Interview Tim Nicholls, Former HSBC Head of Communications, APAC, Private Bank


The Former Regional Head of Communications for HSBC Private Bank in Asia, Tim Nicholls has taken the leap with his own startup

Before launching his new startup business, Paradigm Consulting, Tim headed up Communications for HSBC Private Bank in Asia, based out of the main office in Hong Kong. He also had direct experience of Investment Banking, Corporate Issues Management and the Securities Services businesses, also for HSBC in the region.

Tim has an extensive background in B2B communications, marketing and media relations which he has honed over 15 years’ working within the financial sector. Seasoned in both Europe and Asia, Tim came to Hong Kong in 2005 with FTSE, the index data provider who was expanding its footprint in the region at the time. He has also enjoyed a stint at a European asset management firm. Tim also provides strategic communications support to a number of not-for-profit organisations.

I had the pleasure of catching up with Tim to ask him a few questions about his new business and gain insights into the specialist niche of financial communications.

RS: Tim, can you tell us a bit about your new startup Paradigm Consulting and how you came up with the idea to set up on your own?

TN: Paradigm Consulting is a Communications and PR agency that specialises in content-led projects (thought-leadership, editorials, speeches and corporate literature) and in the full cycle of media management, from training to campaign development. The team that I have pulled together is able to blend in-house, journalism and agency backgrounds to develop a compelling offering in each individual case.

To my mind, what businesses need from Communications and PR companies is changing. Complexity is rising in all industries in terms of how you reach stakeholders, how clients want to interact with you and the impact of regulation on financial companies in particular. Everyone knows that they need to change and adapt, but many organisations if they look themselves in the mirror are not managing to do so. The driving belief behind Paradigm Consulting is that companies need individual support from professionals who really understand their business and the communications landscape.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]“Cookie cutter approaches are not going to be sustainable and companies should expect more.”[/mks_pullquote] I’d always had ambitions to ‘go it alone’ and start something I could call my own. I found other entrepreneurs really inspiring and the concept of ownership and control of the direction of a business appealing. What was inspiring? The focus and ability to think outside of the box, and the drive to build in areas where at first glance it may not be obvious how.

To be able to take what I had learned firsthand from the high quality organisations that I have worked for and use that in a wide range of businesses with unique challenges was an opportunity that I had to grab. The stars aligned as well in terms of timing for my move. This was not a decision that I took lightly but with an idea of what the market need was and what I was able to deliver, it was the right one.

RS: What were you able to take from your experience at HSBC to help you in your new business

TN: I wouldn’t change my time at HSBC. It was certainly a challenging period for the industry and for the company in particular. It did provide me with some of the best real life training that I could have hoped for though given the huge range of communications challenges that reared up during the period from regulatory issues to political unrest while maintaining the global perspective required of the business. This has given me a plentiful supply of learning’s and case studies that can be applied to a range of situations. As a communications function it provided best-in-class service and was forward thinking about the role it had to play within the organization.

But what that has also armed me with is a great insight into the challenges that are faced by other financial institutions and what is ahead of them. This allows me to sit with clients and prospects and really empathise, as well as bring value to discussions around the technical details of the industry. This level of in-house experience and understanding and taking to this to an agency model now is unusual and does provide a compelling selling point.

RS: Many financial institutions and financial services company’s already invest substantially in their communications and media resources what is the biggest value add you bring to those already resourced companies?

TN: You are right that there is substantial investment in these areas, but I’m sure that most individuals in these teams will tell you it is not enough! The financial industry is an evolving environment and the regulatory pressures are mounting. This means that companies are having to put more resources into compliance and legal functions. As a result I would argue that Communications teams tend to be lean at the moment and increasingly it makes sense for the operating model of these departments to outsource elements of their work to third party agencies.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]“institutions are cottoning on to how this discipline is distinct from its cousin Marketing and can add real benefit.”[/mks_pullquote] This can be more than just capacity issues as well. Communications is evolving fast as I alluded to earlier and institutions are cottoning on to how this discipline is distinct from its cousin Marketing and can add real benefit. Getting new ideas or concepts brought from outside can be the impetus that is required. It can be all too easy in the day to day in a large organization to not see the wood for the trees and a new perspective may help.

RS: How are you able to engage small and new businesses setting up or operating in APAC?

TN: Before HSBC I was lucky enough to help develop a small European asset manager in Hong Kong so I have been through the experience which certainly helps when speaking to such businesses. In addition having a local Chinese partner provides more insight and brings much more to the proposition.

Asia remains a big draw for companies looking to grow in this exciting region. Depending on their level of experience it may all be new to them and they may need some reassurance and basic advice. I’ve found even at this early stage that they react well to me being a small business that they can identify with.

The needs of smaller businesses are different from larger institutions and the successful path has been one where you identify small tangible projects to work together and gain trust and understanding for a longer term relationship.

RS: What was the most challenging thing you have had to deal with since starting your new business?

TN: I’ve been lucky enough to have had advice from a number of successful entrepreneurs who have provided pointers and suggestions. This has been helpful in providing many pointers but the greatest challenge that we now have at the moment is time. It takes time to build reputation when you are starting a new venture and this means a lengthy process in earning the trust of your client base.

The second most challenging thing has probably been the wireless printer in my office…

RS: What are is the competitive landscape like in terms of agency’s in your space and why did you decide on staying in Asia (Hong Kong)?

TN: There are lots of agencies in Hong Kong, but fewer boutiques with the in-house experience that we can offer and fewer still with truly shared ownership and service delivery from Chinese and International partners. The large established players will remain at the top of the pile but increased competition from smaller players is a healthy thing.

The industry hasn’t changed much in its approach and it is a positive thing for clients that new players and new ideas are available for them to choose from. We want to become trusted advisors to clients as we believe that this is the most sustainable model and you can only do this if you stay a certain size.

I’ve been in Hong Kong for nearly a decade now so personally at the moment I am very settled here. It does also still remain a key financial centre globally and the base for many exciting developments.
I’m very interested in the recent trend in support from government and other large institutions for new startups and I think that it could be an exciting time as some of these local organisations grow.

RS: How are financial institutions using social and digital media as part of their communications and media strategy, what are the trends you have seen emerging?

TN: Every institution is looking at social and digital and I think each of them would probably have a different idea of what that means to them. This is what makes this an exciting area, as there is no hard and fast way of “doing” social and digital media. There are a range of tools and channels and a rapidly increasing number of ideas of how to use them. I think that organisations may still be wary of this area as they don’t see a clear cut answer but they should understand that a dynamic solution that fits their capabilities is the right answer for them.

Retail Banking is an easier one to point at as there are fast developments, a huge audience and a hunger for what is brought out. This isn’t the case in all areas of finance.

There have been more high profile failures than successes as a number of bank CEOs have tried to engage shareholders and investors. Where I have seen progress is through smaller, low key developments. These are not necessarily using the cutting edge of technological development, but are using tools people understand to improve a process or meet a need.

RS: How are you actively developing new business and building your clients?

TN: As you’d expect a range of networking and using digital channels. We are looking to slowly build up the marketing efforts but we also want to make sure that we are not all talk and have solid track record and examples to back up what we say. The digital and social channels are powerful tools for connections, but to my mind nothing beats looking someone in the eye and shaking their hand.

Paradigm Consulting has a strong selling point in that it is headed by experienced in-house industry practioners who have made the move back to an agency. This is something that appeals to the clients that we are talking to and is quite unusual in the market.

RS: What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful entrepreneur?

TN: I’m pleased that you are calling me successful already! Its early days in my plan, but I am where I wanted to be which is a good start.

I don’t feel that I have had to make significant sacrifices so far. There are risks in the path that I’ve chosen but I am going into these very much with my eyes open. The team and I have the passion to bring our new approach to Communications to companies. There are plenty of examples of organisations that don’t have the depth within the team or the structure to fully leverage the positive effect of a strategic approach to Communications and understand what this means.

This may be a good question to ask again in a year or so!

RS: Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?

TN: I do admire HSBC, where of course I was fortunate enough to gain much experience. The fact that it operates in 80 countries, with so many employees, doing business in so many areas of banking does mean it earns every bit of its global blue chip status. It has built a strong brand and wants to use that and stay close to its roots in all that it does.

Generically rather than specifically, the companies that I admire are the ones that have been brave enough to make a significant strategic decision to change and those that have strong values that they communicate and adhere to.

RS: Where do you see yourself and your business in 5- 10 years?

TN:  I’m more interested in where my clients will be in that time-frame. If you look at that you will have a much clearer idea of where I am!

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