Humphrey Ho: “Be fearful when people are greedy and be greedy when people are fearful”

The Chinese consumers are not very loyal to a brand. Instead of incentivizing users to continuously come back (which is done by most of the foreign brands), the most effective way in China is to use celebrities and social influencers to overcome low brand loyalty. That’s a little bit different from the west where celebrities […]

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The Chinese consumers are not very loyal to a brand. Instead of incentivizing users to continuously come back (which is done by most of the foreign brands), the most effective way in China is to use celebrities and social influencers to overcome low brand loyalty. That’s a little bit different from the west where celebrities and social influencers are not major factors in consumer purchase patterns.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Humphrey Ho, Managing Director of Hylink USA. Hylink is an international independent communication and advertising agency with 24 offices around the world. Humphrey established its international headquarter in Los Angeles, USA in 2016, following with a New York office in 2017. After 4 years’ excellence in execution, Hylink was awarded #8 Fastest Growing Agencies Worldwide by Adweek and its campaigns have won various awards including ADDYs, Effie Award, The Drum and Shorty Awards.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I fell into advertising by accident. The economy didn’t do so well in the US in 2008, so I moved to China to work in advertising. Having had marketing and tech experience, I naturally fell into a digital agency. I was honored to be able to work at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai. We were challenged to apply creative in the realm of digital and a rapidly digitizing Chinese population. The work I made and witnessed are some of the best work in the market at the time which really gets into the culture and the understanding of the consumer and motivates them to buy.

I didn’t study advertising, marketing or communications. I have a degree in neuroscience, and an MBA. But I guess that kind of silent observation, and the active disproving of my biases in science that I picked up naturally really helps me work in advertising. The most basic thing in advertising is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and then find the motivations behind what they want, what they need and when they need it. That is something I’ve become capable of through both observations of consumers and the plethora of data they generate.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

There are two exciting projects. One internal and one external.

With the rise of the pandemic globally, we’ve discovered that we have to be bundled and integrated internally across all digital landscapes. Hylink has always been known as an effective media agency. We became an integrated creative agency many years ago, and then we moved into the world of PR & ePR, social and influencers. We hope to offer this bundled service to clients worldwide as the entire marketing communications landscape is setting up for the next decade.

The external project we’re working on is about “social commerce.” It is turning every brand into “direct-to-consumer.” Social commerce is through the power of video, short video and live stream tools, and to be compensated on that performance delivery — be it sales, or signups. A true extension of a marketing/sales team that clients have internally. Recently, we finished the Paris Fashion Week livestream in China, and brought those fashion products directly to the hands of consumers as they were watching the live stream for multiple maisons. This is one of the exciting projects we recently finished, and we’re doing the same thing for all our clients across every industry. I think advertising’s traditional billing model should shift to pure performance and revenue share.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are a few people I am grateful for over the last four years.

I’ve been grateful for Howard Pickett, the CMO of San Francisco Travel. He has been pragmatic enough to trust us with San Francisco Travel’s business and with delivering results over the last few years.

During my time at Wieden+Kennedy, Dan Wieden and Dave Luhr taught me to take things with a grain of salt, instead of taking things too literally. Through working with Dan and Dave, I’ve learned that you have to challenge the client, because it’s all about the work — it’s not about you’re right but what’s right for the consumer, what’s good for the brand and the product. I’ve also had the honor to work with Tim Delaney, who showed me that beautiful copywriting can really change the direction of not only a piece of advertising, but the entire brand.

I thank all these people for my career so far.

What do you think are the new markets in China that may become the next “big thing”? What challenges does that new market face? How would you address it?

The next big thing in China is going to be social commerce. It is able to turn traditional brands into DTC brands and make DTC brands become the norm in terms of direct communication, direct sales and direct retail. This is building on years of O2O advertising in China, where we tried to get users to go back to offline channels to purchase. Now the entire purchase funnel can be fulfilled within the house. With the pandemic, people are not going out for non-essential travel and trips, which makes screen time the most important thing. What’s on the screen is going to be a combination of influencers and social commerce opportunities where users can buy what they think, feel and love based on the hosts and the content they see.

With the economy normalizing in China, the market is going to face an increasing competition at the luxury brand level. Consumers don’t buy as many luxury goods as before because they care more about what the product means to them. The Chinese consumers are relatively disloyal to brands, so the only way to get them to purchase a second time is to derive meaning in their value structure.

Looking at international brands, they’ve done a good job at the beginning of their entrance into China with localized products by changing form factor, flavors, target demographic and marketing style. Now what global brands need to do in the China market is to effectively leverage new platforms and new mediums to take part in social commerce.

For domestic brands, the challenge is different. Many domestic brands are relatively familiar because they’re historical and more accessible. Besides traditional patriotism and familiarity, brands have to offer brand value that means something to consumers in order to keep them. For product features and functions, foreign brands have similar performance characteristics nowadays, so the difference is in brand love and brand value.

Can you share the top challenges of doing business in China and how you overcame them?

Firstly, building data relationships with major media platforms and publishers is important. Different from other markets, it is ineffective to have traditional quantitative and qualitative research in China because of the market size. Without any data, brands are unable to understand their consumers, so they need data partnerships to get access to shopping data, e-commerce data, mobile data and travel patterns.

Secondly, the Chinese consumers are not very loyal to a brand. Instead of incentivizing users to continuously come back (which is done by most of the foreign brands), the most effective way in China is to use celebrities and social influencers to overcome low brand loyalty. That’s a little bit different from the west where celebrities and social influencers are not major factors in consumer purchase patterns.

We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?

First of all, a trade war is an opportunity for brands to look at brand love again. For example, throughout the trade war, the ambition and aspiration of Chinese travelers traveling to the US pre-pandemic was as strong as years before. Prior to the trade war, in Chinese consumers’ ranking of manufacturers for agricultural products, snacking and cooking, the US ranks top three across multiple categories. Every consumer around the world is able to differentiate the difference between politics of their current administration and what they really love at home.

We can’t deny that there are huge barriers put on the trade opportunities, but there are two things brands can do and plan to pivot. Number one, they have to take part in directing consumer initiatives. This lowers the cost of the channel that they use to get to the Chinese consumer. Number two, for luxury brands and smaller brands who don’t have a household name in China, it is important to highlight the brand purpose that matches an existing consumer trend in China.

Many marketers have realized that they actually don’t know their Chinese consumer. Luxury and jewelry brands have to redefine everything from environmental branding to KOL collaboration such as having Chinese actresses in their luxury portfolio. FMCG brands not only have to adjust their form factor, but also have to collaborate with e-commerce platforms and leverage their big data in order to understand consumer preferences. They have to pivot to that understanding they never understood.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As a business owner, I follow Warren Buffett’s quote: “Be fearful when people are greedy and be greedy when people are fearful.”

Some may argue that this is an oxymoron to traditional advertising, which is trying to make people more greedy or want for more engagement of whatever it is that they might need. The consumer reaction to this quote might be that we want to create something that people pile on to, and help brands become greedy. In fact, that’s not true.

We need to understand it from the side of the product or service and its responsibility to the culture, the environment and society. The quote “ Be fearful when people are greedy” means when a product takes off successfully, one of the first things we need to do is to ask ourselves what we are doing to become more relevant in culture.

The best example is Coca Cola in China. Having had popular products and successful business performance, they spend more time focusing on social governance and their corporate social responsibility. The global tagline “Open Happiness” gives Coca Cola a very specific role in China, which is to focus on everyone’s happiness, including helping rural children study, investing to those who don’t have access to sports, etc.

Responsibility is the most important thing to me when facing greed and fear. The quote is about what to do with your success and what to do when you’ve mitigated fear.

Another quote from another part of the world that i have already lived by: “Opportunity comes in Crisis”. Originally a Chinese proverb made famous by JFK, I suppose this is a more resonant quote than ever during these times. Take the time to study, read, prepare for what is coming next. After all, if you can’t change the crisis, find the opportunity. We’ve found social commerce, adapted to luxury/fashion’s DTC shift, looked at building stronger data partnerships, since we can’t really change the trajectory of the pandemic besides staying home.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I can’t really claim to want to inspire a movement. What we can do is influence those around us. I’d like to think we live our motto “Smart Thinking = Endless Possibilities” and “Brilliance in Execution”.

Living by or delivering on rather than speaking about is the most important part of what I’ve spent my entire career either becoming, or impressing on others. We not only talk about women empowerment, but also implement it during our daily work. 70% — 80% of our workforce is women, and of which, two thirds of them hold management positions.

Our firm strives to hire people from all colors of the rainbow. We have these people in positions of leadership, not because of the color of their skin or assumed capabilities, rather an active unbiased training within the organization that if I think can only be lived through, rather than regulated or written.

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