- Leveraging on technology to get ahead in the industry
- A unique business structure for sustainability and growth
MALAYSIAN branding agency 4Thirteen is going through an evolution. The relatively small company started out in 2008, the result of a pivot from its previous form as an advertising agency.
Founders Danny Gnaniah and Doreen Chew, also the CEO and managing director respectively, wanted to change the way things are done in the industry and create a culture where there is more focus on individual quality and creativity, and a work-life balance.
They failed the first time. “I was still young then, still focused on the money,” says Danny, explaining that the company had hired the wrong people and ended up going down literally to the last RM2.
Redemption came in an unexpected form: American businessman Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness. Danny says that whatever he went through the same things Hsieh went through – building a company and then losing the passion for it.
Danny and Chew took the opportunity to start again. “We took six months, made sure we wrote down the principals we wanted to operate on, hired and built the company based on that,” he says.
4Thirteen’s structure is different from the usual branding agency in that it contains several business divisions that more or less operate independently. Danny explains that the tech team and two design teams run as their own startups, each with their own set of clients, goals and work.
“Each team member has a specific role and we’ve appointed the most senior staff as leaders of each divisions. We are grooming them to hopefully become CEOs of each startup one day,” reveals Danny.
“We want our staff to be happy doing what they do. They have a vested interest in the company’s success because they are allowed to lead and contribute to decisions about the company’s direction,” he says, adding that the management team will eventually become the board of directors and be offered shares in the company.
This is a different way of doing things, but Danny and Chew believe that the future of business is in sharing and collaboration. “A business cannot be centred on one or two people who horde all the money and the rest are worker drones,” he says.
This unique business model had its beginnings when the 4Thirteen founders realised that they could get so much more out of their staff if they reorganised things. They hired a consultant, who analysed each staff member’s personality, and from there figured out how each person worked within each team and how the teams interacted.
One of the major discoveries from this exercise was that there was a gap within the business – a disconnect between the various teams. “Usually an IT guy doesn’t understand what branding and marketing entails, and a marketing person or designer will never understand the complexities of tech world and what you can and cannot do,” explains Danny.
Through training, 4Thirteen has managed to marry the different worlds, and quite successfully, according to Danny: “Now our tech guys are quite successful marketers themselves, and our design, and branding and strategic teams are experts in tech.”
It is partly because of this all-round skill that each team is able to operate quite independently. In fact, the tech team has already been formed into the startup Code 413, which has the capability to build sophisticated websites that provide business intelligence – collecting key data and analysing it.
One of Code 413’s recent projects, which was self-funded, is a niche social media recruitment platform called Scismic that is built for scientists in the biomedical field in the United States. Code 413 has a 25% stake in the platform; it was approached by three biomedical industry experts with the idea and agreed to work with them in partnership. The beta version was launched early last year.
Towards the end of the year, armed with data from the website that showed that recruitment within the pharmaceutical industry in the US was difficult, Code 413 realised that a slight pivot was needed for the website. After conducting research, using focus groups and speaking to human resource experts, Code 413 made changes to the website and will soon relaunch it.
Code 413 is currently working on another project, this time in the music industry, and eventually plans to launch it internationally. Danny says there is a gap in the industry that they have identified and aim to close. “It will bring professional musicians and the public together. It’s going to be quite revolutionary,” he says, stopping short of revealing more.
Besides Code 413 and the two design teams, 4Thirteen also has a social media division; Danny points out that the company’s bread and butter is still branding and it does a lot of work on digital platforms.
One of its biggest clients in this area has been Big Bad Wolf, which runs a massive popular annual book sale in Malaysia and recently ran sales in Indonesia and Thailand (4Thirteen also came up with the branding and design of the wolf mascot). According to Danny, this client had initially tried local agencies in these countries who were unable to meet its needs. 4Thirteen’s social media and marketing divisions managed the promotion of the sales successfully.
“This is proof that in today’s digital economy you can do cross-border work very effectively,” says Danny.
He reveals that Facebook contacted 4Thirteen to propose to help the company give its customers a better experience and learn from it. “That was a shocker because Facebook rarely reaches out to people. We’ve used their platform a lot and it’s been very effective,” he says.
Changing the future
Though 4Thirteen’s digital branding and advertising campaigns for its clients have so far been successful, Danny says that in Asia, especially in Malaysia, it is very difficult to get clients to do things because of an entrenched employer-employee mentality. “It’s basically an ‘I pay you so you do what I say’ situation.”
Dealing with these kinds of clients involves a lot of trial and error and 4Thirteen has dropped clients before. Danny reiterates that the founders do not want 4Thirteen to be another sweatshop where staff are unmotivated and feel they are in dead-end jobs.
Speaking of the future, Danny says just doing branding on its own will not take the business as far as it can go and so diversifying, building its own intellectual properties and basically leveraging on the capabilities of its people is the way forward.
“We are slowly and quietly changing our world,” says Danny. This can certainly be seen from how 4Thirteen has trained its staff to think like entrepreneurs, its enthusiastic use of technology, which is not something that most agencies in Malaysia do, and the company culture and structure.
“Our next step is to change those who come into direct contact with us,” he continues, explaining that the company’s hope is to initiate corporate social responsibility projects, such as having the Code 413 team conduct coding classes for children.
Moving on from this, 4Thirteen eventually hopes to become an incubator of different businesses. “A tech company married to a branding agency would be the ideal as an incubator because we understand the market and the technology.”
Danny says that the success of the different divisions and the staff members is the success of the whole company. “We’ve learned all our lessons together so our success is as a family.”
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