Lessons from Singapore and Japan can inspire agencies elsewhere to help staff and clients, Marc Wesseling and Jean Francois Thery from UltraSuperNew tell Laura Swinton.
“Globally we see how countries have swept it under the rug: ‘oh it’s an Asian virus it’s not going to come here’… and suddenly it’s global.” Jean Francois Thery is Head of Growth APAC for agency UltraSuperNew. Based in Singapore, he’s been living and working through the Covid-19 epidemic since it kicked off in the city state two months ago.
Thanks to Singaporean government’s immediate and unequivocal response, business was able to find a new rhythm and the team had a sense of clarity and purpose. As Marc Wesseling who is the founder of the agency, which has offices in Singapore, Tokyo and Taiwan. “Singapore learned a lot from SARS. With the first SARS crisis, which the West was pretty much unaffected by, countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, they learned a lot from it. The moment the coronavirus hit, those governments had all the blueprints ready, all the action plans. The other thing about a country like Singapore, there are no half measures,” says Marc alluding to the stringent, tech and data-enabled quarantine measures.
For agencies just starting to navigate life in the age of coronavirus, Marc and Jean Francois have much in the way of insight and advice to share. On one hand, there’s the question of steering a business and supporting a team that’s facing uncertainty and on the other, helping clients by knowing when to proactively find opportunities and when to be sensitive and ease back.
When it comes to leading one’s team, clarity and empathy are key. “What I would suggest is that right now you communicate as well as you can with your team and keep them informed,” says Marc. He says it’s important for leaders to look beyond their own, personal capacity for stress and uncertainty when making decisions. “Some people are really worried and they’re getting into panic mode. They’re worried about their health, their family, their job, their everything. So talk to your people.”
The importance of clarity is something that Marc has witnessed at a macro level. He splits his time between Singapore and Tokyo and what he’s seen is a true tale of two cities. While the Singapore government has been responsive, ruthless and clear, Marc says that the Japanese government has been slow to take action and local media is not covering the global spread of the virus with much urgency. Bars and restaurants and the metro are still busy and Marc suspects that it’s because the government has a vested interest in pushing forward with the Olympics. These differences have, he says, are filtering down and having a clear influence on people’s headspace.
“The amazing thing is that here in Singapore, because the team is so young and everybody has said ‘screw it, we’re going to work super hard and make it happen’. It’s a really good energy and vibe,” he says. “When I listen to the Tokyo team they’re in between scared and indifferent, because it doesn’t affect them so much. Everything is just moving forward and many Japanese don’t really read much foreign media, and in all the media says it’s ok.”
Having an honest look at one’s business and working through several possible scenarios about how the pandemic might impact the market and, therefore, ones clients and one’s own business, is part of that clarity.
For some brands, there’s a clear role to play and space for creativity. UltraSuperNew has UberEats and Red Bull and Lululemon on their client roster, brands where there’s space for proactive, creative ideas about how to be useful to people getting used to social isolation or to help those on the front line.
Working on ideas that allow brands to genuinely help isn’t just good for clients, it’s good for the agency team. “It not only helps our team to feel good that they can at least contribute, it also keeps their head away from the news. You will reach the point in the near fture that you are done reading about corona. Yes we know it, but it’s doom and gloom. Let’s work on our mental health and use our creativity to find ways through,” says marc.