David Ketchum on how to build a marketing startup that lasts

David KetchumSix months ago, David Ketchum launched a new business, marketing automation agency Current Asia, which has offices in Singapore and Hong Kong. It was the second business he has started in 23 years of working in Asia, having founded Upstream Asia in 2001.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella, Ketchum talks about the difficulties he’s faced in setting up Current Asia, how Singapore and Hong Kong compare as places to set up a business, and the value in learning when to say ‘no’.

So, you’re building a start up again. What’s the single most difficult thing about launching a marketing company in Asia, in your view?

Customers are crying out to be heard in Asia, and marketers are doing their best to respond – or better, to get ahead of the curve for competitive advantage. But there is a shortage of talent, marketing budget, and management commitment to improving the customer experience. These are all reasons, but not excuses, and we’re here to help, because when customer engagement is done right, companies get the most value from their contacts, data and content.

The hardest part about starting a marketing company is the battle for talent. We’ve used personal connections and the excitement of joining and starting a new breed of business solutions company to attract a talented senior team with skills and experience that complement and in many cases exceed what our clients have in-house. Rather than a start-up, we’ve been calling it a Jump Start because we have had capability and depth from day one. We are now building out our full team, and because many of the skills we are looking for are new to the market, we’re hiring savvy people to train up, importing talent, and offering special incentives to people with the right skills and attitude.

You’ve launched in both Singapore and Hong Kong. Which is the easier place to set up in and why, in your view?

When it comes to Hong Kong and Singapore offices, I love all my children equally! Singapore has a real buzz as a hub for southeast Asian business. The regional decision makers are easy to find and eager to help their markets grow. The Singapore business community has strong networks and it is essential to be here and to be trusted to be successful. Legal and tax matters involve some paperwork, but are very straightforward, and there are valuable potential business incentives you can tap into.

As a business hub, Hong Kong is virtually frictionless in terms of business set up and support. After that, you’re on your own in the world’s freest economy, with lots of opportunity to succeed or fail, but no financial support. Hong Kong gets its energy from its proximity to China, and has a “wild west” feel to it that contrasts with Singapore’s order and calm. Both hubs have great infrastructure and I have become a resident of Cathay Pacific economy seat 32G shuttling between the two.

What’s the most critical thing to get right when starting a new company, in your view?

You must know what market need you are filling. Ideally, your company’s remit will be a meter wide and three kilometers deep, addressing a focused niche, and a real need. For example, the world certainly doesn’t need another generalist digital marketing agency!

We are addressing the critical importance of businesses understanding and embracing marketing technologies and platforms. Marketing automation and personalisation of the customer experience at scale using software and analytics is coming to Asia, although the wave has not yet quite broken. Most marketers don’t speak technology and most technologists don’t speak marketing, so we’re there to identify, set up, and operate the right platforms that map to every part of the customer journey. That’s not a service most ad agencies have been able to provide with their campaign-and-media approach, and management consultancies are often too far up the strategy value chain to help marketers actually implement.

With Current, this is not the first time you’ve set up a successful business in Asia. What are the learnings you made from your first experience that you’re putting into practice now?

Number one priority: cash is king! Whatever great plans or methodologies you have, if you run out of money, you are of no use to your customers, employees, and shareholders. We’ve raised some seed capital to get the business started and are in the Angel Round now.

Another learning is the importance of saying “no.” When a start up is busy and exciting, it’s easy to say yes to lots of opportunities that turn out to be messy liabilities later on that need to be tidied up. Of course you can’t always know what holds the key to your future and what can destroy your business, but a well-timed “no” can save a lot of heartache.

Last learning: saying it’s vital to take good care of your clients is a cliché, but only because it is true. The client “bird in the hand” is worth more than the speculative deal in the bush anyday.

How are you using LinkedIn and other social media to build a brand for Current?

We decided that for the first six weeks of the company Current Asia itself would be our first and only client. We decided to follow all of the advice we give to our clients, install and integrate all the right technologies and platforms, and make ourselves the best example of marketing done right. We called this process “drinking our own Champagne.”

That included:

  • Mapping out the customer journey for our own business development and client service process
  • Identifying, installing, and integrating leading edge marketing technologies, including Salesforce.com, Oracle Marketing Cloud marketing automation, and using marketing platforms such as Outbrain, LinkedIn, Strinkingly, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Twitter
  • Building a database of prospects, customers, and partners, and designing a content strategy, and an engagement strategy for proactive outreach and engagement

How important is your own personal brand in starting up a new venture?

Very important, but that brand has no value unless you immediately transfer, share and amplify that brand through company you are creating. Besides the fact that my name is already taken by a major communications firm [Omnicom-owned global PR firm Ketchum], I want to create a brand personality for Current Asia that reflects my values and perspectives – sure – but is also built up from inputs from our senior team and partners as well. When it comes to fundraising, I have had a few meetings where people said “OK, I don’t know your industry enough to 100 per cent get what you are doing, but you have done it before and I’m confident that you’ll do it again.” Now that the team is on board and the clients are coming in, personal brand can prime the pump, but it can’t fill the river.

What are the three things you wanted to have achieved most by this time next year?

  • Build a core of retainer-based relationships with clients based on trust and marketing effectiveness delivered
  • Run a managed services business at scale that makes it economically attractive for clients to work with us rather than build teams and technologies internally
  • Be the employer of choice for modern marketers in Asia

David Ketchum is the CEO and founder of Current Asia and chairman of the Digital + Direct Marketing Association Asia


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