Insights

The value of an ASEAN region PR and digital agency: An interview with Vero CEO Brian Griffin

What do you like most about your job?

Every day I am happy to come to work.

Being around creative people, every day is a big factor, and I enjoy seeing them succeed in doing great work for our clients.

Getting to work in Southeast Asia, which I think is the most exciting economic zone in the world, is enjoyable.

Working with great brands and smart, capable clients is important.

And being entrepreneurial and testing out new ideas is always something I like.

But I think the thing that I like most is the same thing that I most enjoyed when I entered the business: seeing one of our campaigns create positive results for our clients. There is a very real level of satisfaction for creative people in seeing their plans and ideas work out well, and that feeling hasn’t lost any of its power for me.

What do you see as the role of the communications industry in the current era?

We work to add value for our clients in a variety of ways, but there are a few basic elements of our role that are most prominent.

First, we build trust between the brands we serve and their audiences. Today, respected brands are trusted entities in a world where trust is in short supply, and it’s crucial that they build upon and protect that trust by doing and saying the right things even when that may seem inconvenient in the short-term.

We also help companies navigate new-era marketing services. As the marketing services industry moves from analog to digital, disruption is in full force. It’s important for us to be ready to embrace new ways of helping brands reach people in the way they want to be reached. For example, it’s become very clear that the traditional advertising approach has lost effectiveness since the days when you could reach a mass audience via TV commercials and newspaper ads. People now have a greater appetite for content, particularly high-quality storytelling and experiences delivered in a modern manner.

It’s also becoming more common for the PR and communications industry to help promote pro-social ideas and campaigns that make the world more equitable and sustainable. For example, we are talking with brands and companies about Shared Value Creation, which is basically the idea that, for companies and brands to prosper, the communities in which they operate must also prosper. This goes beyond the CSR campaigns that are often linked to the communications industry, because Shared Value Creation involves building considerations for society into business plans by creating overlap between profitable activity and societal benefit.

Why did you choose Southeast Asia as the home for Vero?

Early on, I was fortunate to gain some exposure at a great agency called Aegis in Vietnam, which was really the inspiration for Vero.

And I’m so glad to remain in the region, because Southeast Asia is such a great part of the world.

One thing I really like about Southeast Asia is how fast it changes. Compared to many other places, traditional models and conventional wisdom hold less sway here. Obviously there are differences from country to country, but one common thread is that people in the ASEAN region are not afraid of reinvention and change. The general outlook of the region is positive, modern, and forward-looking, which makes it an exciting place to work and create campaigns.

That’s not to mention that the people are friendly and warm, and the opportunity to easily fly from one fascinating culture to another in as little as an hour is amazing.

How has the marketing landscape changed since Vero began, and how have you adapted to it?

The rise of Facebook, and social media in general, was a game-changer for our industry.

Prior to Facebook, the PR industry often played second fiddle to advertising agencies regarding large consumer-focused campaigns. But the tools provided by social media platforms gave the PR industry an opportunity to reach people in new ways, and this opened consumer briefs to PR agencies willing and ready to embrace social media.

At the same time, mainstream media has suffered steady losses while influencer marketing has achieved steady gains. Given the current issues surrounding Facebook, we expect more change to come.

What do you believe makes Vero stand out as PR and digital agency?

By and large, the marketing business is all about people and teams. Knowing that it takes a good team to win, we focus on bringing together smart, hardworking people who are very good at understanding the needs of our clients and our colleagues, and who complement each other and work well together. Ultimately, this is why clients hire us – it’s all about our people.

Another key factor is our geographic footprint, and the fact that we have teams spread across the region that are adept at working regionally. This allows us to offer clients a one-stop service for region-wide campaigns, which other independent agencies usually can’t do.

The third key factor is our willingness to innovate, change, and be willing to risk failure in the attempt to do something different and worthwhile. Because we’ve brought together these teams of talented people who have each other’s backs, we succeed more often than not. What ties all of this together is our independence – each office is self-sufficient and we’re beholden to no global mandate – and our ability to make long-term plans.

What traits do you look for in a Vero employee?

Fundamentally, we are seeking smart, hardworking, understanding, and internationally-minded people. Moreover, our business requires people who can serve our clients with a combination of speed, quality, responsiveness, and flexibility. If we can bring people to our team who meet this criteria, we will do well and have fun.

What sort of clients does Vero aim to work with?

We want to work with great brands with interesting businesses. They could be from anywhere in the world and in any industry. Most of our clients are global in nature, but we also have some regional and local clients with large, interesting businesses. The general mix of clients we have come from Southeast Asia, the US, China, and Europe. And while these days many are in the tech sector, we also serve many other industries.

What advice would you give to those just entering the marketing services industry?

First, believe that you have something to offer and try to figure out what that is.

At Vero, we care more about ability than experience. Young people with an educational and professional focus and passion for communications can make an immediate and strong impact in the PR and digital marketing business, and every day I learn something new from people who have much less experience than I do.

The best professionals keep learning and evolving by working with great people and smart clients, reading quality books, and consuming content by experts in the marketing business. While an MBA is useful for both some learning and building confidence, it is by no means required for success in our industry. Most of us are generalists, and agencies benefit from a variety of skillsets. We should strive to expand those skills and build our knowledge as we work.

It’s also valuable to gain regional exposure. One thing we’ve purposefully done at Vero is to decentralize the way marketing was traditionally organized in Southeast Asia. For a long time, Singapore was considered the hub for regional campaigns, but we believe that isn’t always the most effective model. Instead, we believe that talented marketing and PR people in any country can plan, create, and manage regional campaigns while relying on the expertise of locals. As a result of our regional presence, we are able to give talented team members the opportunity to create campaigns across the region that are nonetheless tailored to each market.

It is also important to appreciate and take advantage of the agency community. Of our nearly 100 team members in Southeast Asia, about 90 percent make creative contributions to our client campaigns. That means that people who work at Vero are surrounded by other communicators, marketers, and creative professionals – people with different backgrounds and skillsets but similar goals, mindsets, and challenges. No career journey happens in isolation without the help of others, and PR agency teams can be an incredible source of essential support. Working in a PR agency made up of like-minded people is vastly different from a traditional company where the marketing and creative people are often on an island to themselves and too easily under-valued

How has Vero navigated the Covid-19 crisis, and has it led to any long-term changes for the agency?
Overall, we have navigated well because we are a resilient group and the services we offer are largely digital, so they remain very relevant to clients. It hasn’t been an easy time for the vast majority of companies, but when we consider how Covid-19 has impacted the rest of the world, most of us can consider ourselves fortunate to be where we are.

In terms of long-term changes in how we work, I am unsure if there will be many truly significant ones. We already had flexible workplace policies in place, though the lockdown period made us realize how viable working from home can be. Much of our work is already focused on digital marketing, which means we’re in the position that many others are now transitioning to.
We’re focusing on staying strong by building our business, growing our teams, and ensuring we have the best possible offer for our clients.

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