Jonathan Hopfner | February 22nd, 2023

My colleague Joseph having (rather unhelpfully) set a high bar with the first in a series of articles to mark N/N’s tenth birthday, it falls to me next to attempt to distil a decade’s worth of lessons, running the gamut from life-affirming to just plain painful, into a few pithy takeaways.

Considering who we are and what we do, you’d think we’d be used to tasks like this by now. But that’s the thing. I’m betting I speak for a lot of entrepreneurs, artists, parents and others when I say that if you’ve been involved in creating something out of nothing, as humble or as flawed as it might be, you never really ‘get used’ to it. Its very existence seems like an unfolding miracle, deserving of gratitude even on the toughest of days. I know that most of the time, that’s what I feel – to the friends, colleagues, clients and conditions that all conspired to make the last 10 years happen.

I think this sense of wonder persists in part because young enterprises, much like young children, retain a constant capacity to surprise. Regardless of who’s done it before, every new venture is different and has to find its own path to some extent. And even the most intricately laid plans might have to be jettisoned midway when something like … oh, let’s say, a full-blown, once-in-a-century pandemic kicks off. Needless to say, this can get messy. But it also keeps things interesting. In that spirit here are couple of the biggest surprises N/N’s first decade has produced for me personally:

The extent to which ambitions, and expectations, have grown with us. In all honesty we started off with very little but a nagging sense that a lot of what could be considered ‘traditional’ marketing and public relations was no longer particularly effective, and that many companies were looking for more transparent, informative and, above all, credible ways to communicate with their various audiences.

Fast-forward to now. Perhaps, sadly in part because of the massive proliferation of misinformation, or the urgency demanded by hot-button issues like economic decoupling or climate change, the desire for genuine insight and reasoned guidance has arguably never been stronger, while people are quicker than ever to dismiss bold claims or blatant sales pitches as dubious or a waste of time.

It's been remarkable to witness how the companies we work with are rising to meet these demands, often out of genuine commitment and resolve as well as commercial motivations. While we’ve worked on our fair share of campaigns that have played it safe, we’ve also been called on to produce research aimed at prompting a complete reimagining of how cities are built; to construct data sets that pinpoint future climate change and political risk flashpoints; and to develop and promote more accessible approaches to multimedia design, just to name a few.

Projects like these put the organisations we work with at the forefront of conversations on essential topics, and drive interest and engagement in a way a product brochure never could. They’re genuinely intellectually challenging, and inspiring to be a part of – and for that, we can’t thank our clients enough.

The many dimensions of diversity. As a company shaped by a multinational team in (what was then) one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan and connected cities, we’ve benefited from diversity from the outset. The last 10 years have only reinforced how utterly essential it is to cultivate a team with a broad range of backgrounds, particularly when you’re working across markets, or seeking to understand and speak to the interests of different groups of people. But what’s really been rammed home to me is the importance of seeking out diversity not only in terms of gender, ethnicity or orientation, but also professional experience, interests and mindsets.

A confession: in our early years, as we were mostly former financial journalists with a heavy financial services client base, I was dead certain former financial journalists were the only kind of people we should ever employ. Perhaps a marketer with journalistic tendencies in a pinch. As it turned out, nothing could have been farther from the truth. We certainly have a number of journalists on the team, but some of our greatest wins wouldn’t have been possible without the combined effort and knowledge of people who came from sales or data analysis, banking and events management.

I’ve learned it’s not only important to be open to hiring people with different backgrounds and professional histories, but to give them the chance to pursue interests that have little (at least on the surface) to do with their previous work, or even their current role. Your greatest digital talent might emerge from the business development team, or someone hired to run finance could just turn out to be a podcasting prodigy.

Each day, I’m taken aback by the breadth of skills, personalities and passions in the team we’ve managed to assemble, and the ease and effectiveness with which we manage to come together to get things done. I’ve learned to appreciate, even celebrate, the closet poker players, MMA enthusiasts and, yes, ukulele players in our ranks … even if I retain a soft spot for ex-journalists like yours truly.

The fact that if I could do it all again, I wouldn’t change … much. Convincing myself journalists inevitably made for the best hires was only one of many misconceptions and missteps I’ve been forced to correct over the past 10 years - and by no means the most embarrassing. Similarly, for the company as a whole there’s been a few times that we started down a road in absolute confidence only to have to beat a rapid retreat later, or poured resources into a supposedly transformative initiative that went … absolutely nowhere.

But for all the distress these experiences caused, they were often more educational than our supposed successes, and have proved conclusively - to me, at least - that with the instincts, people and partnerships we’re fortunate enough to have on our side, we can pull through just about anything. Exposure to hard knocks and cold realities are the only way to develop that kind of confidence. Which is why even after the events of the last few years, I say in all honesty that I think we’re ready for whatever the next decade will throw at us.

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