10 October 2019

In conversation with Belmont’s Holly Huang

The entrepreneur discusses the ever-changing communications landscape, opportunities and challenges presented by digital disruption, and the inspiration behind her forming the company

Photo by Addie from Pexels

By Belmont NewsBeat

I’m on the MRT approaching Raffles Place station (in Singapore). I’m thinking, “Why does the company founder want me to interview her for a post that will feature on her company’s website?”

“Why not write a blog?” I question.

I soon arrive at the Fullerton Hotel, our meeting place, 10 minutes early. I’ve just ordered a long black, and as the waiter takes my order and walks towards his ordering system, an authoritative, but not loud nor overbearing, well-spoken voice says, “I’m over here. But let me come to you.”

Holly Huang, founder and Managing Director of Belmont Communications, points out what a wonderful job the hotel has done in renovating this former post office. She notes the juxtaposition between the building’s classic yet modern design, and draws similarities to the industry she works in. 

“The communications business has for a long time needed an overhaul like this,” she quips. “There are values and ways of working that are traditional and will stand the test of time. However, the industry needs to move out of the dark ages and incorporate some fresh thinking and new ways of working.”

I probe these statements. Public relations, investor relations, crisis communications and more, Huang asserts, are services based on trust and client confidentiality. Trust, she adds, is multifaceted: Brands must have faith that their appointed agency has the knowledge, experience, skills and willingness to perform; and, they must be able to give informed and crystal-clear guidance. 

“Conviction and clarity,” she states. “The phrase is from the Bible, but it encapsulates what good communications is all about.”

Belmont founder and Managing Director Holly Huang

What about new ways of working, I ask? 

I get an answer to the question I asked myself while travelling on the MRT: “It would be easier and cheaper for me to write a thought-leadership piece myself,’ she explains. “But instead, I wanted to be put under the spotlight, and for someone to scrutinise the business.”

Accountability, transparency and the willingness to go the extra mile are important to today’s agency, Huang asserts. I ask her if she thinks there are many communications agencies that embody these attributes. “The need to live and breathe these attributes is important to today’s brands, and reflective of their own business values. I believe that we should be sharing the same ethos as our clients — for us to be able to act on their behalf with conviction and create a fruitful partnership.”

Some players have struggled to keep up with changing client perceptions and Huang is matter-of-fact when it comes to competition: “Brands are re-evaluating retainer work as they need to see value from their agency frequently and consistently. It’s this re-evaluation that will decide who has the right-to-operate.”

Being at one’s best for every minute of the day, for every day of the year, is important to Huang and her business. It’s a USP, it appears.

Huang stresses the importance of industry knowledge when servicing clients. “You can’t service a hedge fund or REIT unless you know the inner workings of their respective businesses, and aside from mere money what they are trying to achieve.”

Like Belmont, investment firms are about more than mere money. There are values and non-financial goals such as showing stewardship to communities and the environment. These values influence the style of investing such firms execute, Huang says — she briefly brings to my attention Belmont’s ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing practice.

Values are important to Huang and Belmont. Integrity, agility, discretion and empathy are the firm’s official values. But there are more, she adds. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are also close to her heart and thinking, particularly SDGs eight and nine: Decent work and economic growth; and industry, innovation and infrastructure. 

Innovation combined with technology is key to advancing businesses, society and nations, she enthuses, referencing Singapore’s many milestones including Gardens By The Bay and The Jewel. Communications is no different.

Public relations is currently experiencing a new wave of digital disruption. “Brands today are publishers, and can easily promote their content on their own through platforms such as social media and native advertising,” Huang says.

“That said, they still need advice on how to operate these channels, what to say, and when to publish. That’s where we add value, among much more — knowing these new technologies, whether they are reaching the right people, and if sentiment among target readers is there.”

Clients still want traditional communications services, she says. They want agencies to arrange interviews with Bloomberg TV, for instance, or an opinion-editorial in The Business Times. This aspect of public relations isn’t going anywhere soon. The range of options brands have is today seemingly never ending. Keeping on top of these is key to being successful, Huang says.

I ask where she sees her industry in 10 years’ time. “Many more channels, much more disruptive technology — and hopefully a more sustainable world,” she says.