In April, Isobar launched an office in Vietnam following the acquisition of local firm Emerald by the Dentsu Aegis Network in March of last year.
Before joining the Dentsu family, Emerald co-founder Denise Thi and her team turned a a small startup agency into a respected name in the Vietnam business world.
Now renamed Isobar Vietnam, the firm’s impressive client list includes names such as Abbott, Adidas, Air France, Bridgestone, BMW, Kimberly-Clark, and Triumph –as well as a stable of local clients like Kido, Nam Long Group, Vinamilk, and Vietnam International Bank.
Branding in Asia recently caught up with Denise Thi, the straight-talking daughter of a general who was last year named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list, to chat about her journey with Emerald, as well as her insights into the market in Vietnam.
During the early years did you think Emerald would take off like it did?
When you start something from Day Zero, you always have a dream about what it should be. However, it is impossible to even imagine the path you may take, all the good and the bad you’ll encounter throughout the journey.
I started the firm as an outsider of the industry, with barely any knowledge about its rules or how the agency world operates; all I had in mind was the vision of building an agency that would not simply deal with marketing tasks assigned by clients but contribute towards the client business in completely different ways, to help them to reach their business objectives; I’d envisioned an agency that would work for the benefit of the brand and the business’ bottom-line, not the personal wants of clients at times.
Interestingly, we haven’t seen the death of TV in Vietnam alongside the rise of digital media. In fact, free-to-air TV is still king to housewives who are the key shoppers in families.
I hardly knew digital would be the absolute right path in the early days. After the first year, I realized the media consumption habits amongst Vietnamese were shifting; it was replicating other more developed markets. And I had a huge advantage since we’d started with digital so much earlier – it has been a privilege to grow concurrently with the Vietnamese market through the field of digital marketing.
Two years after that, through the observation of many other agency models and approaches from all over the world and within Vietnam, I reaffirmed my belief that no matter what service or solution we offered, the thing that would differentiate us would be the business approach we’d adopted from Day 1 of the company – to work side by side with clients as business partners, for the benefit of growing their business in the market, regardless of choice of media or tactics. It was then that we first established our 5-year vision and business goals, to confirm our thinking, our approach and from that point on, to know exactly the picture that we have been sketching. It was also the reason we chose Isobar as our partner for an M&A – Emerald and Isobar were ideal partners in the sense of core business values and brand-building approach.
And, if you think being “eventually acquired by DAN” is the end goal I’d always wanted for Emerald, it is not. For me, the acquisition was another starting point, with same mindset and belief, but on a wholly different level, in a bigger game, with greater resources and advantages – for our team to experience another great journey.
I have always had the ambition to enable the Emerald team to play in the regional and global playing field, to open access for young talents to leave their footprint on the regional market, to be a gateway for people who have the same ambition as mine to take off. In that sense, then maybe yes, my thinking might have matched with what we have achieved so far.
Was there a particular moment when you had to laugh and say to yourself, “Well, we’ve made it!”
Let me be straight: I was born and raised by a General, and I never felt I had a right to say such things to myself. Though, there have been many moments that I said that to our team. For example when we won Heineken after just two years of operation; when we were on the first flight to Singapore with my co-founder and discussing about the M&A opportunity; and lately, when we finally launched Isobar in Vietnam, and when we successfully pitched our aggressive approach and innovation in the local market with lots of positive feedback from clients, etc.
Every trend has a role to play – to provoke, to consolidate or to uplift the market. I believe that some of the trends will end their roles very soon. Digital marketing or any new media will cease to be ‘the next big thing’.
After one experience comes the next one. It is an endless, exciting journey and it is why I feel like I still not have reached my destination yet.
What are some things you miss about being a smaller firm?
I am not the type of person who tends to recall work life memories. However, one thing that I sometimes miss is the unique experience we had when we were really young both as a company and in our twenties. We were together, with no time for hobbies or play, working long days and nights in a very small office, without air conditioning, towards a dream of charting a milestone, for ourselves and hopefully for the industry in Vietnam.
And we did it. We did a great job to win that first big brand, which brought us the reputation to go even further on our journey. Now we’ve got a great team, and have achieved the dream that many young people like us may dream about.
I would like to take this chance to express my appreciation to those who were once a part of Emerald’s humble beginnings and who are now part of the take-off of Isobar in Vietnam. Without that smaller firm, and smaller team, we would have hardly gotten to where we are today.
Speaking to general advertising and branding trends in Vietnam. Are there any that you are particularly fond of?
There are some rising trends that have captured my attention lately – the omni-channel approach in banking and retail and CRM and e-commerce for FMCG brands. It is always tremendously exciting to meet and work with brands that really ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to innovation in business and marketing. In order to do that, they must have great vision and aggressiveness to do things that not many of their competitors have even realize yet.
What makes Vietnam distinctive is that its consumers are quickly climbing the ladder, both in media consumption and technology engagement as well as the level of literacy.
There is another reality that has always been there but is now getting more attention – Creativity. Clients now demand Creativity more than ever before, e.g. they expect a Facebook post visual to have as much investment as a print ad, which means the fine line between ATL and digital have officially disappeared, subconsciously and consciously.
However, I am keener on what we are trying to build for the Vietnam market – creativity should not merely be a marketing or digital marketing idea but also contribute to the bottom line of every business – at Isobar, this is what we call it Brand Commerce – which without, any creative idea would be wasted.
How about some styles or trends you’d like to see stop?
Every trend has a role to play – to provoke, to consolidate or to uplift the market. I believe that some of the trends will end their roles very soon. Digital marketing or any new media will cease to be ‘the next big thing’ – since most of the new media or trends in marketing were all born in line with the change of consumer behavior a long time ago. They indeed are a consequence of the change in media consumption, and without any separation of psychology behavior across media. They are already the new way of marketing.
Vietnam is referred to as an early stage consumer market. How does that affect your approach to brand building?
Vietnamese consumers want the same things others do – good, reliable products that enhance their daily lives. What makes Vietnam distinctive is that its consumers are quickly climbing the ladder, both in media consumption and technology engagement as well as the level of literacy.
It is very common to see shoppers reading product labels in a grocery store or checking their smartphone for information before making a purchase decision. To build brands, companies had better live up to the claims they make about their products. Whether it is attributed to a higher education background or income level, it is clear that today’s Vietnamese consumers are more literate, and intensively engaging with and catching up on technology trends.
Interestingly, we haven’t seen the death of TV in Vietnam alongside the rise of digital media. In fact, free-to-air TV is still king to housewives who are the key shoppers in families. Nonetheless the pace of digital change can be rapid, especially amongst younger people i.e. Genzilla and millennials who are big spenders. I believe that digital will continue to transform brand building strategy and activities; but at the same time it needs to tackle the challenge of playing the new role in converging online and offline spaces, to build its own empire in traditional media spaces.
I am not the type of person who tends to recall work life memories. However, one thing that I sometimes miss is the unique experience we had when we were really young both as a company and in our twenties.
There is also a very important consideration for us working in the creative industry. Brand building now is not only about storytelling; creative approach is not only about a TVC or engagement ideas on social. We need to think creatively about distribution. The distribution of communications across multiple media, and the distribution of the product, the transactional leads at any point of the engagement journey of the brand to its consumers.
The creative thinking now applies to the whole business of problem solving, not solely for a communication or marketing goal. That explains the reason few local brands in Vietnam have succeeded in reaching its mass consumers, who are generally considered as not very literate, or succeeded in scaling its business without having to spend big in media.
Also, the technological leapfrogging we are seeing with consumers allows for innovation to be a demand, and for it to happen. When thinking creatively about business models and distribution, we are confident enough to take a different approach in brand building with CRM, Omni channel in building experiences, and engineering the path to a transaction.
What is your biggest passion outside of work these days?
My biggest passion outside of work has always been observing and learning about people – how they think consciously and subconsciously. For instance, why a man perceives himself in certain ways, why a man possesses varied personalities – what is the root of those traits, what is the meaning of unexpected or unconscious action, etc. Those things always have such a mysterious attractiveness to me.