Lessons from Singapore and Japan can inspire agencies elsewhere to help staff and clients, Marc Wesseling and Jean Francois Thery from UltraSuperNew tell Laura Swinton
“Globally we see how countries have swept it under the rug: ‘oh it’s an Asian virus it’s not going to come here’… and suddenly it’s global.” Jean Francois Thery is Head of Growth APAC for agency UltraSuperNew. Based in Singapore, he’s been living and working through the Covid-19 epidemic since it kicked off in the city state two months ago.
Thanks to Singaporean government’s immediate and unequivocal response, business was able to find a new rhythm and the team had a sense of clarity and purpose. Marc Wesseling is the founder of the agency, which has offices in Singapore, Tokyo and Taiwan, and he's seen the city snap to action. “Singapore learned a lot from SARS. With the first SARS crisis, which the West was pretty much unaffected by, countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, they learned a lot from it. The moment the coronavirus hit, those governments had all the blueprints ready, all the action plans. The other thing about a country like Singapore, there are no half measures,” says Marc alluding to the stringent, tech and data-enabled quarantine measures.
For agencies just starting to navigate life in the age of coronavirus, Marc and Jean Francois have much in the way of insight and advice to share. On one hand, there’s the question of steering a business and supporting a team that’s facing uncertainty and on the other, helping clients by knowing when to proactively find opportunities and when to be sensitive and ease back.
When it comes to leading one’s team, clarity and empathy are key. “What I would suggest is that right now you communicate as well as you can with your team and keep them informed,” says Marc. He says it’s important for leaders to look beyond their own, personal capacity for stress and uncertainty when making decisions. “Some people are really worried and they’re getting into panic mode. They’re worried about their health, their family, their job, their everything. So talk to your people.”
The importance of clarity is something that Marc has witnessed at a macro level. He splits his time between Singapore and Tokyo and what he’s seen is a true tale of two cities. While the Singapore government has been responsive, ruthless and clear, Marc says that the Japanese government has been slow to take action and local media is not covering the global spread of the virus with much urgency. Bars and restaurants and the metro are still busy and Marc suspects that it’s because the government has a vested interest in pushing forward with the Olympics. These differences have, he says, are filtering down and having a clear influence on people’s headspace.
“The amazing thing is that here in Singapore, because the team is so young and everybody has said ‘screw it, we’re going to work super hard and make it happen’. It’s a really good energy and vibe,” he says. “When I listen to the Tokyo team they’re in between scared and indifferent, because it doesn’t affect them so much. Everything is just moving forward and many Japanese don’t really read much foreign media, and in all the media says it’s ok.”
Having an honest look at one’s business and working through several possible scenarios about how the pandemic might impact the market and, therefore, ones clients and one’s own business, is part of that clarity.
For some brands, there’s a clear role to play and space for creativity. UltraSuperNew has UberEats and Red Bull and Lululemon on their client roster, brands where there’s space for proactive, creative ideas about how to be useful to people getting used to social isolation or to help those on the front line.
Working on ideas that allow brands to genuinely help isn’t just good for clients, it’s good for the agency team. “It not only helps our team to feel good that they can at least contribute, it also keeps their head away from the news. You will reach the point in the near future that you are done reading about corona. Yes we know it, but it’s doom and gloom. Let’s work on our mental health and use our creativity to find ways through,” says Marc.
“I think it’s also for brands to do something good, create more brand loyalty and to help their own staff feel great. I think there’s a very, very clear role right now for our industry , for agencies to be more proactive than ever.”
Clients in other sectors are is full on crisis mode - proactive brand ideas are the last things on their mind. Marc recommends taking a clear look at one’s client list and prioritising. Olympics projects, for example, are not necessarily a top priority as the likelihood of the event going forward teeters.
Jean Francois agrees and says it’s important to think carefully about the most useful conversations to have with clients. “As agencies we need to be proactive but we also need to be sensitive to the client,” he says, suggesting that pestering clients over potentially cancelled projects isn’t quite the right tack. “It’s really not the right conversation because it’s simply not relevant for today and not a priority given the crisis. We’re saying: ‘this is what we’re used to doing for the brand - are we going to pivot for them?’ One of our alcohol clients we run a lot of parties for them and promotions at clubs and bars. It’s a little bit insensitive to carry on doing that right now , but business as usual needs to go on. So the challenge to the team was how can we change it up.”
For some brands, though, it’s not about awkwardly forcing oneself into the ‘Covd-19 conversation’. Instead, it’s about considering whether to stick to that famous piece of received wisdom – that brands that spend more on marketing during a downturn emerge stronger than those who cut budgets. Marc has lived in Japan for 18 years and he recalls a former client, Audi, took the decision to advertise more following the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima disaster as media was cheap and, once the dust settled, people would still want to buy new cars.
It's also time to look ahead and think about the pandemic and its sweeping social and behavioural changes it’s forcing through. “At the end of the day, once this is over we have to accept that things are going to change,” says Jean Francois. “Clients are going to come out with a completely new perspective on things, they’re going to change the way they sell, consumers are going to be different . strategies and things have to be put in place right now so when things change we are ahead of the curve. And there’s no better industry to do that than in the creative industries.”
Looking to the future, though, Singapore is not out of the woods. The city has undeniably been effective and efficient at tackling the Covid-19 outbreak. It was the second country to get a surge after China. But the highly connected regional hub is still experiencing new cases, now they are largely imported cases from Singaporeans returning from abroad. Plus, the effects of the global spread of the disease on client strategies are ricocheting back.
“Because the government handled it really well, it didn’t really impact much of the business; it was pretty much business as usual,” says Jean Francois, reflecting on the beginning of the outbreak, when most regional clients took the crisis in their stride. “In fact it’s only recently in the past two weeks that globally it’s become a crisis and we’re starting to see policies and clients reacting to it, which is a little bit ironic. But that goes to show how everything round the word is connected.”
And so, just as agencies that have been living with Covid-19 for two months have much to share with the rest of the world, the pandemic is proving just how interconnected we really are. So it’s time for the creative community around the globe to come together and share.