In a freewheeling conversation with Global Commercial Director Katrina Oropel, founding partners Joseph Chaney and Jonathan Hopfner delve into the challenges and opportunities created by N/N's recent expansion to London. Along the way, they explain why they’re not scared of AI, and take a walk down memory lane to the early days of N/N and the lessons (or should we say scars?) from that time, many of which should still ring true for any enterprise aiming to serve clients at a global level in an uncertain environment.


Katrina Oropel (0:05 - 1:15)

Hello from London and welcome to the first episode of coN/Nect, the New Narrative podcast. This episode explores the reasons behind New Narrative's expansion to London and the plans for its Europe and Middle East business going forward. I'm your host, Katrina Oropel, Global Commercial Director and Head of the UK Office.

Expanding overseas and breaking into new markets can be extremely rewarding, but it's also a huge challenge that requires us to navigate a whole new way of doing business, from understanding cultural nuances, building new professional networks, rethinking our value proposition, to positioning ourselves in a way that resonates with our new audiences. Today, I'm joined by New Narrative's founding partners, Joseph Cheney in Hong Kong and Jonathan Hopfner in London, who will talk about what it's like to take a business global as New Narrative expands its presence from Asia to Europe and the Middle East. Welcome, Joe and Jon.

Before we kick things off, let's just take a step back and talk about where we've come from. So, New Narrative turned 10 last year. Can you guys, as founding partners, talk a little bit about our company's journey so far?

Joseph Chaney (1:15 - 2:34)

Sure. Well, let's see. So, 10 years ago, or now 11 years ago, I was working at Thomson Reuters in Hong Kong and I had been made redundant and I had known Jon for a number of years because Jon was also at Reuters at the time.

I had an option to go find another job within the global media or to do something that I could call my own. I always wanted to have a business. I just had no understanding of how to do it, but then push came to shove and I had an opportunity.

And Jon and I went out for, I think, Korean barbecue. Jon, is that right? In Hong Kong.

And we discussed the idea and amazingly, Jon said he was interested. Maybe he regrets that, but here we are. So, we started in February, late February, early March of 2013.

And for the first 18 months, I was only full-time sort of employee of New Narrative. Jon was still working at Reuters. We had to make enough money to hire him full-time.

Amazingly, Jon jumped off that cliff and joined full-time in August of 2014. And then a year later, David Line, another partner, joined and we've been going ever since.

Jonathan Hopfner (2:34 - 3:29)

Yeah. I mean, I would say despite all the grim imagery, like jumping off cliffs and so on, it was an exciting opportunity from the beginning. I also felt the pull of wanting to do something independent and self-sustaining.

So, obviously, when Joe and I talked about it, I saw an opportunity to do that. And so, we both, I think, rightly identified a gap that needed to be filled in the market and were able to sort of take advantage of that in terms of timing, the capabilities that we brought to the table, and thankfully, to start speaking to some very high-caliber clients right from the beginning, just because of the personal networks we had and the support we enjoyed from various people we know. So, yeah, despite all the challenges, we feel very fortunate, I think, and grateful to be here now.

Katrina Oropel (3:29 - 3:49)

Yeah. Just listening to you guys chat reminds me of when I joined, which is now coming up to seven years ago. Fast forward, New Narrative's latest move.

So, we've just opened an office in London last year. So, big move. What drove this decision, and what do you guys expect from it?

Jonathan Hopfner (3:50 - 5:00)

Yeah. Just to maybe kick off, I would say it was a decision we were almost led to, in a sense, by our clients and the demands from them, just because from the very beginning, we've had a very multinational client base. Obviously, a lot of those clients are headquartered here.

And I think the work that we did in Asia sort of stood us in good stead, helped us build a reputation, a relationship with these companies. And so, it was natural that they would want to introduce us to their headquarters, their European teams, and in some cases, contacts that we had with certain clients actually made the move over and introduced us to their teams with the move. So, it wasn't a shot in the dark, by any means.

I think we realized we had a good foundation in place that we needed to build on. And also, just being global in nature, seeing the connections that are emerging between different regions and how important it is for the companies we work with to have a global strategy, that it would be also to Asia's benefit if we could support them in multiple locations.

Joseph Chaney (5:01 - 5:24)

Just to add to that, I think strategically, COVID had a lot to do with it in terms of the timing, because Hong Kong was closed for three years, right? And we knew we had to grow. And we also knew that the best way to do that was to serve clients in multiple jurisdictions.

So, I think we ultimately would have done it anyways. I just think that COVID accelerated it.

Katrina Oropel (5:24 - 6:18)

I'm glad you touched on that, on the COVID point, I guess, in particular, just what some of the macro forces were that drove us to this decision. Because we often get asked or often met with a bit of surprise that we're coming from Asia and expanding to the West, if you will, rather than the other way around, which is typically what some multinational companies headquartered in New York or London would do is expand in a different direction. So, we've kind of gone about it in a reverse way, but in a way that's made a lot of sense for our business and how we want to grow, even with everything going on in the world around us.

So, thanks for mentioning that. So, just to go back to that question. So, what are you expecting from this?

Where do you see the London office? What's your vision for us setting up shop in this part of the world and expanding?

Jonathan Hopfner (6:18 - 8:25)

I think maybe just to start off, like just to go back to that point that you made, which is a very good one, that this is sort of an atypical journey in terms of how it's happened. And actually, we are a pretty atypical company in a lot of ways. But I think the strategy from our point of view is quite clear in that these sort of intersections and connections that are happening globally as the traffic moves the other way.

Like you said, there's multinationals in London and in New York that are exploring markets in Asia and the Middle East to look for new growth opportunities. We're absolutely perfectly positioned to help them with that, right? Just because we bring an international mindset, but also the kind of on the ground experience we have from working in places like Hong Kong and Singapore.

We're very much leveraging our Asia experience and our Asia knowledge to plug into a need that has emerged in these Western markets at precisely the right time, even though in a lot of respects, maybe conditions aren't ideal. And I think it's really providing that global connectivity and also that a lot of companies claim to have an international perspective. But I think in terms of their history and how they developed, it doesn't really reflect that.

The perspective isn't international. It's a UK or a US perspective that's sort of transplanted on another market, right? Whereas I think when we say we have an international perspective, we genuinely do just because of how we've grown and developed and evolved as, like I was saying, kind of an atypical business.

And we're confident that that will serve us well in London and certainly in some conversations. Katrina, you can probably vouch for this that we're having. It does seem to resonate with the clients and companies that we're talking to, just because there's no shortage of agencies of all descriptions in London and all kinds of incredible talent.

This does make us a little bit different.

Katrina Oropel (8:26 - 9:07)

Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. I think because of the atypical journey we've had, we are uniquely positioned to add a different kind of value and market understanding and a value add to the conversation that we're having with clients. So just to segue into what's currently happening in our client world.

And we all know during tough times, marketing budgets are often the first to be trimmed. So that impacts us. And obviously, these are tough times by any measure.

So not exactly the ideal environment for businesses to expand, some would argue. So what's your take on that?

Jonathan Hopfner (9:07 - 11:07)

I mean, all these things are true. And I think we have to stare them in the face and acknowledge them. I mean, there's all this incredible body of research that says marketing should be the last thing you cut when you're in a recessionary environment, because it's the companies that continue to invest in it that tend to make it through recessions and then bounce back stronger.

I think a lot of clients know this at an abstract level, but they have a pretty hard time convincing their accounting departments or their CFOs that this is the reason the investments need to be preserved. But one thing I would say, and this again goes back to some of the conversations we're having in London, and I imagine the conversations would be similar in Asia with some of our clients. When times are bad, risks are heightened.

There's a lot more uncertainty, a lot more concern. Also among our clients, clients, right? Their clients are coming to them and are saying, how do I navigate this environment?

What are you going to do with my investments, given the way markets are changing? What's the future of this infrastructure project that we planned five years ago when things were a lot better? What technologies do I need to deal with a changing security picture?

Their clients require reassurance. That means that they need to talk to them in a convincing and authoritative and informed manner. In some way, that drives a need for our services, right?

I think actually, it can be harder to get business. Budgets can be smaller, but our clients need to talk to their clients more than ever and in a more convincing and informed way than ever. That actually is not a negative force for New Narrative as I see it, even though we have to struggle just like everybody else.

I would not say I'm an optimist, but I'm certainly not entirely a pessimist either, is how I would sum up, I guess.

Joseph Chaney (11:08 - 11:35)

That's a good point. Both in good times and bad, companies need to manage their messaging and they need to articulate their vision for how to navigate that particular situation. I find the challenging times more interesting in many ways, because when there's more at stake, it feels more invigorating in some way because everything matters a little more.

It's easy to get really comfortable and complacent when things are easy.

Katrina Oropel (11:36 - 12:44)

I guess it's been interesting to observe in the last sort of half year or so now that we can see across what client needs are in Asia versus what they might be in even the Middle East as another kind of emerging market, if you will. From my perch as the Global Commercial Director, I can see across various regions and companies just sort of what's going to work or what's going to resonate in each market and how that might differ in various markets. This has been a great conversation about where we've come from, where we're headed, what we've learned in the last several months of being here on the ground in London attempting to tackle and serve a new market.

Before we wrap up, I want to talk about the thing that everybody in the content and communications business wants to talk about. Actually, everybody in the world wants to talk about and is talking about - AI. How are we leveraging generative AI in our latest offering while keeping human ingenuity and intellectual rigor at the heart of what we do?

Joseph Chaney (12:45 - 14:42)

Yeah, I think it's absolutely, again, just like opening the London office, it was sort of a must-do, right? Because whether we like it or not, I mean, personally, I'm an old analog guy. I buy vinyl records.

I read paper books. I mean, it was up to me. Digital wouldn't have anything to do with anything related to media consumption.

But unfortunately, the world is driven by digital media consumption. And yeah, it's absolutely a requirement to embed some of these AI tools into our service offering and processes, right? Otherwise, we'll be left behind.

And in fact, it's a huge efficiency driver to be able to scan tens of thousands of media sources and to be able to summarize sort of how certain organizations are speaking about certain topics. The AI tool, which is doing that sort of analysis for you and then or spitting out the data for you and then you fall back on your human brain to analyze the data points to come up with a summary of what they mean. And then at the same time, we are still committed to providing editorial sort of human-based intellect to analyze what the data means, because the data by itself is meaningless, right?

It has to be sort of analyzed and summarized into an actionable form. And it's the human brain that is best at doing that, because sometimes there's conflicting data points and you have to find out, think why, why are these data points conflicting, right? And sort of work backwards to solve that riddle.

And that's never going to go away. So I think it's a huge part of our future. It's a huge part of what we do now moving forward.

And it will always be in combination with sort of old-fashioned human skills as well.

Jonathan Hopfner (14:43 - 17:43)

I'd absolutely agree with all that. I think to steal a term that's often used by one of our favorite technology clients, the idea with AI should be augmentation, right? Rather than a takeover.

So with iN/Ntelligence, which to me is a hugely exciting development in terms of what it can bring to our campaign planning and advisory processes. It's all about augmenting the capabilities of our people in terms of speed and volume. Those are the main sort of increases in capacity it drives, right?

It just permits things at a scale that would be incredibly laborious for a human being to undertake. And then as you, Katrina and Joe rightly said, I think we combine that with sort of the best practices and the judgment and all the skills and intellectual commitment that we have as an organization and a team to really produce meaningful insights for our clients, which is what's important, right? Its not the data. It's the insights that come from that data.

I think too, just to maybe directly address the question that kind of lurks in the background in these kinds of conversations. And I've got this question at networking events and dinner parties and you name it, right? Which is are you worried about AI putting you out of business and the content creation side of things as the capabilities of these machines gets more sophisticated.

And I would just say in the realm that we operate, and if you think about what our clients are asking us to do, we're engaged to speak about or help them speak or help them articulate their positions on absolutely critical issues, right? Advising people on investment decisions, talking about how they approach sustainability or social impact, trying to create buy-in among teams or future talent they want to hire, all things that have sort of incredible connotations for a company's reputation in the market and the brand image of a company. And I think 99% of the things that we do, our clients would see as far too sensitive and high risk to sort of turn over to a machine that as Joe said, might mess it up, right?

So it's not that we're complacent. We absolutely believe in the potential that AI offers and the need to sort of make it part of your strategy. But I think we never want to make it core to our enterprise because that's not what we're about.

We're all about the human touch and human imagination or at least approach. So yeah, to sum up, it doesn't scare me.

Joseph Chaney (17:44 - 18:33)

If I can just add one thing, I was just thinking when Jon was speaking, is that if every organization in the world is using the same AI tool to drive its marketing initiatives, then it's going to be a mass equalizer in the scale where differences are all cannibalized. And so you still need differentiation. You still need that unique advisor who has a perspective that nobody else has.

That's your secret weapon that nobody else is using to help you distinguish yourself from the pack. So distinctiveness and uniqueness, these things are never going to be without value. In fact, they'll even be of more value now that there's tools that organizations can adopt, like these AI tools, because those are sort of grand equalizers in some way.

Katrina Oropel (18:34 - 19:37)

I think it's impossible to escape the conversation about AI, but it's also equally a missed opportunity for us to not leverage AI, which I think is what we have done internally to rapidly scale up some of the things that we were already working on manually, purely with editorial judgment and analysis. So we've developed a platform powered by AI and refined by editorial judgment that assesses news and media sources around the world to track the key narratives that are influencing how companies need to communicate to their clients. So this has been a great conversation.

It kind of reminds me of sitting back in Hong Kong, just shooting the breeze after work and chatting about where things are going to go and how we see the company and what the vision is for the future. So I'm going to wrap up on that note and ask you both, where do you see the company 10 years from now?

Joseph Chaney (19:39 - 21:13)

It's a great question. And every time I've been asked this question, I always feel like the answer is never satisfying. I will say with this kind of business, the best thing you can do is to serve clients in multiple jurisdictions simultaneously.

So if you do business with Bank X in Hong Kong, you want to also serve them in the UK and you want to serve them in the Middle East out of Dubai, and you want to serve them in North America out of New York, right? That's the way that you build a global business like this is you serve a portfolio of strong clients across multiple jurisdictions. So they see you as a global partner and you become a global partner, not a regional one.

So in 10 years, to me, it would be incredible if we had, we already have an office in London, obviously, Hong Kong, Singapore, perhaps an office in Dubai, and if we could reactivate our presence in North America, we had all those offices fully staffed and up and running, serving the same client base around the world, that would be incredible. The other thing would be to have more of our own branded services. We've done that with iN/Ntelligence.

We're starting to do more of that. So to have the consulting business, which is white labeled, and then simultaneously to build our own branded services with the New Narrative logo stamped on them.

Jonathan Hopfner (21:13 - 22:40)

Yeah, I agree with all that. I'm not sure I have too much to add. Just in terms of having that network of offices and the ability to serve clients globally, I think it'd be good to see a lot more integration in terms of how we're working with clients.

I'm a big believer in ultimately, we'll get the best results for our clients if we have the capacity and the capabilities to kind of look across their entire business and identify opportunities for them at a global level rather than just piecemeal in one market or another. Also, yeah, very much agree with the need to sort of develop and write, which I think we're already on the way to doing, and I think our clients already recognize that. But I think we do with the capabilities that are brought by tools like iN/Ntelligence, we'll be in a position where we have a lot more to share with the market.

We are honest actors, we're transparent in terms of how we talk about trends and communicate with them with our clients. So I think we have a real opportunity to be an authority on some of the topics that matter when it comes to marketing, comms, how things are playing out in the media and so on. So hopefully we'll see a lot more of that in the years ahead.

Katrina Oropel (22:41 - 23:01)

Well, this has been a pleasure, guys. Great to reconnect with you both. Well, Jon, I see you all the time, but Joe, great to have a great conversation with you all the way across the world.

We're excited to have you visit the London office when you can, so we can all continue to chat about this in person.

Joseph Chaney (23:01 - 23:03)

Great. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Katrina Oropel (23:04 - 23:35)

Thank you, Joe and Jon, and thanks everyone for listening to coN/Nect. Once again, I'm Katrina Oropel, New Narrative's global commercial director and head of the UK office, and the host of this podcast. New Narrative is a content-led marketing and communications consultancy.

We provide strategic advisory and editorial production solutions to our financial services, commercial real estate, and enterprise technology clients around the world. You can learn more about us and read our latest insights on our website, Do subscribe to our podcast on your favorite podcast channel and follow New Narrative on X, formerly Twitter, and LinkedIn.

See you next time.

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