Continuing with our expert interview series, we caught up with Adrienne Ravez, the Director of Operations at QED and Co-Founder of Geeks in Cambodia.
QED is an award-winning agency that plays an active role in the country's emerging digital communications industry. Adrienne was featured in Asia-Pacific's top rising talent 40 under 40 campaign last year, and previously won Entrepreneur of the Year by Campaign Asia in its prestigious Women Leading Change Awards.
*In 2018, Endorphine Concept merged with Quantum Communications to become Quantum Endorphine Digital (QED).
As a psychologist, specialized in sociology and anthropology, Adrienne previously worked with NGOs in France; dipping into social media work around 2008. Whilst using social platforms to raise awareness, she quickly spotted the future importance these tools would have as the global phenomenon grew.
As experts in social media largely didn’t exist in 2009, Adrienne performed a deep dive into the opportunity and co-founded, alongside Yohan Brizolier, a social media agency in France offering digital solutions. Having been among the first in their field within the region, they were able to expand and sell their client portfolio within two years, leading to the decision to continue their entrepreneurial ventures outside of the admin-laden regions of France.
Mäd: So, when you started, were clients excited about what you were offering? Or did you have to convince them that social media was both important and hugely beneficial?
Adrienne: It was a bit of both. Most people didn’t know that agencies offered this service, or that they should even be looking at it. Some people can be traditionalists, and stubborn as such, so the challenge was to educate people on the key uses of social media in the emerging digital landscape.
When we had decided to leave France, we were unaware of Cambodia’s booming economy. We originally considered starting up in Vietnam, but discovered the competition there was already incredibly fierce and the market was overserved. Eventually we were recommended to explore Cambodia by friends, and as such discovered many positive aspects and opportunities.
There was only one competitor in Phnom Penh when we started. Despite fewer competitors, we noted that in the East that an educative approach was needed to convey the rising importance of social media and digital advertising—to increase the amount of early adopters.
Our timing was both lucky, and inspiring. We arrived in Cambodia at a great time to lead the wave of social media growth (and importance) within the Kingdom. Whilst it was exciting to come here at first, we had small budgets and a lot of challenges to educate people on the importance of social media to their businesses.
Mäd: Now there may be 50 to 60 agencies in Phnom Penh alone, making it a much tougher market. Although admittedly, Covid-19 has suddenly killed off a lot of the smaller local agencies sadly. At Mäd we have a balance between international and local staff, and although we did a lot of aggressive expanding in the first few years, we’ve since learned some expensive and painful lessons.
How have you balanced cultural learning for business success, and have you faced any trying difficulties on your journey as an agency?
Adrienne: Originally it was a sharp, unforgiving, learning curve when adapting to business life in Cambodia. Even such decisions as our office location had quick consequences, we suffered an early break-in meaning we lost everything! It was hard, but it made us stronger and better for it.
We’ve made mistakes with some cultural differences, but you learn much more from mistakes than from anything else. Luckily my background in psychology, sociology and anthropology has made me very comfortable with various cultures and discussions - there has to be considered adaptations with your approaches to match client cultures and expectations.
Mäd: Our first year trading is probably where we earned our agency ‘MBA’ due to the mistakes!
Fail fast, fail hard, learn from it.
So, originally your agency was called Endorphine Concept, how did that name come about?
Adrienne: It was our name in France. Originally my business partner was my life partner and we lived in Australia. We loved a band called Endorphine, and also the happiness from endorphins seemed central to what we wanted to do with marketing and advertising.
In Cambodia we simplified it to EC, as it was easier for people to understand.
Mäd: I see, and based on the name being so positive and stemming partly from happiness, do you ever have difficult clients that don’t match the work you want to do as an agency?
Adrienne: Absolutely, the most difficult clients tend to be asking for unethical data. We always stay true to ourselves and say no when we have to.
Mäd: The companies that sell the traditional vices have the biggest budgets, like alcohol and tobacco.
Adrienne: Yes, but they’re very transparent, they don’t have a hidden agenda as they are direct with what they’re wanting and trying to do. What can be more surprising, is perhaps working with campaign driven organizations such as NGOs. Sometimes it’s not as clear what the end goal may be and the donors funding the campaigns are rarely the ones making the day to day decisions.
Mäd: I guess what’s difficult is having the checks and balances. Private companies have profits and losses which is an automatic incentive, but at NGOs it’s more about reporting on the impact—which might not always be as clear. Measuring that impact can get skewed too, as it’s hard to pinpoint whether the social campaigns are to thank for the great positive advancements in daily life (for many) here over the past 10 years—or if it’s actually due to the strong economic growth and growth from private companies trickling down the economy.
Adrienne:Absolutely, I can see that line of thought… sometimes it’s about identifying the problem that NGOs are tackling and making sure what they’re doing is relevant, and not going where they are not. Some organizations do a great job. I’m a great admirer of 17 triggers, they do great work and they constantly question what they do. I think it’s brave, and their transparency is key.
I’m absolutely not against NGOs at all, they do great work. It’s just key that they need to continually question their practices to ensure the teams on the ground build the KPIs and goals as they’re the ones that know what’s going on.
Mäd: Definitely, and sometimes also well-meaning goals can tamper efforts to solve problems. For example, if you provide something for free… then you might kill the market for private entrepreneurs to come in and create solutions.
Adrienne: It has to be seen as a global approach. If a need can be initiated by an NGO, and raise awareness, then there can be a positive transition towards social enterprises and help the economy. So it always should be seen as that transition.
Mäd: In a way, NGOs should be battling hard to essentially make themselves redundant in the long term!
On the Merger.
Mäd: Returning to the discussion on QED, I wanted to ask about the merger you had in recent years, and how that came about?
Adrienne: In 2015 they [Quantum] invested in our company. They were looking for a strong digital partner, and we happened to already work together on a mutual client. We collaborated and found very strong chemistry. After a few months of working, they offered to invest with our agency and it worked out so well that a merger was discussed.
The advantage of merging was that we worked on many common clients (Smart Axiata, Ezecom, etc), so having one single agency made sense for the clients too. We could share an office, teams, HR, and combine different skills too - so it was all extremely efficient. We had a stronger management team combined, as anything not shared in common could be cross-sold as an additional offering.
Mäd: Thinking through that process. Were there discords with management styles? For example, how did you figure out what the culture should be?
Adrienne: Having worked together, we knew our approaches upfront, and they aligned nicely. Our style was very structured and process orientated, which is something I strongly believe in for success.
Quantum worked more in PR, and by the nature of their fast-moving reactive work, we had to change our processes to suit. However, both companies valued our team members strongly and such shared care helped us align.
Using tools like Bloo is very important as they can put everyone in one place so there’s a common reference point. Without a common reference, it causes discrepancies and potential disruptions. We don’t just want a cloud of ideas, we want to be able to record everything and move things forward collectively.
Mäd: Clients certainly buy into that. They want the process. They want to see the thinking behind things. Going beyond a cloud of ideas makes sense.
Adrienne: Yes, and it’s also done through Human Resources. Our HR policies are very comprehensive, and that’s important to us. It means that we are all following the same rules; even the directors follow the exact same rules as new employees. It gives equality to the team and ensures everyone knows their clear responsibilities as a member of the team.
Mäd: Yeah that’s interesting and we think from the way we’ve done Mad from the other end of the spectrum: We don’t have huge policies, it’s more based on trust and common sense. You still have to check people but in a different manner! There’s a bit of a compromise in giving so much freedom, as it can be a balancing act to ensure the trust isn’t abused. The first year and a half of Mäd, it was abused a bit, but now we’ve figured out how to strike the balance.
Adrienne: I think it depends, in my opinion. Not having rules is fine, when things are fine. But when it’s not fine, then there’s a lot more discussion and doubt over decision making and processes. Especially with such a scenario as Covid-19, you need contingency and structure. We don’t want some people thinking there are ‘special treatments’ depending on their position. For example, we don’t allow 'Work From Home’, except when it’s an obvious health issue like the pandemic has been.
Mäd: That’s interesting as an example, why wouldn’t you allow working from home usually?
Adrienne: Not everyone has the self-discipline for it. We sometimes have to be on someone's back or coach certain people more. It's all about having a team culture where everyone is on the same page. We can’t give too much freedom as it can slow down productivity and it’s difficult to check upon. It goes back to keeping everyone playing by the same rules.
Mäd: With the Covid-19 situation, you’ve now had to embrace these things, has the change been difficult for operations?
Adrienne: It has been challenging, and exhausting. We’re having to do so much online, such as lots of meetings, calls, and check-ups. We kept some socially distanced meetings, we actually had a very busy period back when the pandemic first started. It was another balancing act, you need to be responsible and follow health guidelines while ensuring business standards don’t slip.
Mäd: Continuing with culture: We’ve grown accustomed to posing this thoughtful little differentiator: What do you think of a company, is it more of a family or more of a sports team?
Adrienne: More of a family for us, but I’m the rigid mother! Our team works out of respect for each other.
Mäd: We have found that eventually some people might need to go, and the family ethos can make letting staff go very difficult, and brutal! It can affect morale. So we’re very much about the sports team attitude, you come in and you perform - we’re all working together to be the best, and if someone isn’t putting in the effort then they’re on the bench.
Adrienne: I think people certainly need both support and structure; they need to feel they can grow. They need to know why they’re doing something, and have boundaries and structure to it.
On Future Equality.
Mäd: Do you have a long term plan for QED for the next 5 years?
Adrienne: QED is one of the businesses I’m involved in. In the past year and a half I’ve developed a lot of work with women, and that’s where I want to dedicate my time. I am looking to step back more and more as QED is able to manage themselves. For now, with Cambodia, one of my best friends is the partner of Sevea (consulting firm) we’ve been working for a year on mentoring female entrepreneurs.
We’re launching an accelerator program to support them, mainly on digital transformation, impact and general business practises. It’s geared to those that need support on how to scale, or those that don’t know how to market themselves; surrounding social, environmental, and digital knowledge.
Mäd: There’s a lack of women leaders at the moment in Cambodia, but having spoken to various high level people here, we’re seeing this real drive and movement to change that.
Adrienne: Yes, and it’s not just in Cambodia. It’s the same case globally, there’s less than 10% of Female CEO’s in the Fortune 500 companies. But, it’s important to understand that we aren’t claiming that women are victims without access to opportunity— it’s a global issue that needs fundamental change. It needs to be publicly acknowledged, accepted, and acted upon throughout all societies.
Mäd: True, and 50 years ago this conversation might have been laughable, but now it’s more about the reality catching up to the general thinking. People are ready for more equality, so it’s now about action, rather than simply awareness campaigns.
Adrienne: Yes, for example, in the world only 2% of VC funds go to women. That became a habit and it is easier to follow a habit and fuel continued issues. Now we need to act on it, women need more support when it comes to funding and to know how to value themselves adequately in business.
Mäd: When recruiting, do you go out your way to have a quota based on equality, or simply hire the best candidate?
Adrienne: I certainly believe that diversity in age, gender, ethnicity and culture makes companies stronger. Sometimes quotas are needed if things are stuck, but hopefully, it shouldn’t come to that, and it should just be based on strong candidates no matter who they are. It’s not about simply hiring more women, it’s about giving more chances to those that deserve them.
People can be taught how to negotiate, and how to calculate what they deserve. I went through this; I was pushed to ask for more and didn’t realize my full value at the time. Men are hugely important in women’s empowerment; I wouldn’t have achieved 10% of what I did without male aid. It’s not men versus women, it’s about working together.
Mäd: Men biologically being more aggressive may have led to this. The whole ‘hunter-gatherer’ concept, it’s suggested to lead to more bold choices and feeling the need to provide for others… even if it is largely testiculating and bravado. Having the gumption to demand more money based on your perceived value can be a huge challenge though, and especially in certain cultures these negotiations are unlikely to take place for such modest people.
So in Cambodia, how do we go about this change, how is the issue here?
Adrienne: Well, it’s actually fairly positive here. There’s more opportunity compared to other markets, and women are ready and willing to take leadership positions. What is beaming through right now, is that more and more women are taking leadership roles, yet, they still handle 80% to 90% of the household roles. This is like a hidden job in itself, it’s a big issue that we are witnessing. While it’s true that there are more opportunities for work, their time is being eaten elsewhere (at home) without healthy balance.
Mäd: At one of our clients called Soundskool, 80% of staff are women. From extensive hiring we found that females at age 22 or so are so much more switched on and better with clients, than males of the same age! Over 7 years of the business, objectively speaking, Women were just overall better at that age. They seemed more awake, and obviously, there are exceptions, but there is lots of promising talent coming up in Cambodia to challenge gender conceptions in the workplace.
Adrienne: The idea isn’t to perform better than men. Sadly this can be very common, that women feel the need to noticeably outperform men to simply get the same opportunities. There is this underlying feeling that you constantly have to prove yourself, and it’s not always a great thing. People should be able to be their best and perform their best, without this feeling that they have to prove something. Education and coaching is definitely strongly tied to this.
On Social Media.
Mäd: Back to QED, in Cambodia: Facebook is the ‘mono-channel’ in a way. People don’t think of ‘going on the Internet’, it’s going on to Facebook, Telegram, Instagram, and Tik Tok. Do you think this leads to the platforms becoming overly saturated here for marketing purposes?
Adrienne: Well, the latter, Tik Tok, is particularly booming; brands are jumping on it. We don’t think Facebook is saturated because brands now have to advertise correctly. Facebook is stricter with policies, which is a good thing because it drives out bad adverts. This means the only content to go through is trustworthy and of quality.
The work Facebook is doing in South East Asia is very interesting. They’re working to improve the ecosystem. For example, we have been doing a virtual business chat series with the Facebook team, and have found it to be very productive and interesting. It’s great that Facebook is doing locally rooted initiatives.
Mäd: Every app focuses on ‘stories’, would you agree that short video content is the big thing of the moment?
Adrienne: The success of short ‘story’ video content is certainly reflected in Tik Tok’s rise. There are lots of great opportunities for these video features, especially here in Cambodia. So many talented videographers in Cambodia are doing great work. One of my friends is launching a sports channel, which will be probably the first here.
Mäd: Do you have any advice for advertising? For those spending their Ad dollars on social media, in terms of reporting and attribution, how should they measure success?
Adrienne: They have to decide what they want to achieve. If it’s sales - they need to craft their adverts to optimize for sales; by contacts, or by items sold for example. Social selling is especially huge here, many people are gaining organic success already through social media sales. It paves the way for effective social media advertising to boost sales or stand out against competitors. In fact, I don’t think an eCommerce platform will ‘crack’ Cambodia, as social selling is already too big.
Mäd: Our research has pointed to Facebook skipping straight over traditional eCommerce here. Tens of thousands of shops are now making a lot of money, simply by using Facebook as their tool to reach their audience digitally.
Adrienne: It’s easy to use for consumers and it’s less of an investment to sellers. You don’t have to consider a whole ecosystem of traffic, plugins, support channels, and accreditation. Facebook has it all in one place and the users know how to navigate it.
Mäd: We wonder if that will keep the market fragmented. It would cost millions to build the ‘Amazon of Cambodia’. Facebook has not become the official ‘marketplace’ of Cambodia yet, it’s just monetized from Ads at the moment.
On the back of this subject, have you seen the recently trending documentary called ‘The Social Dilemma?’
Adrienne: Yes and it’s not the only documentary on this topic that I’ve seen, or experienced; Digital detox is another one worth mentioning.
Luckily my generation lived without social media before, whereas the younger generation has not; in fact, it’s been their life forever. While it’s really helpful having these Social media resources, it’s also very very dangerous. There is digital addiction, instant gratification expectations, and worrying negative behaviour changes caused by this wave.
Mäd: Do you think Companies like ours are contributing to the problem? We’re trying to drive engagement for example, which can lead to digital addiction.
Adrienne: Well, if you’re promoting positive things and raising awareness, whilst using platforms ethically and encouraging others to do so - I think it’s ok. But it is important to be careful of identifying the fine line. The issues are only likely to get worse.
Mäd: A worrying trend is that parents are giving young kids, as young as 2 or 3 years old, iPads or such to keep them quiet. It builds up this addiction and dependency from a scarily young age. We wonder what it is doing to the child.
Adrienne: It’s all about striking a balance. It’s good if it helps the parents, but monitoring screen time and usage is perhaps important too. We live in a period where you seemingly can’t avoid putting your child in front of a screen. Balance, as well as encouraging offline activity, is key. We have no idea what the extensive digital consumption might lead to, but we also need to consider digital identities and how they’re being shaped from young ages.
Mäd: For sure, we’ve noticed our abilities to concentrate on deep work has diminished to an extent. We are more used to instant gratification, and so one has to force yourself to work deeply. The good thing is that Apple and Google are putting out more and more ‘do-not-disturb’ tools, which must have been made because people are becoming so dependent on constant connections.
Adrienne: There was a ‘Digital Detox’ experiment in France where a person went without technology for a month. The result was that you gain so much from being offline. The person who previously suffered from social media addiction and anxiety recovered so much from this experiment. It just goes to show that you really have to be conscious and aware, to avoid the inevitable burnout from social media.
Mäd: Talking about digital addictions, it’s also up to us as digital & social media agencies to steer brands in the right direction. It’s not a simple problem.
Adrienne: Our generation is the first experiment. We don’t yet know the physical and psychological impact social media has on us and our children in the long-term. We will need stronger regulations regarding data privacy; the ethical implications are absolutely critical.
Mäd: Moving on to social media advertising: Lately, we’ve noticed that many internet users are beginning to become immune to advertisements. With the constant bombardment of advertising banners everywhere you look, we imagine that consumers have learned to tune out; which makes us wonder if this causes advertisers to see decreasing returns on investment.
LinkedIn has almost become ‘spam’ in Cambodia. There’s no option for to turn off the messaging feature and we constantly receive messages from people we don’t know selling us things we don’t need. It gets to a point where it feels very invasive especially as it becomes more and more frequent.
For Mad we don’t do much advertisement as our business operates efficiently through word of mouth. For Bloo, as it’s a product, we’ve certainly found success from digital advertising. Do you have preferred advertising platforms that you tend to recommend to most clients?
Adrienne: From a strategy aspect, each platform has its own objective. Not all platforms are relevant. For example, Google-based platforms are less used here because you need to search for a specific keyword for your ads to appear. Facebook, on the other hand, is more superior for brand awareness as it’s where most target markets are constantly [digitally] frequenting. The fact that you need to have an account on Facebook to use it, also means Facebook has an upper hand there, as it gives advertisers further information to target through account demographics.
Mäd: That reminds us of when FoodPanda first launched. They were very aggressive with their marketing which led them to receive some negative reviews and a lot of pushback from consumers.
Adrienne: There’s a limit. Now people are becoming pickier. They want good advertising which shows that the market is becoming more mature.
Mäd: Finally, when it comes to responsibility, How do you prioritize what you want to focus on? Do you have a system or a framework to help you?
Adrienne: That is difficult. I work with a checklist. Priority depends on key things like taxes, responding to clients, delegating tasks to my team, and showing up for my team. I definitely prioritize things that have the most impact on the business as well as team support. I would never say no to my team if they need some of my time.
Mäd: Something I’ve learned, and I think it’s also a common mistake that Leaders make, is “peanut buttering your time” i.e. spreading it evenly and treating everything as equal. Because all tasks aren’t equal.
Adrienne: They’re not. For task management, I actually focus better if I'm multitasking. I’m more efficient that way. When I multitask, there is a priority in my mind. At work, I’m very efficient. So my difficulty lies with finding a real work-life balance. What I do to try to become better at balancing the two, is to make time to focus on things that I enjoy outside of work. For example, dancing is important to me and so I would leave work early to go dance and then continue work after. It allows you time to think about something else, and clearing your mind can be extremely helpful sometimes.
Mäd: True, we recently had been discussing productivity hacks in our office… throwing too much focus into tasks can lead to burning out if we don’t punctuate our work with quality breaks. It seems counterintuitive to be encouraging team members to stop their tasks to read, socialize, or even nap, but everyone needs a little reset now and then to boost their output. On that note, we’ll draw this discussion to a close, thank you for joining us today for a stimulating discussion.
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