Alumni Update | Issue Five 2014
Matthew Underwood
Managing Director, Matterhorn Communications Vietnam
Bachelor of Management (Marketing) 2000

It’s one thing to make a successful international career in public relations – and it’s another thing to reinvent the whole market in a developing country. He might ‘shun modesty for a moment’ to tell the story, but the latter is exactly what Matthew Underwood has done in Vietnam.

A Management graduate of UniSA, Matthew co-founded the country’s first international PR agency in 2004 and now runs his own firm Matterhorn Communications in Ho Chi Minh City.
Matthew Underwood
Matthew’s early career took him from Adelaide to Wrights in Melbourne and then Upstream Asia in Singapore, where one day the chance for a Vietnamese adventure suddenly presented itself.

“I received a call from someone who was having a drink with my previous boss in Melbourne,” Matthew recalls. “He said, ‘I heard you are smart enough to run an agency and dumb enough to move to Vietnam?’ I had no idea how to say no to that without somehow offending myself, so I said yes instead – and ten years later, I am still here.”

That seminal agency Matthew co-developed on his arrival in Vietnam was called TQPR, the country’s first major international PR agency. He saw that the local scene was ‘entrenched in doing things the Vietnamese way’, and took the challenge of shaking things up.

“We set about building a more internationalised version of the industry… there had been a couple of false starts with foreigners who had attempted to set up consultancies, but ultimately not stuck it out,” he says.

“In the early days, PR was very much a 'would you like fries with that' add-on sale to an ad-spend and thankfully we have moved out of that shadow somewhat.”

“There are still issues that I am not entirely thrilled about – the mere existence of advertorials continues to make my skin crawl – but by and large we have managed to position ourselves as pretty valued counsellors to senior managers and carved out a pretty tidy reputation for doing so.”

By comparison, Edelman – the world’s largest PR firm – took until 2012 to enter the Vietnamese market. Having forged a strong reputation and client base in the region, Matthew went on to launch Matterhorn Communications in 2010 with support from some former TQPR staff. The new venture came as Vietnam tripled its GDP from the early 2000s, continuing to establish itself as a top economic force in Southeast Asia.

Today, Matthew is excited to see Asia’s consumer base still shifting away from established markets and towards developing economic regions like Vietnam, thanks to burgeoning middle classes and their formidably untapped spending power. “The impact of that shift on any business in communications is huge,” he says.

“I consider myself lucky to have seen it unfold here in Vietnam over the past decade – some days I barely recognise the place.”

However, he does warn against lumping Vietnamese trends into the wider category of Asian market development. “It perplexes me a little when people back home talk about Adelaide and Melbourne and Sydney being different markets, and then talk about Asia being as though it is one place,” he says.

“The incredible diversity you find in this part of the world in terms of development, languages, cultures, religions, histories and historical rivalries, and so on make it a region that is very hard to pigeonhole and very hard to make a unified strategy for.”

Despite those challenges, Matthew is already a prime example of how to blaze a fresh trail in a completely new place – and he’s got plenty of advice for anyone keen to follow. He encourages new graduates to consider which skills the local industry demands, and how to sell them the way employers want.

“Study something the others are not and profess your expertise in it; when your job is to make ‘this water’ sound different to ‘that water’, being able to demonstrate it for yourself gets recognised pretty fast,” he says.

“Also, meet everyone you can… it will probably feel kind of awkward, but everyone remembers what it’s like to be a little lost grad, and people are generally more willing to help than you may think.”

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