Features

Why are Asia’s agencies still run by foreigners?

Robin Hicks wonders if westerners running Asian agencies is bad for business.

During a recent pitch for a big government account in Singapore, the client was overheard saying how curious it was that most of the agencies trying to win his business were run by ang moh (foreigners, of the white variety).

In the context of the world’s second most globalised country (just after The Netherlands, according to a recent study by DHL on how internationalised economies are) with a history not unfamiliar with immigration, that might seem a curious observation to make by a Singapore government official.

Particularly as his government plans to let in thousands more immigrants over the coming decades to boost Singapore’s population – a plan that prompted a protest on the usually deserted Speaker’s Corner, where people go to protest, just a few weeks ago. Was this marketer among those who braved the monsoon rains holding signs saying ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’?

To see thousands (reports vary from 3,000 to 5,000) take to the streets, putting the country’s strict laws on public assembly to the test in the biggest demonstration since Singapore declared independence, might have made even the longest-serving of foreign agency CEOs feel a touch uncomfortable.

Could an agency with a foreign boss be bad for business? And why is it that so many agencies in Asia are still run by foreigners?

Yes, local agency operations, not so much in Singapore but in other markets in Asia, are increasingly run by locals. But, at a regional level, white faces predominate. Why? One explanation is that most of the top ad and media networks are based in London, New York or Paris, and most have entered Asia to service clients also based in the West. And only relatively recently, in the last 10 to 15 years, as Asia’s media scene has started to really take off.

They want people at the top who “understand the company culture”, and will “ensure communication flows easily between HQ and the region”, says Stuart Clark, a Brit who runs regional and global client relationships for media agency Havas Media, based in Singapore.

“It’s natural for the top global and regional management to be from the country of origin,” he says. “Dentsu is no different. It has primarily Japanese management and clients. This dynamic is as common in other industries as it is in ad agencies.”

One of the few Asians to make it to the top of a Western network, Tham Khai Meng, a St Martin’s College-educated Singaporean who rose up from Asia Pacific creative chief of Ogilvy to worldwide chief creative officer based in New York, says that the issue is partly to do with language.

“If you don’t have a strong command of the lingua franca in the ad business – which is English – especially in Singapore and Hong Kong, to a lesser degree in KL and Bangkok, you need not apply,” he says.

And articulation in a business like advertising is key, he says. “Articulating nuance, brand platforms, ideas and strategies is tested every day in our business,” he says. Which can work against you if you’re not completely comfortable speaking English.

Dealing with confrontation and having the confidence to troubleshoot in a foreign language are also barriers, Tham suggests.

“Most Asians tend to shy away from confrontation,” he says. “Especially when it demands speaking a language they are not at home with. Self-belief plays a huge part in what we do for a living, particularly when we present our ideas and business strategies.” If the understanding of the language and its nuances are lost, ideas can be lost, he says.

The Asian tendency to be – and this is another massive generalisation – introverted by nature is a trait that doesn’t always mesh with a career in advertising, says Goh Shu Fen, co-owner of pitch consultancy R3. “We are less likely to go on about how great we are and we tend to be less flamboyant, which is a huge disadvantage in advertising,” she says.

Andrew Dowling ran Y&R in Indonesia for two-and-a-half years before returning home to Australia late last year to take on the job of reviving GPY&R’s Sydney operation. He says global agency bosses expect a certain style in the way their networks are run, which in theory can jar with how business is done in some parts of Asia.

“The ‘emperor approach’ to running a company, with a strict chain of command in place beneath the manager, does not suit an ideas business like advertising. An idea should come from anywhere. In a company run in such a way, ideas can be lost if they don’t go through the chain of command,” he says.

But the reality is, clients in Asia are typically and increasingly Asian, as more local brands emerge and go regional and global. Local managers run local operations because they can manage local relationships better; they know how to motivate local staff; and they have a better cultural feel for advertising. So is it not sensible to have Asians at the top at a regional level too?

Calvin Soh spent five years at Publicis as regional co-chairman, and was the first Singaporean to be a creative director of a US agency during his time at Fallon in New York. He now runs his own company, Ninety Nine Percent. He says that as power in the brand world shifts from west to east, to have Western agency folk present to Asian clients in pitches is “pointless”.

It smacks of short termism, he says. “The networks are driven by profit and quarterly targets. So the global bosses tend to hire the people they think they can trust to do the job,” he says. This has led to cultural fiefdoms, or cliques, cropping up in adland.

These cliques are a result of a fear of failure, says Soh.

“As the head of a top ad network, you’ve got a two-year window to prove yourself. If you don’t within your first year, you’re on the way out,” says Soh. “That does not leave a lot of room for investment in local talent, which is perceived as a risk.”

“The focus is always on shareholder return, not the product or the employee. We live in a short-term world,” he says. “Hiring your own is the easy way out.”

But things will even up in time, says Stuart Clark of Havas Media Asia Pacific.

“Asia has developed quickly and now has some of the largest, most complex ad markets in the world. These markets are great breeding grounds for talented people, who over time will naturally rise to the top of the agency, and become expatriates themselves,” says Clark, who works in an office where the most commonly spoken language is Hindi.

“The prevalence of Indians in the Asian media agency scene has less to do with recruiting ‘someone like me’ (although there is some of that) and much more to do with the high levels of creativity, complexity, competitiveness and discourse that talent experiences growing up in that market.”

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