Opinion

Global CEOs and ECDs should all be based in Asia, not the West

Asia is the land of opportunity at a time when things are stagnating in the West, yet brands and agencies are just not seeing it, argues MullenLowe Profero’s Wayne Arnold

When I arrived in Singapore to lead MullenLowe Profero from Asia Pacific four years ago, there was with a huge sense of opportunity permeating the region.

The markets in Asia were being talked about as the new business frontiers of the world, and with the unstoppable rise of China, having a global chief executive on the ground seemed to be a natural and logical step.

However, as I sit here today, there are only two global agency CEOs in the region: myself and Ruth Stubbs of iProspects. What happened? When did all this optimism just fizzle out?

It seems strange because the growth and opportunity in the region is extraordinary and APAC has continued to outgrow other regions.

In the first quarter of 2017, India experienced a 7 per cent growth in gross domestic product, China 6.9 per cent and Singapore 2.5 per cent. Meanwhile, the United States only experienced a 0.7 per cent growth in GDP and the United Kingdom a meagre 0.3 per cent.

New Asia-centric brands such as Alibaba, Huawei, Haier and Bayan Tree Leisure Company have emerged on the world stage outside of the well-known brands from Japan and Korea. Even Hollywood films are jockeying for a world premiere in the world’s second largest box-office territory. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was just released in the China on the same day as the US, marking the first premiere of its kind.

With these kinds of trends, you would think the marketing services communities and brands would be investing here as a growth priority. This begs the question: why on earth aren’t they? Given APAC’s strong economic position compared to the rest of the world, surely now is the time to double down on investment here and bring more talent into a thriving market – not pull back.

Sadly, brands pulling back is exactly what we are witnessing. Not only is there a limited number of global CEOs, but there has also been a cutback in regional talent. There are a few notable exceptions such as Caspar Schlickum, CEO for APAC at Wunderman, and Joakim ‘Jab’ Borgström, group creative director for BBH. But generally speaking, regional talent isn’t as well established in the market as some may think. International agencies that have opened their doors have done so half-heartedly to provide the minimum requirement for their international client list.

The picture is confusing as the data says one thing but actions say another. Current investment in this emerging global hub does not match the growth opportunity.

We’re seeing the seeds of promising signs of growth and economic recovery from the US and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This, alongside events such as Brexit and the Trump presidency have apparently rattled marketers back into old patterns of behaviour and comfort zones, suggesting that established, slower markets take priority. What we are witnessing is a home-market-first mentality. But ‘America first’ shouldn’t mean APAC last.

There also appears to be a case of ‘Soho House Syndrome’ – a private members club of Westerners  ruling from afar. Too many decisions about this region are being made in fine dining establishments of Europe and the US. As a result, our part of the world suffers from short-term decision-making so companies are taking one step forward and one step backwards.

A three-day whirlwind trip to Asia from a visiting CEO will not give their boards the in-depth knowledge needed to make the smartest decision on the region’s potential. Any CEO based in APAC would see the wealth of opportunity here and question why marketing dollars are being prioritised elsewhere.

All is not lost. Those businesses who do take the time to understand the region can fill the void and make huge gains.

This may sound a little counter-intuitive to my own business, but I want to see other companies pay a little more attention to what’s happening beyond Western soil. The more talent and strategic investment in this region, the faster it will grow and the better we will all do. We will prosper together.

Now is the time to relocate those global CEOs, executive creative directors and business leaders into APAC, to live and breathe the opportunity this region presents. Otherwise, a great chance in a flourishing market stands to be sadly wasted.

Wayne Arnold is the global chief executive officer of MullenLowe Profero

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