It’s been a couple of months since VMLY&R’s Kenni Loh expanded his role to head up the offices in Malaysia and Indonesia focusing on CX, brand experience and ecommerce. But actually, Kenni’s first foray into creativity began when at 16 he and his brothers decided to create an indie pop band that to this day is known for being in the top 10 influential albums to come out of Malaysia. This experience set Kenni up for a career in creativity and leadership and he’s never looked back.
Kenni’s role at VMLY&R has expanded to look after the agency and VMLY&R COMMERCE where he will have a staff of 120 under him focussing on finance, tobacco and FMCG clients. Now that Kenni has taken the lead for VMLY&R Indonesia and Malaysia at a time when ecommerce is growing, LBB’s Natasha Patel picks his brains about his early years and how the two markets are faring.
LBB> Firstly, congratulations on the new role! Can we rewind a bit and hear about how you first got into the industry?
Kenni> How I got into industry really is a is quite a coincidence and I'm quite grateful for that. I was really into music when I was a kid because my dad was the MD of Sony Music in Malaysia. So, as you can imagine I got free albums and CDs, and my siblings were all into the music scene. I picked up the bass, and my brother picked up the guitar and at the age of 16 we formed a band. Our first album was a multi-Platinum one and today its still in the 10 most influential albums in Malaysia. In fact, it is the first full English album that ever released in the country.
I thought I was a rock star at the age of 16! I barely attended all my classes but thank God, I passed my exams. I still remember vividly one day my dad sat the boys down and said “guys, I know the scene here and there's no future.” What he was trying to say was go and catch your dreams, go and study. My brother went to Australia and after a year he called back and say he’s getting into medicine to be a doctor. That inspired me.
I was very lucky to have had a mentor who said: “If you really love music, if you really, really love what you do, there's something you might probably like, it's a different form of communication.” He explained to me a bit of the art and the science behind advertising back then. So, I packed bag, said yes to my dad and went to New Zealand. I did a double degree and went to McCann in New Zealand and the rest is history.
LBB> Wow what a story, with that in mind as leader of the two offices did those early years teach you a lot about leadership?
Kenni> I think the experiences come in many shapes and forms even in the band. During that time, I was leading the whole thing and making sure everybody was using the right tools, the right pace, the right rhythm, and putting their best effort forward. So even during the band days, I really had that inspiration to make things happen and to lead.
LBB> What was it about the role of becoming CEO of both country's offices that appealed to you?
Kenni> I've been running the Malaysia office as the CEO for many years, and I think putting Indonesia and Malaysia together is a very different strategy. Compared to other players in the industry, I think this is going to be a very interesting one. For me it’s just pure enjoyment and pure inspiration and from what I, from what I understand, and from what I believe this is going to be a new playground putting Malaysia and Indonesia as a cluster. It's going to be a very nice playground to play in, I'm going to have to creative commerce, the reflection of halal products, and the whole receptiveness of this particular segment..
LBB> What do you think makes a good leader and what are you bringing to the role?
Kenni> I think to be a good leader empowerment is very, very important; I think empowerment is the art of delegation. And for me, the secret weapon for that is trust. When you empower someone, you trust someone to deliver the work and trust is also giving someone the independence and the power to explore their own way. That is even more important during the current situation where today everybody's working remotely, to deliver amazing work, come together, integrate and collaborate, for me trust is very important.
To be really honest while I think trust is very important to my team, and all of that, I'm still a big fan of that human touch. I'm still a big believer that we have to check in and we have to see each other and, and magic happens, I think working remotely, is effective, to some extent, but I think a combination of both will become even more powerful.
LBB> You mentioned the human touch and you're heading up ecommerce and user experience so from your perspective where is that side of the industry headed?
Kenni> When you talk about commerce, the word commerce is often associated with a lot of consulting; commerce is very sales driven, very technical but I think right now we are living in a commerce society. At any point of time - from the time that you wake up from, from the time that you go to bed, and even when you use the toilet - that is a moment of sales, that's the moment of commerce, both offline and online. Commerce just happens, you buy things without even knowing.
The rise of the ecommerce, the introduction of 5G, and how some of the East or Southeast Asia countries are going to leapfrog this is I think where creative commerce is going to be the centre of everything. What we believe is that we have the connected brand piece where you have brand experience and customer experience. But right in the middle it is about connecting commerce offline and online. The moment that matters that is so important to define where the commerce will be.
LBB> What would you say defines both markets’ creative sectors, in terms of culture? Earlier you talked about ‘halal products’, for example?
Kenni> I think that's a fantastic question, because not a lot of people notice that in Malaysia, we have about three million Indonesians. Our national religion is Islam, so the Muslim culture is a national religion, I think in Malaysia and Indonesia, the way we look at Muslim culture is a melting pot. I think if you really understand Islam or you understand Muslims, the whole notion of halal products is not just for Muslims.
Halal products are a mindset and a science; let's say you talk about Islamic banking, the relationship manager will ask do you want to invest in Islamic banking investment, I invest in Islamic banking because they take your money and they invest your money in a non-sinful category. They would not invest your money in things like like casinos, lotteries. I think is a very interesting, because if you look at the whole notion of halal not just of a product, you're talking about fashion, food, restaurant, tourism, airlines, holidays, you know, the whole spectrum of things is actually I think there will be a growing trend.
LBB> Commerce has boomed greatly in the past year thanks to Covid, what are your thoughts on how different markets have adapted themselves?
Kenni> China is going to be a very interesting one. You look at the success of Alibaba and how Taobao is going to be so huge in this part of the world - in South Asia and Southeast Asia, there is a big Chinese influence. For them to connect with us there are certain Chinese-isms at play, because of language and in terms of culture. This creative commerce becomes so interesting.
LBB> Finally, what do you hope to achieve in your new role?
Kenni> To be honest, I have no plans. My dream is at least for the short term to produce amazing creative commerce work that is iconic and effective. And it's going to come up from this cluster in Malaysia and Indonesia that is not just effective, but they also deserve recognition is short there is at least a short term dream for now.