Meet the CEOs: Edelman's Bob Grove

Edelman Hong Kong has experienced some turbulent changes in the top management team in the past few months. Following the departure of long-serving MD Andrew Kirk after nine years, senior directors Adrian Warr and Andres Vejarano stepped up to lead the 100 people office. But just three short months after taking the helm, Vejarano also left for a new role at IPG's DeVries Global.

Since last year, the company has been striving to transcend its nature as a traditional PR firm to an integrated marketing agency in recent years with a host of new appointments from the creative side. Examples most prominently include the hire of BBDO veteran Carol Potter as APACMEA executive vice chairman early last year; Pierre Desfretier, who worked at Ogilvy & Mather for five years, as creative director in Edelman Hong Kong last November; and most recently Jeffrey Yu, former Greater China CEO of Publicis Worldwide, as its new China CEO.

Edelman North Asia CEO Bob Grove, who is now temporarily spearheading the Hong Kong operation, gives us a clearer picture of what's happening in the firm after its biggest shake-up in creative capability.

Will you move fast to fill the vacant MD position?
We still have the intention to find someone to lead our organisation in Hong Kong but I don't think we should do it impulsively. We don't have a desperate need for that role to be filled as Adrian is now both senior director and acting general manager for the Hong Kong office.

Which industry you'll look into for the replacement?
I'm open to options. When you get to our size, there are not that many people in the PR world who have the experience of managing a business of our complexity and size. We don't refer ourselves as a PR firm anymore; we are a communication marketing agency.

While more creative agencies claim to do more integrated work, what will it take for Edelman stand out? 
The power of PR has always been trying to gain influence through storytelling. Now we have the option to do that across multiple channels, rather than just through the press. It's very compelling. Creative agencies tend to focus on a single idea about promoting a brand or a topic; whereas we try to evolve clients' businesses by finding out what there visions are, why are they here, and helping them protect their business from attack. A creative agency doesn't know how to do such thing at all.

Gone are the days when you can just throw a bunch of advertising money at a market and hope that sales would go up. I don' think there's a short-term solution. Agencies and brands need to recognise that and put more effort in earning customer's trust rather than just running a three weeks campaign and expect everything would be all rosy.

What big does the role of social media play in your firm?
About 50-60% of our work involves some form of community engagement. Social media channels are not just about getting likes and pushing products. It's a platform for brands to build relationships with customers that requires brands to be transparent and to react fast, quick and responsive when things go wrong.

What do you see as the biggest challenge businesses are facing on social media?
Many organisations are still being defensive when they deal with social media. They kind of get it when they want to promote something, but they haven't embrace the idea that once you're out there, you need to be thinking more broadly about your relationship with consumers. You can't just shut off and shut down, or deny when something goes wrong. Today's brands are still not very well equipped for crisis on social media. The whole point of social media marketing is not only promote, but also to protect.

Any tips for brands to build trust through social media?
We've been talking about declining trust levels, where business is the least trusted institution in Hong Kong . Today's brands have to do something to entrust, meaning you need to engage and listen to your customers. One of the trust drivers for Hong Kong is listening and being close to customers; you can't just listen, you have to respond. This may sound simple enough but many businesses in Hong Kong have not got their head around that.

Given the recent management change in Hong Kong, what's your tactics for retaining employees?
We have twelve-month customised training programmes for everyone in our office, including interns. The training curriculum is refreshed every year to help our staff  develop their skill sets accordingly. We set a target at around 20% employee turnover in a year or two from now. It's quite struggle to get there in this market, because we have to somewhat battle with the culture of the agency environment. To achieve this alone is hard. If there's some other agencies who can get on broad with us and look at talents in a similar way, than it might benefit the industry at large and that maybe good for Hong Kong. But unfortunately, I think most of the agencies just look at the revenue and margin, working their people as hard as possible for as long as possible until they leave. I don't think that works.