This PR guru’s a big reason why Singaporeans love their international fashion brands
In the month of May, CNA Lifestyle speaks to successful working mothers who make it look all too easy. Directions’ Tay Liam Sze is the marketing guru making sure you know Loewe, Alexander McQueen and more.
If you have read news about international brands such as Alexander McQueen, Boucheron, Diageo or Loewe in Singapore’s media recently, chances are that PR veteran Tay Liam Sze had a part to play in this.
The 53-year-old is the managing partner of one of Singapore’s most prominent luxury and fashion PR agencies, Directions Group Inc.
These are just some of the international clients that the well-regarded communications and strategy firm represents in the country.
“Our strength is in providing an end-to-end solution – from marketing and communications to being able to reach out to and engage directly with the end consumer – as we help build brand equity for some of these brands,” said Tay.
From a one woman show in her earliest days, she now runs a company with 20 employees, of which 75 per cent are permanent staff.
Tay had started as the founder and owner of boutique marketing communications company Bridge Cavenagh & Co, which in 2014, merged with Directions and luxury event specialist Kitch Event Concepts to form Directions Group Inc.
This merger, Tay reflected, created an integrated communications agency that plays up the strengths of the three founders to maximum effect.
Its spectrum of clients in luxury, fashion, retail, beauty, lifestyle, hospitality and F&B work with them to craft business strategies, cutting edge digital campaigns and even exclusive events that appeal and cater to the local market.
But while life in the glam lane may appear to be all about designer duds, fancy facials and swanky soirees (in the pre-pandemic days), Tay’s feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Professing her love for the field of marketing communications, she says it is her work with local firms prior to founding her own agency that has truly helped her refine and hone her craft.
While she has over 20 years of experience in various industries, she pointed to her time as head of marketing for Sincere Watch Limited, where she spearheaded the strategic plan to raise the brand’s visibility and profile, as one of the most formative periods of her career.
“Sincere is a local name so a lot of things were built from scratch from the marketing campaigns to the stories that we told. Many of the independent luxury watch brands we represented such as Franck Muller and A Lange & Sohne were not really known to the local marketplace then so that gave me a lot of opportunity to work with the brand owners to establish them here,” she said.
Her efforts contributed to Sincere Watch Limited winning various accolades such as The Most Valuable Brand Award by IE.
Doing luxury communications is very specialised and the client must feel that they are placing their brand in good hands and that there is a level of chemistry and trust.
Following her time at Sincere Watch Limited, she returned to a corporate bank job but ultimately decided she wanted a job which she could take ownership of.
“Honestly, running my own business was not something I dreamt of but I felt I needed to do something that gives me more motivation and inspiration. I was also at a juncture in my life where the kids were starting to go to school and I wanted to take ownership of my time,” said Tay.
So, she decided to return to her true calling by launching Bridge Cavenagh & Co in 2008. It took her a year to get her big break when she clinched Burberry as a client. “I did not have any luxury fashion experience at that point,” she recalled candidly. “But after that first meeting, I was awarded the account.”
The key to acing a meeting, Tay said, is to do sufficient prior research. “Find out what their needs are and ask the right questions to discover the issues you need to solve for them. Doing luxury communications is very specialised and the client must feel that they are placing their brand in good hands and that there is a level of chemistry and trust,” she said.
Tay says the past year has been one of the most challenging to weather with global lockdowns and travel restrictions having impacted business. With its events arm significantly affected by social distancing requirements, about half of the company’s business “technically disappeared”, she said.
So, the company focused on using its reserves to tide itself through this period and worked swiftly to pivot to meet the new needs of its clients.
You need to love what you do to thrive in it and know that you will only get better with time and experience.
“COVID-19 was a much needed impetus to push everyone forward to go digital in order to find new ways of connecting brand partners with customers. And with border closures, brands that did not have local operations saw the need to have us on board. We often had to go the extra mile to help clients reconnect with their clients,” said Tay.
Fortunately, a “great percentage” of Directions’ portfolio of partners remained with them, she added.
This purposeful hustle is an essential attribute that anyone trying to break into luxury PR should equip themselves with.
“Marketing communications is a very deadline driven role and we are constantly fighting to get things done. Besides good writing skills and having a developable interest in a subject matter, one needs to hone skills in time, project and people management to get what you need on time and do your job well. You need to love what you do to thrive in it and know that you will only get better with time and experience,” she said.
The satisfaction though, can be very rewarding. “For us, the goal is to ultimately get the story out, hear people talking about it and responding to it. From an events perspective, building up to an event can be so painful but seeing attendees enjoy themselves – it is almost like childbirth,” she added with a chuckle.
Speaking of motherhood, she said candidly that striking a work-life balance with her children, who are now 19 and 21, did not really exist. “I did miss out a lot of the kids’ childhood in the early years of working but I have a good support system in terms of my mother, a good helper and an entourage of siblings, aunties and uncles that helped to dote on and entertain them,” she said.
Now, my goal is to support them in what they want to do in their lives and help them make decisions.
Instead, she would make time to go on long holidays with the children where she could put her work aside for and focus on full time mothering during vacations. And now that the kids are grown up – one is in university while the other is serving national service, priorities have once again shifted. “Now, my goal is to support them in what they want to do in their lives and help them make decisions,” she said.
While family getaways remain a cherished memory, unlike many people who are busy dreaming of where they will fly to when restrictions lift, Tay’s vision is firmly set on the present.
She said, “I don’t want to waste my time thinking of my next holiday, instead I am spending my time usefully strategising about what to do effectively and productively in this continuing pandemic situation.”