In life, learning from our mistakes is one of the most important ways to grow. Like all of us, digital marketers make plenty of errors, especially early in their careers when we’re learning the ropes. Many of these learning opportunities happen because of something we didn’t consider or even realise we had to consider.
Our strength comes from what we do afterwards: what we take away from the mistake, and how we shape our future because of it.
Back at the beginning of his career as an international marketing executive, Alvin Tham, now-Marketing Director at MindChamps, made a mistake. A pretty bad one: using marketing materials at a convention in Dubai that modelled a woman in a sleeveless dress. Locally a big ‘no no’ culturally especially in the early 2000s.
The campaign flopped, but this taught him a valuable lesson that has stayed with him throughout his very successful career: always adapt your campaigns to your target audience.
In this interview, Alvin runs us through his career and talks about how important it is to grow your skillset through diversification.
Hi, Alvin, thank you for joining us in our Marketing Expert Series. Let’s kick off with some basics, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get to where you are now?
When I landed at university, I chose to double-major in Economics and Finance for my bachelor’s programme because I thought I wanted a career in banking. However, it didn’t take me too long to realise that I wasn’t actually all that interested in banking.
Upon graduation, I was offered two jobs: one in banking and one as a marketing communications assistant for an events company.
Essentially, I was faced with a choice of two paths – a numbers-driven, higher starting pay opportunity at the bank and a fun, but lower-starting salary marcomm role that was more aligned with my own interests.
I went for the latter.
The Marcom assistant role was a contract role that lasted 3 months, but I used it as an opportunity to see if I want a long-term role in marketing and tried to learn as much as I can. After 3 months, I was offered a permanent position in the company doing international marketing.
This role allowed me to travel extensively, organising marketing campaigns literally across the globe, including Australia, UK, Germany, France, Italy, USA, UAE, China etc. It was during this time that I fell in love with marketing.
After the experience in Dubai – my grave error in judgment when I had very little guidance – I implemented changes and shifted my approach and my mindset.
One of these initiatives was the creation of multi-lingual brochures for trade market events. I remember my boss at the time asking if it was really necessary, but the results spoke for themselves – attendees were very grateful to be able to read brochures in their mother tongue. It was not something that was done very often at trade fairs like this, but it was soon widely adopted by international trade events around the world.
Since then, I’ve made a point of switching industries every few years; I learn what I can in one role and when I feel like I’m getting comfortable, I move on to the next. This has allowed me to gain a very broad view of the role that marketing plays in different industries. It’s kept me on my toes and it’s helped keep my creativity alive.
I completed an MBA with Singapore Management University and IE Business School in 2015 and now, as Marketing Director at MindChamps I can put all that experience to good use.
I even teach MBA courses – something I enjoy because not only can I pass on my knowledge, but as a lecturer, I have access to a large library of the latest studies and insights. You could say I’m being paid to update my marketing knowledge!
I love talking about marketing, it’s a real passion – and sharing this with my students gives me immense joy.
What about your achievements – is there something that sticks out? A ‘most memorable’ achievement or proudest moment in your career so far?
I try to leave my mark at every company I’ve worked at, it gives me immense satisfaction to know that I’ve contributed in some way to the future success of the company even though I’ve left. I’ve always felt some attachment to the companies I’ve worked for.
One key memorable achievement that stands out for me is how I set up a new marketing team when I was working for the National Library Board (NLB) under the Public Libraries division.
I was brought in to set up and head a new marketing team to elevate the way we connect and engage with library users. We had 27 public libraries in Singapore when I was there. Each library managed its own Facebook page, which obviously wasn’t ideal.
I had to convince the teams behind these pages that one combined Public Libraries page would be better to engage Singaporeans as a whole, and that cross-promotion across libraries would be more effective.
It wasn’t easy, but I led my team to achieve this, and we even got our page authenticated by Facebook (the blue tick!) before the NLB main Facebook page. This experience was a highlight to me.
You’re the Marketing Director at MindChamps. What is MindChamps all about?
MindChamps PreSchool holds the Number One position in the market share of premium range preschools in Singapore with a market share of 38.5%*. It is the only preschool to be listed on the Singapore stock exchange (SGX mainboard). Its growing global presence includes premium preschools and enrichment centres in Australia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Based on a cutting edge scientifically researched curriculum, MindChamps is helmed by a highly experienced management team and an esteemed MindChamps World Research, Advisory & Education Team, chaired by world-renowned Neuroscientist Emeritus Professor Allan Snyder (Fellow of the Royal Society).
Currently, MindChamps is the only educational institute to collaborate with Emeritus Professor Snyder on the empirical research of the 3 minds model of education – the Champion, the Creative and the Leaning Minds, which is uniquely built into the MindChamps curriculum.
MindChamps’ unrelenting commitment to excellence in cultivating young minds has led to the organization being honoured with some of the most sought-after industry awards in the Singapore education sector, as well as industry-wide recognition in the fields of intellectual property, franchise management and branding.
This includes being ranked amongst the top 50 of Singapore’s fastest growing companies in 2019 and 2020 by The Straits Times and German-based global research firm Statista; winning the Influential Brands©’ Top Brands Award for eight consecutive years (2014-2022, 2020 was a year in which the awards didn’t take place) and the Superbrands© Mark of Distinction for nine years in a row (2014-2022), the influencer Brands Top Employer Award (2019 and 2020) and the 2017 Dun & Bradstreet Business Eminence Awards.
MindChamps was ranked in the top 1000 of Singapore companies for 5 consecutive years in Singapore 1000 Awards (2011-2015) and 8th out of 50 top companies in the 2017 Enterprise 50 Awards.
In 2021, MindChamps was ranked 58th in Brand Finance’s top 100 Brands in Singapore, being the highest new entrant and the only preschool on the list.
*Based on Independent market research as of 15 September 2017
I’ve been in the industry for some time, almost 4 years, and it is a highly competitive industry because there are many brands, and many preschools in the premium segment of the market. Singapore has always been known for its education and preschool is part of this.
I can say it is one of the most competitive industries I’ve worked in all of my 17 years of marketing experience.
Here, every day counts, and a day lost in performance marketing can spell disaster in the form of not being able to meet our lead targets for the month. We need to also be unique in our marketing approach, as most preschools have similar marketing messages. We have to be different and present ourselves differently.
Is there a part of your role at MindChamps that enjoy most?
I enjoy marketing work, and working for a publicly listed, award-winning brand is highly rewarding as a marketer.
Also, I am personally very invested in education. I believe wholly that education is the biggest and most influential social leveler.
I am also a parent of a young child (22 months) at a MindChamps preschool, and seeing how she is growing and learning in school brings me great joy, knowing that I’m doing my part in this organisation.
The last few years must have been a rollercoaster ride for you and your team. How did COVID-19 affect your strategies?
COVID-19 certainly affected a lot of people, including the preschool industry. On a whole, education is probably one of the industries that are least impacted as classes got brought online, and more adult students start signing up for programmes (I also started teaching during Covid year in 2020) as more and more people work from home.
However, it was a huge challenge for preschools in particular because while it remains an essential service, where our centres remain open for parents in essential services, the rest of the students need to continue their classes online so their development would not be impacted.
Bringing preschool lessons to the digital platform was a big challenge in the industry, but I think we did well to introduce home-based learning programmes that kept a lot of parents with us.
Just prior to the pandemic, marketing events like the one I organised for my previous company Busy Bees in Suntec City garnered a lot of interest, brand awareness and leads.
During COVID, I had to bring such events online, and I remember being the first in the industry to organise a preschool webinar for parents in 2020, which was well received.
Digital marketing also became an essential part of our outreach since Covid hit, and I believe I speak for many marketers that a lot of us were forced to learn more about performance marketing during this time to ensure our marketing targets continue to be met during this difficult time.
It was overall a big couple of years for me in terms of personal growth, and I am grateful for it.
What sort of other lasting impacts do you believe the pandemic’s forced acceleration of digital transformation has had on your industry in general?
I believe that most parents now are habitually looking for more information online than calling customer service, compared to pre-pandemic times.
Previously, my customer service team entertains about 4 times more calls than since Covid times. Now, we need to provide a more seamless, top-quality customer experience online, where they can get a lot of information at a time of their own convenience (24/7), and book centre tours (preschool remains an industry where parents prefer to physically visit a centre before enrolment) by themselves.
Customer experience between online and offline must be seamless and this has proven to be very important to parents nowadays.
This is why I helped introduce and set up Chatbots to Busy Bees, which has proven to be successful as an alternate source of leads, during this time.
Content marketing for this industry has also grown exponentially. Previously, there was a lot of word-of-mouth marketing in the industry but now, most new parents will search for content and reviews online, making tools like social and Google reviews are key to the way we market, together with our overall holistic strategy including SEO and performance.
Previously, open day events would account for half of the marketing efforts, now it is definitely more 360, more integrated than before. To me, it is more fun!
Do you think that this impact has permanently changed how you and your team go about your work? Where do you see your strategies going in the next few years?
For sure it has changed permanently, and in terms of strategies, we need to think creatively, and connect more with parents as a whole. Most of the time, especially in a competitive industry, marketers tend to be too focused on tactical campaigns, and not on branding – this would be a mistake.
Brand trust remains a priority in almost any industry, and more so in preschool where it is so competitive.
Any advice for young marketers?
For budding young marketers, I think a key piece of advice is not to take up easy jobs (jobs that don’t help you to learn much) or to join companies that may be too rigid in their structure early in your career.
Try to go for challenges, learn new things, fail but fail fast and learn quickly from those mistakes. The beginning of your career is meant for you to grow and learn, if you don’t do that early enough, you would be stagnant.
Of course, having a passion for marketing work helps, certainly for me.
I look at all things through a marketing lens, even as a consumer. If a campaign is well run, I will try to list out the good points of the campaign and think about whether it can be adapted to my industry.
Campaigns that fail can also give you great learning (like my own mistake!). Most importantly, we must always stay humble, stay curious, stay hungry to improve and continually learn. I’m still learning every day!
Another piece of advice I would give is to try to work a few years in communications/PR like I did.
I was media officer and spokesperson for our country’s football national association and national teams for a few years, and head of PR for an ad agency. These experiences help a marketer to first understand how marketing can impact PR and how PR can help a marketing campaign, and also to be able to copywrite effectively.
It’s been great to learn more about you and your work, Alvin, thank you for sharing your insights with us. How can people connect with you if they’d like to know more about you or MindChamps?
They can connect with me through my LinkedIn, I’m always happy to make new connections, share experiences, and learn from new people I meet!
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