Joanne de Rozario is fascinating to watch, and it’s not just because of her telegenic bone structure and incredible toned legs that go on for days. When I blurt the latter to her, she brushes it off casually like the lady boss she is.
There is nothing fleeting or casual about Joanne’s sheer presence. I clock several pairs of eyes around us fix themselves on her.
Her energy is magnetic; even if she were not in a flame-coloured party frock (as she is tonight) you’d still notice her at 50 paces. It’s the way she carries herself. No slouching.
Confidence – in the right amount – like a fine mist around her, like a spritz of perfume. Not the kind that knocks you cold to the pavement but the kind that makes you want to hear what she has to say, because you know it will be anything but trite or bland.
And that sharp intelligence makes itself more pronounced as her wry – and very astute – observations pepper our chat over drinks in Bangsar one balmy Saturday night.
I was lucky to get a slice of her time. Though she flies in to KL to see her family and friends, she has been based in Singapore for the last three years, and her schedule has become more packed since she accepted Brand New Media’s offer to become its Managing Director, an offer made late 2015. She relates how, in her capacity as the then-Head of Production, she took two months to consider the offer. “Nobody wants to grow up that quickly,” she deadpans, before laughter escapes her lips. But why did she take two months to consider?
“Because it meant I couldn’t run around and shoot as much as before!” she laughs candidly, with mock-frustration.
This is what makes her fascinating to watch. That effortless combination of candour and self-ease.
At any given time her wide smile just breaks out from her composed face and exudes a combination of sweetness, kindness and wicked humour, adding yet another dimension to her rapid-fire rollercoaster speech replete with a multitude of hand gestures, a turn or tilt of the head and eye rolls of all flavours.
There is nothing hesitant about her. This is what I admire first off.
See, she might look uber-feminine but she not only knows what she wants, but she also knows when people are full of it. What ‘it’ is, you can be sure she’s seen it, heard it, smelt it and dealt with it.
Almost six months into the job and she can tell you flat-out that handling the finances and profit and loss is not her first love. “My first love is still creating,” she smiles, “and the deal with my CEO is that I get to create and shoot once in a while.” She has had to let go some of the production details, however, and the brief twisting of her eyebrows explains how she feels about this. Listening to her relate the anecdotes surrounding her immersion in the role of MD is not without its hilarious moments.
In addition to keeping a close eye on budgets – something she is extremely familiar with from her seven years with Channel [V] as Executive Producer – she has to keep her staff motivated and sane.
“And happy!” she adds, in a way that leaves no room for argument that this is the most important aspect. “That’s the most challenging part,” she mutters, as she tells of receiving emails (“Whingeing!” she winces,) at 11pm on a Friday night and her candid directive to them is “Go have a drink, for God’s sake!” Sound advice. I’m sure many would love to hear their boss telling them to go have a drink instead of sending emails on the doorstep of the weekend.
But this is part and parcel of the fast-paced, creative and challenging life of production and content marketing. When clients are involved – and many who deal with clients know this – there are, occasionally, unreasonable demands vis-à-vis scheduling and content. For instance, a client may want a video that is more akin to a 30-second outright TV commercial that shouts out the brand every second rather than a carefully-crafted story that engages the viewer without the shove-it-in-your-throat hard sell.
So how does Joanne handle such tricky client minefields?
“With a shedload of patience,” she says simply, steely-eyed for just a second before a knowing smile conveys her oh-well acceptance of such challenges.
“Content marketing is SO new,” she explains, which means many don’t understand what it is, firstly, and throw production into the discussion and you’re bound to have panicky clients who are stubbornly holding on to the driver’s wheel.
“Some expect you to deliver miracles in 24 hours,” she adds, “and I have to explain to them that it’s not going to happen. We just have to educate them and make them understand.”
Joanne and her team are focused on “telling a story,” she explains, “and there needs to be meat to it, the message needs to come across and your brand cannot be all over the piece,” she adds, highlighting the chasm of misunderstanding that often occurs when people experienced in TVC production cross over to content marketing production.
But she says this because she fully understands viewer behaviour, so it’s not as if she has an agenda when it comes to achieving that fine balance in creating a compelling story that helps market a brand at the same time.
“How many times have you watched a video where you see the advertising pre-roll come on in the first few seconds and you can’t wait for it to end?”
It is not a rhetorical question.
“Sometimes you have to let go,” she concedes, acknowledging that client preferences can override content recommendations, “but viewers may remember it as ‘this brand is being shoved down my throat,’ rather than remembering it as a compelling story.”
And the way to measure how compelling a created piece is, is no longer limited to clicks, views and impressions. “Impressions just means someone saw it,” she states matter-of-factly, “but engagement is part of the new metrics.” Engagement has a quantifiable quality, though, and it is 30 seconds. So if your eyeballs or ears are being monopolised for more than 30 seconds (“some measure it by 60 seconds,” she adds) then you, as a content consumer, are effectively engaged.
She cites Red Bull as a perfect example of “brilliant content marketing,” explaining how it is now viewed through consumer lens as an extreme sports brand (remember the jump from space?) rather than as a soft drink. I ask her to name the BNM client roster. She demurs diplomatically like a pro.
But she will say this:
“What do you do in the morning? Check your phone, right? Check your email, your WhatsApp, FB. Who spends time on traditional channels anymore?”
The journalism graduate is neither fazed by the neck-breaking speed of technology, though she maintains that storytelling is at the core of all communication, no matter the platform.
“The way we communicate and the way we get our information has changed so much.”
Where content marketing agencies make the difference, she explains, is the creation of “quality, well-made content” that wasn’t shot on a phone and edited by an app.
“Almost all the content you consume, we tell people in our workshops, is being paid by someone [the sponsors], whether it’s pay-TV or otherwise. So you [the client] need to cut through the clutter; we ask them, ‘what are you saying?’.”
No matter how good your content is, people will remember it, she shrugs, “for a month, maybe” but if you’re always providing content solutions and information, “then your brand will stay top of the mind.”
When brands are involved in talking about real problems in the real world (such as the GE reports), “instead of just putting the brand in front of a pretty story, and when it matters, that’s when you engage.”
Talking about things that matter, it is not difficult for Joanne to remember why she does what she does. “September 11th,” she says. “You remember, you were there? [at the TV station where we both worked]” she asks me. I nod.
Joanne was the first one to text me that night to turn on the news and I did, in time, to see the second pivotal moment. As she read the news the subsequent two days, I remember her face, professionally stoic yet rippling with a million questions and fury.
“The first three days was hell,” she spits out, “and after everybody had already blamed the Muslim world, and yet we hadn’t – we were still asking questions – I walked out of the studio to the graphics area, and a call had come in and my colleague said, “Hey Jo. Call for you.” It was an Arab gentleman, she recalls, “and he said ‘I just want to say thank you.’ And I said ‘thank you for what?’ He said ‘thank you for not blaming us’.”
That one phone call, she proclaims, made the hell of the preceding days worthwhile.
Joanne knows the minutiae of journalistic principles thoroughly but doesn’t, like other stalwarts who face becoming irrelevant, discount the fluidity of changing times.
The 41-year-old has been immersed in regional TV and production for two decades: news production for ntv7 (where she also anchored the English news slot for years), Star, Life Inspired (LiTV), Channel [V] and now Brand New Media, and oh, two years spent in the US broadcast industry. She also anchored midnight English news bulletins on another terrestrial station.
There isn’t anything involving pre-, during or post-production that she cannot handle, even if it means being a one-woman show at a glittering press junket in Shanghai where the likes of Hugh Jackman and director Brett Ratner are traipsing the red carpet. (She lights up visibly when she tells me the story leading up to the final moment of Ratner telling her that her interview was one of the best that he’d had.)
She doesn’t gloss over the frustration and she re-enacts the funny parts of the interview with Ratner and it is hilarious, because she does not hide the reality of it all.
The gruelling, exhausting production work.
What we, the viewers, see is the finished product, and it takes a lot of quick thinking and relationship management skills to get the finished product looking effortless and tight.
She won’t tamp down how the first two years of content marketing production “were HARD,” she breathes out, but Brand New Media started winning awards last year, and Jo, in typical fashion, is charmingly blasé about it, because her style is not to rest on well-earned laurels. “It’s good recognition for the team.”
I ask her what would get her out of bed, and she replies without hesitation,
“News. And the live element of it.”
Specifically, she loves “the pressure of not being able to make a mistake.” Where other people would probably crumble and soil their pants, I begin, — and she finishes my sentence — “I love it.” She has a smile bigger than that of the Cheshire cat when she says this.
So if there were newbies two decades her junior who want to arm themselves with the kind of expertise as Joanne has accumulated where offers to be MD land on their table? What would they need to know?
“Patience and tolerance are tantamount to surviving in this industry,”
she says, “especially when you’re dealing with clients.” And clients – sponsors – keep productions alive, when top-level executives such as Joanne have to bear in mind profit margins alongside impactful messages and viewer engagement. Managing the holy trifecta is not for the faint of heart. And that’s before you include ideation, strategy, distribution and amplification. “Content marketing involves many specialists in specialised roles.” Joanne has faced steep learning curves in her career transition from news to entertainment and subsequently into content marketing.
“It changes so quickly,” she iterates, detailing how she never thought, 20 years ago, she’d be managing the mediums she does now. “I mean, what the hell did I know and how did I get myself here?!” she chuckles good-naturedly, almost not quite believing her career trajectory.
And so it makes sense that “being adaptable and a willingness to learn” are also qualities that Jo prescribes for those who want to succeed. Pretty faces that want to just stand there and talk, without understanding the technicalities of lighting, audio or something as basic as being able to listen to your cues from the producer while holding the attention of your interviewee during an event will soon understand the terror of fluffing spectacularly or the high of nailing it beautifully.
Fortunately, her boyfriend of eight years, Dominic Lau, understood the latter, and this was well before they shared home space together. “I used to drill him,” she laughs at the recollection of their times working together at Channel [V] during Oscars season. Her re-enactment of her facial expressions from that time are priceless. I pointedly ask her if me retelling this will cause a fight chez de Rozario-Lau, to which she sportingly reassures me it won’t.
When I ask her if Dominic loves the pressure of live TV as much as she does, she looks at me in mock-horror with an emphatic “No!” which has me laughing out loud, and she adds, “He’s the polar opposite!”
“He is the one in my life who reminds me to relax and have fun,”
she says, her tone softening as if he were right there. She delivers this without saccharine sentimentality, most likely reserving it for private moments.
Because it seems one of the misconceptions about Joanne is that she is always-serious. “To a certain extent I’ve had to be, because I ran a news department and led production teams,” she begins.
“People are always surprised to see the fun side of me.”
Maybe it is her strength that comes off as seriousness, I wonder, as she tells me how both her parents are also strong people.
Had you spent an hour with her as I did you would have seen how ridiculously funny she is, even though I suspect she’s not trying to be so on purpose. It’s just how she is when she is not working.
Like when she tells me of people telling her she is ‘not as fat in real life’ as she seems on TV (what?!). I would give a left testicle (if I had one) to have her fit, sculpted body.
When she’s not indulging her love of Formula One racing, Will Smith and Johnny Depp (the man she would most love to make films with), she can be found wakeboarding or enjoying solitary weekends (“I spend my time all week surrounded by people, so it’s nice sometimes to be alone a bit,” she says) when Dominic and her are in different corners of the world due to work.
The only time she hesitates is when I ask her who would be her dream team to help her get through this trippy road trip called life. I wait patiently as she looks searchingly into the night air. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
And then she asks me the same question – and many other questions! – and the chat devolves into what can best be described as a typically-girly chat involving the trading of confidences, personal disappointments and gossip. There is more to Joanne than meets the eye. You just have to pin her down long enough to find out.
If you’re lucky enough to pin her down, that is. I lob a loaded question over to her, “So if Christiane Amanpour [a woman she deeply admires] called you up right now,” I say, slamming a palm onto the table, “and asked you to go with her on a news reporting tour of the Middle East, would you drop everything and go?”
“In a heartbeat. Oh yeah.”