Interview with Emma Thompson, Spurwing’s Founder and Managing Partner
This month we’re celebrating five years since Spurwing was founded as Singapore’s first specialist healthcare communications agency. We’ve come a long way since then. In this Q&A, our founder and Managing Partner, Emma Thompson, talks about our evolution and what’s to come.
What led you to establish Spurwing Communications?
My vision was to bring fresh thinking to the healthcare industry’s communications in the region. There was a major gap in the industry – companies needed intelligent, creative communications counsel, from senior advisors. Lots of public relations firms were working with healthcare brands but that strategic element was missing. I wanted to combine my knowledge of global markets, the financial sector and the healthcare world with local talent to create something unique and offer clients the kind of advice they wouldn’t find anywhere else. I knew I brought a unique mix of experience from both start-ups and large companies that clients in Asia Pacific would benefit from.
What are you most proud of Spurwing achieving in the past five years?
Our phenomenal growth; our portfolio of brilliant and long-standing clients (we still have clients who have worked with us from Day 1); and my greatest pride – the people who make up Spurwing today.
We have always hired purposefully and today I see a diverse range of skills, capabilities, networks and expertise in our specialist, sector-focused team – gained from previous agencies, in-house teams, the non-profit sector and more, and knowledge spanning brand marketing, internal communications, investor relations, medical communications, graphic design and digital. Our culture is hugely important, and is reflected in the environment we create and the work we produce. We were awarded “Best Small Agency to Work For” at the 2019 Holmes Report SABRE Awards; a huge honour especially as the judges reviewed feedback from agencies’ employees.
Awards were generally a huge highlight last year with two of our stellar campaigns recognised at the Marketing PR Awards and us winning PRCA SEA’s Small Consultancy of the Year.
Is the Spurwing of today what you predicted 5 years ago? What surprised you along the way?
We’ve stayed true to my original vision, but we have expanded into food, agriculture, sustainability and broader purpose-driven communications. We’ve emerged to become an integrated communications agency doing award-winning work for companies leading the way in health & wellness. This is something I couldn’t have predicted, but it mirrors changes in the broader industry and the need to approach personal, social and economic “wellbeing” holistically.
What do today’s company and communications leaders tend to need most from an agency partner?
Senior sector knowledge, and an ability to work as their partner in front of all stakeholders – whether internal or external. We emphasise this and strive to put ourselves in the shoes of our clients. Having a team with global expertise and previous in-house experience helps us to understand where our clients are coming from and provide well-informed advice. They also appreciate our network and contacts in the media, associations, government agencies and Key Opinion Leaders – people we speak to on a regular basis – and this insight helps our clients shape their plans.
Leaders of high-growth companies also appreciate when communications agencies can step in as partners – we provide them with bandwidth and additional resourcing so they can focus on strategy and business development.
For example, we know how to help a start-up talk to initial investors and grow with them. CEOs value our knowledge of the financial and commercial journey they are undertaking, and our ability to offer Board counsel as an extension of their team.
Where do independent agencies have the edge?
Independence allows for agility, creative thinking and vision. It attracts team members with the right approach – they have a growth mindset and are more entrepreneurial.
For Spurwing, it also means being free to make choices that aren’t tied to global targets or inherited briefs from other markets, and it means we can take measured risks to invest and grow our skillset where we believe there is opportunity. For example, we built an in-house creative studio before there was a clear demand – and we wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t. Visual communications are more important now than ever, and our design team is highly valued by our clients.
What changes have you observed in relation to business executives and their interest in communications?
Communications is increasingly an area they are willing to invest in, and leaders are more aware of the need to communicate impact and leadership on a regular basis. Internal audiences are valued equally importantly as external, and we’re seeing “Employee Experience” (or EX) being embraced by leaders of companies of all sizes. Sustainability and social impact are also firmly on the radar now. In short, the change is all very positive for communications.
What is the greatest opportunity for the public relations industry in 2020?
I believe this is the year we remember the strength of PR and see renewed interest in more traditional, targeted forms of media – such as audio (thinking of the podcast revival) to long-form journalism and more informative, smarter brand content.
Big changes are happening in the digital marketing and social media space – from Google’s recent announcement about the removal of third-party cookies to Instagram’s gradual removal of likes. These tech companies are acutely aware that the public is losing trust in the industry and people are suspicious of fake news, AI bots, influencers, advertising privacy controls and information overload. Brand awareness strategies and metrics will need to look very different in 2020.
Communications specialists shouldn’t be afraid of these changes. It gives us a huge opportunity to reposition ourselves as central to organisational reputation and rebuild public trust in institutions. To get there, we need to display a deep knowledge of an organisation’s audiences and their needs, use expert voices and honest storytelling and choose our channels wisely.
What exciting changes are on the horizon for Spurwing?
The year has just kicked off and we’ve already welcomed new clients, new team members and new projects. We’re also becoming more embedded with our Global Health PR global partners through co-created regional campaigns, joining the annual AGM in Romania in June and introducing a new employee exchange programme where a member of our team will be seconded to our Australia partner VIVA! Communications later this year.
Where do you hope Spurwing will be in the future?
I’m keeping an open mind as the future is exciting and we embrace change. My main hope is that we will continue to lead in independent, specialist communications and work with even more leading brands and companies.