Mastering the 'now normal'
Co-founder of PR agency Allison+Partners helps clients plot strategies to overcome the disruption of a lifetime.
The career path that Jonathan Heit took to the public relations industry is unlike that of most people. With an undergraduate degree in sciences and a pre-medical background at Cornell University, Mr Heit, now 48, says he was "on the path to becoming a doctor".
"It was really challenging science-based work and as I really dug into it, I started to realise the element of medicine that I enjoyed: the interaction with patients," the co-founder and global president of Allison+Partners tells Asia Focus. It was at this point when he also realised that he wasn't as strong on the science side of things as he wanted to be.
But "I was always a very good writer, and I was always interested in writing and communications", he notes.
Fresh out of med school, and after spending time on what he wanted to do, "I thought maybe merging two things together, communication and healthcare, could play to some of what I've learned and be where my real passion is". That decision led him to healthcare public relations and marketing communication.
But working with science-based clients could be a little bit limiting, he discovered upon entering the industry. "Science is so defined, so precise that it's a very regulated industry," he observes.
"I felt like I wasn't able to find my own voice in that, so I moved on in my career and I started to get exposed to opportunities in consumer (products) and consumer technology that were much more interesting to me."
It was when the dot-com bubble burst and the internet was still finding its feet that Allison+Partners was founded. Mr Heit, who was excited to do something where "I wouldn't be put into the box", started working right away with now-huge names like Samsung, Google and YouTube.
"It was that (YouTube) opportunity that showed me the potential of technology and the potential of communications to change the world," says the New York native, who is now based in Tokyo and oversees the businesses in Asia and the Pacific markets.
Headquartered in San Francisco, Allison+Partners has a presence in 30 cities across the world with 11 offices in diverse Asian markets. It has three offices each in China and India, plus offices in Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo and Sydney. It also has partners in Taiwan, Malaysia and Myanmar.
The company has been through some extremely difficult times. It launched just 10 days before the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, endured the impact of the global financial crisis a few years later, and some members of the team also were exposed to the Sars outbreak. But Mr Heit admits that the Covid-19 pandemic "is probably the toughest of them all".
Covid-19 is recognised as a global disruption at Allison+Partners, which has devised strategies to help clients understand how such disruptions occur and what they can do about them.
"The six phases of the disruption life-cycle is what the company has drawn on a lot," he says, explaining that they are the stages that businesses will face during a systemic disruption.
Knowing which stages they are at will help businesses set a course through and out of the crisis. For Allison+Partners, the focus these days is not only on its own course but also those of its clients and their employees.
Shock is the first response -- "Whoa, what just hit us?" as Mr Heit puts it -- followed by an Orientation stage where the companies take the first step to understand and address the disruption. The third stage is Command, where businesses start to think ahead, laying the groundwork for the next three phases.
"We really feel like we're getting to those back three stages," says Mr Heit, referring to Recovery and Bump -- where there'll be a short-term surge such as "revenge spending" -- and finally Equilibrium which others may call the new normal. But for Allison+Partners, it is the "now normal" -- "because who knows what that will be"?
Dividing the experience into six phases offers a clear guideline to estimate which stage each clients is at. Armed with that knowledge, the company plans scenarios with its clients, to help them make sure that the post-Covid world will be a less daunting one for them.
For example, if a client is planning a big trade show in January, at least four scenarios could be in play. Mr Heit elaborates: "Here is scenario A, assuming the trade show goes off and you could send people. Here is scenario B where the trade show has some mix of digital, virtual experiences and some real world. Then scenario C where it's all virtual. And here's scenario D where the event isn't happening at all."
Mr Heit further notes that the company also provides strategic counsel to clients that have had to face painful lay-offs and other difficult challenges, suggesting they turn from marketing proactively to business continuity, for example.
In short, says Mr Heit, helping clients navigate the "now normal" has been the focus of Allison+Partners so far.
LOCALISM AND PEOPLE
While leaning toward being a large agency with almost 500 employees globally, Allison+Partners sees itself rather as a mid-size or a boutique agency. "Each of our offices is a very manageable size," says Mr Heit, pointing out that the Tokyo office has only 10 people, Bangkok has just four, and in Beijing, the biggest office in the market has a little over 50 people.
The ultimate goal, he says, is to be "a different kind of global agency", not just a US agency working in the global market. Consequently, Allison+Partners' strength relies a lot on strong local leadership.
"I'm never going to get it exactly right. In some ways, I'm always going to be a foreigner, no matter what, in these markets I visit," Mr Heit says humbly. "For us, a lot of the importance is having a strong local leader who can operate independently but can also operate seamlessly within the network."
While the Covid-19 situation varies in each country, Mr Heit consistently highlights the key role of local leadership in addressing the challenges. "No matter what any government has said about availability and the time to get back to the office, we lean on our strong local leadership to say, 'Here is the right timeline for us.'"
As a seasoned public relations professional, Mr Heit knows that operating in diverse markets means acknowledging that understanding cultural nuances in Asia Pacific is crucial, further buttressing the case for savvy local leaders.
His role, as a global president, therefore is to "help navigate when an American or European company comes into one of these markets or the region as a whole, to help them better understand what they might be able to expect and see".
Another core value stressed at Allison+Partners is building relationships with both the clients and its own people.
For the clients, Mr Heit says that "we never want to be the biggest agency in the world, but we always want to be the best", and for people in the company, it wants to be such a good employer that it will be "the last agency you've ever worked at".
Creating a different kind of working environment where great people feel comfortable is essential, says Mr Heit. And building trust in the organisation is the foundation of what Allison+Partners wants to achieve. "We build the culture of trust, of collaboration, lack of hierarchy where everybody's opinion matters and is important."
Nurturing a culture of trust requires a lot of hard work, a lot of energy and a lot of transparency, he says. Every year since the firm was started, a mid-year town hall meeting is held where everyone can discuss whether the firm is meeting its annual goals. An employee experience survey is done at the end of the year to get raw, honest feedback as well. But such surveys are worthless if those at the top don't take them seriously.
"The thing is really listening to the team, spending time with them and not just listening and saying 'great' and then locking it away in a notebook and never looking at it again," says Mr Heit.
When the team can work in a collaborative environment, and have a really good feeling for others, "great clients continue to come to us as a result of that", he says.
The result is that clients can see the strength of the firm's services, diversity and capability from business-to-business (B2B) to technology, consumer, consumer technology, corporate and everything in between. "I think it really differentiates us from anybody else."
ART + SCIENCE
Since digitisation has disrupted the PR and communication industry, there are now many different ways to tell stories. But the successful public relations and communication firm is one that can draw a great story out of the clients first.
"I think a great story has friction, and then it has a resolution, and then it leads to the next one," says Mr Heit. "We've always been problem-solvers, trying to evaluate where the story's going and getting out in front of that."
Bringing the best people for the business into the room, and not just someone on a particular team, is how Allison+Partners helps clients through the process, he explains. "That way we're going to give the client the best possible ideas and come up with the most strategic insights and viewpoint for them."
Understanding the digital experience is critical for the firm. "We represent a lot of these digital platforms [but also]understand the potential of them," he says.
Monitoring social media, spotting trends and using artificial intelligence (AI) are examples of how technology can be used to understand topics that are relevant to consumers as well as clients. "We can build out personas to a degree we've never been able to do before," says Mr Heit, adding that really understanding the core persona of the client has taken on greater importance as a result.
Even with precise information, the right narrative that is going to click with potential customers is vital. "That's where the art comes in, it really is the marriage of art and science," he says, pointing out that it is the job of great and experienced storytellers.
As a passionate storyteller himself, Mr Heit believes that what Allison+Partners does and offers to clients has made it much more interesting to him, because "it takes that core skill set that I've tried to nurture" and "turn that into a core business that has all of these different elements to it that ultimately drive your business objectives further".
When asked what has kept him in the industry for 20 years, he answers: "It really brings those two things together: storytelling, as a business, and storytelling to define the business.
"I think it has really helped define us and I think, given me my life's work."
Work prompted Mr Heit to move to Asia Pacific in 2018 to be able to spend time with his colleagues. "I've done that, up until the last four months," he says, adding that now he's ready to set out on a journey back home in the US before the end of this year.
"I came to a country where I didn't speak the language. I knew very few people, but the warmth and generosity of spirit of the people here really will leave an indelible mark on my soul."
When asked to reflect what he has observed in Asian markets, he says one of the differences in every market is the personal touch, and how each market nurtures personal relationships, which in Asia is particularly consistent, a little more so than in Europe or the US.
"In the markets that I've worked in and what I've seen in Asia, and I think that's something special and something that I'd like to take back to the US," he says.
Mr Heit has also been awestruck by the work ethic in Japan, China, Singapore and the rest of the market. "This region is on par, or beyond anything I've seen anywhere else in the world. There's real pride in detail-oriented work, the delivery of plans."
Formality is another thing he has noticed, especially in Japan, from the predilection (still) for suits and ties, to the body language of formal introductions, and even in emails. In the US, informality is on the rise.
But the commonality Mr Heit sees across all markets is "a real intellectual curiosity, a real desire to do great work … and the culture that people really care about each other."
His advice for getting through the pandemic? "Be comfortable with the fact that you can't control everything," he says. "Self-care is really the biggest priority."
An active runner and exercise enthusiast, Mr Heit holds records in half-marathons and a Spartan race sprint. He also loves good books and finds it "difficult to zero in on one writer or genre that is my favourite", he says.
Recently he read historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the definitive account of Abraham Lincoln's life and leadership and the difficult decisions he had to make. He finds it "very timely and relevant" in today's context.
The classic Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris is also worth a look. The pathos, humour and humanity in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers also resonate strongly with Mr Heit.
His eclectic music tastes range from electronica to jazz and classical, with Miles Davis and John Coltrane on the top of the list, alongside a Mozart or Beethoven playlist.
"Music really inspires me and has always been a very important part of who I am," he says.
As someone who grew up in New Jersey, his "absolute favourite" is Bruce Springsteen, who hails from his hometown of Freehold. The song Thunder Road, he says, "speaks to the hopes and dreams of small-town kids everywhere, striving for greatness in a world that doesn't always allow for it".