‘I challenge you to find a telco brand that people say they love’ – Circles.Life’s Delbert Ty

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan, Circles.Life's head of marketing and self-confessed ad-nerd Delbert Ty speaks about building brand love, dealing with hate and how P&G helped him become a better telco marketer

A lot of the people who join P&G never leave – they become so-called ‘lifers’. What prompted you to join Circles.Life?

“Most P&Gers recruited from university do stay there a long time. But one of the things my colleagues and I would talk about was the ceiling was at P&G – how far up we intended to get in the organisation. Almost no one said they were going to be the next CEO. Everyone felt they would reach ‘marketing director’ and then move on. 

“Similarly, I never envisioned myself as global CEO. My exit was further accelerated during an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with the senior staff, as part of internal training. Someone asked: ‘If you were in our shoes right now, would you still stay in P&G, given the fast pace of technology and the billion dollar valuation of companies we hear about?’

“I don’t remember the answer but that question really resonated with me. The people on stage had joined in the late 1990s and 2000s, when P&G was expanding. It was a tidal wave of growth and a really exciting place to be in. It made me question and have an urgency from within: how long should I stay if I wanted to part of where my generation’s tidal wave was going to be? 

“My profile was a little different from most P&Gers. I was fortunate enough to have worked on multiple  brands – laundry, beauty with Pantene and then Duracell – something completely different. And then, Duracell was divested. That was the final nail in the coffin. It was a different company and so there was no real reason to stay longer and experience a new category. That was the last step before Circles.Life.”

Were you set on Circles.Life or were you keeping your options open in terms of maybe starting something on your own?

“At that point, with my background, I had some options. But I wanted to do something in tech. I did not apply to any FMCG companies. I remember asking a friend if she knew anyone who was looking. She said: ‘What sort of tech do you mean? It’s so broad.’ And I didn’t know anything specific – I had been selling soap and batteries. 

“I wanted anything related to technology or aligned to something I was interested in. I was into playing video games and thought if I was in such a company, it would be cool. I applied to a few places. It was a super humbling experience because when you are in P&G, you feel you are top dog; the best guy there is. (But in interviews) they’d say ‘thank you very much but I don’t think your experience is relevant here’.

“One of the final two choices, after a lot of rejection was Circles.Life and Honestbee. Between the two, Honestbee was more well known at the time and it would have been a safer bet, since I didn’t know anything about telcos. But a lot of my conversations with (Circles.Life founder) Rameez Anzar revolved around brand. I’d been told that unlike in P&G, marketing is not the quarterback or the captain in tech companies. But these initial talks sounded like something which aligned with what I wanted to do.” 

Given its subsequent troubles, did you feel you had dodged a bullet with Honestbee?

“I wouldn’t say that. I rationalised it at the time as taking a leap into completely unfamiliar territory. The pay was much worse than P&G, but then I was not an expert. I’d just got married at the time and told my wife that in a worst case scenario, I will return to FMCG. In the best case scenario, I’d be better off for having made the jump.”

Could you take us through the rationale driving your marketing strategy at Circles.Life?

“I’m a firm believer that the brand is a reflection of the people who lead it. Every marketer, to varying degrees, has a level of narcissism and a desire to leave their mark on brands. That’s obviously a problem in a company like P&G when you have iconic brands like Tide and Pantene: you can’t be shifting every two years.

“I was very honest about my level of narcissism. I didn’t have much telco expertise and was not that well versed in digital marketing, since at P&G you had a big team and agencies to help you with that. I started off building a brand framework – what Circles.Life will look like. It’s the bread and butter of what P&G does. 

“We then thought about what the brand should and should not be. We decided to focus on two things: giving the power back to the customer and bringing innovation. When you talk to other companies, they will say ‘we believe in this too’. But what I have come to realise is ‘yes, but only to a certain extent’. ‘Only if the share price is going to improve’  or ‘only if the bottom line is unaffected’ – there are so many ifs. We truly put our money where our mouth is. It is a critical differentiator versus other brands out there.”

You started off with the vandalism campaign – where you pretended to be graffitiing over the advertising for a soon-to-be-launched telco brand. What were some of the lessons learnt from that campaign?

“That was the first big foray into traditional media: prior to that, we were spending minimally on digital. My peers ask ‘how do you measure attribution for traditional media?’ I give them a perhaps overly simplistic answer. But we look at it as a strategic investment. I know it won’t give me the attribution I want today or tomorrow, but at some point, it will affect a metric like brand awareness. That patience comes from P&G roots. The fact that I get that support from the founders to lean forward and take that step is a testament to the company’s belief in brand building. 

“The second big learning was to approach it like a product campaign. When you launch a new variant of Pantene for instance, it becomes the focus of the whole campaign. That’s how we thought of ’20GB for $20′. I was thinking in a FMCG way and wanted people to recall the product. On hindsight, I realised most telco ads don’t work that way. The communication falls into two buckets: a long touchy-feely sort of ad, talking about ‘why we matter to millions of people’, ‘connecting lives’ etc. Or the other sort – almost like a catalogue of promotions. Unintentionally, we were doing things differently. That was the play going forward.

“The third thing on vandalism was convincing the founders who had no marketing background – which is good in some ways, but a negative in others. One of the things that we have adopted as a playbook, was the need to hedge our bets. Managing risk by not going crazy with the money we spent. If I am spending 20% of the budget, it should have an outsized return. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay. I can live with having spent that little money. The rest I spend on more conventional almost formulaic marketing like digital and out of home.” 

What about data deprivation? There were critiques about deploying the tropes of cause-related advertising for a promotion. Any regrets on how it played out?“Part of building a strong brand is that you are not lukewarm or milquetoast. The key is getting people to feel something about you and to get the ones you want to draw in, to feel the right things. It was intentionally polarising. But at the same time, it did not alienate people who were digitally savvy, data-heavy users. When we looked at the numbers, there was no dip in the growth. 

“Also, we always challenge our agencies. I have been on the other side and P&G is very safe. They always say things like – ‘this does not look like the brand’. In our case, we decided to make it an opportunity to do something that most clients would say ‘no’ to. My value proposition to agencies was that I can’t pay you all that much, since I’d rather invest my budget in media and pushing things out, but we get the opportunity to do crazy stuff together. 

“You do get talked about and if you take a longer, aggregate view, our biggest source of awareness to this day is word of mouth. Part of that is doing these crazy things. If you enter conversations in an organic way, on top of the typical conversations that people have about the category, that is a leg-up on the competition.”

Speaking of the competition, you took a shot at them with the ‘to our telco friends in red and green’ open letter. How did that come about? And why did you pick a long copy print ad as a format?I have always been a fan of open letters. Slack did one when Microsoft launched a competing product, buying space in The New York Times.

“As an ad-nerd, I thought maybe we should do something like that. When we decided to upgrade everyone,  we thought if we are going to incur a hit that runs into millions in terms of revenue, let’s make sure the awareness is broad and people know about it. Originally, I wanted to make it a lot more controversial. But when we discussed it together, the idea became more nuanced. We worked very deeply with VML to make sure we were hitting the right notes but at the same time not coming across like a jerk.

“It had an immediate positive effect on our numbers. We learnt that it works really well when we target positions and institutions of power. People were in support of us having spoken truth to power. I can imagine why data deprivation hurt people: it may have seemed like we were making light of certain individuals. As a learning, that goes against our mission of giving power back.” 

What did you make of it spawning a spate of open letters?

“To us, that was almost like a KPI. Whenever we do something that people reapply, to us it’s a badge of honour. Even when we did vandalism, apparently other clients were telling their agencies: ‘Let’s do a Circles.Life sort of thing’.” 

How expensive was giving free money away in the three dollar baller promotion?

“Less expensive than anyone can ever guess. What is extremely fun about working here is that these ideas can come from anywhere. We sit around a table and say what crazy thing can we do? A joke that keeps getting brought up is: ‘What can we do to get Delbert to go to the police station?’ We draw the line at me going to the station, but not to jail. 

“‘Free money’ was not something that had high production values. We worked with an agency partner that we use for manpower, had a dude inside the box that looked like an ATM to give out money. We didn’t have a lot of lead time – we just thought it would be interesting. In terms of an absolute amount, it was in the very low five digits, including the money we gave away and what we paid the agency. That does not include the time we had to explain to the police why we were giving money away, though.” (Laughs)


When you launched, you had a really disruptive offering. Now, with apparently 11 players in the market – many offering far lower prices – how do you ensure you don’t get disrupted?

“This is where the brand really pays its dividends. The newcomers and their level of investment in brand building, is not even in the same league. People don’t know they exist. That’s why you don’t need to be the cheapest guy or have the best deal. Even the ones who sub $10 plans with a decent amount of data, are not flying off the shelves and disrupting the market. That’s the moat we have created with a brand that people talk about and associate with innovation. Price can only sustain you so long if you don’t do anything more. 

“That’s why our mission is leading innovation in telco. If you go back to the 1990s, and tell people about the crazy things telcos do in 2019, they will say ‘how is that possible?’ It’s so hard to imagine.

The Circles.Life marketing team

“We are trying to imagine what that would be for 2025 and 2030. It has to start somewhere. A lot of it may be misses, but if one of those things work, it’s a big deal by itself. 

How do you use data differently?

“We recently revamped our referral programme so that it made sense for both the referrer and the referee. How do you get people to refer more? And so we thought, if we make the referee have more of an incentive, it would make them seek out friends who were already on Circles.Life. 

“And so that virality would continue to grow. For us that is the best approach: least reliant on platforms that we don’t own like Facebook or Google. While efficient, they can change magically over time and then we are screwed.”  

Do you think Circles.Life has as much of an appeal to a non-millennial audience?

“We have been extremely intentional to never say we are looking at the 18 to 25 demographic – we’ve even briefed our PR firms about this. The idea is serving a segment of the population that looks for technology to work for them, instead of the other way round. That’s not just a millennial or a Gen Z need. We have portrayed ourselves as more hip than an average brand. It’s an aspirational take on what we believe the brand should be. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think about other generations.”

As you expand your footprint with the launch in Australia in September, do you think the same approach you’ve had in Singapore will work? Or are you going to amend your go-to-market strategy?

“There are universal telco truths wherever we go. I challenge you to find a telco brand anywhere in the world that people say they love. People love and relate to Apple and Nike. They feel: ‘This brand really gets me.’ I really can’t imagine can’t anyone saying ‘Singtel is a really cool brand that I can relate to’. That’s a reflection of how the category has evolved. In all countries, they were a government or semi-government monopoly.

“Eventually countries liberalised, introduced competition and then settled into a three or four player arrangement. Instead of a monopoly, you got an oligopoly. When you have that sort of an industry – highly protected, regulated and defensible – it is not a great place to be a customer. And so wherever you go, you get a telco experience that is less than ideal, especially considering what people expect from digital services. With Netflix or Grab or Uber, things just happen. Why should telcos be any different? We believe there’s a lot of space to innovate and we are not there yet. And yet, there’s a space in new markets where we can bring innovation.Taking my P&Gness into the equation, we have a global brand and synergies. 

“For instance, Taiwan is the most liberal place in Asia. It recently legalised gay marriage. But at the same time, the telco policies have the longest contracts – even longer than Singapore. So that interplay is quite paradoxical. We play up similar things uncovered in Australia and Indonesia. The common theme is giving power back to customers.” 

Why do you have such a short contract with your agency partners?

“It goes back to flexibility and choice. Our policy is to not get into long term arrangements with customers. And so decided to ask the same for ourselves. We have been working with VML since 2017 and formalised it only recently. When you have a choice, it makes it more interesting for everyone. It keeps people on their toes and there is no status quo which is the risk if these things are too set in stone.”


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