Opinion

Does Asia really have a ‘talent challenge’?

Oliver WoodsIn this guest post, Oliver Woods takes issue with comments made by DDB Asia boss John Zeigler that a lack of talent is holding Asia back.

I have great respect for John Zeigler. But I’m not so sure I agree with what he said at Mumbrella 360 recently, when he suggested that Asia is growing faster than it can manage, because of a dearth of talent.

When Carl Crow wrote Four Hundred Million Customers in 1937, he was about to end his career as a successful expatriate advertising executive in China.

A swashbuckling Missouri native whose exploits included hostage negotiation and spying, he established Shanghai’s first Western-style advertising agency in 1918.

A great self-publicist and passionate author, he was renowned around the world for helping launch modern Chinese advertising. He is even credited with pioneering the use of beautiful women – notably the iconic ‘Shanghai Calendar Girl’ – in the marketing of the period.

However, just like any larger-than-life leadership figure, Crow’s genius and visibility makes it easy to obscure the fact he was not working alone. The real heroes behind Carl Crow Inc.’s success were his talented, mostly Chinese team.

From media buyers amd strategists to artists and signboard carpenters, Paul French’s wonderful biography of Crow celebrates the range of permanent staff and freelancers that powered the agency’s success. There were the characters, too: Xie Zhiguang, the creative genius behind most of Crow’s most successful advertising, was variously famous for his extra-marital affairs and introducing female nudes into Chinese advertising.

Indeed, Xie and Crow were part of a rich history of Asian marketing talent that stretches back hundreds of years. From advertising messages woven into Chinese poetry to direct mail and leaflets promoting fashion boutiques in 17th century Japan, Asian marketers are part of a glorious tradition that rivals that of Europe.

Fast forward to 2013. I cheered when I saw DDB Asia-Pacific CEO’s John Zeigler’s recent comments on the state of Asian marketing on Mumbrella. Zeigler’s commentary on the industry is always interesting and a good starting point for a broader discussion.

In particular, I was very interested to read Zeigler’s take on the state of talent in Asian advertising and to provide a different perspective on the issue.

Unlike most Western migrants to Asia, I am very fortunate to have spent much of my professional advertising career working here. I moved to Singapore in 2009 as a naïve young adman, having spent a few years freelancing in New Zealand ad agencies.

After working in the Anglo-centric New Zealand advertising industry, I had no idea that there was a huge, sophisticated world of Asian advertising. We had never been exposed to it. Like most Western ‘Mad Men’, I had arrogantly dismissed the calibre of advertising in Asia: too literal, not creative enough, etc.

How wrong could I have been! I quickly grew to appreciate the level of marketing sophistication around the region. I saw a relentless, rigorous dedication to insight-driven advertising that went far beyond the buzzword-laden approach that American and British advertising agencies have popularised.

I was blown away by the calibre of the craft. Subtleties, humour and social commentary all leapt out at me the more I watched, listened and read. Yasmin Ahmad’s beautifully crafted TVCs for Petronas, celebrating the cultural festivals of Malaysia, sealed my desire to become an Asian marketer. So much for the Western stereotypes about the lack of creativity in Asian advertising!

See two of the late, great Yasmin Ahmad’s Petronas ads here

Most of all – and back to the issue of talent – I have been continually impressed with the intelligence and skill of people working in advertising, marketing and media in the region.

In every agency I’ve worked in and with throughout Asia– from the most junior account servicing staff right up to executive creative directors – had a wealth of knowledge and understanding.

They knew their markets inside and out; they had mastered their respective disciplines. They could probably beat their Western counterparts in a straight shootout too.

If there is anything at fault with talent in Asian advertising, the fault is not on the side graduates and existing advertising professionals.

Our talent challenge is largely of our own making. As an industry, we expect people to understand self-referential occupational specialisations that have little relevance in the eyes of university graduates.

On a continent where social safety nets largely don’t exist and the young are expected to financially support their families, how can we expect to be successful luring the best talent when we are widely regarded to be an industry that pays badly, burns people out and then fire them the moment something goes wrong?

Our industry could learn a thing or two from Carl Crow.

If he could assemble a team of talented marketers to conquer the advertising market in heady 1920’s Shanghai, surely a century later we should be able to do the same thing with far more ease?

Oliver Woods is the strategic planning manager at M&C Saatchi Malaysia

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