Jonathan Hopfner | September 14th, 2023

Perhaps inevitably, my recent relocation from Hong Kong to London has made me reflect on what’s different about the businesses based in each city – specifically their marketing and communications needs and aspirations – and what in essence remains the same.

It’s always risky to form conclusions based on initial impressions. But I’m emboldened by the facts that I’ve been back and forth between the two metropolises for a year, and that we’ve been working with some clients across both locations for far longer than that.

One of the first things that struck me – beyond the fact that in our age of rising global temperatures, much of London could seriously benefit from some Hong Kong-style air conditioning – is that marketing teams in the two cities, and the broader regions they’re part of, are often dealing with opposite kinds of pain. Two sides of the same coin, if you will.

With Asia-Pacific operations often still (unfairly) viewed as outposts, local marketing teams are often critically under-resourced, and forced to do more with much less. It also tends to be much more difficult for them to act independently, with decisions on the direction of major campaigns coming down from head office and the Asia team limited to localising around the edges. At a tactical level, it can be harder to get the ear of major decision-makers working halfway across the globe.

In the UK and Western Europe, marketing and comms teams may still feel (and be) understaffed. But given the greater density of multinational headquarters, especially in places like London, they’re often significantly larger, with a wider range of specialised skills, such as social media or sustainability communications, represented.

That can be a blessing, but it comes with its own challenges. With so many people in the mix, plans and campaigns take on new levels of complexity, and Herculean effort may be required to keep team members moving in the same direction. The senior leadership may be in closer proximity, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into greater support. In fact, it can encourage interference, adding to an already tangled web, and perhaps even causing some marketing leaders to pine for the distance from the C-suite enjoyed by their APAC colleagues.

It’s a generalisation, of course, but these differences are often reflected in the ways we’re asked to support clients. In Asia, after a few initial consultations we often find ourselves handling projects that have been handed over almost entirely to us to execute by time-poor, shorthanded teams, so they can move on to something else.

In the London office, by contrast, we’re called on more often to address specific gaps in the marketing or campaign process, by plugging into a broader team where internal capabilities may fall short, for instance by identifying underserved but critical themes connected to a well-trodden topic, or by restructuring research for maximum media impact. We’re also asked more often for advice on structuring and managing teams that produce content, since it’s more common for teams to reach the kind of size where that kind of thinking is required – and can make all the difference when it comes to performance.

The more things change …

Needless to say, for all the differences there are also some comforting familiarities. Out of commercial necessity as much as regulatory and societal pressure, sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion have become a laser focus in both regions. When discussing these and other critical issues, here’s also more emphasis than ever on sincerity, and being able to demonstrate hard data and genuine outcomes. There’s a shared fascination with generative AI and its implications, even as more marketers seem to come around to the view so artfully articulated by my fellow N/N partner David Line that it won’t be coming for their jobs anytime soon.

I’m also convinced that in both places there’s a growing confidence in the marketing and communications function more generally, as more people grasp the critical role it plays in articulating organisational identity and purpose – just as awareness is arising among businesses of the extent to which both these things matter.

It will be interesting to watch how needs and priorities change, especially as more wealth and economic growth concentrates in Asia, with resources, and perhaps even headquarters, migrating to match. We’ll be ready to support the organisations we work with in Asia Pacific and Europe regardless of the way things evolve, and are grateful, and more than a little excited, to have a footprint in both places.

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