Tim Willliamson, MD of Cognito‘s APAC region, on the challenges of communicating in different countries, how his journalistic ‘nosiness’ led to a career in PR and why localisation can make or break client relationships.
What is your remit at Cognito?
I am MD of Cognito’s APAC region (Asia-Pacific) based in Singapore. We cover Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and advise financial services clients on communications across APAC including China, South-East Asia, South Korea, Japan and India.
I took over the business a couple of years ago. We’ve grown quickly from two to six in that time and have recently established a Hong Kong presence. It’s important to be in Hong Kong to work with financial services companies and financial media there. Our value proposition is that we understand our clients’ businesses and the local markets and we help companies who are trying to reach a B2B or financial services audience in the mainstream Asian markets or specific markets – such as Australia.
How did you make the jump into PR?
I was a journalist for ten years. I started out in local TV in the UK, worked for local radio, came to Bloomberg, got into financial markets and then moved to the BBC Business Unit. I got to a point in my career where I’d worked for the Today programme and 5 Live and felt I’d reached an inflection point. My one frustration as a broadcast journalist was that you tend to touch a company one day and then you might not go back to them for six months. You can’t get under the skin of what is going on. I fell into communications with Brunswick in London and was taken with the idea of getting to grips with businesses’ problems. I think it was journalistic nosiness more than anything else!
And how did you move into Asia?
I was always keen to work in other markets. I backpacked around Asia when I was at Bloomberg shortly after the last financial crisis in Asia. The potential change, growth and fundamentals are tremendously exciting. Singapore is a perfect geographic and trading hub and I think it is in the centre of some really interesting things going on in Asia at the moment; whether that is in fintech, asset management or simply the ongoing evolution of the financial services sector to support Asian growth.
What are the greatest challenges for a comms business looking to enter the Asia-Pacific region?
You need to be very specific about what it is you are offering. It is competitive and there are a lot of agencies that have come into the region over the years. Where do you add value? Specialisation resonates with our clients. There’s fatigue with generalist agencies around in Asia as I think there is in other markets.
Secondly, there’s a general assumption from Western markets that things are going to be fairly similar and that the principles of communications and marketing are going to be the same as the US or the UK. That’s simply not the case. You need to think locally. Sometimes that means local language and having relevant content for local audiences (does your company have a name in simplified Chinese for example?). Other times media might not be the best way to get the business outcome you are after at all. Our role is to help understand what our clients are trying to achieve from a business perspective and recommend strategies that will support those objectives. Localisation is certainly an overlooked area.
How does the comms culture differ from market to market?
It varies massively but some principles do hold true – mainly making sure that your story is locally relevant. In that regard it’s no different to pitching a local story to the Yorkshire Post versus for the Coventry Evening Telegraph. It needs local impact. Beyond that each market is has its own characteristics. Australia has a vibrant national, metropolitan media (their city newspapers) and trade media very similar to the UK press with reporters who will engage with companies on their beat. International newspapers and broadcasters have very low penetration in Australia so you need to be there to get coverage. The Singapore media is different. More concentrated, albeit with English and local language publications,more hierarchical and editor-led and therefore the pitch has to be very strong and locally relevant before a journalist is assigned to cover your story.
Another really interesting thing is owned content and how people are engaging with audiences. That is quite pronounced in Asia – certainly more pronounced than markets that have stronger, more established and larger trade media. I am writing more now than I ever was as a journalist, and we’re producing great graphic, video content. We’re also helping our clients with events and activities to support their brands and help them achieve their communications objectives.
What is the proudest moment of your comms career?
I don’t think I can name one. I’ve worked on big M&A deals, big corporate mandates, issues and crisis communications and straight PR. Sometimes getting a placed article in a trade publication for a small company gives you as much of a buzz as getting wall-to-wall coverage for a big company.
If you could change something about the PR industry, what would that be?
There are lots of generalists out there and it’s frustrating when they claim to be experts at everything, They give the industry a bad name. Communications is moving away from this and towards greater professionalism and sector expertise. Cognito is a prime example of a firm that sticks to its knitting and really focuses on adding value in an area that we’re passionate about.
What’s your favourite thing about Asia?
Singapore is a fantastic place to live. The food is amazing. On your doorstep you can be in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Thailand, India and Australia. The new world and the exciting, growing economies are all on your doorstep.
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