Just for the record, I am a big fan of South China Morning Post, especially the Lifestyle section where there is a constant feed of great op-ed stories available. For me, stories are better than news. By far. And of late, storytelling seems to be the most popular way for brands to convey their message out to the market. I recently caught up with Johnny Ng, the SCMP’s Morning Studio Marketing Solutions Director to understand more about the brand and his thoughts on how Covid-19 has impacted brands’ perception of native advertising in APAC as we’re entering the final quarter of 2020.
My first question to you is, what is Morning Studio and how does it support the South China Morning Post?
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) went through a major digital transformation over the past few years, evolving from being Hong Kong’s newspaper of record to becoming a global news organization for the digital age. Our mission is to lead the global conversation about China and translating Asia matters to the world. Morning Studio, as the in-house creative team of the SCMP focused on branded content and native advertising for clients, is part of this digital transformation. For a news industry that has been rapidly impacted by the commoditisation of digital advertising, Morning Studio stands out with impactful storytelling to help brands build effective content strategies that not only achieves reach but also audience engagement on SCMP and social platforms. Leveraging on SCMP’s unique voice in branded storytelling, Morning Studio’s is one of our innovative offerings that highlights SCMP’s approach to diversifying its revenue foundation to build a sustainable business.
How do you describe your journey so far as the head of marketing solutions strategy and project management team at Morning Studio?
It has only been about two and a half years, but my journey has been a very exciting one, because my current set of responsibilities combines all of my knowledge, experience, and interests into a single role — and this is all happening during a rapidly changing time. I first worked at SCMP 10 years ago in a digital product management role before pursuing opportunities at various marketing and advertising agencies, including a performance marketing agency startup I co-founded in Hong Kong. I returned to SCMP when Morning Studio was launched and it was where I could combine all my digital agency experience across marketing, media, and content. What was even more exciting was the licence to operate with a start-up mentality of experimenting and innovating quickly which made us agile, flexible and creative all at once. With all of that expertise, it was encouraging to be supported by an organisation full of great talent — with strong leadership and lofty ambitions — which made our work culture purposeful and rewarding. It’s been a wild ride, having greater ownership to define and build our offerings, and developing a strong team to deliver our unique service in established and new markets, but I would say we are definitely on the right track.
People keep shouting, focus on storytelling. What does it really mean?
As the character Tyrion Lannister famously said in the terrible Game of Thrones series finale, it’s stories that unite us!
The world of advertising has changed. “Because COVID-19” seems to be a convenient answer for almost everything in the world now but in many ways, this global pandemic has most definitely changed the advertising industry in profound ways. Over the years, with the rise of ad blocking, ad fraud, and a general disillusionment towards digital ads, it was already increasingly difficult to cut through the noise and get through to consumers (and even more difficult to delight them). With COVID-19 decimating all involved in the ad industry, the business-as-usual approach to creating and serving online advertisements was just not going to cut it anymore. So with today’s new normal of higher content consumption, it further accelerates the trend where storytelling becomes the new currency for brands to reach and influence their audiences. Storytelling — especially through the use of video content — has really proven to be more effective in brand recall and brand perception. Advertising through content that informs, educates, entertains, engages, and inspires will likely persuade — and that’s why all the fuss.
You’ve been working closely with large brands like Cartier, IBM, Amazon Web Services and others to develop their content strategy. Do you mind sharing with us the value those brands are seeing in content marketing and how powerful this strategy is to deliver the message to the audience?
The brands that we work with know that telling stories needs to be part of their marketing strategy, for the reasons I mentioned above. But they also know that these stories are more effective if they are told from different perspectives, and through the voices of third-party partners. This is where publishers and brand studios like ours come in. SCMP provides a unique voice and credibility that comes from 117 years of news reporting across Asia. Our compelling coverage on the stories that matter most to our readers have helped our longstanding reputation as a trusted source of news,
What our advertiser clients are also valuing is that publisher studios like ours are able to produce creative, high-quality productions to help communicate these stories — but that we also own the distribution channels to help promote them. This combination of quality content production, an instinct for impactful storytelling, with marketing and media expertise, distributed through a variety of platforms to interested audiences, is how these brands are able to be successful with their campaigns through partnerships with the SCMP and Morning Studio.
We are now entering the final quarter of 2020 Johnny. How do you see the impact of COVID-19 on native advertising in general as far as APAC is concerned?
I can probably speak for most people when I say we can’t wait for 2020 to be behind us. It’s been an unprecedented year that has been devastating for many businesses and industries, which has clearly affected our advertising business. For us in Hong Kong, this year has been even more difficult because it follows a year of social unrest in our city . But there is a silver lining: in our region — and we see this already in mainland China, and also now here in Hong Kong — perhaps because we were first to be hit by COVID-19, we are now among the first to recover.
So advertisers have started to return, and have been increasingly looking to Morning Studio for integrated, digital marketing solutions focused around storytelling. In fact, the past two to three months have been our busiest ever in our short two years of operations. And during this period of recovery, we are encouraged and heartened that brands with compelling stories to tell will look to us to help them, and they understand the value of having a publisher as a partner to distribute them through our platforms. In particular, tourism boards that need an inspiring message to plans to travel again, governmental organizations in Hong Kong that want to showcase innovations in our home city to keep everyone clean and safe, and the tech sector that wants to encourage continued investments in our future across different areas — these have been the most active categories for us in the native advertising space this year.
During this difficult time, budgets are being cut everywhere. Marketing, advertising included. Is this the way to go or you have a better idea on how best a brand should respond to this?
When businesses go for months without any revenue (and I’m thinking of many of our clients, particularly in the airlines and hotels industry), it’s only natural that their marketing and advertising budgets get affected — especially if jobs need to be saved at those companies. So it’d be a bit disingenuous for me to ask that they continue to advertise when their own immediate futures are uncertain. We’ve been lucky to work with organizations that have had some injection of investment or funding from the government during this period, and so I recognize that not every brand has had this luxury of working with media partners. I know that many of those companies have had to do many of their marketing activities in-house, including the creation of branded content working with existing resources.
That said, it’s my responsibility as a marketer and as someone that provides marketing solutions to brands to advise that cutting advertising budgets during tough times is incredibly short-sighted, because brands may never recover if they don’t invest in continued positive brand messaging and communication with their target audiences, especially through trusted media partners like us. There’ve been many cases of this short-sightedness in history, and it’s those companies that are most visible and have proactively taken control over their PR messages during economic downturns that prove to be the strongest brands when things return to normal.
It seems that SCMP is ready to step up the game as a leading publisher in this new environment. Why should SCMP be the go-to publisher?
In many ways our digital transformation journey has broadened the horizon for our global ambitions. The Post’s journey to being a global news organisation meant taking the legacy newspaper into the digital age and that has helped establish our international relevance. Over time, we were able to grow our audience outside of Hong Kong where the U.S.A. is now our biggest single market (36%) followed by the rest of Asia (27%). Growing our worldwide audience to more than 51 million monthly active users elevated our advertising exposure and the opportunity to achieve commercial success.
I think having an established level of digital expertise that allows us to innovate and drive growth in this new age of news publishing. Examples of these include launching our proprietary insight and activation platform based on first-party data called SCMP Lighthouse that offers marketers unparalleled consumer insights and drive campaign efficiencies. We’ve also launched SCMP SIGNAL, which is another proprietary brand suitability tool, that offers greater brand safety for marketers with customisable contextual, keyword & sentiment targeting options. It is this commitment to excellence that has helped lead to creating value and new solutions for our clients that generate direct impact to their business.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when growing Morning Studio?
There have been many lessons learned in the two years since the official launch of Morning Studio, but the biggest challenge may have been to build trust in our work — both to readers that come to expect a level of quality and insight from the content they consume on SCMP platforms, but also to our own newsroom colleagues, whom we needed to convince that our content was up to the standard required to be shown alongside editorial stories that they publish. For the most part, we have certainly achieved that — the work that Morning Studio produces is of the highest quality, by all measures — and that has been reflected not only by the industry awards we’ve won, but also validated through the positive feedback we have received. Our future challenges include continuing to grow our team, working more efficiently to increase margins, and expanding our client base to the rest of the world as SCMP continues to expand its international readership.
Anything you’d like to add Johnny?
As mentioned, Morning Studio is turning two! And just as the South China Morning Post is also turning 117 years old this month. Please follow our Morning Studio LinkedIn Page to stay up-to-date with all that we are doing.
How to contact you?
Email me here, email@example.com