Brisbane-based marketing specialist Alicent Wong has spent 20 years developing smart, effective strategies for clients in Australia and overseas. She has also built a digital agency and a foodie ecommerce store from the ground up! Mavens caught up with Alicent to learn her recipe for success.
You grew up in Singapore but moved to Sydney before making Brisbane home. What’s the advertising and media landscape like for women in Singapore?
It’s been 17 years since I’ve lived and worked in Singapore, but as far as I could remember, the industry was male dominated, highly competitive and extremely fast-paced. I suppose it’s quite similar to what I’ve experienced working in Sydney since migrating in 2004. It was definitely a little more challenging to have your voice heard as a woman, and in cases, respected by clients or managers who can be egotistic at times. Bear in mind, too, that it is an Asian country so there was still quite a bit of sexism going on. You really had to have the courage to speak up and make your voice heard to build and gain respect. Quietly working hard at your desk was never going to cut it if you had any aspirations of climbing up the corporate ladder.
I had a fantastic female boss/mentor who hired me twice in separate agencies. She is now one of the industry’s most successful women on the board of an internationally renowned agency. Her journey to success wasn’t one that was made of roses, I have to say! Having played witness to the early days of her career, she definitely sacrificed a lot personally and had to grow up quick fast to get to where she is today. She is English and has a 'no bullshit' attitude, so you can only imagine how much tougher it can be for women who are more reserved.
So, after years of working for the world’s biggest brands and agencies, you decided to build your own boutique agency with your husband. What motivated you to go independent?
There were several key motivators for me at that time. We had our first daughter, Lily, in 2013 and the moment that she was born, I knew something had to change. It was then that my world and priorities were tossed into a washing machine and tumbled in all directions.
Being a high achiever all my life meant that I was caught at a major crossroad. I wanted to be there for Lily as much as I could but I didn’t want to go back into a world that didn’t seem to accommodate the needs of working mothers, nor a work-life balance for that matter. I also knew from the get-go that being a stay-at-home Mum wasn’t for me, so something had to drastically change in terms of my career. I loathed going back to work as I never felt like I belonged at the agency that I was working for, and my bosses (all male) weren’t exactly the most empathetic of managers.
They also fired an ex-colleague of mine whilst she was on maternity leave (about a year prior to me going on mat leave) and had a lawsuit on their hands. That just put an extra level of sour in the already-sour taste in my mouth. Prior to me returning from maternity leave, they had promised me that working 3 days was all good, and that they were going to put me on a huge client account that they were on the verge of winning. They had also promised me that I’d get an Account Manager and a dedicated Project Manager to help me out. None of that eventuated and I was put on piddly little clients whilst all of the big clients that I used to manage were taken away from me. That big client that they were on the verge of winning? Well, that was far from the truth. In fact, that client never made it to expanding their business to Australia!
Having said this though, I too have had female bosses who were discriminatory and felt threatened by my presence to the point that they fired me under the cover of a redundancy. It’s unfortunate to say that discrimination runs deep in the industry, particularly when it’s one that celebrates those who speak the loudest.
Earlier that same year, in all of that turmoil, an ex-colleague had approached my husband and I to ask if we were keen to go into business together and start an agency. I’d toyed with starting a business many times but never got my guts together to go for it. This time it was different. I saw this as an opportunity to still do what I love, and to build a company that would embrace all of the norms and values that have been non existent in the places that I had worked in. I took the best from them and learnt from the worst. I wanted to build a company that celebrated its team, cheered their wins and losses, worked with clients whom we loved and in turn loved us back. Most importantly, I wanted none of the discriminatory bull that I had to put up with so many times over. This would also give me all the flexibility I wanted, to be there for Lily. All of these factors just spurred me on even though I had no idea what being a business owner meant, and how it was to all come together.
All of the stars aligned when my husband and I pitched for a large international sneaker brand and won the account later that year. Winning that account meant that we would have more than enough revenue coming in to pay ourselves and the small team that we were putting together! I still remember that immense sense of gratification and pride when I quit in December and embarked on my entrepreneurial journey with the love of my life and toddler in tow.
What a great story! Fast forward to today, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing the digital marketing industry in 2021?
One of the biggest challenges I see is finding ways to better connect with your prospects and clients. With the pandemic, people are gravitating towards authentic brands and businesses. With more and more businesses pivoting online, business owners are needing to break through an already-cluttered environment and convince someone to want to buy from them. Simply pushing a product or service in front of someone and telling them how great you are will no longer cut it. It’s about building trust through authenticity and credibility. That is the name of the game.
The other (ongoing) challenge is really around data and privacy, something that us digital marketers have had to be extra diligent with. From mailing lists to cookies, GDPR has thrown us all into taking extra care and responsibility with what we do with the data that we collect. The privacy debacle is something that rears its ugly head more often than not. When the big players (such as Facebook and Google) get entangled in the game, it makes us all stand up and pay attention. Data is something that we digital marketers crave and use to inform our plans and strategies. Without data, we are mostly working blindfolded. Having access to data and using it responsibly is a fine balance that we have to tread.
Watching the Netflix doco ‘The Social Dilemma’ has also made me question a lot of what I do with my ecomm business and my work. It would be interesting to see how all of this unravels in the year and years to come.
The ecommerce store that you founded, home.cook.love, has so many beautiful kitchen objects! Can you tell us how the project came about?
We sold our digital agency after 5 years of blood, sweat and tears. It was a thriving business and we had built a wonderful team. However, some amazing opportunities came knocking on our door and we decided that it was time to sell and move on. I went on to become a freelance marketing consultant and it gave me even more time to spend with Lily. In 2016, when I had our second daughter Maddie, I found myself at the crossroads again. I loved marketing and loved consulting, but I wanted something more.
After two years of soul searching and deep diving into spiritual growth work, I founded home.cook.love in 2018 by merging two of my biggest passions; food and artisan tableware. I love working with my vendors who’re all truly talented artisans and learning about their personal journeys and sharing their stories. I love storytelling, too, and the business has given me an avenue not only to amplify my love for food and how it brings people together, but to utilise my marketing skills showcasing these beautiful products, and bringing their creators' stories to the world.
What advice do you have for women who are considering starting a business?
Trust your intuition and don't fear ‘failure’. I believe that as women, we’re naturally more attuned to our instincts. I’ve learned throughout the years to really trust my instinct. There were many instances where I decided to shut that little voice away as I thought that my way was better, and I was always proven wrong. There is something within us that is bigger than what we can comprehend with our limited human minds, and we need to learn how to trust that source.
The word ‘failure’ is very common when it comes to entrepreneurship, and it’s what stops us from realising our true potential! If we can all switch our mindset and re-program our relationship with ‘failure’, opportunities will start to open up and abundance will flow into our lives. Failure is great for us, if you look at the people who’ve made a significant impact to the world we live in, they all have failed. Not once but multiple times. What is deemed as ‘failure’ really is a stepping stone for us, it’s the lesson/s that we need to learn to evolve and get closer to the person that we were put on this Earth to be. Without ‘failure’, there is no education, without education, there is no evolution.
And never forget to HAVE FUN and be gentle on yourself. Women take on a lot, and we tend to put everyone and everything before us. Business is a rollercoaster ride, you’re always going to have those really high highs and the lowest of the lows. So whilst you’re on it, why not have fun? Remind yourself of your ‘why’ and take time off to look after yourself. If you can’t look after yourself, you can’t look after your family nor your business. Get comfortable with being at your own pace, you’re running a marathon, not a race. Try not to be overly competitive, healthy competition is great as it spurs you on, but it can get ugly if you’re berating yourself for not being good enough.