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Mark Johnson: Choosing SE Asia, Startup PR & Selecting Agencies

· Podcast Episodes,PR,Communcations,SEAsia,UAE

Communcations is everything. So, everything you do is about communication. If you're not authentic and you haven't got your messaging right internally and all of this stuff, then, the biggery ou go, the faster you move, the more the wheels are going to come off. And if you work with someone who understands that and can get that right at the start, that helps your growth. And it makes your growth so much easier.  If you think about when you're going in front of an investor, rather than doing those last-minute investor kind of touch-ups, why not have your DNA and messaging done much earlier so that it can beauthentic with an investor? It can be authentic with your future potential staff that when you evencome to a crisis, you actually manage crises far better when you've allowed communications to flow through everything you do. And also, it's storytelling.  - Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson is Co-Founder of SEED Strategies, a communications and public relations consultancy for startups and companies that are scaling. Founded in 2019, since its inception, SEED Strategies has worked with a range of companies seeking to deliver a positive impact across a multitude of industries and geographies.

Prior to establishing SEED Strategies, Mark worked as Head of Customer Experience at INSEAD, where he helped drive digital transformation in the degree programmes and implemented structures that helped embed the need to focus on the customer in all levels of decision-making.

From 2011 to 2017, Mark worked across Asia within the public affairs and communications space. He helped drive the global communications strategy for Masdar and the Zayed Sustainability Prize whilst working in the UAE, formulate strategy and advise clients such as Mars and RB in Indonesia on the opportunities and challenges of the forthcoming government, and led the communications for clients such as Audi during his time working in China.

Mark started his career as a communication adviser and political strategist in the United Kingdom and European Parliament. During his 6 year's in politics he helped devise and implement comprehensive grassroots communications strategies to ensure electoral success for the Labour Party.

This episode is produced by Kyle Ong.

Jeremy Au (00:00): 

Hi, Mark. I'm so excited to have you in the show. 

Mark Johnson (00:02):Hi. It's lovely to be here. And thank you for inviting me. 

Jeremy Au (00:05): 

Well, I think there's something that has to be said because you've really built a matter of expertise really on communications for startups in Southeast Asia which is a rare thing because every startup, every founder is asking themselves, "How do I get my message out? How do I show our mission, our team, our product? And how do I just get out there?" And I'm so excited to not just hear your personal journey, but also your expertise on this domain. 

Mark Johnson (00:34):Yeah. Absolutely. Delighted to be able to come on and share that. 

Jeremy Au (00:37):Yeah. So, for those who don't know you yet, tell us about yourself. 

Mark Johnson (00:41): 

So, as been said, my name's Mark. And I'm one of the co-founders of a company called SEED Strategies. And we work with startup and very early stage scaling companies to help them give them guidance on communications and develop strategies, come up with tactical elements that can kind of, like you say, help get their word out there and help elevate and amplify their product and what they're doing to kind of the audience that they're trying to target. 

Prior to that, I've worked in Asia since 2011, mostly in PR r and comms. So, that's taking me on a journey of China to Indonesia, and then to the UAE. And if you go back even further which is getting quite, quite far back these days, I used to work in political communications in Europe prior to coming across to Asia. 

Jeremy Au (01:29):Awesome. And I got to ask so what brought you out to Asia? 

Mark Johnson (01:34):Oh, do you want the serious, the real answer? 

Jeremy Au (01:40):Yeah. Tell us the real answer. 

Mark Johnson (01:41):Oh, god. My wife's going to kill me. Basically, my girlfriend at the time was moving to China. And I chased her there.

 Jeremy Au (01:50): 

And clearly, it wasn't your wife. 

Mark Johnson (01:54):She's now my wife. So, clearly, I did the right thing. 

Jeremy Au (01:57):Oh, that's fine then. You kind of implied it with someone else. Why would you I was like, "She would hate it because she was chasing someone else." 

Mark Johnson (02:05):Yeah. No. Yeah.

Jeremy Au (02:08):Good that we clarified in our podcast if you're like the woman you chase Asia is now your wife. Great. That's a love story. 

Mark Johnson (02:14):Yeah, it is. So, she'll probably cringe when she listens to this and goes, "Why did you have to tell that story?" 

Jeremy Au (02:20):Well, it's a good story because what was it like chasing someone? Was she impressed? Was she not 

impressed? Was she confused by you doing it? 

Mark Johnson (02:29): 

I think she was impressed and also scared at the same time. But I think, yeah. I mean it works out in the end. And China's such a vibrant place anyway that I think there's so much to do there that I think it kind of worked out. So, yeah. So, well, she's now my wife. So, she couldn't have fought too badly of it. 

Jeremy Au (02:48):Being impressed and fear is like the foundation of every good marriage, right? 

Mark Johnson (02:51):Exactly. Exactly. And startup. So, those two things are very, very similar. 

Jeremy Au (02:57): 

I always tell people, "Yeah, the two things no one ever trained me on was like how to build a startup and how to build a marriage relationship." I was like, "No one taught me any of this stuff." I learned a ton about organic chemistry and photosynthesis, and positive feedback cycles, and a pond. And I learned nothing about being nice, having a good argument in a way that doesn't destroy the relationship, let alone builds that up. Yeah. 

Mark Johnson (03:25):Yeah. Absolutely. Those would be fundamental skills that I would add to a curriculum at school. 

Jeremy Au (03:31): 

In the future. Okay. So, communications, okay. So, you're in Asia. And then, along the way, you also start to focus on communications as a career, right? 

Mark Johnson (03:31): Yeah. 

Jeremy Au (03:40):Not just from a functional perspective, but also from an advisory and consulting basis. So, tell us more about how you fell into the communications vertical? 

Mark Johnson (03:50): 

I think it was just a natural progression. I think a lot of what I was doing in politics was focused on getting the message out there, creating narratives. How do you win election? You win an election by developing smart campaigns with a good story. So, I think when I moved to China, I was like, "Well, I still want to carry on in that kind of vein, but can I really focus in on that?" 

And so, that led me into that kind of sphere and sort of seeing how vibrant and how interesting and how many tools were coming out at the time especially over the last decade made me think that this is a really exciting area to get into that is often overlooked. It's sort of like I think we're going to dive probably into this a bit later, but if you think about startups in Southeast Asia, it's like, "I need this, this, this, and this." Do I really need comms right now? 

And so, I find it very fascinating how essential it is. But how often you have to kind of teach and educate people why having a fantastic story is so essential to startup success ? 

Jeremy Au (04:55): 

Yeah. So, there you are in Asia. You're in China specifically. And then, I actually overlapped with you while you're there in Beijing because I was there for the actually, and then doing an internship during the same timeframe as well actually. 

So, I was curious, like, what did you learn from experience? Was it a big culture shock obviously doing two jumps from the UK to Beijing? And then, secondly obviously, moving from being working in the politics arena to working on the communications angle. So, it's like two transitions at the same time. What was that like? 

Mark Johnson (05:39): 

It was difficult in so far as things you're very useful. Structures or ways of thinking maybe about communication are slightly different. And there's definitely a especially at the time a difference between what I was learning in the UK and also US way of doing communications and how maybe it's viewed over in China and Beijing. And just I mean it was just constantly changing even from the period of time I was there just the rapid change of China and also again the how you do communications. What's available to you was changing so quickly whereas I almost look at sort of the UK and the US as being very slow moving beasts. 

They're obviously more developed. And that also means that some of the structures are a little bit hard to knock down whereas I think just to just the fast-paced nature and sort of almost a sort of energy that was there when it was companies being created or people getting into PR and comms and having these new ideas. So, that took some getting used to. And it's actually remained a bit of a fixture ever since then like just that rapid changing landscape of communications and PROBLEM. 

Jeremy Au (06:52): 

Was it tough transitioning because it feels like a big jump. I remember when I was spending time in China, and it was also a big culture shock in some ways even though a lot of Chinese people look at me and say, "Hey, you're not too far removed in terms of blood," for that. But having growing up in Singapore and having studied in the states, it's a big difference. So, I'm just curious how you felt that transition went for you. 

Mark Johnson (07:24): 

I think I liked the challenge. I think I was looking for a challenge. That's also one of the reasons why I moved. So, I think in a way that challenge was very exciting. But I completely agree with you. You're transitioning career. And I'm sure a lot of people who have done startups and things like that have had this your transition career. But you're also transitioning life. 

And so, you've got to work out those two very critical things at exactly the same time. So, on the one hand, you can be in a meeting where especially at the time, I had my Chinese was that Mandarin was terrible. And at the same time, you would then go home. You're like, "How do I now pay my electric bill or I've got to go to a bank that's now closed." So, I've got no electric tonight. All of those things that you take for granted. 

So, there was definitely a learning curve. I was very lucky in terms of sort of the support network I had when I was in Beijing and the people I knew. But I think with anyone, there's that kind of transition and especially the first few months where you're like, "Have I made a crazy mistake? Do I go back home where it makes a lot more sense? I've got a career that's very established. I've got friends that are established," or do I double down and say, "Actually, this is what I've chosen. And this is exciting. This is something I really want to continue with." 

So, I think for me because that outweighed the kind of draw back home, I was never going to turn back. And so, even though it was difficult and there are a lot of things you had to deal with, I never really felt like it wasn't what I wanted to do. 

Jeremy Au (08:55): 

Wow. Thanks for sharing that and being frank about that transition because I totally agree. It's hard to focus at work or run and do a job interview if you're having figure out how to get electricity on. So, there you are. And then, you make a decision to continue and double down the communications career which is what I find very interesting because you're doing a series of them. And then, you double down on them, and you went off to the UAE to do a stint in that. And what was that like? 

Mark Johnson (09:26): 

Oh, that was fascinating because we were working. Again, you suddenly have this kind of big change a little bit more of a middle ground between sort of the UK and Asia. So, you've got some kind of aspects that are sort of the fast-moving pace in terms of different changes to the communication industry. But at the same time, there's also some very similar desires for clients and things like that, that are very similar to clients from the UK. 

But I was very fortunate to be working on sort of sustainable energy and clean tech when I was out there. So, that was the comms I was doing. So, that was super fascinating because it was around sort of the big COP climate change agreement that they signed. So, we were doing a lot of communications around there. 

We were lucky enough to do comms around Joe Biden coming to the UAE which was fascinating. So, you know when you're working on, I think, what are hugely impactful spaces such as sustainability and clean tech, even though it's stressful and hard and you work long hours, you are also producing or helping to produce something that's very, very beneficial to society. And I think almost that was just something so fascinating. 

I'll probably never be able to replicate in the intensity again because we were working with organization called Masdar which is the renewable energy arm of the UAE government. And so, you're charged with doing some really, really cool things. So, it was stressful, but super exciting. So, I was glad I made that choice although when I first arrived there, the transition actually was harder than China a little bit because we made a choice very last minute. And so, I had not really got my brain around it. And the actual work started almost the day we touched down. 

So, there was no transition whatsoever. It was like full-on, really hard. So, that was almost a little bit more difficult than the transition to China which is kind of strange. 

Jeremy Au (11:19): 

Yeah. And also, you already got her, right? So, on the hunt. So, that's a good mission to get you through the electricity setup and the interview. And then, the other one is I already got her, right? 

Mark Johnson (11:32):Yeah. There's less pressure on me now to make that work. Now, I'm in the Middle East. 

Jeremy Au (11:38): 

Yeah. Okay. So, there you are, and you're there. And then, after that, you start coming into Southeast Asia from there because you joined INSEAD. You're being the head of customer experience. So, what was that like coming to Southeast Asia proper? 

Mark Johnson (11:55): 

Yeah, because I had to had a small stint in Indonesia doing communications, but that was on and off, and then, moving to the UAE. So, it was really interesting because there are obviously differences. And so, coming here where I felt like the startup scene was more vibrant especially because I was at INSEAD which obviously has a lot of links to the startup scene. So, it was really interesting because I went from a hugely corporate world which with Masdar is it's a huge corporation. 

And then, suddenly, I was in Southeast Asia where I felt there was almost this spirit of kind of wanting to do your own thing that I found very exciting and very interesting. But that was also just very different because then you're starting to think of comms in a very different way. Almost like it's a sort of rough young startup kind of way of doing things rather than this very structured, the approval levels are 20 stories high and all this kind of stuff. So, that kind of transition on a life sense wasn't very hard because Singapore, I think people have probably said this before, many a times is a very easy place to transition to in terms of life. 

And then, it was just kind of seeing how all the things that I had learned in communications and PR, some of the kind of toolbox that I had developed myself, how that's now applicable to a new region and also new view in terms of the size of the companies and the types of people that I'm looking to work with. INSEAD's a great transition for that type of stuff anyway because it's a melting pot of lots of 

different nationalities and ideas and things like that. So, that really helped that transition across as well. 

Jeremy Au (13:34):What was it like working INSEAD because most people have the experience of being a student there as an MBA and so on and so forth? What was it like to be at the guts of it? 

Mark Johnson (13:44): 

It's interesting because it's this fantastic organization that has to deal with these very, very... You're dealing with very smart people every single day. So, my role as a customer experience, your main customer is incredibly smart and demanding. And they want to get as much out of the year at INSEAD as possible. So, it's very interesting because you're like, "There's never a moment's rest because they always need more, want more, or have higher expectations." And at the same time, you're in the educational education sort of industry which is often a little bit slower than some other industries. 

So, you've got these kind of two worlds clashing together, but it's also again very interesting and very exciting because you're also part of so many major discussions that are at the forefront of changing industries. And that's what's also very fascinating. So, I was very lucky to be prevalent to a lot of very interesting things that were happening there and the discussions that were happening, at the same time as being kept on my toes by customers that were very demanding. 

Jeremy Au (14:51): 

So, there you are, and you're sharing about how you're seeing all these people being very entrepreneurial, the spirit of ownership. And that's when you decide to build your own thing, right? So, how did that shape up? 

Mark Johnson (15:03): 

Yeah. I think it's kind of been playing on my mind, I think, over many years that I've been working in PR and comms across the world and even in Southeast Asia, a bit in Indonesia. And I was like, "I definitely at some point want to be doing my own thing," perhaps a bit of an ego thing, perhaps a bit of we all want to have something that we can call our own. 

And also, something that was always resting on me was that I always felt sometimes some of the agencies that I'd worked for, I was never completely happy with the culture that was had been developed. And I was like, "The only way you can really change that is obviously rising to CEO of a big PR company, or create your own thing, and then create the culture that you want alongside your co- founder that you expect," and that you want your employees to deal with. 

So, there was those things that were always playing on my mind that were saying, "Mark. Mark, at some point, you need to do this. Otherwise, you're going to regret it." And then, I mean, obviously, one of the benefits of being in Singapore is the landscape for, I think, setting up a business, but also the landscape for startups. 

So, every day, I was going into INSEAD. And across the road is Block 71. And block 71 is just a melting pot of incubators, VCs, startups. And you're seeing that every day and it's just again gnawing at you saying, "There are many signs here saying you should do your own thing." So, it was always there. But honestly, I think because I was surrounded by entrepreneurs at INSEAD, because I was surrounded by entrepreneurs of Block 71 and the kind of chatter coming from the government in Singapore about the startup industry, I think it was those things that were like, "Okay. If you're ever going to do this, you're going to do it now," because you're not going to do it if you move back to the UK or the US. That's definitely not going to happen. 

The landscape is a bit more difficult. I think it's not as start-up friendly in many, many ways unless she went to San Francisco. So, yeah, I think all those things came together. And it pushed me to say, "Okay. I'm going to do what I've always been saying I'm going to do, is I'm going to do comms better." And now, it's going to be on my head if this doesn't work. 

Jeremy Au (17:17):So, you decided to do comms for startups and do it by setting up your own thing- 

Mark Johnson (17:22): Yes. 

Jeremy Au (17:23): 

... which is another double transition because you've got to build a company. And you're also building out a new vertical of communications because, historically, like you say, communications is seen as crisis control to reduce the damage, is used to do product launches and releases. 

So, there's assumption. There's a large budget that already exists at some level. And for startups, they have small budget tight resources, not a lot of time actually even. And also frankly, not yet experienced and how to work with communications professionals. So, you chose the hottest vertical to go after, I guess, to build a new business and- 

Mark Johnson (18:07): 

Yeah. I mean there has to be said something for also stepping back and going, "Okay. You are diving into an area where you're going to have a lot longer conversations when it comes to budgets and things like this," and as you say, a lot less experience. And also, you're a startup. So, you're both the CEO, the CFO. You were also doing marketing work. You're fulfilling a lot of roles especially at the start, but there's also a flip side that still convinced me that this was worthwhile. 

I mean with budgets and sort of payments and things like that, there's always a way to work things out in terms of... And so, we're very flexible in terms of how we do that. Sometimes, it's very straight up kind of payments. And, sometimes, it's milestone based. So, there's a way to work around that. But what convinced me to do, it was actually how fresh a lot of the startups were to communications. And in many ways, that's a beautiful thing because, actually, again like I said to you, the kind of structures you hit your head up against when you're working with big corporates, I mean I've done work with say someone like Audi before which I had a great time doing, but I don't think I'd necessarily be able to introduce too many innovations into their communications and push them in a direction that I thought maybe was right, but they were not so sure of. 

That's a hard sell whereas I find that with startups, there's a lot of faith because they've got to have faith in a lot of different things in order to make it work. And so, you have this relationship where it's very much like a partnership rather than a kind of client consultancy. They need you as a partner. And that allows you to really get in there along as that's where the relationship is and I think ensure that comms and the DNA flows through everything rather than it just being a, "Hey, we're coming in to just do this, like you say, product launch." 

And I think that for me was what convinced me that it was really worthwhile to double down on this kind of, like you say, vertical. And although it's going to be difficult and there's a lot of educating to do, it's also in the long term really viable and worthwhile doing. 

Jeremy Au (20:17): 

So, I've been the founder who's been on the other side of the table to communications professionals calmly explaining to me A, B, and C. So, for the benefit of obviously all the other founders, what's the benefits of bringing on a communications professional because, yes, I do need to do press releases? Yes, I need to articulate A and B and C. And yes, I post on social media. I don't get the message out. But why do I need a communications professional to help me with this fuzzy word called communications? 

Mark Johnson (20:54): 

That's a very good question. Honestly, it's because communications is everything. So, everything you do is about communication. So, if you think about it from... So, there's a big thing about authenticity today where companies that are more authentic, they do better generally. And statistics show this. If you're not authentic and you haven't got your messaging right internally and all of this stuff, then, the bigger you go, the faster you move, the more the wheels are going to come off. 

So, the way I look is just think about every single day of what you do. Every part of that is communications. And if you work with someone who understands that and can get that right at the start, that helps your growth. And it makes your growth so much easier. 

If you think about when you're going in front of an investor, rather than doing those last-minute investor kind of touch-ups, why not have your DNA and messaging done much earlier so that it can be authentic with an investor? It can be authentic with your future potential staff that when you even come to a crisis, you actually manage crises far better when you've allowed communications to flow through everything you do. And also, it's storytelling. 

People are obsessed with storytelling. Your online footprint is storytelling, every time you're in a room with people with storytelling. And, again, if you get that right, that's a huge difference between success and failure. And so, for me, the reason why it's so important is because you can't hide from communications. And it is so vital to everything you do that, again, if you have people there supporting you and providing you that feedback and guidance, it can help you in so many different parts of your business. 

And I would say this. You'll be surprised by how often... So, I often do this thing with founders where I get them by themselves. And I ask them, "Tell me about your business." You'll be surprised by even companies that have raised a little bit how different the versions of the company are. And that only becomes more tricky to handle and to work with the bigger you get. So, again, I think it just goes back to that's why because I think comms, whatever you want to call it, because I think people call it different things and PR and all this stuff, it's much more than a press release. 

Actually, if you want to get yourself some, I don't know, noise, a press release is the last thing you want to be doing because that's you kind of trying to beg the media to give you space. But, actually, comms is about help having a comms person help you develop relationship with journalists way before ahead of time so that when you do come to wanting to make a big splash, you've already got those relationships. So, it's all of those things. It's not just the kind of surface level. It's so much below that. And again, I go back to the words. It's your DNA of a company. And comms helps that flow for everything you do. 

Jeremy Au (23:38): 

Yeah. That's all good and great, but I'm a founder that doesn't have much cash. So, when should I bring in a communications professional because, yeah, sure if I'm a unicorn, I definitely will have communication professionals that have hired myself. So, somewhere along the way, I'm showing the agency. But when should I be thinking about bringing someone on professionally to support me? 

Mark Johnson (24:02): 

I think there's an element that obviously when you're really, really early, early stage startup and we do this. When we work with some of the incubators, you have some very early stage ones where you may be just providing them with tools. So, I do think there's a lot of stuff out there right now where if you're that early, you can find online. There's a lot of more people that have digitalized lessons and things like that. 

And I would say that maybe sometimes it is too early. But I think as soon as you start thinking when you've started getting SEED rounds and stuff like that and things are starting to move because it moves quickly, that's when you actually should be thinking of it. And the reason why I say that is that there are a lot of very high quality. There are different types of agencies out there that can actually really, really help. 

And so, I do think there are options out there. I wouldn't always say that you have the big BMOs. And of course, your budget's going to come nowhere near that. But I do think again if you understand and start looking very early on, you actually understand what type of agency is going to work for you especially a fit as a partner but a fit as a budget. And I think those two things, you can actually work out. 

I think what the problem is, is often people leave it, and then suddenly have a product launch, or then suddenly have pitching to investors or whatever it is. And they're going for a new seed or a new round of raising. And they need to get the word out there. And that's when it doesn't work because, actually, you've not done the due diligence beforehand. So, I think for me, it's actually worth engaging quite early on, but not too early. 

And it's definitely worth your budget. And you actually can find a lot of... There are options out there where companies can be very flexible to actually match your needs. And that goes back to the partnership thing. Find someone who's going to be a partner rather than sort of that very died in the wall, very rigid client agency relationship. Hey, you want a press release? Okay, we're going to charge you for free press releases. 

I don't think that type of thing works. So, for me, actually, it's like anything in life when you're having a service. Have a conversation and find out actually what value they're going to bring to you. And I actually say this every time I do webinars and podcasts. If they sell you some very rigid structures like again, "Hey we're just going to do this, this and this." And if they give you a team that looks nothing like the team that's actually supporting you, when they come for the pitch or they sit down with you, those are all warning signs. 

So, those are things that I've seen happen. And I think if you're just very smart about how you do it, comms agency can be a very important partner for your growth. 

Jeremy Au (26:33): 

So, you talk about yellow flags, red flags, and also talking about how to distinguish between better agencies versus worse agency. So, how do I, as a founder, obviously start saying to myself, "Okay. I've raised my SEED round. I'm going to raise my series A in a year and a half. I got to build this product, et cetera. I have a small budget. I'm going to deploy some of it on marketing and maybe a little bit in communication." So, I have a small budget here. I'm starting to think about it. And I start asking my friends for recommendations. 

So, I was like, "Hey, buddy. Who do you recommend for comms or anything or who can help out?" And some people draw some names. And I have a list of 10 to 20 names. So, how would I, as a founder, tell the difference between a good salesman versus a good agency that's going to deliver good results? 

Mark Johnson (27:25): 

I think you do two things. One, I think information is everywhere now. Literally as a company, it's almost like I do this crisis columns workshop because I'm like, "Every day can be a crisis, or every day can be an issue," because information is out there. 

So, even with kind of agencies, you can actually do a little bit of digging and find out who their client base is. Well, most of them have them on their website and just have a look at some of the campaigns and some of the work they've done for them. You can actually find that stuff quite easily. It's like anything. You don't buy a car blindly. You do a bit of research even for the place you're going to buy it from. 

I think the same sort of thing applies. I think you can actually look around. I'm not going to name any of our competitors right now. But you can actually see. I think within an hour be able to point you in the direction of these are clearly signs of a good company. You understand startups, understands their journey and what they need. And these are ones that say they do it, but they don't really do it. It's maybe if they can get a client or not. 

And then, I think, also, I always think you're in the position of power. Basically, agencies want to work with you. And, therefore, utilize that. Have them come and sit down with you. But don't do it in a formal way where, so, it's called an RFP where you go and pitch and blah, blah, blah, blah. I don't think you find out much from that type of thing. But actually, see how they are. If they want to have a copy chat, do a bit of testing and see even if you ask a very basic question, we've got this coming up. Any quick suggestions, obviously, we're having a conversation maybe about budgets as well. 

You can utilize your position of power to find out more information and find out how willing they are to engage with you, be your partner, and all these different things. And I also just think when the startup world is super small. So, if a few of your friends are saying they are fantastic, you're honestly going to probably find out that they are fantastic. 

So, I think if you do those things, you're going to be able to find clearly the better ones within the space than other ones. And also, it depends on your industry. Some are far better at, I don't know, if you're doing fast moving consumer goods. There are ones that are better than other ones. And you've got to see what works for you in that sense. 

Jeremy Au (29:43): 

So, what I'm hearing from you is, step one, have a real conversation with them, and hang out with them. And, two, see if they really get startups. And then, thirdly, of course, is hopefully, they have a body of work that's relevant to the vertical that you're in as well. How do you know if an agency gets startups because they all walk in. And they're all like, "Okay. These are the five unicorns in your space." And they all had this brand image. And that's how we're going to communicate. So, it looks like they get startups. 

It's hard to tell who gets it versus doesn't get it. I think from my past experience, I think vertical experience is the most obvious because they'll walk in the bake-off or the pitch moment and tell you all about the five companies they've already done in healthcare or whatever it is to show off the industry vertical experience. 

But I think the startup being able to know and appreciate who a founder is and the direction, that's a very tough thing to see or measure or compare. So, I'm just curious how you think about it. 

Mark Johnson (30:52): 

I think you can come into a meeting. And again, I've been part of big pitches where you've walked in you've. You've got the lingo down and all this kind of stuff. But this is why I say also be careful not to... You can deformalize things, so, by having a coffee, by having a chat. I think if you feel like they understand what you're going through, as well as you pull it next to all of these other things which is your body of work and all this stuff, I think what I mean by understanding startups, it's not just, "Oh, we understand getting you to a unicorn status because that's what we did last week for so and so." 

But also, we understand what you're going to be going through from a budget position, from a staffing position. We understand the pressures or the difficulties you may have. And we're here again as a partner to understand those and help you deliver first-class communications with the knowledge of those types of things. And I think, for me, that's not just reeling off words that all startups understand and show you understand it a little bit. It actually shows that you know what they're going to be going through a little bit more fundamental which, again, I think is super important because if you don't understand what the startup's going to go through on a day-to-day level and all of these things, how can you understand how they're going to deliver first-class comms because if they're being pulled over here, you've got to understand that and work around that particular thing in order to deliver for them. 

So, I think there's an authenticity that works back the other way that I think if you just have a bit more time with them and get that partnership right, I think that's very, very important. And I think one of the reasons I go back to what I said earlier is that the problem is obviously it's left quite late to the point where you really need an agency. And then, you don't have time to get to know whether they're the right fit for you. And then, you go with the ones that have the biggest numbers. And that's obviously the danger. And it's not always easy to get right. 

But again, I think when you spend your time with them and really get to understand whether they understand what you're going through, I think that's a vitally important aspect of that partnership. 

Jeremy Au (32:57): 

Now, I really like what you said which is I think at the end of day, when you deformalize the thing, it can let you move away from the glossiness of it and really probe the real human side of it which I really like which is do they understand this, not just obviously your vertical, but also the fact that you are a startup in terms of the company stage in terms of way of work. But, lastly, I think the smart thing you're also saying is also really understanding the company yourself, the client/direction. And the fact is that for many startups is still being formed in motion. It's still a work in progress at best. 

Mark Johnson (33:39): 

And I think that's an important thing to reiterate, is that sort of look for an agency that feels like they're flexible, almost they've got a little bit of the startup attitude with you. And, again, I think there are some fantastic ones sort of out there because they need to be a bit flexible. Again, we're not working with a corporate where you can say, "We've got this budget. And we've got this milestone. And let's get some media attention. And let's do X, Y and Z." Things shift all the time with startups. 

And you've got to have a team and have an agency and have a partnership that can shift with that a little bit. That's the reality. If an agency can't work with that kind of world, then they should really focus on not startups. It should be much later because it's a lot easier. It's a lot more structured. It makes a lot more sense. 

So, I think they've almost have a feeling, like, you have a feeling that they have this kind of ability to adapt and be flexible because that's the only way you can make it I think, a successful sort of partnership, and help a startup in the long run. 

Jeremy Au (34:44): 

Right. And so, let's just say that you managed to pick someone who's not terrible, hopefully, above average to good. How should a founder be thinking about what they need to do to maximize the chances of this being a successful engagement relationship? 

Mark Johnson (35:05): 

I mean I think only engage with an agency really if you're going to be able to find in some capacity the time to be able to do that. Now, again, there's a reality of time and jobs that everyone's doing in the startup. And each startup's different in terms of how they structure themselves. 

But, honestly, one of the struggles that we have or what you have in the industry is because comms often is thought of as a secondary nice to have, that means when you come to engaging with an agency, it still remains a little bit of a secondary nice to have. And therefore, there's not enough time commitment to at least get it to where it needs to be. 

Now, for me, there's a reality there. You're not always going to have access to the people all the time and things like that. But I think if you're going to engage with an agency, one of the most important things to making a successes at the start at the very least, when you're mapping out that strategy, when you're really diving into the DNA of the company and the why, why you do because that's what you've mostly got. You may have a good product, but that takes a while to sort of build and tell that story. 

But if you spend the time and double down on that at the start, then, that helps the agency as well as they move forward to understand who you are and get right all of that authenticity stuff. And then, maybe there's more time where you can leave them to almost be your in-house comms department. 

So, I think for me, just only do it if you're serious about the commitment. And, again, because I'm talking about comms being embedded really deeply and what your company does. If you want just a company to pump out a press release, then of course, you can engage them at any time. And they probably have some connections and probably be able to have it somewhere else place. So, that's also a different consideration, I suppose. 

Jeremy Au (36:55): 

And it seems to apply that at a minimum at you need to front load a lot of time to ramp up the agency, to understand the why, the story, the narrative. So, that makes a lot of sense. Any other tips you have for a founder to be able to maximize the value from working with a communications agency a partner? 

Mark Johnson (37:17): 

I think if you get it right, trust them a little bit, I would say. So, again, if you front load it a little bit, I think after that you've then got to put faith in sort of what they're suggesting. They are meant to be your advisors. So, they're not meant to be just so they can get the work done that we can't do We can get it done for a little bit cheaper than, say, maybe having two staff fully employed. That's probably the wrong way to look at an agency. So, have faith in the fact that these are professionals. And they may come to you with some great ideas that can really help elevate your communication, elevate your brand, elevate your positioning. 

So, I think also utilize them. And I know this sounds weird, but I've actually had sort of where we've had clients where I don't feel like they utilized us fully. And so, I'm like, "You're paying for not, I think, really testing the agency." And I'm like, "I think if you're paying money especially as a startup, you should also have expectations that they can come to you with ideas." And that's one of the big things

A friend of mine who's got a startup, she was saying she always just sometimes feels like with agencies, they don't come to you just out of the blue with just continuous ideation. And I think maybe that's what you should set the challenge to your agency, is that you expect them to ideate and come with new ideas as part of your relationship. 

And so, again, I think just don't just allow them to run comms. Expect stuff from them, but also listen to them when they're bringing ideas. And I think if you can do that, then, you're going to get a lot out of your agency. And they're not just going to be ticking over just doing the tick box stuff. They're going to do much more for you. 

Jeremy Au (38:58): 

Yeah. I think it's amazing because you're really talking about having the relationship move away from this being transactional to being a true partnership. And I think that differentiates, I would say, the good for the great agencies because I think the good agencies are transactional and get it done. I think average is transactional. And they sometimes get it done. 

Mark Johnson (39:22): 

Yeah. And there's plenty of agencies out there that fill all of those, but I think you hit a nail on the head 100% that, yeah, the transactional. And again, that can work for some companies. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it doesn't. But like you say, the two really great ones are the ones that go beyond that. And it is a partnership and understand your growth, and what you're trying to do next and what you need to be able to get there. And I think that you can get that. So, yeah, that's absolutely right how you positioned it. 

Jeremy Au (39:50): 

So, I think the tricky part is that for everybody, it's just like, "Okay. If I hire one more engineer, I get to supposedly deliver my product earlier, and get. We'll get paying customers right. And if I hire one more sales rep, they're supposed to bring in this amount of money to the door. 

And then, I look at my comms budget. And I'm like" Whoa. What did I get again?" I got some press releases. I've got some commerce training. We got a few conversations, but it feels like a bit squishy because those articles, I'm not sure how to translate into the business. Comms training was nice to have. So, how do we define success, I guess, on mutual win-win straightforward basis? 

Mark Johnson (40:41): 

I mean I think there is something there. I think that there is some untangibles to communications. I mean if I sell you my phone, there's a transaction there. And I get money, and you get a phone. And it's very straightforward whereas, obviously, yeah, when you're talking about sort of communications, it sometimes feels like intangible, but I do think often that's because it's just a set of deliverables that are, hey, get us a press release and get us here. 

Actually, your job is again, like I said, previously to demand more. And that's why you front load everything, by sitting down and making sure everything's attached to KPIs. So, comms may only may only do 70% of the job of delivering on that KPI, but there is an expectation it does. And so, I'll give an example when you're working in politics. 

The end goal is for me to win an election. Now, there are many strands to win in that election, but comms is a fundamental part of that. And so, do you think you can set some very clear KPIs with... And it's actually one of the failings of both agencies and startups or companies, in general, is not setting very clear KPIs with an understanding that comms will not magically do everything, but it should play a fundamental part to that. 

And I think if you're clear about those at the start, then, I think that wishy-washiness a little bit later, you're able to navigate beyond that because I do think... And again, I think it goes back to the partnership stuff because I think if you've not developed that kind of relationship, I'm sure plenty of agencies don't necessarily really want to have very clear KPIs because, then, if you don't have clear KPIs, you're not really held negatively against them and all this stuff. 

But I think if you actually choose the right agency and also you're very serious about putting in the effort to have comms, then, I think you can sell it against KPIs that actually do make sense to you. And also, I think it's about having an open and honest relationship. I think, again, I go back to... I think you should always be able to speak to an agency and say, "Is this of value to me?" If I get in, I don't know, tech in Asia, is that actually going to do anything for me or what is it you're giving me which is why I always say this is more than just PR. It's about comms because there are many different parts of the function of comms that actually bring value to you. 

So, I think again, it's about being clear and open and honest about what actually your needs are and what's actually a value to your company. And I think again a good agency who wants to really be your partner and go beyond transactional, are the ones that also are saying that our success is this, this, and this. And it's not just getting you a nice founder picture in I don't know, Tech in Asia with a good article.  And I'm not saying that's actually not useful. I'm just saying that's not the be on the end door of everything to do with communications. 

Jeremy Au (43:33): 

Yeah. Definitely true. I mean I think everybody wants to be on Tech in Asia and TechCrunch. And I often share and say, "This is great especially if you're looking at two VCs and fundraising." But is it where your customer is? If your customer is in automobile shops, they're probably not reading TechCrunch or Tech in Asia. They're probably reading something else. And so, I think some of that communication strategy and clarity is important. 

Mark Johnson (43:59): 

One thing I would say... Sorry. I think it's something I haven't said yet, but the most key... Honestly, the key thing is that often gets forgotten who is your audience. And I really do mean this is that I often am surprised by how little thought sometimes goes into thinking about who is this for. And you're absolutely right. And I think if you double down on really trying to understand your audience and why you're doing what you're doing and to who you're trying to speak to, and where do they live, that will save you a whole manner of time of wasting on things that are just... because it's also time consuming 

writing an article and having your input, and then pitching blah, blah, blah if it's of little value. 

And it's not speaking to the audience, then, then why are you even bothering to do it? And so, I think again, that goes back to doing a lot of the work at the start. It's like identifying and understanding and mapping the audiences and matching your communications and your narrative, and storytelling to them. And that's literally probably the most fundamental thing that often gets done wrong that is so essential to, I think, success in this case. 

Jeremy Au (45:08): 

Well, something to wrap things up here, obviously, you've gone through a lot of transitions both in geography as well as in career to basically master communications here. I'm just kind of curious, have there been any tough times or adversity where you've had to be brave. 

Mark Johnson (45:29): 

I mean I think brave is a very subjective word because I think there's so many things that people are brave about every single day even at work. It's like talking out when you're scared of your boss. And I've seen that still happen many times and getting up in front of people to starting off podcasts and things like that. 

I think for me, the resilience that comes with having to do this especially during COVID where you have a massive peak with healthcare clients to trough when everyone's like, "Okay. This is not going to go away. Let's tighten our budgets." And I think there's an element of when we're all ego... not egotistical, but we all have our sort of ego, you want to be proud of yourself. And I think it takes a lot to actually just keep on pushing and still be driven that what you're doing is right and what you want to do. And this is what you want to deliver on. 

And I think it feels more brave for me that I'm still doing this even through the peaks and troughs versus probably just going back into corporate and nice monthly wage that is very, very nice. And you've got the contracts and all these kind of things. And so, for me, I've been surprised because I've always been. I've been in politics. I've been in corporate. And so, I think for me, I feel like it's been brave with the support of people to just keep on doing it through those peaks and troughs and have faith in that and with hard work, it's going to be good in the long term. So, yeah, I think that's probably where I'd feel most brave. 

Jeremy Au (47:01): 

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming in the show. I really appreciate. I think the three big teams that really jumped out at me, I think, the first, of course, was your personal journey across countries in pursuit of love, but also in pursuit of what you really are passionate about which is about the storytelling and communication side. And it's just been amazing to see that as someone who's listening to your story for the first time. 

And I think the second thing, of course, I really appreciate it was obviously your domain mastery around how to pick the right communications partner for better for worse, I'm sure. But I think it's very thoughtful because I think most founders are very much in their position of having to pick their first agency. And I think you give them some very good tips around how to look past the glossiness and really get to the heart of it about whether they actually do understand not just the vertical and not just communications, but also understand the founder and the startup fundamentally right where they are today and where they need to go. 

And, lastly of course, I really appreciated you sharing, of course, and multiple times of the episode. Really, your journey at being a founder yourself of setting up business that you want to do both through the good times and the bad and still keeping going. So, I think that's really amazing because well, at minimum, you understand what a founder is going through. So, thank you so much, Mark. 

Mark Johnson (48:30): 

No, no. Thank you. And I really appreciate the time on this and doing a startup and things like that. You really get to understand the grind, but also the good stuff. And so, I think it's always really, really nice to share. And I think again the more people that can hear about communications especially looking through all the thing the subject matters on your podcast of the previous episodes, there's so much information there. And obviously, comms, it's not always the first thing that people get to hear about. So, it's great to have an opportunity just to talk about why it's so important. 

And, yeah, also how to pick an agency. And I will say this. There are some really irrespective of the one I set up. There are actually some fantastic agencies out there who really do get startups, but just take your time and look for the right one. That's probably the most important thing. 

Jeremy Au (49:18):Or you can reach out to Mark on LinkedIn or email for his list. And then, you talk to him, and you 

compare him against the people he recommends. 

Mark Johnson (49:28): 100%. 

Jeremy Au (49:31):All right. So, don't forget to visit his website. What's your domain name? 

Mark Johnson (49:35): Seed-Strategies.com

Jeremy Au (49:38): 

Awesome. Well, if you like, make sure you go to the site and check him out. And if you like the show, feel free to like and follow and feel free. We will be having a discussion thread about this episode on club.jeremyau.com. All right. Thank you, everybody. 

Mark Johnson (49:57): Thank you. 

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