Founding a PR Network in Southeast Asia

Founding a PR Network in Southeast Asia
Photo with Zsofia Balatoni and Robert Romai, founders of Uniomedia and Rothman Global Network
Zsofia Balatoni and Robert Romai, co-founders of Uniomedia and Rothman Global Network

Eurocom Worldwide: Dear Zsofia, where are you at the moment?

Zsofia: 😊 I’m in Singapore. We’ve arrived in the middle of COVID a year ago. We were extremely lucky to be able to start working here, but also spent 4 months of the past year in Europe.

Eurocom Worldwide: You have founded Uniomedia, a leading PR network in Central and Eastern Europe 15 years ago. What was your motivation to tackle the Southeast Asian market with your new network Rothman Asia and entering completely different cultures and economies – very far away from your home in Hungary?

Zsofia:  I have studied, lived and worked in many countries but never before in Asia. It is an exciting experience, a completely different culture. However, when it comes to business and communication practices in particular I feel that there is a demarcation line between developed and emerging economies. We have offices in London and Brussels, but our real expertise has been Central and Eastern Europe. We have operated in the whole region for 11 years, with clients in 11 countries there. Having vast experience in Central and Eastern Europe is a huge asset in understanding the emerging markets in SEA, and as we are covering the entire region from Singapore I do not feel strange when we work in the neighbouring countries.

Eurocom Worldwide: You have moved with your family to Singapore in 2020 during the first wave of the Corona pandemic and you started your SEA PR network from scratch. What have been your greatest achievements and your biggest failures since that time?

Zsofia: When we arrived the life in Singapore was kind of normal compared to Europe, restaurants and coffee shops were open, up to 8 people could meet at that time. Therefore, we had a chance to start networking, at least on a limited scale. But after a short while new restrictions came, and our first meetings did not go so well as we were really new and unexperienced here. Therefore, the first months we did not have a chance to make bigger steps forward, but that is normal, I suppose, regardless of the pandemic. We had to accommodate, we had to find good people to start working with. Overall, the struggles were limited compared to the pandemic situation, and we succeeded to get very nice projects by the end of our first year here. We supported the first international SPAC IPO in Singapore. We are currently 5 colleagues and in search for new employees. We are very satisfied with what we have achieved at the moment. This market seems to be how we expected, competitive but meritocratic with growing demand and cautiously open-minded people.

Eurocom Worldwide: What have been the most challenging obstacles while building up a business in Singapore and reaching out to various other SEA markets?

Zsofia: The biggest challenge for agencies is hiring, that is the same everywhere I suppose. But overall, people in Singapore are well educated with the most important standard skills for this profession, well organized with a business mindset. The pandemic itself hardened our way but helped us as well. We would not be here without the disruption and the new way of work that made it possible to manage our European business from so far a place like this. There are the “usual” struggles when building up a new network and making the first steps to make your brand feasible but these are no real obstacles. What is different compared to Europe is the bureaucracy in some countries in the region. Singapore is a perfectly organized place with comfortable administration for companies, but the neighbouring countries are very different. When we had our first project in Malaysia, we planned to open a bank account in the local currency for our Singaporean company to manage subcontractors. But that was not possible. If you would like to have an account in Malaysian ringgit, you need to incorporate a Malaysian company, and that is far from easy in our experience.

Eurocom Worldwide: Would you say that Singapore is the best place to start a business from in SEA? And how have you coped with so many different cultures and languages that your network is covering in countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc.?

Zsofia: Singapore is definitely the place to start if your target area is the SEA region. This region is full of opportunities, but you really need to know all the countries in-depth to operate there since every country works in a very different way, and these differences are much bigger than what we experienced in Europe. And that is not only about the general culture and local bureaucracy; for managing the media, organizing a press event, sending out a press release, you really need to know how that works in a particular SEA country because there are huge differences with regards to the media and journalistic practices.

Eurocom Worldwide: Who were your best business advisers and sparring partners during the last two years in SEA – apart from your husband Robert?  

Zsofia: Excellent question! A company in our industry is only as good as its people are. This move wouldn’t have been possible without being able to rely on trusted colleagues and partners. I have the luxury of working together with many excellent long-standing associates in our European offices. I’m extremely grateful to our European team of over 60 people, they are the ones who made this expansion possible. Otherwise I’m  also a member of several professional associations and happy to contribute as much as I can to universities both in Europe and in Singapore. These professional relationships shape how I see the world and they offer support and advice. We were lucky to start working with two Singaporeans quite early on, our local Executive Director, Mr. Chip Keng Ngand, and our Client Service Director Ms. Hanalia Khamis, who were instrumental in setting up our local operation. I also have to add that the business infrastructure in Singapore is very easy to navigate, the administrative processes support businesses to launch their activities here.

Eurocom Worldwide: How does the Eurocom Worldwide PR Network support your network expansion in SEA?  

Zsofia: Being a member of the Eurocom Worldwide PR Network offers several benefits for us. In addition to the “typical” benefits of sharing clients and pitching together for global accounts, it is a huge inspiration to regularly meet the members, share insights and best practices and discuss professionally exciting topics. It is also very reassuring for our clients, as they can be sure that we can offer the same high quality services to them in all major regions and countries around the world – thanks to Eurocom Worldwide.

Eurocom Worldwide: The global political structure has completely changed by the invasion of the Ukraine. Can you already say how this will affect your business plans in SEA?

Zsofia: At the moment, this region is less affected than Europe and its CEE region. That means our operation here makes our overall business more stable, even if we have not seen any backlash in business even in Europe by now. The threat of the recession can affect all economies but at the moment it seems that this region faces less struggle than Europe. This supports all our former plans to work here.

Eurocom Worldwide: If you look back to the year 2020: what are the most important lessons that you have learned from entering the SEA PR market?

Photo of Zsofia Balatoni, co-founder of Uniomedia and Rothman Global
Zsofia Balatoni: "If you have an idea and thought it through do not hesitate to get started!"

Zsofia: It's ok to think and rethink and plan your route cautiously, but if you have an idea and you have thought it through do not hesitate to get started. I remember when we arrived in Singapore and spent 2 weeks in quarantine, I asked myself many times why am I here, so far away from our relatives and the core market of our company that we live from. There is always a risk but what you learn from such business ventures is still worth it.

Eurocom Worldwide: If you look two years ahead from now: what are the biggest milestones that you would like to have achieved by that time?

Zsofia: Our goal was always stability, but a business needs to grow to remain stable. The biggest achievement is to go forward, step by step, it's not so important how big the step is if the direction is right.  

Eurocom Worldwide: Zsofia, thank you very much for these interesting insights, we wish you prosperous times for Rothman Asia!

Are you looking for a highly professional PR Network in SEA? Then contact Zsofia Balatoni, co-founder of Rothman Asia!