Why Henkel’s marketer Davin Leong prefers working with smaller agencies

The beauty segment is cluttered, and globalisation has led to immense competition. To cut through and survive, aggression and focus is necessary. To make matters worse, with the rise of social, every step is scrutinised, and no stone can be left unturned when covering your bases.

Working in the beauty industry is no fairy tale job.

In a conversation with Marketing, Davin Leong, head of regional sales, Asia Pacific beauty care, at Henkel, says with a plethora of brands today using cookie cutter approaches to marketing, the field has somewhat become uniformed.

This is ultimately driving consumers to become more impatient as very little actually stands out and excites them anymore.

Sharp, focused and hands-on, Leong likes to roll up his sleeves and get down to business. Before the interview, he was involved in a product demo session. Unlike his previous stints with beauty giant L’Oréal and Japanese brand Shiseido, he thinks this job allows him to leave his own mark behind.

He explains although Henkel is a well-established company globally, its presence in the Southeast Asian region is still in its infant stages.

“I have a blank canvas in front of me. I am able to paint it, shape it and colour it the way I want,” he says.

Working in a smaller firm allows me to create my own legacy as compared to working in a bigger organisation where the legacy is being determined by the organisation.

In comparison with competitors, Henkel Singapore adopts a “startup mentality”, and as such, the brand doesn’t have “hierarchical” layers to go through. The company lacks silos and is able to remain agile.

Hair care revolution

The hair care industry, in particular, is currently undergoing a revolution.

While in the past, a simple hair wash product would suffice, the industry is now adding more dimensions to hair care – incorporating masks, serums and treatments – all driven by consumers demand for variety.

Coupled with the cluttered space and lack of consumer attention, sustaining and the retaining of the customer’s interest is an expensive exercise, he explains. He added that brands to continuously innovate and reinvent themselves.

With a focus on digital marketing, Leong and his team are taking things from the ground-up to bring Henkel’s beauty care brands into the spotlight in the region. He adds that brands needed to invest in the right marketing tools to reach consumers in the spaces they are present in.

Rather than constantly trying to draw them in, brands should ideally weave themselves into the conversation.

He says brands need to be reachable to their customers, so they are able to provide the targeted one-on-one communication that consumers seek.

“It is not just about winning and recruiting consumers, but rather turning them into brand advocates. Only then are we able to have a business that is considered sustainable,” he says.

How the company is trying to practise what it preaches is by creating an AskSchwarz forum for its Schwarzkopf brand. The forum provides consumers the opportunity and the space to not only engage the brand, but it also gives them the opportunity to ask some really tricky questions about hair.

“We want to be the first ones for our consumers to turn to when they have an issue with hair care or products,” he says.

Although a digital-first strategy is something new for Henkel in Singapore, the brand has made digital efforts in China where the e-commerce business has taken off. Today this represents about 35% of the business in the market. However, he views the whole notion of digital marketing to be a bit overplayed in the industry.

“Digital is the new norm. It implores us to adapt quickly to what consumers want, and at the same time, allows us to share what we stand for as a brand. But while everyone talks about wanting to get into digital marketing, do they actually fully appreciate and understand what it really means to be digital?”

While he does not claim to have all the answers, he warns that digital marketing can get scary quickly as it is no longer possible for brands to hide from consumers because of the widespread availability of information and communication channels.

This is where the right agency partner steps in, he says.

The right partner

In the case of Henkel, boutique agency Mill Sterling was chosen to handle creative and digital duties as it was able to promise the focus the brand required. When asked why he prefers working with smaller agencies, Leong says while network agencies have more experience, networks and resources, some of the drawbacks include a lack of creativity.

“Some of the struggles we face with bigger agencies is how they apply similar approaches. It may be the easiest answer, but it may not necessarily be a feasible one. We really want to be a little bit different and have a sustainable approach in how we engage our consumers. When you are in a competitive field like ours, especially in such a cluttered field, you can’t adopt a ‘me too’ approach.”

He adds the company was looking to find an agency with similar work ethics and values to Henkel’s.

Drawing from his personal past experience as a marketer, he adds there are still struggles in the agency-client relationship, a lack of focus being one of them.

“Agencies at the end of the day are still tied by profit and loss, hence, they will always be on the lookout for new businesses no matter how big or small they are in size,” he says.

And while the right agency partner is necessary, what is even more necessary is for a client to be a good marketer who is future-ready to survive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous consumer environment.

Vivienne Tay

Marketing Magazine Singapore
Armed with a fire for the latest marketing trends and weakness for puns, Vivienne spends most of her time hunting for the next viral marketing stunt and getting to know the faces of the industry. When not testing out the latest products in the beauty industry, she can be seen inhaling a bowl of her favourite beancurd or kicking back at the theatre getting inspired.

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