If there was ever any doubt that it took brains, courage and creativity to lead a team through the COVID-19 pandemic, then this interview puts those doubts to bed.
In Malaysia, as in many countries, there’s a clear difference between the big, bustling cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor, and the smaller, calmer places like Ipoh. Outsiders might mistake Ipoh for a sleepy retirement village, but beneath the surface, there is a busy, dynamic community thriving in sectors like education.
Joining us for this issue is Keh Eng Tschong, Head of Marketing at Tenby Schools Ipoh. He’ll take us through his career and how he found himself at the helm of the team in Ipoh. We follow his in-depth narrative on how he, his team and the Tenby Schools group navigated and survived the pandemic and Eng Tschong’s analysis of how we will be affected from now on.
Hi, Eng Tschong, thank you for joining us in our Marketing Expert Series. Let’s kick off with a little background, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get to where you are now?
After graduating from Monash University with majors in Marketing and Management, my career kicked off in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.
My roles were mainly marketing-related and, being adventurous at the time, I hopped industries from building materials, home décor and IT before deciding to relocate back to my hometown in Ipoh.
It was in the tertiary education sector that my career truly took off. I was very gratefully mentored by the then-Group-COO of Impiana Group, which owns the local college.
Other than honing my strategic planning skills, I strove to become more well-rounded and at one point I had 3 departments under my wing – Recruitment, Branding & Promotions and Student Affairs & Alumni.
When it was time to move on, I joined Tenby Schools Ipoh under the International Schools Partnership. Still attached to them, I’ve served for over 3 years in Tenby so far.
You’re the Head of Marketing at Tenby Schools Ipoh. Please tell us about the work you do.
Naturally, the title comes with the ownership of the School’s Strategic Marketing and Admissions Plan and Annual Budget. Essentially, I make sure that everything is aligned, especially for areas such as key priorities progress, consistencies in key messages, observing and anticipating listed threats, improvement tactics and budget management.
A huge chunk of time is invested in content creation, as we have a commitment to a bi-weekly content calendar submission for review. Ipoh is one of the only two schools in the SEA group to come out with in-house campaign videos from scratch. We went from storyboarding, photography, videography, design, content writing, and copywriting up until editing towards the final product. This is then pushed out digitally through social media and reinforced through offline or out-of-home media.
Usually, there are two main content categories – acquisition and retention.
The department also works internally on designs such as sales, academic and non-academic events collaterals such as posters, landing pages and digital ads. As brand guardians of the school, we try our best to ensure the school as a whole sticks to brand guidelines.
Personally, I’ve also helped in training new admissions staff (sales) in the areas of marketing basics relevant to their daily routines (the 7Ps in our landscape, understanding buyer roles, importance of delivering consistent key messages, buying decision-making process and factors) and personal selling techniques. I’m also the gatekeeper for the school’s social media and admissions e-mail enquiries, mainly filtering and forwarding them to our Admissions Team.
What’s it like to work in an international school in Ipoh versus other cities in Malaysia? Is it very different somehow?
I’ve personally not worked in any other international school. Under the International Schools Partnership, we have nine schools in Malaysia – 6 Tenby, 2 Straits and Asia Pacific – and as a group, we have weekly virtual meetings and quarterly physical meetings or team-building get-togethers.
We constantly share best practices and challenges and try to support each other the best we can.
Ipoh is a unique market, especially in demographics, consumer & social behavioural patterns, customer service level expectations, price sensitivity and marketing channels’ efficiencies and effectiveness.
To elaborate, the average age of Ipoh citizens is constantly rising as the salary gap is widening each year compared to other areas such as Klang Valley, Penang, and Johor. This results in the younger generation often opting to work outside of Ipoh and Perak in general.
In turn, this impacts buyer roles. While other schools are almost always dealing with parents (initiator & buyer), Ipoh sometimes deals with grandparents or guardians (initiator & influencer but not the buyer) as many parents are working in other states leaving their child(ren) in the care of grandparents. Naturally, this can complicate marketing initiatives like ad placement and deployment strategy, admissions communication and buying decision processes.
The salary gap also influences consumers in Ipoh to be more price sensitive. The perceived value of “amount of money paid versus products or services acquired” differs greatly compared to states which have higher average salaries and disposable income.
Consequently, the role of customer service frontliners is more challenging and if not managed properly, will result in a higher number of withdrawals.
Ipohians are a very down-to-earth bunch, more resistant to change coupled with a more slow-paced working environment. So implementing branding practices is more challenging as the education process will take longer and the steps in change management tactics must be further broken into smaller steps.
As mentioned on the average age combined with the resistance to change factor, Ipohian’s tech savviness is much lower compared to other major cities in the country and therefore some traditional media such as street buntings and LED billboards are still adopted to have decent coverage on targeted segments.
You’ve worked in a variety of industries throughout your career. Is there a moment or campaign you’re most proud of?
There are a few, but the one that will forever be imprinted in my memory would be my time in tertiary education – Perak College of Technology (PCoT).
As managers or heads of departments, in reality, what we plan to execute for the year, almost always doesn’t pan out as the year runs down. Not even 75% close to the initial plan becomes reality most of the time due to the many factors and different expectations from various stakeholders.
During my second year in PCoT, I would say the execution was nearly 90% of what is planned at the beginning of the year all thanks to the trust from senior management, my peers, and my team.
The Recruitment Team numbered ten at the time, and we were able to pull off a cost-effective Guerrilla Marketing type of public engagement activity in between the seeding and harvesting period. Combining 2 years of consistent messaging and digital content schedule with some third-party SEM, we closed the year with 680 recruitments as compared to the previous year of 430.
It was really a remarkable year!
What sort of impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on Tenby Schools Ipoh?
Tenby Schools Ipoh was the first school in the state (both private and government) to go online since day 1 of Malaysia’s lockdown, thanks to a proactive central office, 1.5 months prior the whole school was instructed to have a detailed plan on “what if a lockdown occurs and how can we prepare to go online?”.
Some hiccups in the first month didn’t stop us, and like many other industries, our community endured the good struggles and is now more tech-savvy and resilient. As safeguarding is an integral part of what we do, we get essential guidelines and through sharing of best practices, we were told by the Ministry of Education during a “spot-check” that we were the golden standard for Covid SOPs at the time for other schools to follow. Unknown to many, the community really pulled through together as non-facilities staff volunteered to put up signs and tape for social distancing measures.
Beyond Tenby Schools Ipoh and applying to general as well, companies could have done more to blanket the transition from working from home towards back in the office. From my viewpoint and observation, the pandemic really took a toll on the mental and physical health of the public even without us consciously realizing it.
This is unsurprising as this was an unprecedented event, at least in Malaysia. For example, some of our physical stamina might have deteriorated, and it’s easy to slip our minds to just expect our bodies to switch from staying at home with minimal exercise to going back to our normal routines pre-Covid.
Numbers-wise the school was hit by expats’ children leaving due to parents returning to their home country, but we managed to retain the same number of children in the first year of Covid and had a small growth in the second and upcoming years.
The pandemic will likely have a lasting effect on our daily lives, although government SOPs have softened, the school majority still stuck to wearing masks, social distancing, and being more attentive towards personal hygiene.
How did the developments of the COVID-19 Pandemic affected your strategies as Head of Marketing?
During the first lockdown, we deployed almost 85% of our budget on digital channels. We anticipated that the digital environment would be very cluttered, as every business from sole proprietary owners to SMEs to MNCs would be left with no choice but to promote online. Our response to it was that artwork needed to be cleaner and crisper to optimize impression, engagement and call to action.
Throughout the whole ordeal, there were on and off lockdowns in Malaysia, the priority during those lift-off periods would be getting as many raw materials for content creation so that we keep the momentum going with decent content. My advice to the photographer was in a single photoshoot, try to have more variance so that the photos can be applied to different collaterals and artwork that serve different purposes. During liftoffs, we also deployed some street buntings and were among the first to do so in Ipoh during the second lockdown lift-off.
Content balancing was also a vital component of how we keep our followers intact, we tried to balance retention and ads as best we could while also giving breathers to our targeted audience.
From 80% being spent on digital during the 1.5 years of the pandemic, we are now shifting towards 55% offline and 45% digital in this running financial year budget.
I’ve adopted SWOT in my strategic plans since 2016, often using the 7P model to run a company’s SW and PESTEL for OT. A strategic plan for me should always be a live document, and the pandemic further reinforced my motion. A month plus prior to the actual lockdown, I’ve prepared the usual MarComm plan for the year and a what-if-lockdown MarComm plan for the year. We swam into it right from the start and were able to stay ahead of our competitors.
Do you think smaller towns like Ipoh were impacted differently by the Pandemic compared to larger places like Kuala Lumpur? In what way?
I think what hits Ipoh most was and still is, the economy. By observing peers, friends and families working in other states and countries, Ipoh’s recovery was vastly slower. The main factors would be the naturally slower pace working environment mentioned earlier, the difference in SOPs between the different states (many other industries reopened in Klang Valley while Ipoh remained mandatorily closed) and the struggles to hire or rehire staff (laid off during the pandemic) due to its naturally tiny talent pool which was much smaller after the pandemic as much more people are able to find means and ways to generate income online and were contented in working in their own pace at the comfort of their homes.
What sort of lasting impact do you believe the pandemic’s forced acceleration of digital transformation has had on the education industry in Ipoh?
Based on conversations with our existing parents (especially those who transferred from government public schools), potential parents, friends and family, the impact on public schools is not significant. The main reason could be limited funding to put the required technology in place for online or hybrid learning. The mainstream feedback was that what happened in public school was mostly children were assigned homework, given a deadline, submitted, and repeat.
The fact is hybrid or online learning consumes much more time compared to traditional physical learning whereby teachers work around the clock attending to any questions students might have beyond the usual working hours, as some parents can only assist in their child(ren)’s learning after working hours.
On a positive note, around the last quarter of 2021 and early 2022, there was feedback that government public schools offered better employment packages to teachers, with guaranteed minimum yearly increments. Hopefully, this will help improve the education sector here in general, as children are always key to a brighter future.
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?
Regardless of Covid, I think the world is constantly evolving and change is imminent, that’s why we run SWOT periodically to predict and anticipate these macroenvironmental changes.
As marketers, we should always keep our ear close to the ground and be as versatile as we could in grabbing opportunities and mitigating threats, or better still turn threats into opportunities.
Any advice you’d give to aspiring marketers?
No job is easy and being a marketeer comes with a unique set of benefits and challenges. Marketing and branding practices are very subjective, there could be 99 ways to reach a similar goal so have your own flare, master your 7Ps, have faith and respond based on your data analytics. Most importantly, be happy with what you are striving towards. ‘Okay’ is not good enough if it can be ‘better’, consistency is key in brand-building and opt for progress over perfection.
It’s been great to learn more about you and your work, Eng Tschong, thank you for sharing. How can people connect with you if they’d like to know more about you or Tenby Schools Ipoh?
Anyone interested to know more can contact me via WhatsApp at +60125166621 or drop us an email or fill out an enquiry form. For those who simply want to learn more about what we do, you can always go to our YouTube channel to get a feel for who we are.