Tenacity meets technology: career profile on Katherine Nguyen, Acer head of marketing
Full of captivating stories, Katherine Nguyen is transforming Acer Australia and New Zealand as its head of marketing with her energetic and fun approach to serious, number-driven business innovation. Michelle Herbison delves into the details.
Most candidates for a job would take it as a hint and move on if a company goes silent for two weeks after an interview, but not Katherine Nguyen. Acer’s head of marketing spent hours researching and coming up with a strategy for the company that she then boldly emailed through, hoping for a second chance. It worked – the hiring manager invited her for coffee, and when he offered her the job right there and then, she was so thrilled she spilled her drink all over the table in front of him.
“My cup just spilled over. I was so excited, I couldn’t hold it back,” the petite and charismatic 39-year-old remembers with an embarrassed laugh, reliving the stress and panic she was feeling as a new resident of Australia desperate to get back into marketing.
“I thought I couldn’t get it, but I got the job.”
It was 2011 and the job was as a marketing specialist at Acer, from which she has since been promoted to marketing communications manager and now head of marketing.
That tough determination she drew on to land her spot inside Acer’s Australian headquarters was certainly no one- off.
This vibrant, tenacious spirit has run through all the steps in her career, from putting on her best singing voice at Ogilvy pitches (she was dubbed the agency’s ‘most creative account person’), to spearheading GPS Amazing Race- style campaigns to sell the new technology to motorbike riding Vietnamese, to turning sales training on its head by introducing gamification to Acer.
Only a year earlier, Nguyen was touching down on Australian soil for the first time with a pregnant belly, a pre-schooler in one hand and a huge suitcase in the other, with no job lined up and no local contacts.
She’d left her job as head of marketing at Samsung in Vietnam following a doctor’s orders for her to wind down, and decided exploring Australia would be a more interesting alternative to sitting around at home. It wasn’t long before she got restless here, too, and started applying for jobs. Only four months after her second daughter’s birth, the single mother landed a job at Samsung’s agency, Cheil Communications. The catch was that she was living in Melbourne and the job was in Sydney.
Perhaps attending the furthest possible university from home as a teenager (24 hours on public transport – and her family couldn’t afford to fly) set Nguyen up for the task of flying from Melbourne to Sydney every Monday morning, and back again on Fridays, for two months of her probation. Luckily, her mother visited to help with her two daughters while Nguyen bunked in backpackers’ accommodation and went to work every day.
“I did everything I could, because I knew it was difficult to get the job, but after two months I was just an exhausted wreck,” Nguyen says, re-enacting the distress.
“I walked into the MD’s office, and said, ‘Thank you so much for giving me this chance when you knew I was new to the country, but it’s three months’ probation and I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to stay. I’m so tired, I can’t do it, so I quit.’ The MD was just like, ‘No, you’re in. Bring your family here.’ So within a week I packed everything and moved everyone to Sydney.”
Six months later when the Acer job came up, Nguyen was ecstatic at the chance to get back into client-side marketing.
A grassroots introduction to marketing
Nguyen’s grounding in client-focused business, and our first glimpse of that determined, enterprising spirit, goes right back to her actions as a 10-year-old when her family was struggling for survival in war-torn Vietnam.
Her family’s failed attempt to escape the country by boat took them from one of the wealthiest households in town to destitutely poor – and shunned.
“My dad bought a boat and we spent 15 days floating in the sea with no food and no water,” Nguyen recalls. “Then one day, at three in the morning, it hit the shore. And we thought that we’d landed in another country, but we had not.
“My dad was sent to jail, leaving Mum empty-handed with six children to feed.”
The communist government took everything the family owned, and young Katherine, a bright, well-liked student, was initially refused re-entry into her school.
“I walked into school and everyone was just like, ‘Traitor, traitor, traitor!’ The principal was standing there and said, ‘We’re not receiving you this year because your family are traitors.’ I was crying.” Thankfully, the school ended up allowing her back, but that didn’t solve the problem of her starving family.
“It was so scary at that time because we didn’t have anything. Every day Mum would go to find a job to do, and the six of us would stay home and we didn’t know what we were going to eat for lunch. Some days we’d just cook plain rice, that’s it. So I thought, ‘I have to do something’.”
Nguyen gathered fruit from her garden and lugged a basket across to the local market. When that was successful, the 10-year-old planted more vegetables and sourced groceries and lottery tickets from a larger market to sell.
She taught herself the complexities of running a small business: customer service, inventory management, dealing with money, and being organised and in control.
“I had no idea what marketing was as such, but I learned to manage money and value every single customer I had. The experience, I think, instilled something in me, making me a customer-centric person. So all of that started at a very young age,” she pauses, a streak of amusement coming across her face. “My daughter now is 10 years old and she can’t even remember to brush her teeth.”
An eventful start agency-side
Before graduating from university, Nguyen was offered a job at local Saigon advertising agency, FCB. At 25, she started as a junior account executive at Ogilvy. On top of being dubbed the agency’s ‘most creative account person’, she was also the quickest to be promoted, moving up to manager and then director positions within two and a half years.
“I’ll tell you why,” she laughs modestly, putting her initial career success down to one client, the Vietnamese beverage company Tan Hiep Phat (THP).
When Nguyen signed it on as an Ogilvy client, THP was just beginning its trajectory from selling fresh beer on the pavement to becoming the country’s largest drinks empire.
“They didn’t have an advertising agency and they wanted to grow really big. They had so much money they didn’t know what to do,” says Nguyen.
Preparing to pitch for one of THP’s beer brands targeted to working class men, Nguyen and her creative director headed down to a local drinking hole for some research.
“The two of us were drinking, talking to a lot of people, and I discovered a drinking rule from that group that nobody knew about: if you arrive late to the drinking appointment, you have to take three full glasses in a row. If you leave early, before anyone else, you have to drink seven. It’s called ‘in three, out seven’ in the local language.
“So we created a series of rules for drinkers and we called it ‘only drinker knows’. It became the biggest campaign back then and won a lot of money for Ogilvy.”
After that success, Nguyen became the agency’s go-to new business account executive, pitching for local clients with her unique flair.
Once she got up in front of a prospective client’s business management team and belted out a catchy song she had written to get her pitch message across. The open-mouthed faces of disbelief from the clients won her the account.
“It’s not about being brave, I think I enjoyed doing it,” she laughs. “I like the fun things. I don’t want to go there and flip through the PowerPoint and just talk numbers.”
But the agency life started to lose its shine after a few years and Nguyen started imagining herself in a client-side role.
“The bad side of advertising agencies is that most of the time it’s very challenging to get the marketing manager to just like you. Sometimes it’s nothing to do with whether you have the right strategy – if that person doesn’t like you, no idea is going to go through,” she says.
“Nasty” and “rude” clients often treated her with disrespect and Nguyen started getting fed up of having to keep her smile on trying to please them, realising she wanted to move into the business side of marketing.
These days, her agency background gives her a thorough understanding of the job her agencies do for her. She’s fair and polite, but many say she’s tough to pitch to.
“I say, ‘What is the concept? What’s your strategy? What’s your positioning? What are we trying to do here?’ They say it’s really hard to present to me because [they can’t] just come up with a design and that’s it.”
Going client-side at Nokia and Samsung, Vietnam
Nguyen reminisces about the ‘golden time’ at Nokia when she worked at the company’s Vietnam office between 2006 and 2008. Strategies from leadership were taking the company in the right direction, and the staff perks were amazing.
“Nokia was the norm in Vietnam,” she recalls with wide eyes, clutching her iPhone 6. They had a really big market share back then, more than 60 percent in Vietnam.”
Working as a brand manager, and subsequently promoted to multimedia marketing manager for the Indochina region, Nguyen was focused on the N-Series division of Nokia, a suite of mobile products designed to attract the luxury market.
“When they became mainstream, they couldn’t upsell, because people would say, ‘That’s the brand for everyone – I want to be different’. So they created the luxury version, put all the investment into building it and the strategy was that it would lift the mother brand up as well. So the Nokia N-Series became the focus of the whole organisation and it was a different business unit.”
One of the key achievements Nguyen is most proud of from her career was spearheading what she calls “talk-of- the-town marketing campaigns that established the idea of a GPS phone”.
“The first time I launched the N95, it came with navigation, and some markets didn’t have that. It was not like now when you open the phone and everything has to be on it. So when we decided to have maps in Vietnam, people were like, ‘What? I’m on motorbike. Why would I need?’ It took a lot of time to really get the message across.”
Nguyen created campaigns along the lines of the TV show The Amazing Race, showing people racing between places to find clues, while following the maps on their phones.
“We had to educate people, and our new technologies and innovations changed the lifestyle actually.”
Amid the successes, Nguyen has also experienced some epic failures. She is able to look back on the story of her ‘biggest mistake’ now and laugh, it but certainly wasn’t funny at the time.
She was head of marketing (mobile) at Samsung, back in the days when that company held a similarly small slice of market share as half a dozen competitors. Nguyen’s challenge was to come up with an impactful way to launch Samsung’s new hero product, the Star.
“I came up with the idea of ‘crazy sale’, which is where we’d have only 100 units in the first batch, and you could buy one for $9.99 instead of $200 or $300,” she explains.
The team set up a giant mock handset outside the biggest shopping centre in town, preparing for a 9am kick-off.
“By 3am, I was walking around supervising set-up. People started rolling in. They brought mats and slept right on the pavements. As the sun was rising, I was panicking, as there was a sea of people there!
“At 7am, they were tired of waiting and no doubt concerned about their odds at winning. They stormed in the shopping centre and set upon the Samsung display. We had planned for some disturbance, and had about 30 security guards there, plus 20 promo staff and an MC. They must have set a track record at how fast they ran away.
“My team and I stood there for two seconds. I mean, this was our baby, this was our big promotion, our moment.
“Then of course I realised the angry mob were just about at the stand, so I screamed to the team, ‘Run, run, run!’ and I ran too.”
Taking refuge in her office, Nguyen was surprised and shaken up to find some of the angry people had then descended upon the Samsung office. She laughs now, unable to imagine Australians acting the same way.
“There I was, curled up under my desk, and the entitled customers banged on our office doors. We had to call the city police to help.”
Nguyen was petrified at how her boss, an ex-military Korean in his 50s, would react to the debacle.
“I was almost in tears trying to explain everything. He laughed. As he chuckled, he stood up, walked over to me and, hand on shoulder, said, ‘Let’s do it again, kid!’.”
Despite the obligatory negative publicity, Samsung went on to use the same concept many times over, with more security, to great success.
“To this day it’s been my biggest mistake, and one I’ve never been too eager to share. Still, it taught me a few things,” she says. They are:
- Understand your customer well: motivations, culture, and even boundaries,
- think of the worst case scenario and plan for it, and
- don’t be afraid to get the advice of experts, whether it’s colleagues or agencies – find an expert in each area to work with.
Her experiences overseas gave Nguyen a strong set of universal marketing skills, ones that she has been able to transfer to the Australian market.
The biggest change, working at Acer, is the focus on B2B marketing – she describes it as a “channel- leveraged company”, which is different to the consumer-focused strategies of the mobile phone companies she’s worked with in the past.
“It’s difficult,” she sighs. “My role is looking after marketing for all the segments, which covers from B2B to B2C and B2B2C. It’s more challenging [than B2C]. You have to be able to build trust with your partners. That’s what I think is most important for any business, being people-centric.
“Before, when I worked at the other companies, it was more about consumers, retailers and communication to the end user – make it inspiring, make it beautiful and people will like you and come to the store and buy it.
“That’s not the case here. If the retailer refuses to display your product on the shelf, no one’s going to find you.”
In the consumer notebook and tablet space, Acer works with five key major retail partners: Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi, Dick Smith, The Good Guys and Officeworks.
“[In Vietnam] you’re dealing with small ones. If one of them doesn’t buy your product, it doesn’t matter,” she explains. “Here it’s different – if one of the retailers is not buying your products, you’re in trouble. Dealing with the customer is more important than advertising to the end user sometimes.”
While retailing makes up about 50 percent of the Acer business, the company also has B2B divisions focused on the education, SMB, and corporate and government markets.
In Q1, 2014, Acer was for the first time named the number one vendor in computing and technology solutions for the Australian education sector.
“We think that segment requires you to be very engaging and work very closely with resellers and provide not just the device, but the whole solution,” Nguyen explains.
Acer’s new bring your own device (BYOD) website for schools is an information hub for schools and parents to access information about infrastructure support and advice on choosing the right device.
“So it’s not just the hardware – we help schools, then we have the resellers as well. If parents order from the platform, it goes through our resellers, so we’re building something everyone can use,” she explains. The company is also working on similar support and information platforms for other sectors.
Another project Nguyen is currently spearheading is the gamification of sales staff training for Acer’s retailers. She admits the idea for her new project, an incentivised gaming app, comes from her own addiction to scientific brain training game Lumosity.
“If you walk into JB now, all the computers look the same with that little card and the only difference is the price,” Nguyen points out, explaining the challenge of getting salespeople to understand the benefits of one product over another.
“[On the app] you learn about our products, then you answer some funny quiz questions, play the games, and if you reach a certain score you win something. One module is like two minutes. It’s not a lot of time and it’s quite fun. It’s allowing them to do their jobs better and win some incentives such as travel or cash.”
“It took me about a year to be able to get myself into the place,” Nguyen says of Acer, cringing when she recounts the first meeting she attended there as a marketer.
“I came in and the product guy was putting up a spreadsheet, saying, ‘This is the product, this is sales, and then marketing’, and he said, ‘We’re going to produce 1000 posters and leaflets.’ I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, this is how they launch a product? Ouch’.
“So I said, ‘Before we decide what we’re going to do, we have to think about what we’re going to offer. Starting from your product, your pricing, your distribution – how you pack everything in one and position your message’.
“They just looked at me like I was an alien.”
As she’s moved up through the organisation, Nguyen has worked hard to change that siloed approach that’s embedded at Acer, a company where it’s not uncommon for people to stay for 10, 15 or 20 years.
“Some of the team members still come up and say, ‘Marketing, we’re going to send out an email today’. And I say, ‘Well, before we do that, tell me what you’re going to sell and I will tell you what I’m going to do – maybe it’s not email’. I’m getting used to it.”
Nguyen has worked hard with Oceanic managing director (MD) Darren Simmons to change the organisation’s approach to marketing since he took over in February last year.
“I talk to him a lot about marketing. He’s like, ‘No one’s going to do anything without Katherine’s sign-off’ and that’s helping me a lot,” she says, painting an almost comic picture of the corporate environment in which she works.
Nguyen faces other cultural challenges with her strong spirit: “I am almost the only female at management level, but I believe women have the inner strength and patience to multitask, to care, to nurture. I am Vietnamese. Vietnam has always been a country where the women can compete just as well as the men.
“I feel that Australia has a very progressive professional environment. People are from all cultures and walks of life, so I can’t say that I’ve ever felt hindered by stereotypes.”
But she does do a lot of extra homework to ensure she is top of her game as a non-native English speaker.
“I have to do a lot of research. I’ve decided that if I’m going to speak about something, it has to be quality because I can’t do quantity,” she laughs, ironically continuing to talk energetically well past the one-hour mark of our interview.
“If I come on board with a project I do a lot of homework and it requires me to work a lot at home and that’s how I get through. If it’s my project, I understand it, I know everything about it.”
As the PC industry shrinks, Acer is transforming its business to keep up with the trend towards mobility – from bulky notebooks to nimble, lightweight and transformable devices. The company is also growing in the tablet space, but it’s a competitive battle. “It’s a new technology for us, for any computing vendor, so we have to start with: how are we going to make our notebook become more mobile and versatile?” Nguyen explains.
With this comes organisational transformation. When Darren Simmons took over as Oceania MD last February, the company had posted a $47 million loss. This year Nguyen says the result will be in the positive, but it’s been hard work.
Simmons, who was Acer’s sales director for 15 years, has pushed the focus to be more partner-centric; previously the company competed with its resellers by running an ecommerce store, which is now being slowed down.
Nguyen believes Simmons, who she describes as a great mentor, promoted her to head of marketing because of her strong business mindset.
“I’m not like, ‘You just advertise a lot and that’s it’. I pull together the strategy, and every time I’ve run a campaign I’ve been able to show results.
“Numbers never lie. Showing measurable results about a high-performing campaign is always better than just telling them.”
She is fanatical about staying on top of digital technologies and trends – a social media and online games addict, she often baffles some of her conservative colleagues.
“Nothing shames me more than when my boss tells me about a new website or app I have to check out. You should be the one telling your boss and your colleagues about new must-have technology because you’re a marketer.
“The fun thing about marketing is as the technologies change this opens up new ways to engage, and I want to be at the forefront of that.”
And the next step?
“I want to aim to move my career up, perhaps look at having an APAC scope. And ideally while being based out of beautiful Sydney.”
Katherine Nguyen’s career timeline
1989-1994: Local market stallholder
1994-1998: Freelance language tutor
1998: Attained Bachelor of Asian Studies
1998-2002: FCB account executive
2002-2003: Ogilvy junior account executive
2003-2004: Ogilvy manager
2004-2006: Ogilvy director
2006-2007: Nokia brand manager
2007-2008: Nokia multimedia marketing manager, Indochina region
2008-2010: Samsung head of marketing (mobile)
2010-2011: Cheil Communications account manager
2011-2013: Acer marketing specialist
2013-2014: Acer marketing communications manager
2014-present: Acer head of marketing
Five books every marketer should read
- Marketing Warfare – Al Ries and Jack Trout 2. The Power of Simplicity – Jack Trout,
- Blue Ocean Strategy – W Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, and
- The Culture Code – Clotaire Rapaille 5. The Art of War – Sun Tzu.
Three great business partners
- Shuna Boyd, PR consultant: strong work ethic,
- Dick Smith team: dynamic and professional, and
- Webling Interactive: innovative and strong work ethic.