A lifelong student of altruistic values, this is the true nature of Jason Eng, the Founder of KOLs.Asia, a full-service KOL/Influencer Marketing Agency powered by technology. According to his LinkedIn, he is currently on a long-term journey to build a sustainable company that’ll last beyond 100 years, that’ll serve and empower the creative industry. We sit down with Jason recently to get to know him, KOL.Asia and most importantly his entrepreneurship adventure, better.
Good day Jason! Thank you for giving Marketing in Asia a chance to conduct an interview with one of Malaysia’s Top 100 Fast-Moving Companies. For a start, tell us a little about yourself and your professional background.
It’s certainly my pleasure. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was young. Despite my passion for creativity and marketing, I took up accounting in my university days. After graduation I had my first stint at one of the big four audits KPMG, 3 months in I left and jumped right into marketing, operating as a brand exec for luxury fragrances and never looked back since. Fast forward a couple of years, I founded an events activation agency which we expanded from on-ground activations to music festivals and concerts, which has now pivoted into #Popculturemedia and KOLs.Asia. During that time I co-founded another 2 media companies, one operating as a media publisher, and another venturing in DOOH in both Malaysia and Thailand. Both failed for varying reasons, but ultimately I was being over-ambitious. And in hindsight, I’m super grateful for these valuable lessons learnt by the age of 30.
As the founder of KOLs.Asia, an influencer marketing agency, we are blown away by the SME100 Awards you have earned in just three years. What drew you to this industry, particularly influencer marketing, and how did you get started?
Well, technically we’ve been at it since 2014/2015 and really deployed a lot of patience in building with baby steps. Having been both the client and media owner, I’ve always observed there are a lot of inefficiencies in the advertising industry, where marketing value is ‘claimed’ by media owners, blindly accepted by brands, and those ‘metrics’ then make up reports that may look good to management but do not actually drive business results. Back in 2014 when we wanted to promote our concert, we had to ensure ticket sales, and so the marketing has to work. Instead of relying on media coverage via partnerships with media owners (which are really just a way to add ‘media value’ and sell to sponsors), we engaged a group of Facebook KOLs (yes when facebook still had tremendous organic reach), worked out an awareness + affiliate campaign, and our ticket sales were over 90% despite it being our first concert attempt.
It was a real epiphany as I extrapolated how this would play out long term into the future and realized this was the game-changer in the advertising world. Influencer marketing, or word-of-mouth marketing, has always existed and has always been the most effective form of marketing. The existence of social media platforms simply allowed it to now be executed at scale and blazing speed. Now marketers can quickly execute objectively driven strategies at the extremely low cost of entry, contributing to business results instead of eyeball claims, or clickbait generated traffic, with a complete disregard to the quality of those audiences. More importantly, influencer marketing solves the problem of an interruptive advertising model. It’s our default behaviour that we don’t want to see ads, whether it is just that 5 secs of your time, or that 0.5 sec in your feed you have to scroll through. It’s frustrating because it’s stealing time away from you. And so I knew that this would be a future-proof business.
At the same time, this format allowed us to create a platform where we can continuously provide opportunities to creative talents (KOLs / content creators), and play a role in contributing to the creative industry, which has always been my long term ambition.
What does KOLs.Asia do for marketers and brands?
We are an end to end solutions agency where we help clients plan and develop their marketing strategies, identify and recommend best-suited KOLs to the client’s target consumers, creative ideation, manage and execute, provide post-campaign reports with insights at a granular level, and everything in between. More importantly, we’re talent agnostic. Instead, we deploy a unique big data technology to screen through KOL profiles in a very comprehensive manner, with over hundreds of data points on the KOL’s audiences, to the historical performance of the KOL’s contents, to determine the right KOLs that fits the campaign’s needs. We then further analyze historical organic and sponsored content performance to help craft creative ideation to be native and effective to the KOL’s feed and audience. In addition, we’ve got over 12 million KOL profiles worldwide in our database, giving us the ability to activate multi-tiered large-scaled campaigns, cross-country events, with a short turnaround time.
What has been the most difficult or memorable challenge you’ve faced while running KOLs.Asia?
There’s definitely plenty! But I can’t seem to think of any specific one right now, maybe because I literally spend zero time dwelling on mistakes. Perhaps an ongoing challenge for me is to ensure the company is constantly operating as a platform for the people in our team to grow and to grow with happiness, together with accountability. And that combination is super important. We bring in a lot of young talents, fresh grads, and I want them to be happy here. And so we try to be as generous as we possibly can. At the same time, this may lead to entitlement. And so accountability plays a big role in this as well.
It’s nearly impossible to look at social media without coming across influencer marketing nowadays. In your opinion, how do you see influencer marketing affecting culture and how influencers may help support social causes?
Oh, big time! Influencers command much more audience attention than publisher-owned media channels these days. And the trust is there, between the influencer and his/her audience base. So when influencers put themselves out there to promote certain causes, the impact is pretty immediate. Today’s pop culture is essentially spearheaded by influencers.
What ethical principles do you think talents, agencies and brands need?
To talk about ethical principles in the advertising world, or even in the business world for that matter, there have been, and will always be, issues to debate about. More so when a new channel like influencer marketing emerges and disrupts conventional ad spend, in rapidly evolving mediums that regulators are still struggling to keep up. To me, this is really, really basic. As long as the intent is always coming from a good place, it’ll eventually play out. To be empathetic to the other party/parties in all dealings, and genuinely looking to add value to the other party always. And we try to ingrain these values into our culture – altruism and empathy. And so I think everyone can deploy more kindness, gratitude and empathy.
In this contemporary society, it is essential to remember that anyone can be an influencer. So, what’s your definition of an ‘influencer’?
My definition of an influencer has always been the same, which is really everyone. Everyone has a sphere of influence. The only difference is how big or small that sphere is. Like I said above, today’s influencer marketing is really word of mouth marketing at scale. We’ve always been influenced by people around us. Despite seeing the millions worth of ad dollars spent, I would ask friends around me which diapers to recommend for my kids, colleague opinions on new gadgets, neighbours on gardeners to recommend, parents on cooking sauces etc. All these are influencers by their very nature, influencing the purchase decision making of consumers all the time.
What are your thoughts on micro-influencers vs celebrity influencers?
The common understanding is that celebrity influencers while commanding a bigger audience base, typically have lower average engagement rates. But that’s also because it’s the way the platform algorithms work (with the exception of TikTok). So the engagement strategy and objectives should be different. Celebrities for personifying the brand’s positioning/image, or spearheading marketing communications from the top, while adopting micros to create brand retention, amplify what the celebs are pushing out, or even drive conversions if done right. Also, the consumer expectations of celebs and micros are different. You’d expect celebs sponsored content to be – well, sponsored, as they would typically have a good supply of brand sponsorship opportunities. And hence we may fall back to a typical ad consumption reaction when we see those contents, accepting that it’s a paid content/ad. Whereas with micros they may come across a little more authentic, and hence potentially drive up brand advocacy, again if done right.
We are certain that you’ve run a lot of campaigns before. Which influencer marketing campaign, out of all the ones you’ve done, is your favourite and why?
To single out a favourite I think my team would have more insights into it. But in general, the better campaigns are when clients allow us more freedom and control, entrusting us from the strategic developments to the KOL recommendations, to the creative content. As such we get to fully exert how we envision the campaign to crystallize, all done in the best interest of the campaign and client. In particular from a macro holistic planning perspective, as well as the creative customization to be native and contextual to the KOL’s audiences.
Influencer marketing is here to stay, and it’ll only get bigger in the years to come. In 10 years, where do you see influencer marketing going?
Like I mentioned before, it has always existed, albeit at a smaller scale, and will always exist, and will only get bigger, perpetually. The only variable is the medium and format they’ll be presented – it used to be blogs, then Facebook, today TikTok short-form videos, someday soon in the metaverse. And I believe as we get more connected globally, there’ll inherently be more and more platforms allowing the specialization of different influencers.
What are your goals in 2022?
We just had our physical town hall back in Jan and it was really great seeing the entire team again. During the town hall session, I shared with my team that our theme this year is scalability and quality. To work on processes and models to allow us to scale faster and more efficiently. At the same time to further improve the quality of all aspects of our company, from the campaign quality to client servicing, to our internal team capabilities.
That’s great, Jason! Any final words or pieces of advice that you would like to share with people who wants to venture into influencer marketing?
I honestly believe all brands, especially B2C brands should adopt influencer marketing as their core strategy. And I mean parking 70-80% or even 100% of their marketing spend into influencer marketing. We’ve seen a lot of DTC brands experience enormous rapid growth and gain the upper hand over bigger traditional household brands, by spending less, by fully investing into and leveraging on influencer marketing. Daniel Wellington watches a couple of years back was a great example. However, it has to be well thought through to fully reap its benefits. Many right now are approaching influencer marketing on a per campaign basis, instead of looking at it from a macro perspective as part of their long term marketing mix. The other common mistake is to treat influencer marketing as media ad buy, buying advertising real estate. As I mentioned, influencer marketing is the word of mouth marketing. Once you approach it that way, you’ll see how it can very quickly help your marketing objectives. Lastly, the importance of getting the right influencers that fit your target audience. I can’t stress this enough. It’s not just about the follower size and what segment the KOL ‘claims’ himself/herself to be. Ultimately it’s all about the audience you’re trying to reach, and whether the KOL has that right audience. And that’s why we’ve gone to great lengths with tech investments in this area. If the KOL’s audience is wrong, even if everything else thereafter is perfectly executed, you’re still communicating to the wrong audience.