Q&A: Kien Eng Tan – ‘The Future is Here – and It Has Rewritten Our Customer Experiences’

We caught up with Kien Eng Tan, recently appointed Chief Executive Officer at Dentsu Malaysia. Over his lengthy career, Tan has worked with some of the industry’s largest agencies and some of the world’s most noteworthy brands.

He made the jump to Dentsu in February and prior to that served as the CEO of Publicis Groupe Malaysia. A creative at heart, he worked his way up through various creative director roles over the course of his career winning numerous awards including Cannes Gold along the way.

During our conversation, Tan discusses the need to balance creativity with data, the effects of the pandemic, and what the future may or may not look like.


You’ve taken over at a very strange time, what do you think the lasting effects of the pandemic will be on the industry?

2020 has already proven itself to be an exceptional year. We went through a historical moment. The pandemic has unilaterally impacted business and society worldwide. We are going through a seismic change that has altered how people think, feel and behave. We had to immediately relook at our approach to building brands and engaging with people as they go through a different need stage, value spectrum and behavior change.

Digital adoption and transformation has been brought forward by five years. Pre-pandemic, only one-third of Malaysian businesses embraced digital transformation. Today, 92% see it as a priority to stay relevant.

In our industry, where coming out with fresh brilliant creative ideas requires the magical touch of play and human interaction, we have to adapt to technology, pushing ourselves to achieve the same degree of creativity expected of us in isolation.

In our annual CMO Survey, we found that the majority of CMOs have been focused on survival. Planning beyond 2021 seemed a luxury that few could afford. Now, they’re reasserting the role of marketing — as long-term custodians of growth.


Adding on to that, you said “The market has never been more dynamic with COVID-19 rewriting consumer behavior and therefore, expectations of the brands they engage with.” Do you believe this means the shift to all things digital will progress more rapidly?

Yes — the future is here — and it has rewritten our customer experiences and journeys online. Many people were hit by this sudden onslaught of digital consumer journeys but were not well-versed enough to set themselves up on marketplaces. The two largest online marketplaces attract a large amount of digital footfall with 42 million monthly visits – to put this into perspective, Suria KLCC receives 40 million visitors a year.

“No one really knows with any certainty when what the recovery will look like post-vaccine; we just know that some sectors will recover sooner while others such as travel will take a while.”

As traditional platforms undergo digitization, brands need to listen to customers at every step of their customer journey and relentlessly innovate across platforms to improve their customer experiences. It is not just about the number of visits; it’s about how brands can create better engagement and virtual experiences that drive conversion and brand love.

Will more and more work be done remotely? If so how will that affect the teams that you assemble? Will you use that as an opportunity to work more globally?

We’re embracing the Future of Work and supporting our colleagues’ mental wellness with a culture of openness and transparency. We are progressively building a “Client centric team model”. The idea is to simplify our structure and process to make it easier for our clients to work with us across specializations.

We are listening to clients and to our people so that we lead the market in transforming alongside our clients, practicing a culture of inclusion, and transparency in delivering on the capabilities they need.

“Because our structure is uncomplicated, we make it easy for our clients by putting forward the capabilities that are effective and right for them.”

I see dentsu Malaysia playing a bigger role in supporting our clients beyond the Malaysian market and the Malaysia office to establish a Center of Excellence on specialization and production support for dentsu within the sub-region. Malaysia is prime to drive this because of the readily available talent pool in the market and competitive pricing and competitive currency exchange.

You’ve been in the industry for 30 years, has there ever been a more challenging and unique time to work in advertising?

I am fortunate or unfortunate to have gone through three major recessions in the 80s, 90s and 2009. What we are going through today is life-altering and a totally different beast altogether. This is a unique time not just for our industry but for everyone.

No one really knows with any certainty when what the recovery will look like post-vaccine; we just know that some sectors will recover sooner while others such as travel will take a while. In the meantime, we need to stay positive and plan for recovery and growth.

People can choose who they want to do business with — and so we have to make it easy for them to do business with us. Because our structure is uncomplicated, we make it easy for our clients by putting forward the capabilities that are effective and right for them.

How have you seen the Malaysian ad industry and the Malaysian consumer change over that period?

Yes, the industry is very different from when I started in the late 80s. Things were way simpler then. We had to shift and adopt digital in the late 90s which was largely skewed towards the web and websites.

In the mid-2000s we started exploring mobile marketing but it was still at its infancy limited by the device and bandwidth. Although our habits and lives have changed, deep down people have remained driven by the same things over time.

“As a creative director in the early part of my career, aside from creating something fresh and memorable, the effectiveness of the work in meeting the client’s KPI mattered most.”

And everyone wants to know to what extent the changes seen during this Covid-19 pandemic is transient or lasting. Dentsu released a study end of 2020 called – ‘Altered Truths’ – offering a deep dive analysis into nine new consumer behaviors informed by widespread digitalization under the MCO lockdown and heightened sensitivities to health and financial security.

Malaysians are emerging from the MCO with a tension between cautious optimism at resuming aspects of daily life and anxiety over longer-term disruptions.

More and more we see the need to focus on big data to accurately target a consumer. How do you balance that analytical shift with your creative background?

Data makes our creativity more effective. As a creative director in the early part of my career, aside from creating something fresh and memorable, the effectiveness of the work in meeting the client’s KPI mattered most. In the late 80s, my colleagues and I predicted hyper-personalization.

We would know the name of the consumer’s cat and be able to engage the cat and owner directly in a personalized and intimate manner. Today this is no longer science fiction; we are able to personalize communications in real-time at scale. To me, data fuels insights and sharpens creativity and effectiveness.

On the subject of targeting, what’s your take on the current dispute going on between Facebook and Apple over privacy?

There is rapid change in digital advertising right now; I obviously can’t speak for the views of other companies or organizations, but what I can tell you is: at dentsu, one of our main priorities is preparing our clients for a cookie-less future, regardless of platform, and, ensuring they understand the implications for them, their campaigns and the way they use both first-party and third-party data to target audiences.

Consumer expectations around privacy are evolving; thankfully we’re an agency that has specialized in optimization for decades, so we are adept at flexing to match ever-changing human-intent, and that is exactly what we are doing now for our clients.

Dentsu also has incredibly close working partnerships with all major platforms and providers around the globe; this allows us to better anticipate the impact of broad changes like these and, keep our clients a few steps ahead.

What are some of your favorite campaigns that you’ve worked on?

I have only been at dentsu for a month. Below represents campaigns I’m proud to have been a part of at former agencies:

Petronas Merdeka Day Campaign, Tan Hong Ming in love:

This is an example of how brands with a clear human purpose stand to win the hearts and minds of people. Over the years PETRONAS has established a bond with Malaysians by championing Malaysian values, celebrating its diversity, and social cohesion. This campaign won Gold at Cannes Advertising Festival and People’s Choice Award.

McDonald’s Ayam Goreng McD™ – There’s Nothing Like It:

McDonald’s overcame its perception as a brand largely known for hamburgers. I picked it for the sheer simplicity and insights on what appeals to consumer. The execution tantalized our senses of sight and sound over digital screens and made us crave fried chicken. Thanks to this, McDonald’s Fried Chicken won sizeable market share from more established brands in Malaysia.

Samsung Galaxy S10: Space Launch

Samsung showcased how the camera’s technology-enabled taking 4K photos of earth from space, generating interest amongst early adopters, who were invited to track the location of the phone connected via GPS. This was a brave client and a brave campaign that drove conversions throughout the customer journey.

Creating great work requires trust and collaboration. Agencies can only propose great ideas; it takes brave and forward-thinking clients to buy into the idea and come together as a team to make it a reality.

Sam Roth

Sam Roth

Sam is a contributing columnist to Branding in Asia.

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