As the company enters a seventh year, Howard James, CP5’s Managing Director and Co-founder, discusses its journey, and what we might expect from storytelling in the next six years and beyond

CP5: The company is six! What phrase best summarises this milestone for you?

Howard James: We’re still here! Businesses of all sizes shouldn’t underestimate how much of an achievement this is. It speaks to a quality and consistency of service, and underscores the sacrifices their staff and owners have had to make. For us, that includes finding cost-efficiencies through three years of lockdowns, or having to endure uncertainty during the economic downturn of early-2023. If they are still standing today, they deserve it. Small private companies like ours have received no government funding or in-kind support along the way. And I’m delighted to say, we don’t have a cent of debt.

Being “still here” is not only about resiliency. It’s about capitalising on opportunities and learnings. An example is our offering to clients in the community engagement space. Asia-based brands have produced social impact reports for decades, but in the wake of COVID-19, many want to share how they’ve helped uplift communities. Fortunately for us, the result has been some truly inspiring storytelling.

Since forming the company in early-2018, what industry development has surprised you the most?

While demand for storytelling has been around for millennia, I was taken back by how quickly and enthusiastically brands embraced content during and following the pandemic.

In 2018, the novelty of traditional storytelling was starting to wear thin, with brands moving into visualisations and in-person events in preference to editorial. Tech consultancy Gartner talks about its ‘hype cycle’, whereby new platforms attract enormous investment dollars early, only to plateaux, cool rapidly — then rebound slowly.

A decade ago, everyone was jumping into content. Opportunists rushed in, many with no storytelling pedigree. Soon, lots of them weren’t delivering on their hype in terms of editorial rigor, quality of content or brand exposure — eventually moving to other mediums and different shores.

COVID-19 disrupted everything. First, it accelerated storytelling’s rebound. We benefitted enormously from this shift. One of our Singapore-based clients, a British data and analytics MNC, hired us across 16 markets globally, spanning North Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. Suddenly, we became a global company, albeit still a small outfit.

Now you’re no longer the ‘new kid’ brand, what’s been key to maintaining quality and remaining relevant?

Doing the basics well. First, that means knowledge and expertise. This appears in everybody’s deck, but not everyone can deliver it. Both Luke Clark [CP5 Co-founder] and I are proudly ‘geeky’, and have the work to back it up: decades of storytelling and platform experience spanning award-winning magazines, writing and directing video footage — or commissioning high-end photography. At other times, we ideate and co-create events from end-to-end. We know our sectors intimately: be it financials, sustainability, travel, energy, healthcare, talent and technology.

Client servicing is key in our industry, and to our longevity. We have a good reputation for delivering what we promise. As we receive more multi-faceted and matrixed projects, across multiple geographies and stakeholders, we’re investing in the support to choreograph the writing, resource management and scoping of these projects. It’s exciting times.

And though we swim well in our lane as a content agency, we are expanding into complementary spaces — for instance, by developing an internal communications proposition for MNCs; as well as a sustainability communications offering for companies big and small. Watch this space.

Name one brand you’d like CP5 to write for, and why?

Apple Inc. As regular readers may know, I spent a long time researching Apple’s story, cleverly told this through interviews with Steve Jobs (Apple co-founder), Mike Markkula (Apple’s first investor), Sir Jony Ive (former Chief Design Officer), and Tim Cook (current CEO) — and via inspiring adverts, rousing corporate announcements, and employee advocacy.

One of the first things clients buy into with CP5 is our story. How we are journey makers. The values we hold dearly. The care and thought that goes into every word. And ultimately why we exist: “A platform for Asia’s best ideas to take flight and make a difference”. The Asia part is a key differentiator we believe, given that stories in this region are usually vastly different to those of the West, culturally and socioeconomically. Yet few rivals from Europe or the Americas appreciate this.

Like Apple, story is central to our DNA.

Every Asian culture is unique, with storytelling and creativity integral in conveying this uniqueness. Images: celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi, otherwise known as the Festival of Lights, in Jaipur, India. Credits: Instants.

You recently did a deep dive into content creation in banking and finance across 11 different organisations. What impressed you most? Biggest frustration?

The confidential audit for a major investment player included a deep dive into the thought leadership efforts of 10 brands, and the client. What impressed me most was how leading brands take storytelling very seriously. Some have newsrooms like The New York Times (NYT) or The Guardian. Others have purpose-built studios on par with BBC. Many create high-end content almost daily. Most impressive is the rigourous storytelling skills on display. These organisations deploy proven journalists, visual storytellers and podcasters, which is both refreshing and reassuring for those of us championing quality content.

My only frustration? Most organisations avoid personal narratives. Even in finance, stories are personal: yet most ‘company stories’ lack the vital perspective of ‘what it was like’ creating that story. To me, that ‘insider view’ is really the next step to unlock some remarkable work. Building a business is a wild ride: it’s time we really told that story.

What have you learned most about yourself over six years co-owning your company?

As business owners, we can’t do everything on our own. We need support, in the form of skills we don’t have. The content business is a genuine team sport. As we get invited into bigger RFPs and proposals, we’ve rediscovered a strong network of like-minded professionals, most of whom we’ve worked with previously. These people share our values and aspirations, and are driven by excellent independent work. And as a six-year-old venture, we’re ready to find ‘our tribe’.

We want to work with the best talent in the market. Fortunately, many world-class talents are embracing the Gig Economy, and working in a borderless digital office. A lot of great talent has been unleashed from needless brand control. Many seek the freedom to choose who they work for and where. Our partners have a track record of delivering in a way that aligns perfectly with our worldview. So yes, our next chapter is to bridge the gap between brands with ambition, and the best creative and digital talent to fulfil that brief. Suddenly once again, we feel like we’re at a cusp of a new frontier.

You are a transplanted European living in Singapore. What frustrates you most about coverage of Asia in traditional media markets?

There are enormous misunderstandings about this region in Europe and America. Many traditional media outlets approach our region as a homogeneous market. Yet every Asian culture is unique, with storytelling and creativity playing an integral role in conveying this uniqueness. Too many far-flung editors and executives are crudely unaware of how advanced and diverse Asia is now: and how quickly the region will leave its rivals behind.

As a Welshman (me) and a New Zealander (Luke) with deep work and family roots in Singapore, we have a unique bird’s eye view on what one can only say is at best, ignorance — and at worst, disturbingly imperialist mindsets. Too many children in 2024 grow up believing in the vestiges of the British Empire for instance, or America’s claims to cultural dominance: yet in reality, look at the economic and demographic data, and it’s clear that many mature markets are lagging behind Singapore, Japan and South Korea across many indices, social and macroeconomic. To me, much of China is already light years ahead of the West.

Asia’s story cannot be told remotely, and not through outdated lenses. Even today, business owners approach Asia-Pacific as a ‘means to an end’. Too many executives make excuses for being based here: telling clients and staff, “We are a global company: we just happen to be based in Singapore.” Our view is that we are a global company, proudly and deliberately headquartered in Singapore, one of the de-facto commercial capitals of Asia-Pacific.

To us, the epicentre of today’s world is Asia. Many in the West haven’t recognised this. The numbers back up this claim: 60% of world GDP will be generated in Asia this year. By the end of this century, Asia-Pacific will be home to almost half of the world’s 10 billion population.

Clearly ESG has become a strong vertical for CP5 over six years. What excites you most about the evolving ESG story in this region? 

ESG and sustainability are both strong verticals. While people use the terms interchangeably, ESG is about measurement — scorecards to monitor and report on environmental, social and governance progress; while sustainability is the outcome and goal. Gartner gives a great overview of the two.

Local and international brands want to make their organisations and products more sustainable. Yet the proportion of companies with fully-fledged corporate sustainability programmes (including ESG performance metrics) is very low. Sadly, most companies still invest because they have to. Yet for those who believe in it and walk the talk, there’s a huge opportunity to reach new customers. Millennials and subsequent generations favour purpose over profit in environmental preservation and social equality.

Many companies pursuing sustainability don’t know where to start. And critically, they don’t know how to communicate their existing efforts. Sustainability is not an endpoint, it’s a continuous journey. Through recent work and our efforts to upskill, CP5 is well-positioned to help organisations to champion this journey.

Many of the best in the market are leveraging brand storytelling to drive their message home. What’s the key to making this storytelling work?

First, internal alignment, and support at the highest levels. Storytelling doesn’t directly drive leads or replace sales and marketing channels. It can however, greatly enhance them.

Second, trust and openness, especially with partners. Too often agencies like us receive a brief, with much of the backstory only available on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. This is especially true for internal sensitivities. Or conversely, inexperienced project leads can ‘dump’ available information on their content vendor, where only a fraction is relevant to the story.

Trust also extends to the process: the best brands are those who are as curious about your ideas, as they are about their own. And lastly, honesty with the process is a key to great stories. The ‘Hero’s Journey’ is successful because we love stories with struggle, and ones where the stakes were high. If you’ve had success, don’t pretend it was easy. The achievement has much more value, if you take people on the bumpy journey to getting there.

Doomsday predictions aside, many of the savviest people in business predict that AI will be most useful to those with a strong creative vision of their own. Where do you hope the technology will drive us to, in terms of its potential? 

AI-powered large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT or BERT can help writers and editors unearth information in seconds, which might typically take days to research manually. They can also help shape narratives and informed views on numerous topics. But we need to be careful about how we use and position AI.

Many creative businesses sell the AI dream, only for their proposition to not be powered by AI at all, but by people. I frequently create and read LLM-generated content. While it can be insightful, it often lacks both rigor and perspective. That the likes of NYT, The Guardian, ABC, and CNN have banned ChatGPT from crawling its websites indicates that the technology must rely on less rigorous sources. In an era of fake news that’s frightening.

There’s is still a strong place for the technology, though. Editors can benefit from these powerful and helpful tools. But people and business leaders should do the thinking. I recently asked ChatGPT to explain ‘sustainable finance’. It told me it was a sub-sector of impact investing: which is completely untrue: the opposite is the case.

From what I can see, facts and stories in specialist areas should sit with real people driving these conversations. After all, many of these facts and stories are precious IP: and they will define how you reach customers. Recently, entrepreneur Elon Musk sued ChatGPT maker OpenAI and its CEO, Sam Altman, claiming they’d abandoned the start-up’s original mission to develop AI for the benefit of humanity, not for profit. Such divisions could well get wider.

What are your top predictions for brand storytelling over the next six years?

Technology has the potential to be a gamechanger for businesses like ours. What I am most excited about is seeing tried-and-tested technologies applied to new concepts, which will save agencies and brands time and costs to various workflows. Storytellers can benefit enormously from cloud-based Knowledge-as-a-Service (KaaS) platforms that provide a wealth of information in a snapshot about a company and its industry, providing context within minutes.

In terms of driving richer insights to clients, companies in the events space are already leading the way, showcasing their ideas in mixed reality (MR) to sell difficult concepts. In video production, vendors are leveraging remotely operated internet-of-things (IoT) technology (robots, drones, 5G connectivity and opensource interfaces) to create best-in-class footage from afar. Greater data access will further enhance storytelling. In the internal communications and sustainability spaces, qualitative and quantitative data serves as powerful proof points. Likewise, data visualisation can and should tell a company’s story better than we have ever seen.

But more than ever, the vital link that excites us the most, is the human element. This is an era of Asia-Pacific IP: a time when the best ideas and executions are coming from our region. As ever, the real ‘special sauce’ in storytelling won’t sit with the gadgets or the hardware — but how they allow us to tell the stories that really matter.

We as people will always be most inspired by the people-driven ideas and innovations that begin with a human problem, leading us in turn to game-changing solutions and ways of seeing the world that we’ve never thought of before. As such, in a part of the world that is at the frontier of both creativity and technology, the future is indeed super exciting for brand storytelling. 

To learn more about our unique storytelling offering in Asia and beyond, talk to us.