Opinion

Profero global CEO Wayne Arnold on why he moved from New York to Asia

Wayne Arnold

Wayne Arnold is the global CEO of Profero, the world’s largest independent digital agency, which has just re-opened a Hong Kong operation, adding to Asian offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul and Sydney.

Arnold moved from New York to Singapore earlier this year. Why, asks Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks.

Why did you move to Asia? You are one of only two global agency CEOs in the region, the other being the boss of Maxus, Vikram Sakhuja, who is based in India.

Two reasons. First, take the global macro economic climate. By every measure, the growth is here. Yes, in the short term, you might base yourself where the largest market is right now. But long term, you base yourself where the opportunities are.

I got bored of the talk of the promise of Asia from people overseeing their businesses from New York, Paris and London. If you’re really serious, you manage Asia from Asia. You need to be here.

What’s the biggest difference between the pace of New York and Asia?

There are two contradictions at play. New York is a fast paced city, the fastest I’ve ever lived in – and I’ve lived in London, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. But the pace of change and innovation in marketing is actually quite slow in the US.

In Asia, the pace at which people do business is very fast – and that has a good and a bad side. Good, because what we see a lot of is micro innovation – ideas built upon, and improved, at high speed. But bad because the work can be pretty average, since people tend to overlook what the long term opportunities are, and focus on what drives immediate return.

What can the US and Asia learn from each other?

What the US can learn from Asia is how to micro innovate. The major digital media innovations are still from the US; the likes of Facebook and Instagram. But the best long-term innovations are from Asia, such as Renren, WeChat and Weibo. They are better than the platforms they were inspired by. If the US could learn how to micro innovate as well as innovate, it would be unbeatable.

Looking at it the other way, Asia needs to learn to take more longer term bets. The market here tends to be more short term, more reactionary, rather than taking a longer term strategic view.

What’s the difference in digital literacy between clients in the US and Asia?

They’re miles apart. A digital market will only take off once digital natives get their hands on the marketing budget. When that happens, everything changes. But in Asia, we’re still one working generation away from that stage. That’s why digital budgets are still where they are – relatively, very small.

What’s the most exciting part about digital in Asia?

The answer will come as no surprise – it’s mobile. But not in the way most people are talking about it. The mobile device should be not seen as an advertising platform. It’s a screen in your pocket – a mini retail space – that can grow your client’s business. This doesn’t mean that the desktop is dead. It just means mobile now comes first, and the desktop is now second.

Overall, the positive thing is that spend on digital has to go up. Frankly, it can’t go any lower than it is now.

What are your plans for the future for Profero in Asia?

The main thing is investing in talent. We’ve reinvested in the Singapore business to make it a more central strategic hub, which has meant bringing more of our best people to our office here.

Now, we’re working on training the next generation of innovators and coders. There’s not enough talent in Asia, so you have to nurture it yourself. Part of the function of our Beijing operation is to develop talent. The office has become a training hub.

We’re also investing heavily behind our clients and building a team around our new global client, DFS, which is crucial to our Asian strategy. And we’re investing in mobile, and I think we’re ahead of the curve in that regard.

If you could hire anyone, who would it be and why?

The one crucial skill that is lacking in our industry is UX [user experience]. This is a skill that barely exists in Asia – or indeed in other parts of the world. They are the new creative directors who understand how to communicate with people across different digital environments.

If a website is really bad, it’s often because there was no UX guy overseeing its creation. They are people who can bridge the gap between technology and creative.

Where did the UX role come from?

It sprung out of the financial services industry. Banks wanted to know how people use ATMs in relation to how they use retail banking on the web.

What type of person do you need to be to be a great UX person?

They’re a weird bunch – and that’s why it’s such a hard role to recruit for. They’re diagonal thinkers who feel as comfortable looking at a spread sheet as a piece of creative work. Many come from a project management background, and they’re usually the more geeky designer type than out-there creatives. You only need a few of them, and everyone in the agency can feed off them.

If you can’t find them, how do you go about building and shaping them?

The most creative creative person in the world won’t be the best UX person. They tend to be misfits. You have to identify the people who can judge both the art and science of communication really well. There is no school of UX, although there are course you can go on, such as at Hyper Island, which is the most progressive training college I can think of.

What are your hopes for Profero in Asia over the next year?

We’ve had a great year. We’re growing 25 per cent year on year in Asia, 40 per cent in the US and seven or eight per cent in Europe.

In Asia, I expect more international clients to come to us, but I’m more excited about taking local brands overseas, which hasn’t happened much yet in this region. Our only limitation is our ability to access and mature talent across Asia.

I couldn’t fulfill these ambitions if I was sitting in a leather chair in London or New York. And that’s why I’m here.

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