Interview: Robert Heldt
Madras in India. It’s called Chennai these days.
President and Co-founder, Custom Media
Founder, Impact Influencers
Favorite hangout in Japan:
Daikanyama. It is a quirky little neighborhood just outside central Tokyo. I love it because there are so many cool places to hang out: unique little boutiques, open-air cafés, nice terraced restaurants—perfect in spring and autumn. If you’re into fashion, music or books, it’s the trend-seekers’ spot; a cool, hidden area. Daikanyama has Tsutaya T-Site, a large bookstore that is one of my favorite spots. I love browsing books on art décor, architecture, creative, design, and travel. The beauty of this particular bookstore is that it’s got a modern café and lounge, so you can grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and leisurely flip through books.
Tell us about your background
After graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Madras, I moved to the Maldives to work at a leisure resort. I started at the front desk, was promoted to reservations, and later became a guest relations and accommodations officer. I was there for about six years, and I grew in the company through a fantastic job taking care of guests from arrival to departure, including VIPs such as the then-Indian Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs. I organized events, excursions, and private parties, and liaised with travel agencies and tour guides to ensure that our guests had a memorable holiday.
I got to meet and work with remarkable people from all over the world, and was very fortunate to meet my future wife there. We got married in India and then moved to Japan in 2004. I was quite fascinated by the advertising scene here. Everywhere I went, bold, creative—and sometimes boring—adverts greeted me. This drew me into the advertising, media, and communications industry.
Describe a typical day for you at Custom Media
It starts with catching up on the constant flow of emails. I have many meetings, which are usually really interesting. Whether these are internal projects, creative with the team, or offsite with clients, I enjoy this interactive part of my job very much. I also manage the day-to-day general operations and business administration.
What skills do you need for your job?
My role has two areas of focus: external client-facing communications and internal business management.
On the first role, the most important skills are creativity, thinking outside the box, and the ability to gain a deep understanding of the problems and challenges the client is facing. This helps me guide the team to develop the right approach that addresses the client’s needs. Quite often, we must come up with solutions at the drop of a hat; so being able to get things done quickly and efficiently is very important.
Conversely, to manage the team, you need to be open-minded, patient, understanding, and diplomatic. Evolving the business is essential, so I’m constantly thinking about what areas of our operations to grow and how to most effectively expand the team so that we have the right talent to meet the needs of our clients.
Internal business management, meanwhile, requires agility to juggle a variety of tasks during the day. You also need to be able to zone out and focus on important tasks that require your undivided attention. To achieve this, I practice a rhythmic approach where I block off shorter 60- to 90-minute periods for focused work. It’s amazing how much great work one can get done in this time.
What are some of the challenges of your role?
Understanding digital media and the evolving nature of our business and anticipating our client’s needs are critical. They come to us with a challenge and a clear goal for a problem they need solved, but often the path forward is unclear to them and they may not be able to explain why.
So, we should be at the forefront of information and technology—and understand where media, marketing and advertising are moving—so that we can recommend the best solutions and make sure they have the right team consulting and supporting them. That’s the key challenge we face: staying ahead of the game.
Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Meeting clients, discussing their marketing and communication challenges and goals, and finding solutions, is very rewarding. Once we receive a new project brief or challenge from a client, I enjoy our internal brainstorming meetings the most.
Once we identify the problem, key team members from various departments come together to find a solution. In the creative studio, we have innovative designers, web developers, and video producers.
On the content side, we have multilingual copywriters and editors. And we also have bilingual strategy and project managers who keep everything on track and respond quickly to client inquiries. We all come together, take a look at the problem, brainstorm ideas, and develop solutions in collaboration with the client.
Being in a creative environment, there’s no good idea, bad idea, or crazy idea. Every idea represents a possibility. So, we put it all on the table. Sometimes the best solutions come from earlier suggestions that at first didn’t seem so great. But, when you think about it in the second or third round, things fall into place and the best concepts come out.
I enjoy having a very open mind, keeping a clean slate, and getting involved. The Custom Media team is very open. Everybody just brings it in, and they don’t hesitate. There are so many other companies where it’s hard to get people to contribute and speak up. We don’t get that here, and that’s a good thing. We get people engaged, and I enjoy doing that.
Once we’ve got all that—the ideas, solutions, and proposals—we bring in the client and advise them on what we think is the best solution or strategy. That’s another part of my job that I love.
How has Custom Media grown since you founded the company with Simon Farrell? What have been your greatest milestones?
In 2018, we will mark the 10th anniversary of Custom Media. I started the company from home, where I worked for about a year employing freelancers and building the business by delivering projects and building a portfolio of clients before putting together an in-house team.
For me, the first key milestone was getting the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) to accept our idea to publish BCCJ ACUMEN.
They didn’t have a magazine, so I pitched to the BCCJ board in June 2009 and convinced them to take a shot on a little-known company that was a one-man band.
They saw potential and they liked my passionate presentation. They gave me a chance and, based on that, I built the team. I was able to open an office, hire full-time staff, hire designers, and so on. That was the first key milestone.
We were later rewarded for five years of hard work by being successfully nominated for 2013 BCCJ Company of the Year. Being recognized by the panel of independent judges at the British Business Awards was a huge milestone for us. Seeing our work recognized was great.
Since then, we’ve been able to grow the company. Also, in 2013, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan asked us to participate in their bidding process when they were looking for a new publisher for The ACCJ Journal.
In 2016, Tokyo American Club approached us as they were looking for an advertising partner. And, most recently in 2017, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan asked us to take over their magazine.
So those are key milestones. We’ve grown from a one-person company to a team of almost 30. Along the way, as we have grown we’ve moved offices—a good benchmark of success. We’re now in our third office—the largest to date—and we’ve got plans to grow further.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing content-creation agencies today?
There is a lot of noise out there. Everyone’s a content creator now, so the biggest challenge is to separate the noise from the meaningful content—that which tells a true story.
Content creation agencies should be able to produce original stories that resonate with the client’s potential and existing consumers, audience, end users, vendors, stakeholders, and staff.
You’ve got two challenges: you must work within the time limit and you must find the right story to cut through the noise. Those two tasks go hand in hand, and could be seen as one big challenge.
The best way to succeed at this is to have all your resources in-house, so that content creators and strategists can work together to produce branding, messages, videos, websites, and designs that meet the client’s goals. When these experts work under one roof there is synergy, and they can more easily craft the right story.
Most agencies tend to specialize only in digital. But marketing is not about just one channel, it’s about multimedia and being able to deliver seamless messaging across different channels. That’s the challenge for content agencies, and it’s one that I’m proud to say our team tackles with skill every day.