January 18, 2019 |
TOH Public Relations Limited is a leading full service communications agency in the Middle East which is trusted by some of the biggest and best brands in the luxury goods, lifestyle, travel and F&B sectors. Sophie Toh founded the agency 10 years ago in Dubai and has led an array of high profile campaigns for cultural, luxury and global brands, including Airbnb, Ferrari, Monte-Carlo SBM, Peninsula Hotels, Value Retail, VIACOM and UBS. As such, Sophie is a dynamic communications and entrepreneurial leader, growing the TOH team from a start-up to leading mid-size agency.
1. What incident/opportunity led to your decision to open this business?
Founding TOH has been one of the best opportunities of my life, but it came about as the result of necessity of circumstance, as opposed to any strategic move to open my own communications firm. I moved to Dubai in 2009, and at the time was straddling living between London and the Middle East. I needed to, and wanted to work, but my dual city focus meant I was unwilling to commit to a permanet agency role in one or the other market. So I thought it would be best to take on a ‘few’ PR clients that would allow me to move around a bit more, and still stay active and engaged career wise. This coincided with the chance to work for Zuma in the DIFC in Dubai – still a relatively low-key venue back then, and through hard work, determination and an attitude to seize all opportunities as they arose, TOH was born. It’s been a journey, but not one that I would have missed.
2. What were the three biggest obstacles along the way and how did you overcome each one?
I’ve had a few challenges. The initial challenge was definitely how to set up a company structure in the UAE, as this was a different and more costly process than in the UK. It took me two years to raise the funds to pay for a trade license and open the bank account. I also had to get up to speed with the visa process and WPS payment systems for staff, which meant that TOH was not formed until mid 2011.
The second challenge was of course matching demand from clients with securing loyalty from highly motivated and experienced staff. I think there’s a bit of a skill gap between the requirements for clients, and what skills people arrive with in the market. We need more PR professionals! And when building an agency, you have to ensure that staff are engaged and incentivised, but not overwhelmed by the pace of work and client expectations. The hospitality industry in Dubai is especially fast-paced and not for the faint hearted. People sometimes getting pretty passionate!
Thirdly, there’s a lot of competition. So winning high quality, sustained income from new business is a really fundamental requirements. Increasingly, as our clients grow in stature, this takes me and the team around the world to pitch – last year I visited Hong Kong, Asia, India, America and Europe in the name of new business, which means you can’t always be on the ground for clients, or in the correct time zone. This, like most things in life, is a delicate balance and it’s not always easy to get it 100%.
3. What were the three most rewarding moments?
I’ve recently appointed a senior ambassador team in the agency, which comprises five stellar talents who are really bound to the agency and advocates for what we do and how we think. I think this second layer of management – sitting below and reporting into my Directors, is an important step in the longevity and succession of the agency here in the UAE. This has been a really key moment for me, as it speaks to the faith people have in TOH for their long-term career goals.
Last year we also won some great global household names, such as Airbnb and Bicester Village Shopping Collection, which was hugely rewarding for the team as it underlines the quality of what we do in comparison to global agencies. We also won a few awards, which again, reinforces our approach and rewards our daily efforts.
On a personal note, extending the contract with Ferrari into India and Lebanon as well as the GCC was a high point, as it’s an account we’ve had for four years, and one that even my mum and least PR minded friends grasp the importance of!
4. What one piece of advice would you give fellow entrepreneurs?
Don’t expect the top of the mountain to appear. It’s such a buzz getting a company off the ground and seeing it take shape, but in my experience there’s no magic moment where it will start to feel easier, or you will feel as if you ‘made it’. The problems might shift, but they will still be there on a daily basis, and rest assured that it will take huge resilience, determination and passion to overcome. It’s not a quick fix – if you stop being hungry, you stop being a success.
5. What are your thoughts on the future of F&B and the industry?
I’m interested to see what 2019 will bring. I think the market has matured in the sense that we are seeing a slow-down in the big name celebrity chefs coming to the region and expecting to fill huge spaces… but, there’s a lot of distressed concepts out there and there are huge new developments coming onto the market. As ever, the good will do well and the bad will struggle, but the market has to get its pricing right and we also need to appreciate the strength and role of the food delivery services such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats. I’d love to see an influx of population into the UAE, because if you look at the quality and the number of F&B brands and venues here, it’s world-class. We just need more stomachs to fill!
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