JOHANN Kee Keah Yu, a Penangite and an ad agency owner, has a vision to improve the advertising landscape in his home state.
He does not want to see agencies there devolve into an unhealthy price competition. He believes there is room to cooperate and develop a better ad industry in the northern region.
Kee, who began his advertising career about a decade ago at Saatchi Saaatchi in Petaling Jaya and Singapore, is the creative and operations director of Penang-based Megan Nathaneal Sdn Bhd.
Last year his agency became the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia’s (4As) first representative office for the northern region.
This came about after Kee spoke to the then-new 4As president Datuk Johnny Mun on how to boost the creative economy in Penang and bring more credibility to the industry there.
Kee, like many heads of Penang agencies, had at one time been reluctant to join the 4As as the latter was perceived as a Klang Valley-only association.
Today, he is a changed man, He wants to spread the word to other agencies in the northern region that being a 4As member comes with many benefits.
For one, the 4As has decades of legacy in experimentation and industry improvement.
“Why not take advantage of the experience of the people who have helped grow the advertising landscape in Malaysia?” Kee tells StarBizWeek in Petaling Jaya.
The agencies in the northern region can raise their standards through training, in which he says the 4As has done exceptionally well. Kee himself attended the Astro-4As Advanced Leadership Programme (ALP) in Shah Alam late last year.
“ALP is just one of its programmes. The 4As has been a really valuable extension (for learning). For example, a lot of agencies do not know much about GST (goods and services tax, to be introduced next year). The 4As has done the training in the Klang Valley and given me the contact details for doing a GST training programme in Penang,” he says.
The 4As has only three Penang members currently – the others being Shinajii Sdn Bhd and Broncos Worldwide Sdn Bhd.
However, Kee expects the number of northern region members to at least double following an outreach programme to be held by the 4As in Penang on Friday next week for ad agencies, media companies and advertising clients.
Agencies from the northern region need pay only half the standard fee to join the 4As. Another incentive is they need not achieve the same amount of Boomerang points annually as their Klang Valley counterparts in order to remain members.
Kee estimates that there are 20 to 30 agencies in Penang, which are about the same size as his eight-person agency. These agencies are driven mainly by property-type advertising work.
He says in a small market like Penang, there’s always the concern about price undercutting.
“Megan Nathanael is trying to reverse that thinking by charging higher − not lower − through providing better-than-expected results. A lot of clients appreciate the fact that though they’re paying a little more, they are getting so much in return.”
Kee says the way to drive up work is by going for training. “Advertising today is different from advertising 20 years ago. The platform to advertise is different with new markets opening up and the emergence of social media.”
He believes there is sufficient advertising work to go around in Penang.
Besides the traditional property work, he says fast-moving consumer goods is potentially a new category to be explored by the northern region agencies, along with retail, food and beverage, and hotels.
Moreover, Penang is attracting a lot of investments, assisted by the state government’s CAT (competency, accountability and transparency) policy.
He says that the northern region is also home to a lot of small and medium-scale industries (SMIs) that would be lost in terms of doing proper brand-building.
Kee loves working with small brands, citing a successful campaign he did for St Nicholas’ Home for the Blind in Penang.
“Money is money, but at the same time, it is satisfying seeing your work creating visibility for the brand and impacting people’s lives positively.”
He advises the SMIs to look at growing their brands by seeking professional advice from 4As-accredited agencies to ensure a certain level of experience and know-how.
Kee doesn’t mind working with clients with a limited budget. “There are companies charging a lot of money for a logo, but we’re realistic. Let’s look at the dividends later. Let’s grow your brand to its fullest potential. We can even work on a profit sharing basis.”
Kee, who started in advertising 11 years ago, recalls being driven by the success of Portland, Oregon-based ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. The latter, known for its Nike campaigns, is among the world’s most awarded ad agencies.
“They brought their brand of advertising to the client without having to move to where the client was based. For the love of the island, I haven’t been able to detach myself from Penang. A lot of people still see Penang as a tropical getaway,” he says.
Kee says he hopes the abundant opportunities in Penang will help attract back talents who have migrated to other parts of the country.
On fresh talents, he says he is also working to give the fresh graduates in Penang “more exposure” in order to be industry-ready. “I’ve spoken to (KL-based training company) 95% The Advertising Academy about possibly having some programmes up north as well.”
Megan Nathanael is seeking collaboration with other agencies so it can help clients explore new territories.
“My agency, for example, does not specialise in TV commercials. Rather than taking the approach of never proposing TV commercials to our clients, we’re starting to look at various angles. As for digital, we’ve been talking to Petaling Jaya-based Amphibia Digital.”
How confident is he about doubling the 4As members from the northern region? “Once the clients start accepting the 4As as a stronger platform to work with, naturally more agencies will also come onboard. The pie is big enough in Penang and agencies can work together,” he says.
Kee says being a 4As member gives agencies in the northern region a chance to network and collaborate to create “a new landscape − an environment where we don’t have to send our children off to KL and elsewhere to attend art schools. It shouldn’t be agency against agency (in a price war) or clients dictating to the agencies. There has to be a healthy level of competition, and at the same time, there must be a platform where we can all work together.”
A better future for Penang agencies