Up Close and Personal with IDEA Communication’s Helena Ma

In 2016, IDEA Communication Pte Ltd saw its genesis as a public relations agency when its founder, Helena Ma, crystallise her long-harboured dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Within the span of a few years, what was once a mere idea germinated into a multi-discipline vertically-integrated consultancy that now operates in Singapore and Beijing. Explaining the name and identity of her agency, Helena shares that she was inspired by the desire for her firm to cement a presence in Asia that embodies the values of “integrity, diversity, evolution and adaptability” the hall mark of any sustainable business– hence she combined her passion for communication and the values she believes to come up with a simple name IDEA Communication.

Possessing solid PR expertise and a proven track record spanning a broad spectrum of sectors from manufacturing, retail to real estate and luxury goods, Helena Ma brings with her passionate, down-to-earth personality a plethora of experience in consultancy businesses and marketing communications, with close to 10 years in these industries across the diverse business landscapes of China, Sweden, London and Singapore. However, the PR cosmos does not always promise smooth-sailing seas for the aspiring. 

We find out the grit behind the face of IDEA and what makes her tick.

Why did you decide to start your own communication firm?

All my life, I have always had a burning desire to discover the unknown, and like to visualise things before I make them happen – a little like the way of playing golf, how one visualise the trajectory before the swing. I think the entrepreneurial side is an inseparable part of me – I realised it was just so deeply embedded in my mindset during my earliest stint at IKEA’s HQ and World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Entrepreneurship is essentially about finding a problem, solving it and continuously improve the solution.  Since I desired it, I got to start somewhere, so I reckoned the best way would be starting with something that I am familiar with and good at.

As my later career brought me to Sweden, London and Singapore, all the values these countries embody, such as innovation, humanity and entrepreneurship, really started to take root in me. The biography of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew that I picked up in London by serendipity hugely inspired me with his vision, gut, desire and resilience. I guess that I found my calling of starting my own business after losing periodical memory in the wake of a pan-Taiwan road accident 2015, for which I endured one year of physiotherapy. That, combined with my forecast of there being a surge in Chinese companies using Singapore as a springboard for globalisation, justified the start of the business – a very bumpy start in fact. 

I started my business from the modest compound of my living room, with a ‘team’ comprising one desk, one laptop and my smartphone. The loneliness overwhelmed me at times but I built my inner strength, as I was finally pursuing what I perceived as the epitome of self-actualisation. Initially, I had only small clients on an ad-hoc basis, which was not sustainable. There was a period of 6 months in which I had no income and it was dreadful to see how my business expenses were burning a hole in my pocket – the savings I had gathered over the years by slaying away at various jobs would be depleted if this went on. 

By a stroke of luck or divine intervention, things fell into place in the summer of 2017 and my perseverance was rewarded when I earned the support of a major client company, China’s largest co-working brand headed by former President of CapitaLand China and Vanke China that was in its B round funding phase. Again – serendipity! 

It was truly a journey of shared growth- through my days of having a hot desk in an office rental to my present – endowed with a team of seven and an office in Singapore’s CBD. One successful client delivery led to another, the pipeline kept expanding, and the rest is history. 

Nevertheless, the struggle with business growth always lingers. Through it all, I have gleaned the essence of surviving in the cutthroat business milieu – to be humble and focused on producing concrete deliverables. Interestingly, these principles coincide with the arena of golf, in which I have been active since 2011 (I currently play on 10 handicap). 

 What is the biggest challenge you face in running your own company?

In the early days, I found myself switching between account servicing and accounting on an hourly basis. A worry of firms no matter their size is: how do you find and retain people without being sucked into the vortex of administration and operations? Fortunately, my concerns gradually became centered on finding quality talents clients and keeping them engaged. 

How did you get your first team together?

I wasn’t very lucky and the turn-over rate was high since well, I couldn’t afford to offer anything fancy. In fact, I was not paid anything for a period of six months when I started my business from scratch and I was treading on thin ice and had to be cautious with overheads. On the bright side, I had interns who were undergraduates at SMU and NUS and they were chirpy, positive and motivated to learn. Coupled with a rotating cluster of freelancers, we pulled it off during the first two years, phew. 

Describe your management style.

I’d like to say growth-driven and value-oriented. I value personal growth and I like to cultivate imagination, creativity, a service mindset, productivity and the Kaizen spirit in people. Since business involves people, I transpose this model onto business development. A team can only function well when each member contributes complementary strengths. I am fortunate to have a growing team whom I can share the fruits of labour with, and am constantly on the lookout for potential business partners to fortify IDEA’s corporate structure.

With an extremely capable set of consultants covering research, editorial contents, design, strategy and journalism, I am able to take my mind off the daily management of accounts and channel my energy to matters like strategic restructuring, expansion and client relations. 

What is the proudest moment in your career? 

Oh there are so many– every project well done, every small milestone achieved is worth being thankful for – just like playing an 18 hole, one should just focus on delivering each single shot solid and sound. If I must choose, there are four landmark moments in my life. At 20, I became the youngest simultaneous interpreter recruited by China Central Television to interpret for government leaders. At 22, I was given the mandate to develop the China market for a Swedish fashion supplier appointed by the Royal Family, and had Loro Piana and Barberis as fabric suppliers, which exposed me to the nitty gritty bits in managing the supply chain, channel development and brand of a luxury goods business. When I was 25, I survived a traumatic road accident in a Pan-Taiwan cycling race, had a brain concussion which led to partial memory loss, enduring a year of physiotherapy, without taking a single day’s leave due to the commitment to the multi-national industrial clients I was servicing. In 2016 I was given the mandate by Xi’an Municipal Government to lead a high level delegate to visit Northern UK- Manchester, Sheffield, Rotherham etc which was delivered with unanimous high appraisal from the delegate.

The crowning moments would probably be the celebration of our first retainer client and the opening of the Beijing company that ensued. I would have loved to share the joy with Partner but truth be told, good dedicated partners are hard to come by and sometimes serendipitous – that said, I am still on the lookout.  It wasn’t all work no play though, as I did volcanoes trekking and convivial roadtrips in Latin America and all that– some of my most fun memories in life — how I relish and love it!

Why did you choose communication as your career?

As every other young person, I was experimenting my way around – gosh I did everything possible back at univ and even sold newspapers for half a year. Then I desired a corporate job and exposed me to all sorts of interviews with major corporations – from Mckinsey, P&G, Accenture to L’Oreal — which I all failed, due to apparent lack of the criteria they were looking for in candidates. I then was given the opportunity by CCTV to interpret for government officials – high pressure, high octane albeit a bit mechanic in the work process I found. Then I was given both the opportunity and the responsibility to perform and grow as a communication professional, which I enormously relished and thrived in. As time went by,  I grew more appreciative of the nature of the profession, grateful to the growth opportunity I was given and worked hard everyday to make sure I deserved it. I just love it. The profession itself is an amalgamation of the psychology, social sciences, management and journalism disciplines, all of which make it very intellectually stimulating and challenging for me. There is never a dull day and always full of diversity- with how the system works, messaging, direction, stakeholders etc- which is really the beauty of the job.

What would you consider your big break-through in life so far?

For sure it would be starting my business – it is still a nerve-wrecking experience till today, but it gives me new perspectives on people and businesses all the time. I have never experienced such a steep learning curve before – it is really the Apprentice (The Alan Sugar version please) in real life. Nevertheless, all the challenges, experimentation and the fun that come with it just add to new dimensions of life- I’ve never regretted about choosing to pursue what I believe in.

What is the harshest thing that has been said to you in the course of your career?

I was told several years by a French executive head-hunter in Singapore that I have low emotional intelligence. That still reminds me to be humble, to continuously learn (to prevent myself from being perceived as an idiot haha). I have realised that I know very little about myself, humans, their hidden desires and vulnerabilities. Mastering business is essentially about mastering people (just my humble opinion).

What is the harshest thing you have said to someone?

“Don’t slack. Push yourself and do things that improves things. Slacking won’t get one far. “

What is the hardest part about your job?

The industry is perennially evolving and all these disruptive technologies add to the unpredictability of it. It is hard to balance zoom-in and zoom-out, or in another word shifting perspective between the macro and micro. We get so consumed by the day-to-day grind and lose the big picture easily. Finding time for future-gazing is tough but like every firm, we want to work towards a broader vision and mission that advances the civilisation.

What is the biggest misconception about PR that is out there?

That PR is just about media publicity. PR, if done well, and combined with good capital, creativity and humanity can really do good to the planet and human kinds. Say for example, if ESG investment is communicated unanimously,strategically and consistently, we can really see more capital working its marvel to solve challenges such as climate change, human trafficking, education attainment, biodiversity, incurable diseases. 

Simple- it’s all about shaping perception that leads to concrete, conscientious actions. 

How do you measure your personal success?

Of course, my reputation as a professional and the amount of respect earned make one of those yardsticks. But truly, more importantly, it’s how much positive change and impact I can bring to the community at large, as well as how I can share the core beliefs that have done myself good all these years with others and empower them to #LeadTheChange at various stages of their life. 

I have traveled, to developed and developing countries, to poverty stricken areas in rural western China. I listened to their struggles (can you imagine, that some school kids need to spend 4 hours climbing mountains every day to go to schools that are just brick and mortar? Can you imagine, being fed with corn starch and salted potato chips all your life?), I shed tears and I realised at an early stage my limitation – and responsibility as a human.

(Photo taken by Helena Ma on her volunteer trip in Grandpa Valley, Datong Country, Xining city, Qinghai province in China 2014. This water crane was the only source of water for a small village of 5000 population.)

The onus is on the board share holders, investors, society at large to work as a united whole and help steer our future generation to a more sustainable future. That’s why I started Heart 4 Dream, a charity platform that empowers vulnerable charities through connecting them with enterprises, government agencies, family funds through an organic collaborative approach. I would have loved to start that years ago- but I didn’t have the capacity, resources, network that I have today. It would make me so happyif people can partner with me to make it work. 

One thing you would say to a newbie in the PR industry?

Be humble, work hard, have fun, keep your ears and mind open.

One thing you hate most about the PR industry?

The fact that the pressure is always on, more so when you manage crisis that impacts global reputation of the brand and the executive leadership. Been there done that. 

How has PR evolved over the last five years?

PR has to continually evolve to stay relevant – it’s no longer about being part of a conversation, but creating one, a context where synergistic stakeholders can participate. Digital media technology is constantly changing the landscape and disrupting our status quo and daily routines. With all the prevailing media platforms intricately connecting all the stakeholders, the line between each stakeholder’s internal matters and external conditions is blurring.

Moreover, companies traditionally went to creative and media agencies for marketing-related concerns, but the PR profession is increasingly merging with digital marketing,advertising and potentially other emerging digital technologies this looks to be set in stone for the next five years at least. Regardless of the changes in future though, I hope to be seen somewhere at the forefront of the evolutionary – or perhaps even revolutionary – tide.

Helena Ma brings with her a wealth of experience and a truly cosmopolitan perspective, having lived and worked in Shanghai, China; Gothenburg, Sweden; and London, UK. Her stints in Europe and China has armed Helena with a potent blend of ancient Chinese wisdom and contemporary Western knowledge which she incorporates into business management and client project