The pandemic proved many things and one of the most important aspects was that the startup industry is resilient no matter what type of adversity that it faces. It, unfortunately, is one of the very few bright spots that has shown up with the last couple of years ravaged by the pandemic.

One market that has been hit particularly hard is Malaysia. Extended lockdowns and a lacklustre approach by the authorities stalled a lot of positive growth in the startup industry pre-COVID. However, apparently, not all is lost. According to SYNC founder and CEO, Terng Shing Chen, Malaysia’s startup industry is primed to spring back to life.

As a content marketing and PR startup, SYNC has been in the region for around four years and counts Malaysia as one of their key markets. Despite the continued presence of COVID, Malaysia startups have been re-emerging and SYNC has seen a significant increase in startup activity when it comes to marketing.

However, there are still fundamental issues in the industry. Despite strong promises with the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (12MP) focusing heavily on digitalisation for SMEs and startups, there is still a feeling that there has been enough done to help spur growth in the industry. According to Terng, when it comes to PR, content marketing and most communications solutions, Malaysia’s startups and SMEs are significantly underserved.

We spoke to him to find out more about this issue.

Congrats on your award. Tell us a bit more about SYNC and why it was award best Startup PR agency in Southeast Asia?

Thanks, it has been a pretty tough time for us all, so this was just a good way to end 2021.

Well, SYNC is a content marketing and PR startup that focuses on startups and SMEs in Southeast Asia. While we’re headquartered in Singapore, we actually both Singapore and Malaysia at the same time, so we’ve been in the market since the beginning. We provide a wide range of communications services, so from standard public relations and content writing, to content strategy, video production, digital marketing and social media services.

Right now, we’re growing our team aggressively and we are looking to more than double the number of staff in the region, with most of the team going to Malaysia. We’re betting big on the market because we believe it is underserved – there’s a lot of interest and potential, but the infrastructure isn’t built for companies that are looking to scale fast.

You mentioned Malaysia is a key target market for you, but is also underserved. Could you explain?

There are a lot of agencies in Malaysia that offer communications services, but for the most part, they cater to a different segment of the population. It is mostly the MNCs and larger SMEs with competitive budgets, or extremely affordable templated solutions for MSMEs. There don’t seem to be solutions that fit a middle tier, which is a significant portion of businesses.

Startups form a growing niche of businesses that have the budget to spend, but are looking for solutions that cater to actual problems that they face right now. Most agencies don’t look at the current situation to adapt to the issues or overcharge to cater a good solution that immediately puts it out of range for most startups.

Because of this, we see a lot of opportunity, but at the same time, there is also a lot of education required to help bring the industry forward. There is a problem with the infrastructure as well, which in this case, refers to the media, social media platforms and channels. It isn’t as developed as other markets, but we still see a lot of potential in the market.

What do you think PR agencies in Southeast Asia are getting wrong about startups and SMEs?

I don’t think they’re getting anything wrong per se, I just think they are not even considering them as a different segment of clients that require a specific type of service or solution. Most agencies we’ve observed tend to try to replicate their usual standard of service without realising the issue lies in their entire process. Startups are similar across the world – they have a very clear goal on what they need and it is your job as a partner or solutions provider to understand what it is and help them reach that goal.

Most agencies lack a clear idea about the startup industries and key drivers that keep the ecosystem running. I am generalizing a bit here, but from what we have gathered through our research and from a lot of feedback, is that there is little effort put into understanding what makes businesses tick and therefore, lack the tools to actually provide a solution that makes sense to an entrepreneur or results-oriented team.

What do you think is the next big thing for PR in Malaysia?

Well, I believe we’re at the start of a new style of public relations, which we’re already seeing in markets like Singapore and to some extent, Indonesia. Performance marketing has become the norm for many digital-first businesses, both B2B and B2C, because it is ultimately pegged to business success like revenue and lead generation. In more traditional markets like Malaysia, public relations is still hesitant to be used like a proactive ‘weapon’ for businesses to source for new business or reach specific stakeholders like regulators and investors.

This is slowly changing and I would like to think we’re at the forefront of this change. We encourage our clients to peg our success to business goals, because that makes our success undeniable and if it doesn’t work, then we know for sure that maybe public relations isn’t the most suitable solution for that particular brand.

However, like I mentioned, a lot of education is required for businesses to accept that PR could be the main driving force for business success.

What’s next for SYNC?

Growth. We’re focused on scaling the business as quickly and efficiently as possible. I mentioned we’re looking to more than double our team this year, as well expand into new markets in Southeast Asia. Changing an industry is a long journey and one that we’re committed to, so we’re looking at small milestones every year.

Right now, as we hopefully open up travel once again, I look forward to opening up offices in the key Southeast Asian countries. There are more startups than ever and the PR industry has not caught up to how they operate, so we need to be the ones to pave the way.