focus, as ever, will be helping our clients to build trust through purpose-based actions, not simply words.

Shaun Tay, co-owner and CEO, FCB Malaysia

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Growth. Running a business is all about growth. Our advantage as an owner-operator is the ability to quickly adapt our rate of growth to that of the market’s. If it is booming, we accelerate. If things are still cautious, we throttle down. It is our decision and we answer only to our ambition. We have been able to hold steady thanks to many of our key clients such as RHB, Darlie and Marigold, for example, staying active and the opportunity afforded to us by new ones such as Berjaya Sompo and SP Setia.

Many of earlier decisions we have made when buying over the agency, eg. focusing on creativity, staying agile in size and doing away with usual agency procedures, have proven to be sound ones.

We will remain true to who we are, a creative agency and build outwards from that. We will continue to collaborate with other like-minded Malaysian agencies such as Trapper Media Group, Go Comms for PR and a few others. We have also seen an upswing on cross-border opportunities so we will also look to expand our scope and influence within the region via the FCB network.

Jeff Chang, co-founder and CEO, FOREFRONT

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As the nation recovers from the pandemic, FOREFRONT continues to anticipate the changing market needs and uphold resilience amongst the teams under our group. In the face of shrinking advertising budgets and rising uncertainty, data listening alongside empathy are key in ensuring that we answer our clients’ needs. We plan our strategies around the real-time responses, intensified by the rising importance of digital-first campaigns, and the magic ingredient is really the intuition and experience our strategists inject into our work, which makes it extra special. We will continue to build new capabilities and broaden our reach within the Southeast Asian region. For example, we have been taking on branding, creative, and CGI work for Masteri Waterfront and Masteri Smart City in Vietnam.

Peter de Krester, CEO, GO Communications

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We are excited and hopeful of an upswing in the market and remain vigilant in creating unique communications strategies for our current and future clients. The pandemic has given the agency an opportunity to reassess our operating structure, look strategically at reinvention and upskill or hire top talent who can take us to greater heights next year!

In a down market, PR can be a brand’s ultimate marketing weapon to remain in the hearts and minds of consumers without a heavy spend.

The agency continues to invest in its digital capabilities and resources as the storytelling audience shift continues along this path. While the digital arena will be on the tips of lips for most marketers (and we will be similar in expanding our offerings), we will continue to further enhance the imagination and engineering of storytelling. 2021 could very well be a year where brands make the comeback which in turn will provide heavy competition for space and attention. How will they achieve it? We’re hoping we at GO are developing the answers!

Andrew Lee, group MD, Havas Malaysia

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No one could have predicted the complexity and magnitude of this unprecedented situation. While we will recover, it will take more time and effort than expected. We will further strengthen our focus on being a communications player operating at the core of the creative world, fully investing in culture and content.

Overall, our focus will be on being a more entrepreneurial workplace that supports talent and provides a set of services that propel brands to success.

Over the last few months, we have mobilised in an extraordinary way and our teams have shown tremendous resilience, strength and teamwork. Ensuring that we empower our people with the right skill sets through learning and development initiatives and keeping morale high are key. We will focus on forging deeper connections with our clients and help them navigate a complex and uncertain marketing landscape by leveraging our ability to consolidate data, analytics, consumer understanding from a creative standpoint, underpinned by the strength and passion of our people.

Bala Pomaleh, CEO, IPG Mediabrands

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Looking ahead for 2021, we have put more effort into building capabilities within this new normal and predicting future needs of brands. Relevancy is key, as is remote connectivity, and we are working on more scientific approaches to marketing across eCommerce, performance marketing, dynamic content, data management platforms and apps, alongside future technologies. Our core priority has been to right-size our business and remain nimble and agile through the current and anticipated reality.

Ensuring the right talent, service and solutions mix for our clients is the best way for us to keep up with the ever-shifting volatility around us.

The pandemic has boosted demand and usage across a slew of digitally led offerings. Simultaneously, agency roles are increasingly blurred, meaning talents need to be sufficiently equipped to handle new digital demands of clients. Our focus is for talents across all services to remain consistently certified across latest digital certifications, and prioritise cutting-edge digital bootcamps in data science and analytics.

Lara Hussein, CEO, M&C Saatchi Malaysia

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The year 2021 will be a time for us to rebuild and drive new growth, and get to our pre-COVID-19 record. We are fortunate to have anchor clients that have grown with us and helped us withstand the test of COVID-19. We will ensure that we consolidate these relationships by offering newer more meaningful conversations with them. We encourage self reflection and will develop a business plan that is not woefully outdated, but is fresh and engaging and current

Our focus will be to consolidate what we do best, strengthen our creativity, content and continue transforming and integrating all our assets and our people.

We also aim to do better in a few key areas. They include consolidating our business transformation to become digital-first and more integrated, having a new business strategy that hinges on the idea of change, a diverse culture, and restructure our resources to ensure everyone has the right skills amidst this uncertainty. We need to take risks in 2021 not hunker down and do the same old thing, but be progressive and proactive, and find new investment opportunities.

Sean Sim, CEO, McCann Worldgroup

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Our plan for 2021 is to grow. That is, if all turns out well, and the country is back on track. We are weathering the current storm and have taken prudent measures to stablise the agency, without compromising our resources or ability to service clients. I believe we are well placed to springboard quickly on the economic turnaround.

Everything is in a flux. Marketing and business decisions made earlier this year have gone out the window. A lot of the planning now is new - mostly in response to the downturn. We have to be flexible and think out of the box to help our clients navigate through this period.

Our main focus is to adapt, adopt and advocate – both for ourselves, and our clients. We need to be open to take on new ideas and ways of working.

The great news is our clients are receptive, turning away from “safe” traditional methods and willing to try new stuff.

Nizwani Shahar, chief executive, Ogilvy Malaysia

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We managed to close H1 2020 good and are vigilant in ensuring H2 2020 is equally strong. When I stepped up to the chief executive of Ogilvy Malaysia, the leadership and I galvanised our team to be the most “switched on” creative agency by knowing Malaysia and modern marketing better than anyone. Being nimble has allowed us to pivot our services and business accordingly to fit our clients’ needs especially within the current economic and marketing landscape. Similarly on budget and agency planning, we've been planning for 2021 as early as April during the MCO itself.

Our focus will not change. It’s on our biggest asset – our people.

We are proud of our diverse mix of talent across capabilities, and our primary focus will be to ensure we create an inspiring, fun, modern and safe place to grow.

From a capability standpoint, we are staying the course in our creative transformation. Commerce, agile content and data-driven marketing will be must-haves versus exploratory exercises by clients – and we are ready to steer them on this journey.

Anisha Iyer, MD, OMD Malaysia

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For OMD, 2020 tested our resilience and put us on a transformation journey with four new business wins, two of which were managed during the lockdown. WFH for an extended period got us to re-evaluate what motivated and challenged us, with OMD emerging stronger and more efficient during these trying times. This human reflection and business momentum forms the basis of 2021 – to achieve the biggest growth year.

We have successfully steered the media mix to over 50% digital and performance, a figure that is well above the industry average. In addition, we have enhanced our capabilities in analytics, content, social listening, fast data insights and full funnel attribution. Devising and delivering a digital transformation journey has been the cornerstone of all our business wins and scope expansion. As such, elevating that promise will be our core focus.

We are revitalising all existing structures, processes, protocols and attitudes and we will end the year with a reset. 

Effectiveness first, efficiency next, driven by innovation will be key for us.

Eileen Ooi, MD, PHD Malaysia

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We remain steadfast in our vision and business acceleration plan, leveraging this opportunity to review and map out our three-year business plan. Amidst the uncertainties, we kept our focus on effectiveness over efficiency – this meant that we focused on our people as a priority, maintaining a strong morale and agency culture as evident in our 0% staff turnover rate to date. PHD also launched the DRUM in Malaysia, our insights-led creative services division supporting the clients’ need for agility to influence popular culture through data-driven creative solutions. 

None of us have a crystal ball to predict the future and one lesson 2020 has certainly taught us is the speed at which we can and should pivot in times of crises.

For PHD Malaysia our purpose is to deliver transformational growth for our clients and we will achieve that with world-class strategy delivery, forefront approaches in data-driven marketing, holistic solutions across the entire marketing ecosystem powered by a team of passionate and talented people. 

Janitha Sukumaran, founder, Rantau Golin

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Rantau functions on the philosophy of sticking to what we do best. For the last 28 years, we have always been a PR consultancy first, and with the support of Golin, we are well placed as a progressive PR firm.

This pandemic has shone the spotlight that PR is here to stay and that boutique firms are more flexible in managing changes to situations and client needs, as we can pivot faster due to a flat organisational structure and less processes. We are more resilient in staying in business during tough times with lower overheads, thus ensuring business continuity for clients, who are also realising that boutiques fight harder for them, as each client is key to our sustenance.

Omnichannel marcomm will be our key differentiator moving forward and we are already seeing clients request this, but we are not going to dilute it by doing it all ourselves.

Instead, we will offer bespoke 360 strategies, emphasising The Collective that we have put in place with other local experts in digital and mobile marketing, hybrid events, content creation, advertising, government relations, place-branding, data analysis and PR amongst others.

Yee Hui Tsin, MD, TBWA\Malaysia

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We plan to make a strong comeback by taking the opportunity to improve upon how we operate. This crisis brought us new ways of working and innovating, whilst also bringing to light things we may have taken for granted. Things are changing rapidly with little visibility, so plans are only as good as what we put into action.

Emphasising our culture of proactivity and nimbleness – not just for our clients, but also our own operations – is key in this unpredictable global dynamic.

We had plans already in the pipeline for 2021 – to build demand for Design by Disruption, to grow Bolt’s production business, and to introduce some new strategic product offerings. My main focus is strengthening our agency-client relationships to truly be the partner that grows their business through these tough times. Going above and beyond our own existing roles, both as agency partners and as individuals really keeps us on our toes, challenges our own fears to create the change we need to drive forward into this newfound future.

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