Behind H+K merger in Malaysia and hiring the right leads to grow ASEAN ops

Hill+Knowlton Strategies (H+K) Malaysia yesterday announced its merger with LUMOS PR to form Hill+Knowlton LUMOS. Speaking to A+M shortly after the announcement, HS Chung (pictured), cluster lead for H+K’s Asia operations, said the move came at a “very important time” in Malaysia as there has been a rise in the number of multinational companies such as Tencent and Huawei establishing their Asia Pacific or ASEAN hub in the country.

As such, the company felt that it had to grow its Malaysia operations “two-fold” first by scaling up in terms of manpower and boosting the agency’s capabilities in the market.

“We really need to be able to operate in an environment where many MNCs are now wanting more strategic guidance and requiring a bigger scale of staff members dedicated to them,” she said.  “It just made sense for the two operations to come together under one roof and provide a more integrated offer to the MNCs in Malaysia.”

According to Chung, the landscape in Malaysia is quickly changing where PR agencies are required to create more hub-like operations with a strong offering in the strategy component, and with the ability to come up with campaigns for the Asian region. Agencies are now also expected to be able to coordinate across multiple countries. Such agency skillsets, she added, “are very rare to have” and with the Malaysia office witnessing rapid changes first hand over the past year, H+K wanted to solidify its capabilities to provide are more integrated communications offering.

Currently, the new entity being led by Justin Then, LUMOS PR founder and former MD of H+K Malaysia. Commenting on his appointment, she said Then has the ability to “naturally attract” a lot more talent across all levels. She added that Then, who has approximately 14 years of experience in PR, is a “solid” media consultant in the areas of corporate communications and crisis communications. His experience in tech and background in journalism also adds on to the strong foundation he has built over the years, and his capability to lead the now 35-man team.

Meanwhile, H+K is also eager to expose its employees in the ASEAN market to more leadership roles within the network through upskilling as well as training and exchange programmes. In order for the team in Malaysia to bring in more MNC clients, Chung said its employees need to be able to perform up to par with their peers in other countries.

“Years from now, it would be quite frightening to think about H+K not having the proper manpower and skillsets in the ASEAN market. There will be a huge difference between agencies that do and don’t,” Chung said.

Regional aspirations

While Chung declined to reveal ASEAN’s contribution to H+K’s global revenue, she said added that Malaysia is a market that “is going to stand out moving forward”.

She added that globally, H+K is “serious” about expanding and bringing its capabilities into the region either through organic growth, or having a country with a strong base of operations function oversee operations for the smaller countries. This will be decided by client demands.

Currently, H+K has offices in three ASEAN markets – Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Chung also told A+M that there are plans to expand into Indonesia and the Philippines but declined to elaborate further. Vietnam is also on her radar. She said:

Going forward, I see Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia becoming the Golden Triangle. There is plenty of synergy in terms of mobility and talent sharing.

She explained that the three countries are also consistently being targeted for most of its client’s campaign executions. As such, the team needs to work very closely, not just from a market and client revenue perspective, but also in identifying more consolidated skillsets across these markets, as well as the sharing and training of skillsets. She also views the Malaysia market to be well positioned to work as a hub in this equation.

Leadership changes

When asked if it is looking to grow its staff and capabilities organically in new markets, Chung said it will be one of the “biggest discussions” for the ASEAN committee. Chung said that ASEAN is where growth is at the moment, and over the next few months, she plans to have discussions with respective regional leaders, to identify the key business areas it aims to excel in as well as its strategies for the specific markets.

On the replacement for former Michelle Tham, managing director, Singapore and Malaysia, who left in January, Chung said the search for her replacement is still underway.

“I’m being picky because the person will play an important role not just in Singapore, but also to the overall ASEAN growth. There will be plenty of cross training in terms of skillsets and clients are also requiring more agile and mobile teams. This is where I feel Singapore can play a bigger role,” Chung said.

In addition to appointing a managing director for Singapore, Chung also intends to make more strategic senior hires for the country. After which, Chung has plans to form an ASEAN committee comprising leadership and several senior members from each office, who will meet regularly and discuss and gather consensus for initiatives and strategies in the ASEAN region.

While it is normal for networks to take on a top down approach in the implementation of business strategies, Chung said that unless every market feels comfortable and see the value in cooperating, the operations will still remain siloed.

“To really get into how we want to be working together and be more agile, it is super important that I provide an overall strategy direction and sell that strategy to my committee. They will need to feel it makes sense and are able to relate to it in their individual markets. Only then will I know it will work,” Chung said.

Chung, herself, currently leads a team of approximately 200 employees as Asia cluster lead and her vision for the team is to not only scale more, but also understand the teams. She believes this includes the changing environment of clients and their businesses, and being able to agile enough to make the shift so the network is able to make appropriate operational decisions to function successfully.


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