Farrell Tan, Founding Director of Orchan Consulting Asia tells us about offering specific industry-related training for clients.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Farrell Tan: The pandemic certainly has been challenging. I am lucky enough to have my health, to have a home, and to be able to put food on the table, which is far more than what some people have at the moment. Working from home (WFH) has actually been a great experience; I’ve learnt to appreciate my home much more and work at a pace (and times) that best suits my experience of the lockdowns and ongoing community crisis).
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Orchan Consulting Asia.
Farrell Tan: I started my career in banking but felt that it wasn’t right for me from the get-go. I was lucky that I had prior experience in advertising (I did my internship with a local agency a few years prior), so I made the jump back into advertising the minute the opportunity was made available to me. I worked as a ‘suit’ (basically a project manager, but more commonly known as account servicing in the ad world) on brands such as Coca-Cola, F&N, Levi’s, and Hong Leong Bank before I was headhunted to join yet another agency to work on the British American Tobacco account on brands such as Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strike.
Besides being a suit on both accounts, I was also exposed to event management as tobacco at the time was entering into what was called ‘the dark market.’ Above-the-line marketing activity opportunities were limited, so we had to find other ways to reach and connect to consumers — hence the ‘birth’ of on-ground events.
There was also a huge shift for agencies to be 360 degrees at the time, and my agency was no different. Management decided to kick-start a PR arm within the group, and I was selected to ‘give it a go.’ We trained under a Regional Head specifically hired to train newbies like us on the fundamentals of PR for about a year before we – the PR arm – was introduced to the market. We then pitched and won a slew of accounts such as Heineken, Nokia, Unilever, and Sara Lee, and I finally felt that I found my calling. I decided to hone my skills with the agency for a few years before I was headhunted to work on the regional P&G business for brands such as Pantene, Head & Shoulders, Rejoice, and Olay.
Fast forward a few years, and I have had the opportunity to work on a range of businesses across multiple industries. It was then that I decided that I needed to give entrepreneurship a go, and that was how Orchan was born. We’ve been around for 11 years, and the ride has been interesting (to say the least), and the experience garnered invaluable.
How does Orchan Consulting Asia innovate?
Farrell Tan: I would say, primarily by not being “yes men.” Our industry is known for followers and for those that say “yes” to every client request. “Say yes, and then figure out how to deliver later” is all-too-common, but it is also wrong. We take on the role of strategic counsel (parallel that to the function of lawyers, but for the communications industry) – our job is to advise clients, show opportunities, but also be realistic about not only their expectations but their ideas too. Public relations, and its related activities, is not the only thing we do – and it certainly isn’t something that operates in a silo. A good PR person gets you exposure; a great PR person helps you develop all aspects of your brand to ensure that exposure means something!
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Farrell Tan: There are some interesting impacts. The typical would be the decline in new clientele. As the pandemic impacts almost every business, this global crisis has halted and altered the plans of many businesses. As a B2B service, we are reliant on our clients proceeding with their plans so that we can then represent those. Several clients we were working within late 2019 / early 2020 put the ‘brakes on with their projects very early in on the pandemic, slowing things down – things which are only now starting to take fruition again.
Our role changed too. PR had a unique opportunity to take a stronger role in broader strategic direction for clients and to work with them in ‘community problem solving’ – being both pivoting client businesses, business continuity planning, and community involvement.
Our pivot was to go full force into training initiatives. We offer specific industry-related training for our clients (e.g., Crisis Communications; Social Media Strategy; PR Strategy Development; Communications & Writing Development) and have done for the past eight years or so; the pandemic gave us an opportunity to take our training online and service clients overseas (without having to physically be in the location), as well as to introduce new training topics to the repertoire – Business Continuity Planning; Community Communications; Social Media Policy; Personal-Professional Branding; and Point of View / Influence Communications. These have been popular, and we continue to work with clients and providers in providing timely and relevant opportunities for their teams.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Farrell Tan: We have, and they were challenging. Trying to keep an even keel can be difficult, but it’s also part of everyone’s business journey.
The work from home (WFH) experience has been great – in fact, it allowed us to try some new things with our teams, and this worked well. We were also quite early to the game in offering Remote Internships – this having some very positive results.
Our decision to pivot more toward training paid off, but so too, to also explore new business opportunities has been a wise one. We are nearing the platform launch of our second business, The Third Degree, an edutech platform for research students. The business challenges associated with 2020 gave us the time to explore and invest in new business opportunities. The lesson here; never be afraid to pivot, and do explore all opportunities, as the right one could be staring you in the face.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Farrell Tan: Our usage of on-the-go communication apps increased – Whatsapp & Telegram have become a central and comfortable communication route for us, especially with team members outside of Malaysia. Zoom has also become a great tool for internal communications and client engagement.
Our leadership style didn’t really need to change. We’ve always been quite hands-on, so in tune with what’s happening. We did, however, spend more time evaluating opportunities for clients in light of the ever-changing landscape, and a stronger collaborative approach to that created further benefits.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Farrell Tan: We typically compete against the established local agencies. 2020 has seen more freelancers enter the playing field, and they are capable of servicing smaller clients – clients too like the lower costs associated with ‘no overheads, small teams, etc.’ For us, we compete on our ideas and ability to execute, plus the fact that we are not frozen in the PR mentality – we understand the linkages at all levels and can advise and support accordingly.
That’s our key difference at Orchan – we are a specialist brand and communications agency rather than a boutique PR agency. What we bring to the table is different, is enhanced, and is backed up with many years of experience supporting clients beyond their PR and communications functions.
Your final thoughts?
Farrell Tan: The world is collectively facing a crisis. This is not a unique brand crisis, but for our generations, it is a crisis that we have not experienced the magnitude of before. We are all “feeling our way”, trying to come to grips with increasing uncertainty and with challenging conditions. Our approach has to be more community-oriented – we can’t treat this like a brand crisis and expect to get the same results. It’s simply all too new. That being said, though, our “new normal” is now our “normal” for the time being; embrace it, move forward, and stop looking back – the future is not going to look like the past anymore – new lessons, new trends, new patterns. Discover those!