Q&A: Kate Bayona-Garcia – ‘Brands Need to Continue Challenging Themselves to be Bolder’

After rising through the ranks, Kate Bayona-Garcia was promoted to CEO of Publicis Groupe Vietnam earlier this year.

Branding in Asia recently caught up with Kate Bayona-Garcia, CEO, of Publicis Groupe Vietnam who was just promoted to her new role back in April of this year.

After graduating with honors in the Philippines, Bayona-Garcia moved to Vietnam in 2009 starting out at Leo Burnett. Her attraction to the country grew from an earlier visit when she learned that “the industry is just starting and there are opportunities for foreign talents opening up.”  Following that first job at Leo Burnett, she has since risen through the ranks to now lead all creative services covering Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, MSL, and Leo Burnett.

Over the course of our conversation, she talks about working in Vietnam, the challenge of transitioning to the new leadership role, the recent global recognition of campaign work, trends in the Vietnam market, and more.


 

Earlier this year you were promoted to CEO. How is that going and what’s it like transitioning jobs while the world is transitioning from a pandemic?

It was one of the most challenging transitions in my career. Taking on the new role, my immediate priority was to be with our teams. To understand our challenges together and provide that energy and that emotional lift to rally each other. There is just no substitute for real human connection and the pandemic got in the way of that early on.

“I think brands need to continue challenging themselves to be bolder. And when I say this, it’s not always about taking risks. The most celebrated brands globally are the ones that challenge even their own conventions and continuously look for game-changing ideas that result in massive cultural impact.”

I’m deeply fortunate that the culture that we have established within the Groupe through the years was so strong. Our Power of ONE spirit was well and alive, I was humbled to see all Groupe leaders and our teams really come together during that difficult time and prioritized what was good for everyone and that’s why I believe we are in a good position today.

I knew that moving a step up was going to be tough, but what made it exciting was that I was not alone during this transition. A couple of us who have been together in the Groupe for many years were moving up together. And to see us grow together to reach this level is a testament of how Publicis nurture their talents. One of the big reasons I’ve been here for 13 years and still going strong.


 

It’s been a good year for the Groupe in Vietnam with a Cannes shortlist, Spikes and New York Festival wins for Heineken and Vietnam’s only Effie for Mondelez ‘Keep Stories Alive’. Tell us about these campaigns and what appealed to the judges.

I think both those works were cut with the same cloth, but unique in their own way. I’m amazed at how our teams can come up with such fresh creative solutions with technology and modernity at their core, which wouldn’t matter if these ideas were not also rooted around real human behavior. Be it satisfying Gen Z’s urge to engage with music in a different way or triggering nostalgia to keep the spirit of a fading festival very much alive – I believe the juries saw that these works were more than just tech ideas but creative solutions to business problems that allowed the brand to be much closer to the people they serve.

You started working with Leo Burnett Vietnam in 2009. What initially brought you to Vietnam and what continues to keep you there?

Interesting story. I traveled to Vietnam initially for a visit in 2006, when I was told that the industry is just starting and there are opportunities for foreign talents opening up. So I met up with industry pioneers and by luck, got a gig immediately, the rest is history!

What is keeping me in Vietnam? Countless reasons – the people, the culture, the dynamism, the challenges, and the magic. The most fascinating for me is the fact that I was growing with Vietnam.

I arrived in Vietnam when there was barely a decent cinema to watch the latest Hollywood movie nor a shopping center, seeing how bustling and modernized it is today is just mind-blowing. The country was transforming right before my eyes at high speed and has become one of the region’s fastest-growing economies. Being a witness and being a part of this evolution is immensely meaningful and I believe the best is yet to come for Vietnam, I would love to still be part of that.

Back on the subject of awards, what can brands and agencies in Vietnam do to achieve greater global recognition by global jurors?

I think brands need to continue challenging themselves to be bolder. And when I say this, it’s not always about taking risks. The most celebrated brands globally are the ones that challenge even their own conventions and continuously look for game-changing ideas that result in massive cultural impact.

“Interestingly, more than half of Vietnamese who are shopping online are actually shopping on social: word-of-mouth and product recommendations on social has become the real driver to the last mile of purchase.”

As for agencies, we need to continue proving the relationship between high-end creativity and business results and continue to discover ways to reinvent the way we tell our stories.

Finally for both brand and agency, what sets apart good work from great work is craft. Great ideas with immaculate craft are universal. It’s the only creative language that all jurors from different nationalities understand fluently.

What are some recent trends you’re seeing in Vietnam that marketers should be aware of to better engage with consumers there?

The surge of eCommerce, social commerce, and the incredible gaming population in this hyper-progressive country. To win in commerce with the landscape becoming very competitive, brands need tools with automation and AI, such as Profitero, to know how they can improve sales conversion.

Interestingly, more than half of Vietnamese who are shopping online are actually shopping on social: word-of-mouth and product recommendations on social has become the real driver to the last mile of purchase. Beyond key opinion leaders, key opinion consumers are becoming really influential.

“To thrive in this complexity, it has become more crucial than ever for brands to offer creative experiences and solutions that add human value.”

With gaming, young Vietnamese are shifting their time away from traditional media to play online, spending even more time gaming than on social media these days. Brands need to catch up and develop a gaming strategy that understands deeply a gamer’s behaviour.

In a nutshell, Vietnamese consumers are getting more and more bombarded with platforms – from social to commerce to gaming and more, whilst brands have to also compete in this world of platforms. To thrive in this complexity, it has become more crucial than ever for brands to offer creative experiences and solutions that add human value.

What is some campaign work you’ve done over the course of your career that you are most proud of?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of many firsts in Vietnam. And those are the ones that still excite me when I look back at them.

Introducing Mother’s Day in Vietnam back in 2009 with a full-blown integrated campaign by Dutch Lady. The country was not celebrating Mother’s Day then and it has become a memorable day for Vietnamese mothers.

The country’s first dual-screen interactive film by Samsung Galaxy S6, which has won multiple accolades and recognitions.

And of course, the campaigns that gave the Groupe its many “firsts”: the first deep learning AI campaign for Mondelez Kinh Do’s mooncake festival, and the first AR/AI interactive music campaign for Heineken Sleek Can.


Quick Hits

Favorite show you’re watching lately:

Suits reruns.

One album you would take to a deserted island:

‘Daydream’ by Mariah Carey.

Something you want to learn or wish you were better at:

Singing (like Mariah).


 MORE: Q&A: Paolo Garcia – Executive Creative Director, Publicis Groupe Vietnam (2021)

 

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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