Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, many companies have struggled to adapt to the changing circumstances. Digital transformation has often been a forced effort, born out of necessity rather than a driving desire. Some industries took the opportunity to take hold of their own futures and address the challenges head-on.
One of the digital marketers who drove through digital transformation early on, is Rena Tan, Regional Head of Marketing and Communications for Randstad Singapore, Malaysia, and Greater China. The world of recruitment and human resources has been impacted by COVID-19, requiring adaptation to new working practices and flexibilities, as well as the strain companies have had to deal with in light of hiring freezes and dips in revenue.
Join us for this remarkable issue of the Marketing Expert Series with Rena Tan as she takes us through her personal journey and professional digital transformation.
Hi, Rena, thank you for taking part in the Marketing Expert Series! Let’s start with some background, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get to where you are now?
I like to think I’ve always had a creative side. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved to write, doodle and draw, create poetry, and was a voracious reader. In fact, my dream is to publish my own book one day.
I was interning at MTV Asia back in my poly days, and was offered a full-time position on the very day I completed my final exams (yes – they liked me that much!). Pursuing my creative dreams, I went on to become a TV and radio producer at MTV, and later moved to the licensing and merchandising division where I helped launch various consumer products under the MTV and Nickelodeon brands. That stint truly honed my skills in marketing, branding, and communications.
Subsequently, I was drawn to the bigger idea of marketing my home country. I took on a marketing role in the Singapore Tourism Board and was working on major projects such as the Singapore Fashion Festival, Singapore JewelFest and the MTV Asia Awards. My job took me on a study trip to Disneyland in California where my mission was to research theme parks and their accompanying amenities to build a business case for having big-brand theme parks in Singapore (and this was before Universal Studios came to town!)
Afterwards, I was offered a Head of Marketing role in a recruitment company. Now, including my current role at Randstad, I have been in the recruitment industry for 15 years.
Was there something that drew you to this line of work? Were there any specific experiences that attracted you to it?
The recruitment industry is where I felt I’ve finally found my groove as a marketer. The role allows me to express my creative flair while giving me exposure to all types of people, companies, and industries.
When I first joined the industry 15 years ago, recruitment marketing was not as prominent. In fact, it was pretty traditional. Companies typically ran newspaper ads, participated in career fairs, and posted advertisements on job boards to attract job seekers.
Over the years, the industry has been constantly changing and disrupted – yet it remained resilient and agile. Since the recruitment industry is constantly evolving, it is extremely challenging and exciting to be working in marketing. You are always running on adrenaline, and forever looking 10 steps ahead to see how you can stay competitive and relevant. The industry, although traditional, has also gradually opened up to new and emerging technologies, especially over the last five years.
Randstad in particular, was on a digital transformation journey when I joined the company, which gave me a blank canvas to pilot new marketing technologies and ideas. We are also very open to experimenting and although not all initiatives are successful, our leadership believes that failing is also about knowing what works and what doesn’t. This level of trust is really empowering for me, especially in Asia where failure is often frowned upon. The experience is exhilarating, to say the least, because having that autonomy to try new things has opened up so many new opportunities not just for the company, but also for myself and my team. I feel like I am learning something new every day.
Currently, you are the Regional Head of Marketing and Communications for Randstad Singapore, Malaysia, and Greater China. Can you tell us more about what Randstad does and how you fit in?
Randstad is a global leader in the HR services industry, and our mission is to support people and organisations in realising their true potential. We help connect companies with the best permanent and contracting talent in accounting & finance, banking & financial services, corporate & secretarial support, engineering, human resources, legal, life science, technology, sales, marketing & communications, and supply chain & procurement. Our ultimate goal is to touch the work lives of 500 million people worldwide by 2030.
As the Head of Marketing for Randstad Singapore, Malaysia, and Greater China, I’m responsible for the evaluation and implementation of Marketing and HR technology, with a particular focus on regional digital transformation projects for the business. I work with both internal and external stakeholders and partners to develop, trial and roll out initiatives involving marketing automation, demand generation, artificial intelligence, big data, predictive marketing analytics, social selling, design thinking, employer branding, talent communities and customer experience (CX).
I also oversee a dynamic team of 13 marketing and CX staff across Singapore, Malaysia and Greater China – and they look after strategic marketing, communications and branding campaigns, public relations and customer experience management.
I understand you cover Singapore, Malaysia, and Greater China – that’s a broad area indeed, what sort of challenges do you face dealing with such a large region?
The key challenge, I think, is understanding the cultural nuances and socio-political landscapes in each country. As much as you would like to bring some level of consistency and scale for certain marketing initiatives across the region, it might not be possible as there are different rules and regulations governing each market. I personally have to download a number of different apps so that I can communicate more effectively with my team members in the local market.
You need to navigate the local markets with a high level of sensitivity and be acutely aware of the lines you can or cannot cross. This is on top of the cultural and language differences you need to be mindful of when interacting with people from different markets – which I feel requires a strong sense of diplomacy, humility, EQ, and the ability to switch your state of mind quickly from one to another whenever you are interacting with people from the different markets. There is always something new to learn from local colleagues so you will continue to gain new knowledge, insights, and perspectives.
Are there any advantages to dealing with a region that large?
I love learning new things and having a large remit across multiple countries feeds my insatiable curiosity – where I am constantly exposed to new things, industries, organisations, cultures, people and ideas. I’ve learned to work with different types of people, gained stronger problem-solving skills through managing various difficult situations and conflicts, developed better cross-cultural communication skills as well as significantly enhanced my local market knowledge beyond Singapore’s shores. I get the opportunity to improve my Mandarin too when I interact with my stakeholders and teams in China. I would also say this experience has vastly expanded my horizon and perspectives, and made me a more consultative, strategic, and well-informed business partner and leader.
You have a bit of experience in the marketing sector in Asia; before Randstad you worked with Robert Walters. Have you noticed any changing trends and marketing strategy changes in the region over the last decade or so?
I recently published a trends report on the new skill sets a future marketer would need in the next normal. Future marketers are responsible for championing data-led innovation within the organisation to drive business or better customer experience. They leverage technology and emerging trends in marketing to enhance the end-to-end customer journey. Marketers are not only increasingly looked upon as sales enablers, but also act as strategic business partners and drivers of change.
We are also shifting to deploy more digital strategies not just as a response to the pandemic, but also to better engage the new generation of digitally-savvy consumers. This explains why there is also a stronger focus on areas such as social selling, social listening, marketing analytics, SEO, online reputation management, storytelling, hyper-personalisation, gamification, voice search and customer experience (just to name a few!).
I am hopeful that as more companies go through their digital transformation journey, the marketing function will be regarded as a growth driver. The future marketer will be expected to harness the power of data, automation, customer insights, machine learning and artificial intelligence to better attract, retain and engage their organisation’s customers.
Given the work you are involved in with Randstad, I imagine that COVID-19 has had a big impact. Have your marketing and communications strategies had to change because of the pandemic?
At the onset of COVID-19, I convinced my team that we had to pivot, and pivot early. Globalisation and technology have created a borderless world, and we could never be truly immune to whatever is happening in other parts of the world. If we had waited till the virus became a pandemic, we would not have been able to reap the success we did. We literally threw our 2020 marketing and content plans out the window and started fresh – creating a series of employer guides, market research on hiring appetite and employees’ expectations, employment outlooks, as well as a whole suite of business technology tools and COVID-19 related resources to help organisations navigate the complexities of operating in the midst of a pandemic. Subsequently, we continued to produce content to help organisations engage and manage the well-being of their staff and provide information they need to accelerate business recovery in the new normal.
We have definitely learned to be more agile in these unusual and uncertain times, and constantly try to anticipate what challenges lie ahead and how we can add more value to our recruiters, clients, and candidates.
As a result, we saw phenomenal growth in terms of web traffic and social media engagement levels, and continue to generate a high number of quality leads despite a really difficult year where we saw many businesses come to a halt.
How lasting do you think the impact of the pandemic will be to marketing – and indeed to Randstad – in the coming years?
I think the pandemic has made a permanent positive impact on marketing and hopefully, the way businesses now view the value of marketing.
In this new world, organisations need to learn how to better engage their talent and customers in a virtual environment, and design new digital processes to attract, engage and retain them. Company leaders are increasingly looking to their marketing teams to help build and amplify their brands online; drive constant sales through new e-commerce models; explore new channels and partners; leverage data to predict customers’ propensity to buy or leave, as well as automate time-consuming and manual processes to drive greater efficiencies.
We have definitely experienced this in Randstad, and this trend will only grow as more and more business leaders stepped up their organisation’s digital transformation efforts to stay relevant and as a business sustainability and growth strategy. At Randstad we are already experimenting with ML/AI and blockchain and building our own tech platforms and apps through our global Digital Factory so that we can be future-ready.
What about for you, personally, when this pandemic is over, what’s next for you?
As a marketing leader, I feel we have an obligation to stay ahead of the curve. We need to constantly find ways to disrupt our own industry because others will do it for us if we don’t.
Hence, I will be expecting my team and I to remain open-minded and agile in our marketing approach, embrace the fact that the market will remain unpredictable and be prepared for change as it will be a constant, whether we like it or not. I will be looking out for new ways in which marketing can evolve further – for example, explore non-traditional marketing channels, tools and partnerships; adopt a data-driven mindset; and continue to benchmark our work with the best in other industries and countries.
I also hope my team continues to receive the recognition for the amazing work they are doing everyday, not just from me but also the business. They are the real masters in their craft and they deserve all the credit for the successes we see in Randstad across the region today.
Most importantly, I would need to strive to achieve a better balance between work, family, and personal life. My boss told me in a recent performance review that he has no negative feedback for me at all but if he has to pick one, it would be that I’d need to maintain a better work-life balance as I tend to be an incorrigible workaholic, and the pandemic has kind of amplified that trait. I recognise that is not a healthy example for myself, my family nor my team, and this is something I am working on. For instance, I have tried to not check my emails or work during the weekends, and take time out to do things I really enjoy like drawing and gaming together with my family.
Now, I just want to touch on something you mentioned during our correspondence ahead of this feature interview: you’re a working mother with two children, a gamer in a previous life, and I understand that you like to draw in your spare time to destress? Could you tell us a little about that? How did you start and where can we see your work?
As mentioned, I have always had a creative streak and loved drawing and doodling since I was young. However, I never had the chance to pursue my passion for art further because you know, real life gets in the way. I picked it back up again in recent years because my daughter, who like me, has developed a real passion for art. Hence I used drawing as a reason for us to bond and spend time together. Recently we even went for a manga drawing workshop together – and we loved it!
You can check out my humble works on Instagram @sheerdoodles.
I also used to be quite an avid gamer before I got married – and at one time I was really into the MMORPG game World of Warcraft. I was literally “going on dates” with my husband (then boyfriend) – questing and raiding in the virtual gaming world every weekend. I stopped playing when I became a mom (time is such a luxury I don’t have!) and got back into playing casually only recently due to the lockdown.
Any advice you’d give to aspiring or upcoming marketers?
For a start, I would perhaps encourage aspiring marketers to keep pace with the trends not just within the marketing function, but also the industry that you work in. Understand your skills gaps in the next normal and take initiative to find out how you can upskill to close that gap. It’s also important to take an outside-in approach and network with your peers to find out where they are at and how they got there. It could help you map your career path.
However, when I am looking to hire, I tend to look out for talent with a good set of soft skills. I am a strong believer that technical skills can always be taught, but soft skills – or essential personality traits as some might call them – have to be developed. For many people, you either have it or you don’t.
Examples of soft skills that many CMOs like myself look for in marketers would include having a high level of emotional quotient, adaptability, drive, an open and positive mindset, as well as strong work ethics and commercial acumen. Marketers are also increasingly expected to be a collaborative team player, great communicator and champion for change.
Some key advice for aspiring or upcoming marketers:
- Continuous learning is key. Cultivate an insatiable appetite for knowledge and understanding in the disciplines or areas that are beyond your current role. Learn from the best outside of your function or industry to gain a new perspective on your work.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment. You won’t know if an idea will be a success unless you move it to reality. Be prepared to fail and try again.
- Always strive to add value and position yourself as a business partner. If you act like an order taker, you will be treated as one. Integrate yourself into the heart of the business and identify challenges/issues you can solve as a marketer.
Thank you, Rena, for sharing your experiences with us. How can people connect with you if they’d like to know more about you?
LinkedIn would be the best place as everything you want to know about me is right on my profile page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sheerlock/
If you’re wondering, sheerlock is my avatar’s name in World of Warcraft when I was playing a warlock. 🙂
The Marketing Expert Series features marketing and communications experts from across every industry. Every month, 2Stallions will showcase the stories and expertise of marketing experts from around the world, join us as we explore how marketers navigate the challenges of the regions and industries they work in. If you’d like to be featured in a next issue of the Marketing Expert Series. Please reach out to us via email.
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