Lippe Taylor’s Paul Dyer Interviews LG’s Ken Hong On ‘Thinking Global, Staying Local’ & the Challenger Mindset

Here are some key takeaways from this conversation with Ken Hong. The full transcript is also available below.

Study psychology and political science or hire those who have. Ken is very vocal about the importance of lesser-mentioned disciplines that better enable communications professionals, specifically political science and psychology. Ken claims that his studies in both of these fields helped him tremendously as a communications leader since they gave him a fundamentally better understanding of humanity, culture, and therefore communications.

Think global, stay local. Despite working in five international cities, Ken finds that experience in global comms is in low demand, whereas local expertise in any given market is much more valuable. Ken recommends that comms leaders have a baseline understanding of global communications but remain focused on their local markets, since global expertise is rarely important to local clients.

Keep your challenger mindset. Part of Ken’s success comes down to his refusal to rest on his laurels even when LG achieves market leader status in certain categories. In Ken’s view, there is no fundamental sense of “having arrived,” considering the speed of change. In an industry like electronics with its diverse array of products, it’s critical to always be cognizant of the brands that aren’t market leaders and keep pushing them forward to remain vigilant.

Interviewer: Paul Dyer (PD), President, Lippe Taylor
Brand Leader: Ken Hong (KH), Head of Global Communications, LG

Paul Dyer:So obviously, law and political science are different versions of the business of persuasion. Should we be looking at political science majors when we’re recruiting for public relations and communications?

Ken Hong:When it comes to analytical thinking or trying to see what’s around the corner before you actually get there, I think people who are really into the politics of communications are good at that. I have a lot of friends who got into politics by way of communications. There are a lot of people who could do both very well, and a number of former government types do a lot of good communications after they leave the White House. I don’t think it’s a bad area to look in. However, most people don’t think of it off the top of their heads, as you said.

PD:Right. In the past you’ve said that instead of reading books about PR, we should be reading books about psychology. That resonated with me, because I started in psychology and then moved into political science. Do you have a psychology book that you recommend?

KH: Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any one, but it’s that class of books: the best sellers, the Freakonomics and the Tipping Points, anything by Malcolm Gladwell or economists. Books by economists that deal with psychological questions are fascinating, and very relevant to our business. Edward Bernays being related to Sigmund Freud is not a fluke. A lot of people don’t know the history of how this industry got to where it is. When you go back and connect the dots, there’s a lot of connections between psychology, and economics, and communications, and public relations.

PD:Another thing you’ve been quoted as saying is that comms should not be expected to have a direct impact on business. And I believe the context was saying we shouldn’t expect comms on its own to have a direct impact on business. But obviously, we’re in this age of analytics and ever-increasing emphasis on ROI. So how do you encourage people to think about the value of communications and what it delivers to the business?

KH:Yeah, I kind of bit my tongue after I said that because I was worried that people would take it the wrong way. But what I said has evolved over thirty years. I think over the years I’ve seen myself and a lot of my fellow practitioners hurt ourselves by saying things that have later come back and haunted us. When we say, “Hey, we’re cheaper than advertising,” or, “Oh yeah, dollar for dollar, it’s the most bang for your buck,” these things are coming back and really starting to hurt us.

PD: So we need to stop saying that we’re cheap.

KH:We’ve never been cheap or free, that’s the whole thing. If we were cheap and free, how are these holding companies pulling in double digit growth every year?

PD: Right, that’s a fair question.

KH:We’ve been fooling ourselves into thinking that if we say this to clients, they’ll buy it.

PD: Right. So speaking of holding companies, prior to LG you worked at two international offices of large global holding companies. What’s your perspective on the pros and cons of working with locally owned and operated agencies in various markets versus a global agency that has offices in all of those markets?

KH: Back in the early ’90s somebody asked me, “Why did you join MSL?” And I said, “Because these big agencies are sexy.” I mean, I was talking Mad Men before Mad Men was a hit. I had always envisioned these big Madison Avenue type holding companies doing communications like Don Draper, sitting in his office having a cigarette and coming up with real good creative campaigns.

Now, I still believe that the holding companies are the most creative that the industry has to offer and they’re able to borrow from their various sister and brother agencies to get to that point. But I also think it’s a young person’s game. I think these holding companies are viciously tough to stay a part of when you do this thing for thirty years. And the pressure for that double-digit growth is so, so intense that it really wears you down. So there’s a great opportunity for midsize firms and for local firms, once you’ve done the holding company, and the big agency, and traveling from country to country, and being MD here and MD there. Then you just want to settle down and do your job. That is a great evolution of this industry: there’s something for everybody in every decade.

PD:It’s a really interesting perspective. And you’ve obviously modeled it in your own career in terms of your growing up in Bucks County, graduating from Penn State, and then off to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Seoul. So I’m also curious about your perspective on living around the world, physically, to gain a global perspective? Is that necessary in the current globalized landscape? Can you have a global perspective without living in different countries?

KH:You can, but I don’t think everyone needs a global perspective. Communications itself is a very local industry. In other words, you’re going to find many more job opportunities being a U.S. comms expert than a European comms expert or an Asian comms expert, or even (the least in demand), a global comms expert. Because roles for people with a global comms expertise are very, very few and far between.

So the advice I would give anybody who wants to study in this industry is: stick to one market, whether that market is one country or a small region. You really need to say, “I know this market really well.” In other words, myself, having worked in five different international cities and being able to speak my way around a lot of different global topics doesn’t really matter to a local client. But we’re very useful in-house in a large company like LG where we can oversee a very large network and kind of smell when something is off. I’m not parachuting into Mexico and pitching a Mexican journalist. That’s not our role.

Our role is to be able to take all these ideas and strategies and concepts and know when something is off. Being able to call baloney when it’s baloney is really our number one useful skill.

PD: It’s the fine tuning of the Spidey sense. So how do you think about managing a global strategy while empowering local activation?

KH: You really need to let them run the show. But I would say the vast majority of the people here in my organization work alongside of me but only see me once a year because they’re based in Cairo, Lagos or Johannesburg. The reason they listen to the advice I give them is that when I say something it really makes sense to them. This is where that background of wanting to be a lawyer comes into great play, because it really takes a lot of internal convincing to get people on board. I can’t overemphasize how important good internal communications is in our jobs.

PD: So you’ve been at LG for a very interesting eleven years. Eleven years ago, obviously, LG was a known player in some sectors of the market, but probably not yet the market leader. Now it’s become a global leader in many various consumer electronics markets, and is obviously engaged in many different business units. How have you managed the transition, from a communications standpoint, from being the challenger brand to being the market leader?

KH:Because we are still a challenger brand in more product areas than we are the market leader. That’s how. I don’t think this job will ever be done, because we will always come up with some new-fangled product to have to push. If it’s not a washing machine then it’s something silly, or crazy, or off the wall, like a modular phone, or a waterless washing machine. So these things keep us young. These things keep us awake at night. But I don’t think we will ever be the market leader in everything. And that is important. If we were market leaders in everything, we might take our eye off the ball.

PD:PD: Last week AdAge put out an article about how PR agencies are now competing and winning against ad agencies in big creative pitches. This isn’t new to a lot of comms people, but it was a revelation in the advertising world. What are your thoughts on this inevitable bridging/overlap that’s taking place between more creative driven marketing and PR and comms?

KH:That’s a fantastic question, because I would say the direction my career was going twelve years ago was exactly to answer that question. Would comms be more effective if we were more integrated with other forms of communications? And the reason I went to Thailand was because McCann was one of the foremost integrators of the various communications practices, and they had this world group philosophy, which I really, really loved. They had the PR, and the advertising, and the event, and digital, all under the same roof, and we were smoking out of the same peace pipe every morning. And these were colleagues, not just people I went to see whenever I needed ideas for a campaign.

These were people I ate lunch with every day, and I really thought that was the kind of environment I wanted to work in. But I don’t think it works for every client. I am convinced now that you need lines. Some clients may not care whether this creative idea is coming from advertising, or the media buying arm, or the PR arm. But I still see a lot of clients who do make that distinction and they don’t want to pay advertising agency rates for a PR idea or what have you. So my thinking changed dramatically after being in that environment for two years, that, “Hey, PR still has a really important role and it should not overlap all the time with these other practices.”

However, the fact that we can compete with advertising isn’t really all that surprising to me. I thought we could back in the early ’90s when I thought we were Mad Men. I really think this is true across many disciplines. I think the media buying companies can compete with PR and I think events can compete with advertising and so forth. I don’t think it’s exclusive. I think there is a lot of overlap and I don’t know if we need to fix that anymore.

PD:One of the areas driving everybody to overlap has been influencer marketing. Do you believe that influencer marketing belongs in a specific discipline, or should it be sort of a shared realm?

KH:I think it’s very difficult area. And while, maybe fifteen years ago when this was just coming around as an important trend, I thought, “Hey, this is an area where comms and PR should really take the reins,” I’m not so sure I feel that way anymore. I joined Twitter in 2009 and back then I was like, “Oh, this is awesome. We’re going to control this. We’re the best equipped to do it.” I think the way social media has evolved makes it very difficult for any one discipline to own it. For instance, it’s very difficult for PR to have much of a role in YouTube when all these reviewers are demanding five figures to talk about your product. And I don’t have those kinds of budgets, nor do I want those kinds of budgets. I still like talking to writers. I still like talking to content creators who want to cover our products because they find it interesting, not because we gave them $50,000. I can only speak for PR, but I do not believe anymore that we should control social media because I see social media moving in a direction that I don’t want to get involved in, personally, which is “pay to play.”

PD:I think you’re right about that, and I think your words are going to resonate with a lot of people on that. Thank you Ken, we appreciate the insights and congratulations on being a Holmes Influence 100.

KH: Thank you so much for your time and your interest in talking about issues that are very important to me.

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