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Agencies unable to respond fast enough, says Grab marketing boss as brands urged to ‘take risks’

Taxi hailing firm Grab often avoids working with agencies because they are not able to turn around work fast enough, its marketing boss has said.

Cheryl Goh told the Mumbrella 360 Asia conference that in such a fast-paced environment it must bring campaigns to life within 24 hours.

Such a rapid return cannot be achieved by agencies, she said.

Goh, in a presentation detailing the growth of the five-year-old start-up, also urged brands to take risks in their marketing – although she admitted such an approach can sometimes spectacularly backfire.

Asked why Grab has tended not to work with agencies, Goh said: “The first reason was cost. When we started we did not have enough money to afford an agency.

“But as we got bigger it was speed. We do things really quickly, we can turn campaigns around in 24 hours. Even for bigger campaigns….a lot changes in a very shory amount of time which is why we have struggled to use agencies.

“It’s not that we don’t use any. When it comes to brand work or product launches that have a long lead time we might. But it’s hard for us to find an agency that can respond to us in a quick turnaround time.”

Earlier, Goh said Grab was a “hard negotiator” when it does work with agencies and admitted for one of its most successful campaigns, in Thailand, it paid “a kind of low price for the work”.

So unconvinced was Goh with the campaign that she told the agency, whose identity she did not reveal, that it would lose 15% of its fee if a certain number of rides were not generated by the work. In the end, the target was reached and the agency was actually paid a premium for having skin in the game.

“Hard negotiator” – Grab’s Cheryl Goh

“It was one of our most successful campaigns,” she said, before stressing the importance of “trusting the agency you work with”.

One of Grab’s marketing strategies was taking risks, Goh told delegates. But that did not mean being negligent, she said.

“You put a lot of rigour into making sure you have thought through this and you do your best. But if you are doing different work, interesting work, then risk is involved.

“I have never made as many mistakes as when I worked with Grab. I have made so many mistakes….but that is just what happens. You take risks because if you win you’ll be happy, if you lose you’ll be wise.”

Grab’s marketing vice president detailed one campaign – a marketing push to raise awareness of breast cancer – as one that spectacularly backfired.

The campaign featured taxis in Thailand carrying the slogan ‘Love Boobs’? So does cancer’. It sparked outrage for trivialising the issue and Goh was forced to apologise.

“The reaction was so negative it was unbelievable,” she said. “It was terrible, and the worst part was this happened when I was in a management retreat with my peers in Bali. It was a horrible feeling because you are in front of people you are accountable for. You just want to dig a hole and die.”

But she revealed that her boss appeared on stage the next day with a tee-shirt bearing the slogan.

“He said I want to remind you that when you do this type of work there is a possibility that things will not go your way. It doesn’t mean you stop doing that kind of work and I wear this in support of that,” Goh told the room.

She added: “Negligent work is bad work, but if try your best and still make wrong decisions because you are being risky then that’s life. If you take risks you are going to make some mistakes.”

Earlier in the presentation, Goh urged marketers to focus on “one business metric that matters to you”.

“We focus less on metrics that are perceptual such as followers, impressions and clicks. Instead we focus on things that are behavioural. We need to get people to download, to ride, to refer,” she said.

“The question is how do we as marketers make sure that we are part of the business discussion? How do we own  a seat at that table?

“For us it was finding a business metric that really matters. You need to know your data and use it in the most strategic way possible.”

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