Opinion

Ad agencies need to realise that Asia is no longer ‘looking up to the West’

How do you get the most out of Asia, as a global company? Less half-boiled measures and fewer male, pale and stale types – argues JWT’s Riku Vassinen

Too many agencies come to Asia only because they are following the herd.

They believe – falsely – that they have unique offering they can dump on developing markets. What these agencies see is only the growth numbers and the potential for massive scale. But they are missing something: they are failing to see the true strategic and innovative importance of this rich and diverse market.  

The media and marketing business is starting to revolve around mobile more so every single day. So surely it makes sense for agencies to focus their innovation efforts on truly mobile-first markets.

The condensed size and developed infrastructure makes Singapore a perfect test market. You can do working pilot studies for small audiences that actually meet the client’s target market. From then on, the door is open for further expansion across Asia.

Meanwhile, each different country has their own unique set of characteristics. Vietnam and the Philippines are global production hubs. In Shenzen in China, you can prototype and manufacture your products. The close proximity of all these markets can make your organisation nimble and efficient.

Traditional industries have already realised that Asia leads the digital transformation and therefore surpassed agencies at their own game. South Korea is the most innovative economy in the world, while Singapore and Japan are in the top 10. Investments have followed and these industries are thriving.

Meanwhile, the advertising and marketing industry lags behind on digital innovation, the realm in which we should naturally excel. And that is because there are two big misconceptions about Asia that remain prevalent:  

The Asian audience is looking up to Western brands  

Many people have the misconception that we are talking about follower or copycat markets in Asia, but the region is full of innovative companies. They not only understand the local consumers but have an evolved traditional business model. Guru Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved products based on traditional Indian medicines are great examples of a highly differentiated local brand.

The company has been tapping into the local zeitgeist. It has experimented with its distribution model, selling products through Baba Ramdev´s existing yoga outlets and franchising. Strategy of doing half-boiled Asian versions of Western products might have worked a couple of years ago, but not anymore.

Those local Asian brands do not have global appeal or scale

Asian tech companies are as – if not more –  innovative than their Western counterparts. Many Asian markets have leapfrogged from a digital world perspective. Facebook messenger is just an inferior version of WeChat. The phablet craze started in the Asia-Pacific region, as did the revolution in the way we communicate.

I remember presenting an idea revolving around stickers to a huge global company four years ago. We were almost laughed out of the boardroom. Now stickers are the centerpiece of Apple´s new global campaign. These Asian markets are increasingly shaping the global trends, not just following them.

Wayne Arnold wrote recently on Mumbrella Asia about how Global CEOs should be located in Asia. While that is a great insight, there is still much to be done to fix the attitude problems that many existing foreign ‘talents’ suffer from. There are too many expats who are not motivated to learn about the culture or evolve their ways of working in this new setting. Without true commitment, it is hard to get results.

This might sound counterintuitive coming from a white middle-aged man in a management team, but there are way too many of us in Asia. And some of us (meaning white middle-aged men, although I prefer to be called early millennial) are only transmitting and not receiving at all. No matter where you come from, it is always about the balance of what you can bring and what you can learn. Having an inflated view on the former will not lead to good results.

Our region is full of marketing and technological potential. Failure to tap into them, combined with noncommittal personnel, will lead to nothing more than shrinking revenue and a diminished creative output.

Agencies and the people working for them need to commit to this region and rethink its strategic importance. If you can do that, you can evolve your Asia business to more than just another line item on your global balance sheet. The region could well be the future of your company.

Riku Vassinen is the head of digital in JWT Singapore

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