Adam Koh is Icon’s newest Account Director. He leads several of Icon’s financial and technological clients and brings a wealth of international experience, including an eight-year stint in Shanghai.
He shares some lessons from his time abroad and opens up about the fire that drives him.
What drew you to public relations?
After my military service in Singapore, I spent a year working with Edelman. When I started, I didn’t know what PR was - I knew it involved writing and I knew the main client was an airline, which matched my interest in aviation, but I didn’t understand all the complexities of the profession.
That first experience ignited my interest in PR, but I paused that journey to pursue other interests, including moving to Melbourne to study English and applied linguistics.
This was an important step for me, because I believe it’s vital that our day-to-day activities align with our interests - whether that’s work or study, it needs to be something that gets you out of bed each morning. You should be able to appreciate the beauty in what you accomplish and what you create.
I followed my passions and spent three years studying.
Afterwards, I moved back to Singapore and joined another PR agency, but that passion and interest remained a significant motivation for me.
One of the things that keeps me in PR is the opportunity to work across multiple industries and clients - I love sitting across from diverse clients, learning about their businesses, and understanding how I can step in and help.
What have been the major stops in your career that have led you to Icon?
After studying, I spent a short time as a sub-editor for a business publication, before returning to Singapore and joining another PR agency. Choosing that agency was a big decision for me - I had a few offers, but ultimately went with the company who I felt was a better cultural fit for me.
I think that’s very important when considering a workplace. Obviously, it’s important that your employer likes you, but I think you also need to like them at least as much before you start working there.
After five years in Singapore, I decided I wanted to gain international experience. I looked at my agency’s network and asked my boss for a transfer. “I want to go to Shanghai, I want to go to Hong Kong, or I want to go to Australia,” I said.
I believe you shouldn’t stay in one place for too long, because the world has so much to offer and teach you.
Singapore is great - I loved Singapore and still do - but there’s so much more to experience in other places. My boss approved my transfer and I moved to Shanghai.
Stepping off the plane in Shanghai was the first time I’d set foot in mainland China. The only guidance I had was from two friends, who had told me that if I wanted to progress my career and learn, Shanghai was the place to be. I was excited to dive in.
What lessons did you learn in Shanghai? How does Shanghai compare to Australia?
China moves at an incredibly fast pace. Especially in southern China, where Shanghai is, they have no fear of failure, because failure leads to constant iteration and innovation. This mindset starts from the top, with the ruling political party, and carries over to private corporations too.
Shanghainese Millennial and Gen Z audiences are also some of the most sophisticated and fickle consumers I’ve ever seen. They’re very quick to move on from brands if they decide they don’t like them - they don’t have nostalgia and they’re not married to particular brands. So Shanghainese agencies have to tap into the zeitgeist, but they also understand that the market is highly competitive and they must always continue innovating and reinventing.
I’ve adopted some of that mindset:
I’m always thinking about how we can improve and operate in a better way. Are there models of efficiency we can find for clients? For internal teams? I know there’s always more opportunity for improvement, so I don’t rest on my laurels.
The flipside of Shanghai’s fast pace and relentless pursuit of innovation is that no one is indispensable. The work is exhilarating and exciting, but Shanghainese agencies often lack the work-life balance of Australian companies. In Australia, we have more time to recharge and focus on our own health and wellbeing, which is important.
When you spend time working and living in one place, you learn skills and wisdom from that place, and then you take those lessons and skills to the next place. Ultimately, I’m a culmination of everything I’ve learned in all the places I’ve been: Singapore, Australia and Shanghai. And now I’m excited to continue learning and improving at Icon.
Written by Ian Cormick who also spent time living in Shanghai and is a talented member of our team. For more stories like this subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of this page or follow our socials.