Nellie Chan, Co-Founder of Heat Communications

Nellie Chan has been in the public relations and marketing communications industry for the past 13 years. She set up Heat Communications Advisors Limited agency in 2016, working with brands such as Pernod Ricard, SuperPark and IP Global to create events, introduce products to the Hong Kong market, revamp websites, and refine branding and social media strategies. Nellie shares her marketing intel and entrepreneurial experience with FEW.

A few words about Heat

Co-founded by Nellie in 2016, Heat Communications is a Hong Kong-based strategic public relations and marketing consultancy that provides a full array of communications services. The menu includes PR & marketing strategies, digital campaigns, social media, branding, web development, event management and much more.  

Why marketing? How did you get into it?

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"I always jokingly tell my friends this is the only skill I have -- you know, if this sector didn't exist anymore, I don’t know what I would do."

"I first started my career at Xinhua Finance in-house, which worked out well for me. I touched on a lot of different sectors -- first financial, then property, then Shanghai development, then onto lifestyle and consumer sectors, so I got a lot of experience."

"When I moved into an agency, it was a little bit of a cultural shock. There was a variety of clients instead of just one and I learned so much."

"After about three years, I moved into the fashion and beauty realm and worked big brands like Coach and La Mer. Then I moved into more corporate roles at Cohn & Wolfe and a regional role at Pernod Ricard, which is the second largest alcohol producer in the world."

"All of this is just to say that I set myself up with a lot of different types of experiences, with an array of work styles, communication practices, client styles.... So when I was ready to start my own business, I had a good idea of what I wanted."   

When did that come about?

"I had been thinking about it for two or three years, but my business partner and I didn't take the leap until last year. I finally told myself: 'OK, stop thinking about all the fears and worries.' If I really want to start something, I have to just do it.”

"I found myself a very good business partner -- and it's been a great experience. We really complement each other. While I come from a PR and Marketing consultation background, my business partners actually came from digital social media marketing background. It's a great combination."

"We sat down and talked about our ideas, the vision for our little business, and everything fell into place very quickly and smoothly."

How does running your own agency compare to working for someone else?

"It's more flexible, for sure. What we do does require some face-to-face interaction, like videos and storyboards and client meetings. But, for example, website development, we can do that remotely."

"I meet up with my partner every week, but lots of times, we communicate by mobile, WhatsApp or email… it’s also the same for the clients."

"Of course, I need to be in the office sometimes and work with my team every single day, but we only meet for really important briefs or project kick-offs or big-scale events, so I think it's more efficient."

"Right now, I am taking care of the key day-to-day operations and finance management. My business partner has two other businesses to take care of. But I prefer a freer-style work environment. That’s how we both are."

"We know the first 2-3 years are crucial, in whether we will succeed or fail. For us, I think quality is the foundation of our work. We offer timely delivery and a personalized experience." 

When it comes to scaling the business, what is the hardest part?

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"The most challenging thing at the moment is business development. We have been leveraging our network, and we're happy that many of our past clients signed on very early and got us going."

"For the next step, we really wanted to try to be more focused on the kind of work that we want to win. Right now, we get a lot of project-based work, so even though we work with certain clients regularly, we want to get more retainer work."

"Going forward, we are trying to get some long-term relationships and retainers. This kind of work has gotten more competitive, but that's how we can grow and scale."

How do you manage the branding, or image, of your agency?

"That's another challenge. Even though we’re a boutique agency, we still have to have a clear image to clearly communicate our kind of expertise and personality."

"A lot of times, people might mistake us for freelancers. They'll come to us and ask if we can write this or that. Of course, we can do this, but for the firm’s image it’s not exactly right for us."

"We can refer a freelancer to do that kind of work, but we want to focus on integrated projects that require strategy, digital elements, SEO, and so on."

Going forward, mobile devices will be crucial. They already are.
— Nellie Chan

Do you think "Hong Kong is too small" to support a local business?  

"Some people say this, yes, but it’s not true, especially in our case. Quite a few clients come to us specifically to capture the local Hong Kong-Chinese consumers."

"We’re doing a very exciting project right now -- it’s an extension of a global project that wants to connect with the Hong Kong audience. They see our knowledge of Hong Kong language, culture and trends as very valuable."

"Someday we want to go global, but it's a long road ahead. For now, we see our strengths in the local and Asia markets. Some of our clients come to us looking for local knowledge, trends, and Hong Kong-specific content."

What qualities do you look for in new hires? 

"For us the first thing would be language. It might sound very basic but it’s quite crucial: Bilingual in terms of Cantonese and English, trilingual with Mandarin too."

"I think the second thing would be patience -- it's an underrated quality. I’ve been in this industry for quite a while, so we’ve seen a lot of people who can get their work done quickly, but it's full of errors and mistakes."

Any advice for other entrepreneurs thinking about launching a creative business?

"To begin with, sit down and think about your own strengths. Write down what you're good at on a piece of paper. In another column, write down what business you're in now, and what business you think you should have. They don't have to match completely, but that will help you to narrow down your expertise and differentiate yourself from competition."

"Knowing your weaknesses is also very helpful. I’m not saying you have to take a lot of courses to fulfill the holes and be the best in the industry, but later on, you can surround yourself with people who fill those gaps."

"It's also worth looking at a few brands or companies that you aspire to be like -- not a huge global company, but one that's just a few steps ahead so you can create attainable goals."

Patience — it’s an underrated quality.
— Nellie Chan

Any advice for businesses who are working on their branding? 

"It depends, but for me, the first thing is always to take everything you have and put it on the table. What are the resources you have right now? And what resources do you plan to have in the future?"

"Once you've done that, you need to narrow it down and describe your brand, your project, your image -- whatever initiative you're working on."

"So break it down to less than 10 adjectives. The best would be 3-5 bullet points with messaging for each bullet point. That will help guide you develop your image as your core values and assets."

What trends are you seeing in branding?

"Times are changing -- complicated websites with all these flash and various components aren't going to work anymore. Contemporary websites are clean, fluid, informative... "

"Going forward, mobile devices will be crucial. They already are. You have to think about content, and what to share on which channel. Once you know your brand messaging, that would be a good intuitive guide for you to judge which content should go on which channel."

"Whether you're doing video or Instagram, though, you need to be consistent in your branding and messaging."  

A Few More Questions

Credit: Chester Ho

Credit: Chester Ho

If you had US$25,000 to invest in your business, how would you spend it?

"Well for me, I would be very practical about it. We are working on our website, so we would invest some money to make it nicer than it is right now. And then I would hire my partner full-time."

"With this cash, he would feel confident to put in more time and focus on building this business. We also might take on one or two more people -- that would be really helpful at this point."  

What do you do to relax?  

"I like to go hiking -- I didn’t really do it much when I was younger but now I’m really trying to appreciate fresh air, being able to exercise while taking in the views."

"I also really enjoy flower arrangement. A few years ago, I actually went to Canada to get my certificate. Even though it’s not something related to my work, it’s a small achievement that I'm quite proud of and that takes my mind off work and stress." 

Any morning rituals to prepare for the day? 

"I have a little morning power ritual -- I try to be healthy when I'm at home or on weekends, because I tend to get a lot of takeaway while at work."

"I want to make sure my breakfast is clean and healthy, so I like to start the day with a glass of warm water, and then an apple, and three hard-boiled eggs -- three egg whites and one egg yolk."

"And then I also make myself my own version of coffee with red dates, dragon eye fruits, ginger, and goji berries -– it’s very good for boosting your circulation and metabolism. I soak everything in boiling hot water for an hour, and that will be my power drink to feel energized."