Q&A: Francis Bea on Cross Border Strategic Communications

A conversation with the Founder and Managing Director of Eleven International.

Recently we caught up with cross-border marketing expert Francis Bea, the Founder and Managing Director of Eleven International, a global cross-border and strategic communications and marketing agency for APAC consumer tech, crypto, and B2B startups aspiring to enter or scale their reputation in the United States and China.

Launched in 2017, Eleven International has worked with a variety of prominent brands including Alibaba, TikTok,  Xiaomi, OPPO, Nreal, and others

Over the course of our conversation, the marketing and media-savvy Bea talks about helping APAC brands get traction in the US market, what communication and branding strategies work best during current economic headwinds, his work on the viral Hover Camera launch, and more.


 

What’s been keeping you busy lately?

As the founder and managing director of Eleven International, understandably most of my time goes into growing the agency on the team and client side, as well as adapting our model and approach to the ever-changing and evolving requests and expectations from our clients.

I’m proud to say our agency is growing in capability as well. We’re taking on larger, more complex cross-border projects, for example with large media tie-ups and more markets and services entering our business mix. Go-to-market services is an area we’re seeing more demand in, as budgets are trimmed, while podcasting is a value-added service we’ve been incorporating.

One of Eleven International’s core offerings is helping APAC tech brands scale in the US market. What are some of the biggest hurdles for getting a foothold there and what advice do you have for brands to overcome them?

Having a clean slate due to being unknown in the Western media landscape isn’t necessarily the disadvantage APAC brands might assume. It actually allows companies the time to consider their positioning and messaging, then put themselves on the map in a coordinated and strategic manner.

Often the challenge is actually convincing execs to be willing to be creative in the angles that we take. With Western media, the key is to bring an original take to a trending topic, which means pushing clients outside their comfort zone to give them the best chance at top-tier, mainstream coverage – particularly for clients that are used to a completely different approach to public relations as PR might be conducted differently in their home country. So a lot of what we do is educate our clients on how to get creative to succeed in the US market.


 

As the world navigates its way through economic slowdowns, how important is it for marketers to be more nimble and flexible in the face of the headwinds?

We place a heavy emphasis on diversifying our business to help offset any downturns in any one area. For example, there were a lot of voices suggesting we focus purely on Web3 back in 2018 and then again in 2021 when the markets were up, but it’s very clear now that would have been the wrong move.

So we’re diversified across industry verticals – AI, AR, blockchain, consumer tech, B2B tech – as well as in the markets that we cover. Our focus at the moment is establishing partnerships and capabilities across a wider range of target markets and more value-added services, as our clients’ demands are also evolving on this front.

What are some communications and branding strategies that work best at times like these?

No matter the evolving external environment, the fundamental principles of communications remain the same – tell a compelling story. To succeed in the US market, companies and brands have to find creative ways to tie their key messages or advantages to the trending topics of the moment. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to cut through the noise with something that no one is talking about at the moment, unless you have a budget on the level of Apple or Microsoft. So tapping into topics such as AI and ESG or CSR is a good place to start brainstorming at the moment.

“It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to cut through the noise with something that no one is talking about at the moment, unless you have a budget on the level of Apple or Microsoft. So tapping into topics such as AI and ESG or CSR is a good place to start brainstorming at the moment.”

You were instrumental in the Hover Camera going viral when it launched. What was it like to wake up one morning to a big hit and what lessons did you take with you from that experience?

Behind the success stories, there’s always a lot of prep going into it all. For this, it wasn’t a sure hit. A lot of the experience to be honest was very humbling and the lessons learned from those days still apply to the culture and work at Eleven International.

I wish Hover Camera was an overnight “hit” but what wasn’t seen was that at the time we’d woken up to the fact that the CEO had decided to launch the product with only two weeks of notice. With a small team of five people for both the USA and China markets, we had to create a launch video, travel to the US for PR, update the website, prep the media buy campaign, and prepare for the offline launch at a major conference, to name just a few of the tasks.

“Before Hover Camera, people thought drones were a device for enthusiasts and capturing aerial landscape shots. No one had the foresight to turn the camera on themselves, especially in travel or lifestyle settings.”

Part of the training for our ability to work aggressively for clients stemmed from that – I’d worked three days straight and blacked out, and picked myself up to work for another two days before flying to the U.S. It was arguably the toughest, yet also most rewarding task I’ve ever faced.

We carved a completely new category in the drone space at the time. Before Hover Camera, people thought drones were a device for enthusiasts and capturing aerial landscape shots. No one had the foresight to turn the camera on themselves, especially in travel or lifestyle settings. Later, this was a strategy we applied to Eleven International clients Rokid and XREAL (formerly Nreal), for example taking the laggard AR industry which was at the time focused on enterprise clients, and honing in on the consumer space.

You’ve previously said that you’re an advocate for “radical transparency” with clients about their chances to secure media coverage. Tell us more about that, how a communications professional can best manage expectations, and what clients should demand from the agencies they work with.

As I mentioned previously, getting creative is usually a company’s best shot at securing coverage in the U.S. market if they have no baseline to build from, and even after they’re established in the market too. If a client isn’t willing to try out something new, or adapt their approach for the U.S. market, we’re pretty upfront about their chances, or lack thereof, to secure top-tier coverage.

“When convincing a client to go outside of their comfort zone it really helps that I can talk about what it’s like to work as a journalist, especially as I was a tech reporter.”

That’s because we set ourselves apart as an agency by delivering consistently for each and every client. We don’t rely on a couple of big case studies alone; we have an expansive back catalog of success stories in all our verticals, where we deliver every time. So we’re upfront with clients who are adamant about a strategy we know isn’t going to work, because it ends up a lose-lose-lose for us, the brand, and the media, and a waste of everyone’s time.

We’ve even turned away clients who aren’t willing to listen and adapt. That’s because we’re here to do great work, and in an industry where word of mouth is everything, we can’t afford any dud collaborations. So if an agency is telling a brand that they can just take the press release provided as is and guarantee coverage in TechCrunch, Bloomberg, Forbes, or whatever target top-tier media, it’s time to start asking some hard questions.

Earlier in your career, you were a journalist contributing to CNET and Digital Trends. How does that affect your work now having been on both sides of the pitch?

When convincing a client to go outside of their comfort zone it really helps that I can talk about what it’s like to work as a journalist, especially as I was a tech reporter.

Usually what ends up convincing the client is telling them how I would receive 50 pitches a day, and probably only be able to write about one of them. That experience has given me an insider’s perspective on how journalists think and what deadlines and other pressures they’re facing, as well as how we can best help them do their job and get the client covered in the same process.

Based on your experience working in the greater China market, do you have any insights from your crystal ball as the region opens up again to the world?

In the past, our team has lived and worked in the greater China region, but as our agency grows our team and the diversity within the team is growing with it. However, the lessons learned on competing with global brands as an underdog or our ability to help David take on Goliath on a global stage is applicable for the majority of our clients. Our aggressive approach in comparison to other firms enables us to deliver consistent results. And that stems from our ability to adapt rapidly. And our track record is a testament to this.

“So while our foundation was built on China to US cross-border comms, that setup is now evolving.”

Yet we’re seeing increasing demand among clients for cross-border communications services covering other regions, such as Southeast Asia and Europe. So while our foundation was built on China to US cross-border comms, that setup is now evolving. For example, we’re currently talking to prospective clients in LATAM that are planning to enter the US market, as well as a South Korean firm eyeing new business leads in the US and UK. We’ve also been helping a major laptop brand with its Japan launch.

We’re also being more proactive in helping clients enter the mainland China market, for example, guiding aviation-focused blockchain startup BlockAero to secure top-tier media in Chinese tech media. We’re needing to be more flexible and adaptive than ever.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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