Changi Airport comms chief Ivan Tan on marketing ‘the world’s best airport’

Talking across a range of marcoms topics including a possible sequel to the movie The Terminal in Singapore, a BBC reality show coming to Changi, the death of traditional media and the authenticity of influencers – airport group senior vice president of corporate and marketing communications Ivan Tan spoke to Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll – in a conversation at the Travel Marketing Summit this week

The Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit


Firstly, let’s kick off with a question about the last 10 years – which is how long you have been in the marcoms hot seat at Changi. In that time, the airport has grown, the brand has become world famous and it continues to set the standards for others as the world’s best airport. But how has your role and your approach to marketing changed in the past decade?

“I joined in 2009 after the airport was corporatised. It then became more marketing-focused and one of the first things that happened was Changi got a presence on social media. Back then, government was still wary about social media and there were concerns about what content would be used and how to react to criticism etc. So we brought in talent from advertising agencies and built a team.

“But the industry has changed tremendously in the last 10 years, particularly the way we consume news and information. Print is really on its last legs now so we have had to adapt. From a marketing perspective, just five years ago programmatic was unheard of, but now it’s something you really need to look at if you want to improve your ROI.

“These changes come with the job. When I started career, there were things called pagers, cassette tapes, fax machines. These things have long passed. The internet was not even really around at the turn of the millennium. So the learning never stops in our industry.”

So to bring us up-to-date, the retail and leisure dome Jewel opened last month to great media fanfare. Do you see that as a game-changer for the industry and given that it has it’s very own marcoms team, will that make life easier or more difficult for you and your team?

“For the launch, we worked together due to the magnitude of having 100 reporters there as well as lots of influencers. There have already been 30,000 Jewel Changi hashtags on Instagram. I’m pleased to say we didn’t spend a lot of media dollars because of all the earned media.

“We are now beyond the launch and into the business as usual phase so the separate marcoms team will be better focused to talk about new shops and promotions. This frees us at HQ to remain alert to other things that might just happen. It’s a 24-7 job at the airport so I don’t have a lot of downtime and we can’t be too distracted.”

Now let’s talk about 2018, which – what with the film Crazy Rich Asians, the Trump-Kim Summit and one of the most successful Formula One races ever – was said to be Singapore’s finest year ever in PR terms. We’ve heard that tourism numbers and hotel receipts are up as a result, but how was it for Changi – did you notice a bounce on the back of last year’s triumphs?

“It was a good year for us. In 2018, passenger movements rose by 5.8% and visitor arrivals into Singapore saw 6.4% growth. Our interests are very much aligned with Singapore Tourism Board. Generally, if you’re entering Singapore you will use the airport although of course you can come via cruise ships or by car across the causeway from Malaysia.

“However, a lot of our passengers are not visiting Singapore. They are connecting to other destinations through Changi, on their way to someone else. Whether it’s Australians on their way to Europe or people travelling the other way and going to North Asia, for example

“That’s a very contestable market for us. People have other options further north or in the Middle East so that presents us with challenges that we have to embrace.”

Tan spoke candidly before an audience of 300 delegates

To social media, the airport has 3.7 million Facebook likes, 240,000 Instagram followers, 92 thousand Twitter followers and even 72,000 followers on LinkedIn. How important are social media networks for you in terms of marcoms activations?

“Our social media presence is a very strong driver in terms of our brand-building. Based on our research, there’s a great affinity for the brand with our followers on social media.

“We do look at that group of followers as an opportunity. It’s about deepening that relationship with consumers and hopefully over time converting that into real business results.”

And do you guys use Snapchat at all or is that just the wrong demographic?

“We did explore that, but you know I’m wary about starting on new platforms because it requires resources in terms of dollars and good team members. The last thing I want is to start something and then not be able to sustain it, which is something you sometimes see other brands do.”

Does Changi use influencers in its marketing at all? And what’s your take on the influencer space, is it a haven for fraud and fakery or an effective tool to reach millennials?

“Measuring ROI with influencer marketing continues to be a challenge. I hope the industry can come up with a model that adequately allows us to assess the impact.

“In Singapore, we tend to only work with influencers who are happy to accept in-kind privileges rather than outright cash fees. When you are paying influencers who don’t have a passion for the brand, it tells.

“So in extreme cases, you have influencers who just cut and paste what the agency or brands tells them to write. Seeing the same copy posted by a number of different influencers is just the worst type of engagement you can have. It’s a total waste of money and you should fire the agency for allowing that to happen.”

And I think I’m right in saying you’ve allowed the reality TV cameras in to film a television show at Changi. That must have been a tough decision in terms of the risk-reward ratio?

“There’s a difference between scripted dramas like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ – which was just a day’s shoot but got us a lot of airtime and produced a lot of conversations, which was good for our brand – and the reality shows that are challenging because they impact operations.

“And passengers don’t always want their trauma to be captured on camera and then broadcast to the whole world. Having said that, there is a viewership for it. That’s a fact. So we are keen to embrace, but it had to be balanced with considerations of how operations will be affected.

“Even now, we’ve just had a pitch from the BBC in the UK. They want to do an airport series here so I’m struggling with that and my team are anxious about it because it’s a lot of work. But then, we have to weigh that up against the value that such a one-hour show can give us.”

In terms of content marketing, what’s the Changi stance?

“We have a blog with articles. And, of course, we produce video content as it’s hard to get a message across these days without video content. We work with agencies to produce those and every year we actually do a call for ideas on how we can portray Changi differently

“We really like to see experimentation in terms of video formats and photography. Stories still do resonate and build engagement in an environment where you have a relationship with the audience.”

As someone who has seen it from both sides of the fence – you were deputy MD at Weber Shandwick so saw the agency perspective and client-side at Singtel and nowadays Changi – what would you say is the key to effective agency-client relationships?

“The two sides need to understand each other better. That’s why I do value hiring people from the agency side to come in-house. They’ve then seen both perspectives. Agencies are businesses that need to earn revenue so we have to respect that and allow the account to be profitable.

“However, too often agencies are focused on the top line. You have to think about your operating expenses as well. As an example, when I go into a meeting sometimes there are eight agency people; five of whom don’t even speak a word during the meeting and yet they are clocking all these hours on the timesheet. When I see that, I am not surprised there is an issue with profitability.

“It’s not the best way of working. You have to help me manage costs and I’ll do my best to pay fair value for the work that you’ve done for us. As a client, I don’t expect that ideas are free. If you give a brief and you don’t execute the work for whatever reason the agency still deserves to be paid. There has to be an understanding of the dynamics in play from both sides.

“The bad behaviour from clients I’ve seen is the attitude ‘well, the agency is on a retainer so I want an unlimited number of ideas. It can’t work like that. You just create an environment where there is constant churn. Then you move from one agency to another and then agencies find it hard to keep people.”

What are your own plans for the next 10 years – will you stay on at the airport for as long as they will have you?

“For sure, this will be my last full-time job. It continues to excite and challenge me. There will be big things happening at the airport over the next 10 years including transitioning to a three-runway system, which will make operations more complex. And I’m sure there will be some interesting surprises along the way as well.”

And changing tack what are your own media habits, what are the must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“For my job, I subscribe to news alert services from Google and Meltwater. They pop up with 50 to 100 messages every day alerting me to any mention of Changi in any media all around the world. That keeps me on top of what people are saying about my organisation.

“Personally, I always ensure that I read The Straits Times on my iPad so that it’s pinchable. Again, that is to know what is happening in this country. It is a paper of record whether we like it or not. One could argue about its influences, but you know it’s there.

“For other perspectives, I do go to Mothership and The Independent SG. I also like The Economist for its succinct take on what is happening around the world. In this day and age, any good marketer or communicator needs to know what is happening around the world.

“And lastly, I do read The New York Times. That’s only seen 2016 when the current US president assumed office. Only because I’m interested to see how this, for all intents and purposes, reality show turns out. And it’s good for us as a democracy to learn the lessons so that we can ensure it doesn’t happen here.”

And in terms of where Changi spends its ad dollars, is there still a role for publishers and traditional media channels?

“Well, the issue with traditional above-the-line media is it’s hard to measure. You take a full-page ad in a newspaper, but how many people actually read that publication or saw the ad? The same is true of television.

“People are of course still watching TV shows and movies, but these days it’s on multiple platforms like Netflix etc. With radio, you instead have Spotify now. So there are real challenges for traditional media. As much as I feel sentimental about the traditional media I grew up with, the future is going to be just more digital and online.”

Finally, for a bit of fun and to throw you a curveball, what’s your favourite airline disaster movie or can’t you bring yourself to watch those sort of films

“I struggle with that as I haven’t seen a lot of them. I meant to watch Snakes on a Plane, but never got around to it. But in terms of aviation-related movies I liked ‘Up in the Air’ with George Clooney.

“And, of course, a personal favourite was ‘The Terminal’ with Tom Hanks. We have kind of toyed with the idea of doing ‘The Terminal 2’ at Changi Airport, but then when we put out feelers to find out what Tom Hanks’ fee was it became very difficult to continue with that project.

“I haven’t given up totally though, as it will be the movie’s 20th anniversary in 2024. Hopefully, by that time I can come up with some formula.”


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