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China’s digital arena ‘light years ahead’ as South East Asia prepares to play catch-up

South East Asia is still a decade behind the digital start-up revolution that saw China surge so far ahead of the rest of the world “it may never be caught”, according to the Asia Pacific boss of digital agency Isobar.

Rohan Lightfoot said the “energy and innovation” surrounding the business and start-up community in South East Asia today is reminiscent of the environment that gripped China in 2008/09 when its digital platforms began to gather momentum.

Lightfoot, speaking to Mumbrella Asia about his 10 years in China – a stint which came to end last year when he relocated to Singapore to take the role of Isobar Asia Pacific MD – said he witnessed the country’s digital platforms leave their western counterparts behind.

Similar opportunities now rest with South East Asia to flourish.

“To me, the energy and innovation in the business and start up community in South East Asia kind of feels like China did in 2008/09. Digital platforms talk about the next billion users, there is huge population density, amazing diversity, huge creativity. I love the fact that I am totally confused all over again.

“When I went to China in 2007 all the western platforms were still unrestricted and the Chinese platforms were mostly really bad copies of those platforms. But over a five year period they went from being poor, fourth generation copies – that had faded and lost quality – to being light years ahead.

“There is a benefit of being a relatively homogeneous society with strict government controls. It has meant the digital platforms could work on economies of scale that could only be imagined anywhere else in the world.”

During that period, the “copycat culture” of western platforms were “blown out of the water by the strength and reach of the Chinese platforms”, he said.

It has since become a world leader.

“I think people would now look at what China is doing in terms of user experience, things like WeChat, what it’s doing with voice recognition and AI and say China is so far ahead they may never be caught.”

Comparing WeChat with Facebook Messenger and attitudes towards data collection, Lightfoot said the Chinese platform offers a huge range of functions including banking, the ability to split bills in restaurants, buy flights tickets and book medical appointments.

Yet, particularly in the current climate of data breaches in the west, booking an appointment with a doctor on Messenger would be “unthinkable”, he said. In China, the only test is whether WeChat has the “functionality to make’s people’s lives better”.

“We know lots of western platforms which have huge data breaches and not told anyone about them for years afterwards,” he continued. “If you look at the reality of the business environment in China, the likelihood of a story emerging about a large scale data breach is probably less than the west.”

In addition, in Asia more widely, consumers are more comfortable sharing data because platforms perform a service. And because of population density, online businesses have the economies of scale to provide features “that make more sense than they do almost anywhere in the west”.

“What we have seen in Asia is people give data to these platforms because they perform a service. I think the convenience that some of these services and products can offer people in Asia makes it really easy for people to willingly share their data.”

Critically, “those trusts don’t seem to be betrayed”, he added.

“Consumers probably don’t care too much about Grab having their location data because they get you a taxi very quickly. Is there another layer where Grab could piss people off by sharing that with a third party? I am sure there is but there isn’t any evidence of them or anyone else having done that.”

Lightfoot claimed Isobar is well placed to assist Chinese businesses because one of the agency’s original intentions was to help Chinese brands succeed beyond its borders.

“That has been in the Isobar DNA for over a decade,” he said. “What is interesting for us is how do we help Chinese brands succeed in the world because the last 100 years has mostly been about western brands being successful in China, rather than vice versa.

“Going through the process I did in China will help me help our clients whether they are trying to be successful in China, or whether Chinese clients are trying to be successful out of China.”

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